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Encore Presentation: Undercover in the Secret State
Aired July 15, 2006 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: North Korea, March 2005, a crowd has been ordered to gather in an open field. A party official makes an announcement. Children have been brought to watch.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD (through translator): Mom. I want to go.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Just hold on, and let's watch them go.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): It looks scary.
SESNO: The sentence is about to be passed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): All the workers who came here today and the inhabitants of the nearby village are about to learn the punishment for these crimes.
SESNO: Three men are about to die. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): How stupid these criminals are. Kim Jong Il is great in comparison to these worthless criminals.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Carry out the death sentence immediately!
SESNO: These people have committed the crime most damaging to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, they made contact with the outside world.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They have been involved in the illegal act of aiding people to defect the country. They trafficked women across the border to China. We have to protect North Korea from the outside influence and build up a strong guard to keep these influences out .
SESNO: Three policemen step forward and raise their rifles. On the left, a prisoner is tied to a poll.
SESNO: The next day, a different town, another public execution for the same crimes, helping people escape to the outside world.
SESNO: The man with the secret camera walks into a vacant building and talks to his audience.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I witnessed soldiers executing people by firing squad. They were accused of human trafficking offenses. Men, women, and children came to watch.
SESNO: This video was passed from person to person along a secret underground network, powerful evidence of public executions under the regime of Kim Jong Il.
North Korea is the last Stalinist regime, a closed one-party state founded on a personality cult, a rogue regime known for repression of its people and a menacing nuclear arms program.
A nearly bankrupt nation where in the 1990s the U.S. government says more than 2 million men, women, and children starved to death during a famine. Kim Jong Il denied the famine even existed.
Kim Jong Il's absolute power depends on his people remaining oblivious to life outside the secret state, believing, as he says, that North Korea is paradise. But now his control is being challenged by his own people and word is getting out.
Dissidents are using technology to show the world images of the secret state that have never been seen before. They are also giving North Koreans their first views of what life is like on the outside.
These are the first cracks in the wall of secrecy that isolates North Korea and may cause the downfall of one of the world's most secretive and brutal regimes.
For the last seven years, Korean journalist Jung Eun Kim has reported on refugees fleeing the totalitarian regime. Now she is going in search of the dissidents whose extraordinary images threaten North Korea's rigid isolation and undermine the regime's control.
We follow her on her journey, but she has to keep her identity hidden to protect those she is about to meet.
Inside North Korea a man is putting up a poster. It says, "Bring down Kim Jong Il, he has killed everyone who stood for democracy. Why should we starve and die in poverty? People rise up and fight for freedom!"
This is the first time anyone in North Korea has filmed his own act of defiance and smuggled the pictures out for the rest of the world to see. The filmer has to run for his life and is now hiding somewhere in Southeast Asia.
People like him are using technology to fuel growing dissent in North Korea. Jung Eun sets out to track down the North Korean dissident who put up and videotaped the poster attacking Kim Jong Il. She wants to find out why he did it and if there are others like him.
SESNO: A growing dissident movement in North Korea is using technology to spread information that threatens the regime. Reporter Jung Eun is searching for a man who used a hidden camera to film his own protest, then smuggle the tape out of the country.
In a darkened building in Seoul, South Korea, this Internet radio stations brings news and information to North Korean defectors.
Kim Sung Min (ph) defected from North Korea five years ago. He was a military propagandist for Kim Jong Il, but now he uses anti- North Korean messages against the regime.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (through translator): We have smuggled phones inside the country. Of course, the regime intercepts the calls, they have to, to preserve the dictatorship.
SESNO: His callers pick up cell phone service near the Chinese border and feed his station information on life inside the secret state. He was the first person to hear about the public executions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We got a phone call around 5 p.m. on March the 1st, we were told there had been a public execution by firing squad that day. The regime is cracking down on any sign of anti-government protest.
SESNO: Kim Sung Min may now be on the outside, but he is not out of the regime's reach.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They threaten to stop me broadcasting, they told me to think about my friends, brothers and sisters left behind in North Korea. I was so scared I tried to forget about the threats, but I couldn't. Later on the police protected my home and now I carry a gun.
SESNO: He knows about the dissident who filmed the poster calling for Kim Jong Il's downfall.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I first heard about it through pro-democracy groups. It was the right thing to do and I believe that we will see much more of this kind of protest happening. And if you look at it another way, it's the message from the North Korean people begging for our help.
