Frontline/World: 'Suspicious Minds'
With Ben Anderson
Friday, Jan. 17, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
For centuries, Korea's policy of fervent isolationism earned the nation its nickname of "the hermit kingdom." It's a description that still rings true in today's North Korea: Last year, just 150 Western tourists visited the Communist country, and with no Internet, cell phones or independent media, the nation remains shielded from most outside influences and information. BBC reporter Ben Anderson and producer/videographer Will Daws venture through the DMZ and into North Korea by way of Seoul, South Korea, where they spoke with recent North Korean defectors. The refugees warned the reporters that they will find few North Koreans who will speak openly with outsiders.
FRONTLINE/World's "Suspicious Minds," airing Thursday, Jan. 16, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), takes a look inside the isolated nation for a rare glimpse of life in what President Bush calls an "axis of evil" country. Anderson was be online to talk about what he saw on Friday, Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. ET.
The transcript follows.
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Junction, Tex.: Is there anything in North Korea worth doing as a tourist? Do they have shopping or markets worth visiting? I heard that their subway system is worth seeing?
Ben Anderson: THe subway system is worth seeing. There are incredible paintings. Shopping is limited to one department store and stock is very limited.
Markets -- occasionally you see tiny little stores with warm water or the absolute bare essentials, with no frills food that people have managed to cobble together.
North Korea surprisingly has some good beaches.
Silver Spring, Md.: What was your strongest impression of prospects for a peaceful prospect with a DPRK evolving like China?
Ben Anderson: I think if the China model is successful, N. Korea will follow that model, very closely. People in N. Korea are told so many lies by their leaders that freedom of information would expose them. There's no mention of World War II and that America started the Korean war.
Basic things -- we spoke to refugees. They say as soon as they arrived in China and saw stores and knew they were being lied to. Kim Jung Il needs to realize that if he remains in power, any gradual change would have to be very gradual.
Annandale, Va.: Dear Mr. Anderson,
I watched most of the Frontline/World on North Korea yesterday. It was really interesting. Later, I went to the Frontline/World Web site and read your interview. I think you and your videographer showed more than any TV journalists were ever able to show about North Korea. Congratulations.
Ben Anderson: Thank you. It's interesting to see how Americans reacted.
Wheaton, Md.: Does N. Korea maintain close contacts with Arafat, bin Laden and other international terrorists? Would they supply these terrorists with nuclear weapons?
Ben Anderson: I didn't see any evidence of that, but we were there as tourists. I know they sold ballistic missiles to Iran for example. When things like sanctions or Bush's axis of evil speech happen, they will work together to help each other out.
Libya is another example. They gave oil to a lot of nations in exchange for sanction busting. They're almost forced to help each other out.
North Korea and Iran are both probably proudly to be on the Axis of Evil. The two could well openly trade as a show of defiance.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Does North Korea have any writers that are worth reading? During Stalin's reign, there were a few good writers in Russia who were state supported and translated. Does the DPRK have anything similar, or is everything political propaganda by the Dear Leader?
Ben Anderson: I went into one bookshop and literally every book was about or by the Dear Leader. Other than that, no. In the bookshops there was one bio of a North Korean wrestler, one about how U.S. imperialists started the Korean war. They have their works translated into every language known to man.
Burtonsville, Md.: Did you get any sense as to whether any real religious life of any type exists within North Korea, whether it is Buddhist, Christian, etc.?
I have read that staged religious services exist solely for the benefit of foreigners.
Ben Anderson: I didn't see any staged religious ceremonies and refugees we spoke to said practicing religion was punishable. But we saw no evidence of religion anywhere, except the worship of the leader.
I asked if people saw him as more than a man and they said he's just a man who is very hard-working.
One story about Kim Jung Il says he was born under a rainbow with birds who spoke in human voice. So that seems to say that he would be more than just a normal man.
North Korean soccer teams attributed their success to the advice from the great leader.
Ben Anderson: Everywhere you go there's a signpost that says the great leader visited here and said this.
New York, N.Y.: I lived and worked in South Korea for two years about 20 years ago. The Koreans are very hearty people, and nobody in the world works as hard or longer. They are often called the Irish of Asia, with a passion for hard work, drink and fighting, as well as being much more individualistic than the Japanese. There are many historic places to visit, as it is a country with a long history. Most people do not realize that pre partition, the North was the rich, resource endowed (hydro, mines, etc.) urbanized region and that the south was the rural, agricultural, resource poor region. By developing its human capital, the South leapfrogged the north and now has more Ph.D.s per capita than any other country, including the USA. Don't you think this is a basis for developing tourism?
Ben Anderson: For tourism, yah. As a tourist destination its becoming more popular. some in the north receive radio signals from the south so they're getting a sense of how successful the south is. And this could cause major problems for the leaders.
