A Rare Glimpse Inside North Korea

In 2006 National Geographic produced a documentary that gives viewers a rare glimpse into everyday life in North Korea. In the documentary, Inside North Korea, an eye doctor travels to the isolationist country to perform surgery on 1,000 patients in 10 days. The doctor convinces the government to allow a camera crew to document his work. However, the camera crew really wanted to document everyday life in the country. Once inside, the crew took every opportunity they got to film the everyday lives of ordinary North Koreans.

The film is really compelling, as it demonstrates how much control the North Korean government has over its people. Reading about how Kim Jong-Il controls the country is nothing like actually witnessing it. Below I discuss some of the key segments from the documentary that were quite surprising.

1. Concentration camps

The North Korean government has set up several work camps for prisoners and their families. According to a North Korean defector who used to be a guard at such a camp, once people enter the camps, they never leave. They die there either from overwork, starvation, or disease. There are even children born in the camps who live their whole lives there without ever leaving.

The camps are obviously a way for the North Korean government to maintain tight control over the population. Since people can be punished for family members' so called transgressions towards the government, it gives people the incentive to ensure that (1) they encourage their family members to respect the government and (2) not to make a mistake, as their family members will also be punished. Furthermore, these rules could encourage family members to turn on one another in order to avoid punishment for another's transgressions.

2. Guarding the DMZ

The documentary devotes an entire segment to discussing a normal day on the DMZ. It focuses in particular on a location where North and South Korean guards literally stand on each side of the border. On the North Korean side, there are three guards- two that face and stare at each other, and one that faces into North Korean. According to a guard on the South Korean side of the border, the two North Korean guards that stare at each other do so in order to ensure neither defects and crosses over into South Korea. Furthermore, the guard that faces North Korea does so to ensure no North Korean defects and runs into South Korea.

3. A cult of personality

Either the North Korean people really adore Kim Jong-Il, or they are really good at pretending. In the documentary the crew never met anyone who did not continuously sing praise for the dictator. Their answers to the many questions asked of them were always the most positively extreme responses they could give. For example, when the crew asked one North Korean which of the many pictures of Kim Jong-Il they liked best, they responded, "I like all the pictures the best." Furthermore, although many North Koreans often do not have access to adequate food and medical services, they still do not place blame on the government for these problems. In fact, they believe they would be worse off if Kim Jong-il was not their leader. It is interesting (and disheartening) to see how the North Korean government has effectively prevented its population from being able to judge the actions of the government and hold it accountable.

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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