SESNO: There are underground networks of people that help North Korean refugees escape. And one of them has information about where the man who filmed the poster is hiding.
Tim Peters is an American Christian activist. Tim and Jung Eun are driving through the streets of Bangkok, Thailand, to meet the North Korean defector. Tim has to keep his identity hidden.
TIM PETERS: Well, this case is extraordinary simply because he is a key figure in the North Korean resistance movement. He has become a very important target for any efforts by the North Korean government to muzzle him outside of their country. SESNO: If the government is to stop the spread of information, it must stop men like him, a dissident armed with a camera.
In a Bangkok shopping mall, an exchange is taking place outside a restaurant. The man in the white top is the North Korean defector. Since he escaped, he has changed safe houses many times to dodge the North Korean agents he says are looking for him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I am a blind man. If I am taken somewhere, I have no idea where I am. I was given a place to stay when I first arrived in this country. Then one day my minder came and told me I needed to change location for my safety. Today someone came and said, you're on the move again, come with us.
SESNO: In a van in a deserted alleyway, the defector tells his story. He calls himself "Mr. Park."
Mr. Park says he was a loyal citizen in his country, but all that changed when his father and mother died of starvation during the famine of the 1990s.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I was a very faithful soldier, but after I was discharged, I saw people starving to death. There were so many people dying, that authorities were scared that people might revolt. So they publicly executed many innocent people as a warning. I went to watch whenever there was a public execution. I found it heartbreaking. This is how I came to have second thoughts about Kim Jong Il's regime.
One day I met with somebody who runs this anti-government underground organization called Freedom Youth League. One of their strategies was to distribute imported videotapes, these were ordinary movies that showed North Koreans how prosperous people in the outside world are, and hopefully make them question whether their leadership is telling them the truth.
SESNO: For five years, Mr. Park distributed thousands of illegal videos throughout North Korea, before making his own.
In a hotel room on the other side of Bangkok, Mr. Park talks through the video he filmed. It made him a wanted criminal in the eyes of North Korean officials.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This is the center of Hamhung (ph) City, that's the station and that's the road to the market. This is a very busy street. I filmed this with a Chinese digital camera.
We were being very cautious because it would death if we were discovered. We carried knives and one person was on the lookout, another was pasting a poster on the bridge. The bridge was about four meters high, so I stood on the shoulders of my comrade and filmed from there.
SESNO: Even mentioning Kim Jong Il's name in unflattering terms will lead to imprisonment. Filming political graffiti could be punishable by death. But inside a vacant factory, Mr. Park put up a defaced photograph of Kim Jong Il.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This is the portrait of Kim Jong Il. The words on this portrait read: "Kim Jong Il, who are you? You are a tyrant. People will not forgive you and we will bring you down from power. We want freedom and democracy. Open policy is the only way for us to survive."
SESNO: This videotape was smuggled out of the country and posted on the Internet, a powerful message of dissent for the world to see, and the North Koreans' hunt for him began.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I got home at 4:00 in the afternoon and found somebody waiting for me. He identified himself by secret code and then told me, don't ask any questions, just run away, get away.
I wanted to grab a picture of my family but then I realized that their fate and also that of the underground would be jeopardized if I was caught, so I just ran.
SESNO: He never said good bye to his wife or 7-year-old daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I got to the river that was frozen. Crossing dressed in civilian clothes was completely unthinkable, but thankfully my organization had arranged for someone to meet me with a military uniform, a cap, and boots, and even a rifle.
This person then guided me across, showing me where the ice was too thin. When I got to the other, I handed the uniform to my guide and watched him walk back to North Korea.
SESNO: But even outside the country he feels his life is still at risk.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I was in the army for 11 years. I know that Kim Jong Il believes that unless he kills his political opponents, they will kill him. And I know that he will not rest until they are hunted down. I know that I'm in mortal danger.
SESNO: While Mr. Park remains in hiding in Thailand, there is growing evidence that other dissidents are joining a network of secret cameramen. They are determined to bring down Kim Jong Il's regime by showing the truth about North Korea.
SESNO: In the past year, a movement of dissident filmmakers, some motivated by money, others by the desire of change, have used undercover cameras to expose a chilling picture of North Korea that has never been seen before. If they are caught filming, they will face prison, or death.