Ben Anderson: There's very little history left in North Korea because MacArthur only stopped bombing when there was nothing left. But ya, the North Koreans are also very hardworking. They like to drink and talk about fighting. But you get the sense that if they were out-numbered and out-gunned they would fight to the death.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What are the living conditions of the people in North Korea? Is there anything that can be done to improve those conditions without complicating matters within the political realm?
Ben Anderson: There are many parallels with Cuba. People are industrious and find incredible ways to survive. So you see lives of real inconvenience -- such as having no fuel. So that's why it hasn't collapsed yet, because they find ways to survive.
People also work incredibly to overcome the inconveniences.
The one thing that really struck me is that we were taken to a coop farm, and many died during the famine. I think they need aid from the outside world. There isn't much they can sell, save for booster missiles. IF there is a drought or a flood, they've got no safety net. It's difficult to make sure it's dispersed properly, too. And to give it to him without him losing face and looking like a charity case.
The food has a big U.S. symbol on the side and they cover that with plaster immediately. But he can't admit the slightest failure, it is very hard. You have to look to him for some kind of compromise.
He allowed some reforms -- part of the world cup to be shown, for example.
Vienna, Va.: I saw a program that made a point of saying that some North Koreans commute to South Korea for employment. And that the DMZ is something of a wooded park where people literally picnic and do some bird watching.
Would this be an accurate assessment of the border?
Ben Anderson: No. NOt at all. The DMZ is totally people free, so there are endangered species that thrive there. but it's also full of landmines. But the soldiers on both sides feed the animals. People get shot there.
They're building a railway now, but it isn't something where people would buy a ticket and travel. You have to go across the river into China without getting caught. The journey is only a few miles, but takes six to nine months for some people.
Potomac, Md.: Are there any ways that kids here can get in touch with kids in North Korea? I have a pen-pal in Viet Nam.
Ben Anderson: No. I don't know what happens with mail, but I'm certain its looked at. And there's no Internet or telephone lines. Kim Jung Il has e-mail for example.
Saco, Maine: Did you fear for your safety at all?
Ben Anderson: No, there were a few nervous moments coming out because I thought someone might go through our tapes and realize we weren't just tourists. And it struck me looking at the DMZ that I was completely alone with N. Korean soldiers and that anything could happen.
But we were really well-treated throughout. They really want to convince people that their system is the way forward.
Washington, D.C.: From the tone of your replies, you seem sympathetic to North Korea and dismissive of the United States. Given the recent revelations about North Korea breaking its pact with the United States and developing nuclear weapons, does that change your feelings at all toward this nefarious - and dangerous -- regime?
Ben Anderson: No, the leader is doing what he's always done -- getting a great deal from a very weak hand. The U.S. rolled their eyes in boredom and said you're not going to get any aid this way.
I'm sympathetic to the North Korean people, but not the leadership at all.
Because of America's focus on Iraq, it looks like N. Korea might actually get the aid they're looking for to make this crisis go away.
They made it clear that even if there was reunification that U.S. troops would stay there.
Somewhere, USA: Good morning.
From what I understand, it seems that Bush is basically willing to bribe North Korea in giving up its nuclear weapons.
But, Iraq, he's threatening to bomb them if they get nuclear weapons.
Have you any clue as to why the disparity.
(My guess: There are no oil fields in North Korea.)
Ben Anderson: I'm not sure it is as simple as oil. In N. Korea, the S. koreans, Chinese and Japanese are all sure they can end things peacefully -- and it was going that way till the "Axis of Evil" speech. The recent incident with SCUDs going to Yemen, those countries were very skeptical of the U.S.'s response.
I don't understand the urgency with Saddam Hussein and why it has become such a big deal. I don't think Saddam cares for his own people, but I don't think he would attack Britain or America if he could. But I do think N. Korea could reach Seoul or Alaska with their missiles. So that threat would seem more serious.
Washington, D.C.: Did you find yourself envying anything about their culture that was different from that of the U.S.?
Ben Anderson: No. Nothing whatsoever. Unless you believe that ignorance is bliss, no.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I read an article yesterday on the camps in the far north...is the rest of the country aware of what is going on up there? Did you ask your guides about that at all? It seem that they must know what can happen to them and their families if they speak out against the Leader, how do they justify to themselves and you what happens to the families that are put there?
Ben Anderson: They wouldn't discuss the prison camps in full with us, but said they were justified. If people are lazy for example, our guide said they are justified in sending people to prison. And they said that Britain and the U.S. did the same.
The refugees, though, talked to us and thought their relatives in N. Korea would be sent to the camps if they talked to us.
We asked our guides about the famine and how 3 million had died and they said it was U.S. propaganda.
College Park, Md.: I missed Ms. Park's response when you asked her what book she enjoyed? Does any outside literature make its way into North Korea?
Ben Anderson: Jane Eyre was her favorite book. Apart from Marx, though, just Charles Dickens. They see him as a condemnation of capitalist society and I'd never thought of him as being used that way. And it is read in schools there. And they still think that same class system exists in Britain. If Dickens can be used to make the rest of the world look worse than N. Korea, than there will be foreign literature there.
