February 3, 2013

National Geographic Explorer: Inside North Korea - Finally, a Look Behind the Curtain

Inside North Korea, the short documentary by the folks at National Geographic, is a really good snapshot of the most enigmatic country on Earth. Dubbed "the hermit nation," North Korea has long closed its borders to the outside world. As such, it remains what reporter Lisa Ling dubs "an intelligence black hole." Despite existing without cell phones or internet access, the Communist stronghold is hardly an industrial throwback given its nuclear missiles and its possession of the fourth largest military in the world. How'd it get this way? And how has it managed to sustain its completely xenophobic existence?

In a way, part of this totalitarian regime's success is due to the evangelical fervor of its populace. Substitute "Jesus" for "Our Great Leader" and the extreme devotion to the Kim family suddenly isn't so inexplicable. And why shouldn't Kim Jong Il, and his father Kim Il-sung before him, inspire reverence? Both have instilled the fear of God into their population by threatening lifelong prison sentences to extended family members of people who defect or fail to exhibit the requisite loyalty and devotion. And both have also stood up to the U.S. and the rest of the world and said "Screw you!" after being enslaved by the Japanese for the first half of the century and suffered through a million gallons of napalm in the Korean War. This adamant self-sufficiency, this refusal to accept "conditional" help from abroad may lead to famines that decimate the population but it also instills a certain amount of patriotic pride.

Ling rightly asserts that maybe there's no difference between fear and belief here, maybe nobody's lying because everybody's too scared to entertain a different idea. This is a very Old Testament empire. And if there's a certain short-sightedness for North Korea in refusing to be cooperative with anyone, at least they've got Dr. Sanduk Ruit from India to perform 1000 cataract surgeries in 10 days. (This medical expedition is what allows Ling and company to get cameras over the border so she can visit what's clearly a "model" family putting on a talent show to her dismay.)

Footnote: Years later, journalist Laura Ling, Lisa's sister, was detained in North Korea for 140 days -- a none-too-subtle way to let Lisa know: Don't mess with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea!

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