Korean reporter Jung Eun Kim is searching for some of these dissident cameramen and for the rare images they've captured and smuggled out of the country.
Images like these: This is Yodock (ph), a concentration camp. Authorities deny it exists. The inscription above the entrance says: "Give up your life for the sake of our dear leader Kim Jong Il." Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 200,000 political prisoners inside North Korea. These men and women are ferrying buckets of their own waste for fertilizer.
On the city streets, another cameraman captured these images. Homeless and hungry children, forced to fend for themselves, steal from the markets. A pickpocket is caught and justice is carried out on the street.
This is rice donated by the U.N.'s World Food Program. It should be rationed out directly to the people. But instead, it is sold for profit in the street market. Only the well-off can afford it, leaving the rest with nothing. This woman is lying in the street dead. North Korean refugees say it's a common sight.
The man who secretly filmed these images calls himself "Mr. Lee." He says he will meet Jung Eun if he can cross the treacherous border between North Korea and China. He is bring brand new pictures out.
This is the Chinese side of the border. Over there is North Korea, and that's the Tumen River, across which those fleeing Kim Jong Il's regime will make their dash for freedom.
On that side of the river, North Korean border guards have a shoot-to-kill policy. Somewhere over there, Mr. Lee hides and waits for the chance to cross over.
SESNO: At the Chinese border smuggled cell phones and DVDs cross into North Korea. These are the powerful new weapons of the dissidents.
Kim Jong Il has always said that North Korea is paradise. But now, its citizens are sharing the truth about life inside their impoverished closed society.
After dark, reporter Shong Lum (ph) is taken to a secret location and introduced to a person they call a finder. For a fee, this man will locate people in North Korea. She's hoping to make direct contact with someone there. But it's dangerous.
SHONG LUM KIM, UNDERCOVER REPORTER (through translator): You must have had a lot of difficulties crossing the river. Do you come here often?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE "FINDER" (through translator): I'll only cross the border if there's business. Crossing the river is a matter of life or death. The level of security along the border is different each year and I have to plan ahead thoroughly. If I get caught, then I'll certainly end up dying inside a prison.
KIM: Can you tell me about how you cross the river?
FINDER: I bribe the guards with money and find them while crossing the border. There are little hidden watch posts so the guards who took my bribes would tell me which routes to take and outreach points to cross the river.
SESNO: Seven years ago, during the great famine, Shong Lum met two North Korean boys when they came to China in search of food.
Minho and Hyung Gong (ph) survived by begging on the streets. They took their earnings back to North Korea to feed their starving families.
KIM (translation): Do you know where we are now?
MINHO: Because that's North Korea over there.
KIM: How do you feel about seeing it?
MINHO: I feel good.
MINHO: Because it's my country.
KIM: You prefer to be there though you can eat better here?
SESNO: Traveling along the Tumin River, they prepare for their return home.
KIM: Why do you plan to cross the river today?
MINHO: Because it's Thanksgiving Day.
KIM: So what's so special about today?
MINHO: There's less security along the border on the holiday. So it's easier to cross today.
SESNO: They waited until dark to float past the border guards on rubber rings, back to North Korea.
Before they left, they swallowed their earnings wrapped inside chewing gum.
That was the last time Shong Lum saw them. But she knows Minho is still living somewhere inside.
Shong Lum asks the Finder to smuggle a cell phone into North Korea in hopes of talking to Minho again and learning first hand how he's doing. KIM: How long do you think it'll take before you find him:
FINDER: Well, I can start looking for him from tomorrow. And, of course, it will be good if I can find him quickly. But since I do not have his exact address, it's going to be a difficult task.
KIM: I don't know his exact address or his father's name, but I do have a photograph of him.
FINDER: How long ago was this photo taken?
KIM: I believe it was taken a few years ago.
FINDER: I'm not trying to boast, but there are a lot of North Korean men who make money out of conning people in this business. They convince people to hand over the cash and then they disappear. So whenever possible I do this myself without resorting to contacts.
SESNO: After midnight, Shong Lum gives the Finder two cartons of cigarettes to bribe the border guards. He returns to the river and wades through the darkness, back to North Korea, carrying the illegal phone.
This is how connections are made and one way that information is getting out of the country.
SESNO: For years, reporter Shong Lum Kim has been talking to refugees leaving North Korea. They've been fleeing lives of hardship in hopes that life outside the secret state might be better.