New York, N.Y.: My wife is Korean, I was stationed there, as a member of the US Army for few years in the late '80s.
Did you talk to your North Korean guides, or any South Koreans, about the families that were separated during the Korean war?
Also I disgusted to see that AXE on display in the North Korean museum.
Ben Anderson: First of all, the north and south -- they absolutely mourn the separation of families and the North blames that on the U.S. military. There have been a few meetings, but we were told that the people in the north think people from the south might be spies. And we were told by people from the south that they couldn't believe how brainwashed their families from the north were. North and south -- both peoples live for the idea of reunification. The north believes that North and South systems could live side by side without any problems. The idea that people would move south doesn't occur to them.
Long Beach, Calif.: You speak of the bombing of the north during the Korean War. Are there still signs of that? Is there still bombed-out buildings and bridges?
Ben Anderson: No, there's almost nothing. Some towns near the DMZ there are tiny walls that were bombed. But it's all been rebuilt. You get an impression that when they worked with the USSR things were repaired and well, but not since then.
Vienna, Va.: Can anyone visit the North yet? Many South Koreans that were split from their families in the North are nervous to see if they can visit their loved ones. If they have the chance, none can leave with them and the safety of families in the North are not determined. Probably, when visitors leave, those family members would be interrogated and possibly punished.
Ben Anderson: To be honest, if you were American and signed up as a tourist they'd say no. They'd be very distrustful of Americans coming in. S. Koreans aren't allowed in as tourists. Chinese and Japanese travel in. But they are very careful with Western tourists.
Washington, D.C.: So the North Koreans had no idea you were journalists when you were in the country?
Your report was fascinating. I was most struck by how relaxed the North Korean people and the soldiers appeared. That is completely unlike how I remember Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On another note, Ms. Park (Sp?) was very photogenic. She and the photographer seemed to get on very well.
Ben Anderson: Lots of people have hinted at that, but it only looked like that in the final cut of the film. She's lovely but really innocent and devoted to her husband and child. The North Koreans were entirely relaxed with us. It's a well-rehearsed act, they think that they can convert you to seeing things they're way. They think they've got the truth.
Woodbridge, Va.: I watched your show last night and was quite amazed how the North Koreans are really brainwashed in this day and age! It's really quite sad that there are still places like this in our civilized world. How did you find someone to speak with you -- I noticed the young lady saying that she would explain things "later." Did she?
Ben Anderson: No. I asked her three or four questions and she kept saying she'd answer later. And she said Okay, I've thought about it and the Great Leader gave us land so we were dedicated to the land and because of that we've done very well against the south.
So my question was if the U.S. invaded the north, how did the north end up taking so much of South Korea?
So that was her answer and she never explained to me what the Russians or Chinese were doing there.
Washington, D.C.: Could you travel freely, even as a pedestrian, around Pyongyang? Could you walk to a museum, for example, or down a street, or was your every movement literally controlled?
Ben Anderson: Almost our every movement was controlled. The hotel we stayed in was on an island in a river. We could walk around the island. Occassionally we could walk off for a minute or two on our own. Towards the end they relaxed a bit, but we were never left for more than 10 or 20 minutes. But it wasn't harsh, they just made it impossible for us to wander off.
They took us to a coop farm and this very well schooled mother and daughter sang to us about the leader. You get the impression of great freedom, but it is all a well rehearsed show.
Arlington, Va.: What was the interaction like with the Koreans? Did you feel any, say, intellectual connection? Or emotional?
Ben Anderson: Emotional -- when we were talking about relationships or jobs, we felt very similar and got along well. When we talked about my watch, for example.
When you discuss politics you realize they will not budge an inch. Unless you get them out of the country.
Chantilly, Va.: I have read that there are phantom villages in the North near the DMZ to convince people on the South that the village was prosperous, etc.
Any signs of that?
Ben Anderson: There's one village, which is not inhabited, where they've got the largest flagpole in the world. The city itself, it looks well built, but you can't see its prosperous. Americans call it "Propaganda Village." There's not much to it. It looks like buildings with some lights on. The South Koreans built a flag that is 50 meters high, so the North built this one which is 80s meter high.
St. Louis, Mo.: Outstanding segment, Ben. Did you sense any curiosity about the "outside world" from the Koreans, and other than the obvious "wink and smile" nuance when you provoked them into criticizing the west, is there any signs of rebellion against their heavy-handed political system?
Ben Anderson: First question -- our handler was keen to visit Italy. She said not America because she's heard it's full of gangsters. So curiosity has been stifled.
No signs of rebellion whatsoever. This film is part of a six-series BBC production. I went to all of the "axis of evil" countries Bush mentioned. In others I've seen dissent.
We did speak with one soldier in the south who'd been part of a coup attempt, but it's very difficult. Some family members could be spies. So, I didn't see the slightest hint of dissent. The love the express for the great leader does seem genuine.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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