It has always been difficult to know what life is like inside North Korea. Refugees have provided the only information and their accounts can be hard to substantiate.
Most North Korean refugees in China are reluctant to talk to outsiders. They risk arrest and repatriation if caught.
This woman is willing to share her story. She escaped by crossing the river with her three-year-old son on her back, and is now in hiding.
KIM: Why did you leave?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator): After my husband died living was hard. I had a huge debt and I thought, maybe, I could make some money in China. But now I am here, it isn't going very well.
SESNO: She said she decided to flee North Korea after watching illegal South Korean soap operas.
WOMAN: We carried our films in a rice sack just in case there are street inspections by security guards. The South Korean medias were really good fun, but we must watch secretly with the lights out and the curtains drawn. Security's gotten really heavy in the last two years. Now if you are caught watching foreign films you are sent for re-education.
The security police inspect you in the day, so you have to watch at night. But sometimes they come around and cut the electricity to your house, then you cannot get the videos out of the machine. They are stuck. The police then inspect your house and catch you. Lots of people are caught that way and are sent to prison.
KIM: But everyone watches them, right?
WOMAN: Yes, people like them.
KIM: Do people's views of South Korea change?
WOMAN: Yes, watching movies really opens your eyes. Once when we watched South Korea films, we thought there were many beggars in the outside world. But in reality, we are the beggars. That's what the South Korean kids are always talking. Wow, it's just not true.
SESNO: Smuggled South Korean soap operas are fueling subtle changes inside North Korea. People are beginning to question line from Kim Jong Il that North Korea is paradise.
WOMAN: There are many people with a complaint over there now. So many.
KIM: How do people express their dissatisfaction.
WOMAN: There was a banner that was put up under a bridge and that caused a lot of problems.
SESNO: She is talking about the poster the dissident, Mr. Park, put up and filmed under a bridge in Hungnam (ph) KIM: Tell me about it. What did you hear?
WOMAN: There is a bridge on the way to the factory. Somebody put a banner up saying bring down Kim Jong Il, but you'd never be able to catch them. They must have put it up at the crack of dawn.
KIM: Did everyone in Hungnam see?
WOMAN: Yes, the security guards came but it was too late. The person had already taken off. Security has been really tight since them. Eighty families were expelled as a result of that banner. People were crying all over the region. They were put on a train and sent to an island.
SESNO: She says the North Korean Secret Service is still looking for the person responsible.
Across from this hill in China is one of the border towns in North Korea. Loudspeakers pump propaganda through the streets.
Somewhere over there, Mr. Lee, the undercover cameraman has new pictures to smuggle out. When he finally arrives, Mr. Lee brings his new footage to a secret location.
LEE (through translator): It's been an incredibly tense time. How can I say this? There would have been no way if my work was discovered. They would have put me out of existence.
SESNO: This is uncensored North Korea in its bleak unadulterated form.
LEE: Video camera is the most serious form of treason in North Korea. My wife came with me on the journey and she kept telling me not to do it. That we should just get on with our lives.
SESNO: He's captured people outside the station huddled in the streets, waiting for a train to arrive. Fuel shortages mean the trains don't often run.
LEE: I was petrified the guard was coming. The punishment they afflict on political offenders in North Korea is extremely severe. The system is such that they don't just punish the offender himself, his family and relatives are also punished.
I placed my camera inside a bag and made a hole on the side to secretly film. But the thing is, light was being reflected on the camera lens, so I had to be very, very careful.
SESNO: No one is allowed to travel from one town to another without a permit.
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Quickly, quickly get out. Both of you. I saw what you did in there. Get out. LEE: I was on a train and started secretly filming the guards checking passenger's travel certificates. I looked back and there were these people watching what I was doing. I couldn't stop filming right then because it would look more suspicious.
SESNO: An official resorts to threats and violence on failure to produce the needed travel documents.
GUARD (through translation): Get out, get out of there right now.
TRAVELER: No, leave us alone.
GUARD: Get out right now.
TRAVELER: Why are you doing this to us? We haven't done anything wrong.
GUARD: How dare you say that. Get out. Don't even speak to me, just get out now.
SESNO: As the train comes to a halt, adults and children scramble in the dirt for fertilizer, fallen from a freight car, to sell. The specter of famine is stalking North Korea once again. But the government has announced that aid agencies must leave.
LEE: During the great famine, we didn't have anything to eat. We are simply starving. Food was so scarce that there wasn't even enough greenery for a single person to eat. We survived on water. It was why I went to China to get some help. And it's from there that I realized how different the world outside was.
SESNO: Mr. Lee chooses to go back across the river to carry on his secret filming and expose the world to the harsh realities of North Korea.
But it's becoming dangerous for Shong Lum to stay in China for much longer. Doing so could attract attention and endanger her contacts.
She awaits news of Minho, the boy from North Korea. There's been no word from the Finder since he left a week ago.
SESNO: Seven years ago, as a journalist reporting on North Korean refugees, Shong Lum Kim met a young boy named Minho who begged on the streets of China for money to feed his family back in North Korea. Now she is trying to make contact with him. To hear what is life is really like.
A week ago she gave a Finder a cell phone to smuggle into North Korea. Finally, he calls to say he's located Minho. Now a man in his 20's, working for the government. Speaking to anyone in North Korea on a cell phone is extraordinary. It's a sign of the changes brought by technology.
KIM: Thank you for all the hard effort you've gone to in finding Minho.
FINDER: I went from place to place asking people if they knew the boy in the photo you gave me. But he was really difficult to find.
SESNO: Suddenly, the phone goes dead. Both the Finder and Minho risk serious punishment if caught talking to anyone from the outside world.
FINDER: I hung up because a car was passing. The signal's not very good on this mobile so I am standing next to the window. I'll put Minho on the line now.
KIM: Is that Minho? It's really nice to hear from you.
MINHO: Yes, me too Auntie.
KIM: It's been a long time. Are you eating well these days?
MINHO: They give us food rations now. We get flour rations. KIM: They ration out flour? That's good. Do they give you rice as well?
MINHO: It's been a long time since we had any rice.
KIM: It's really extraordinary that you can call me from North Korea.
MINHO: I've shut all the doors and windows and I'm talking to you in a whisper.
SESNO: Minho says that he has a girlfriend, but it too poor to marry her. His parents are both ill. Over the years, he's worked in a mine and foraged for firewood to sell. It is a hard life and a typical one.
Not long after this call, the secret police grabbed Minho and questioned him for three days before releasing him. The Finder had his phone confiscated and was fined.
They were fortunate not to be imprisoned, a harsh fate in North Korea.
The undercover cameraman, Mr. Lee, captured these images of inmates as they are loaded onto a truck at a labor camp.
Back in Thailand, Mr. Park is trying to find a way to safety. If he's caught, his efforts to bring his anti-government messages out of North Korea could land him in prison or cost him his life. Tim Peters is driving him to the United Nations High Commission for refugees in the hope that he'll be given emergency refugee status and protection.
TIM PETERS: Lord, as we approached the UN HCR building, we ask for your supernatural protection over Mr. Park and over all the activists. Lord, you know better than we the possible danger of North Korean secret agents or secret police that would love nothing better than to try to intercept and to muzzle Mr. Park. We ask Lord, in Jesus' name, amen.
SESNO: Mr. Park is caught in a frightening catch-22. He's told by the UN HCR that it will only give him refugee status if the American Embassy in Bangkok agrees to take him. But the American Embassy will only take him if he has official refugee status from the UN HCR.
PETERS: He's a stateless person and essentially he is a lawbreaker in Thailand or any other country that he's in. He's an illegal immigrant and this is very, very problematic.
PARK: The more I stay here, the more I realize that no real help is being provided for the North Korean defectors by the UN HCR. If the U.S. won't take me, I'll have to go to South Korea. But there are many North Korean spies there and I face being assassinated or being abducted and sent back to the north. My organization is like a bomb on Kim Jong Il's back and he'll want to wipe us out.
SESNO: For now, he's stuck in Bangkok, stateless, penniless and without his family. He's heard that his wife and daughter are safe for the time being, inside North Korea, but realizes he'll probably never see them again.
PARK: When I crossed the border, I found myself in a snow- covered field. I looked back at North Korea and thought about my fatherland and my family and the life I had lived, and I stood there and wept.
SESNO: North Korean officials were asked about the allegations of this film, about the public executions, the smuggled videos and the dissident movement. They did not reply.
The country's leader, Kim Jong Il, has used fear and force to control him people and keep them isolated from the outside world. But the walls may be starting to crumble. And for those brave enough to fight back, technology becomes the weapon at hand. A weapon, like the human spirit, may be unstoppable.
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