"Children of the Secret State" (ed2k link) is a propaganda movie made in 2000. The film was mostly likely planned by psyops specialist and is a good example of the information warfare campaign waged against North Korea. But North Korea is not the only victim — we all are the victims too when we are led to believe lies and fabrications. I believe it is useful to train yourself in critical thinking skills and to try to build up some mental defences against manipulation. That's why I wrote this commentary.
This review present an analysis of some of the scenes of the film. My conclusion is that this film is an attempt at manipulating the viewer to believe that North Korea is a horrible place, its leader Kim Jonh Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed. But a careful and impartial viewing of the film with a critical eye and constant online doublechecking demonstrates that there is very little in this film that should be believed. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.
The population of the North Korea is 23 million, BTW, the population growth rate in 2005 was 0.9% (0.38% in South Korea), life expectancy 71.73 years (75.82 in SK) and infant mortality 24 deaths/1000 live births (7 in SK). While we are at it, the literacy rate is 99% (compared with 97.9% in SK). But everyone is still shocked, that's expected, even I am. However, I now start to think what they are trying to say, whether I am being manipulated and how this agrees with other things I know.
OK, we move into the capital. The presenters never ignore a chance to manipulate the viewer. From mentioning the Big Brother to emphasising the censorship. First they are trying to make a ridiculous point by implication. They present the visuals as if the whole capital is essentially fake and everyone else lives in poverty and hunger in secret towns. Well, to begin with, that doesn't make any sense. Why would the North Korean government want that? Do they really care that much about impressing foreign journalists who manage to enter the country despite the apparent restrictions? That doesn't make sense (since they actually try to prevent foreign journalists from visiting).
The fact that the journalists are well fed is somehow a proof of how evil and corrupt the regime is (if they weren't, doubtless they would use this as another proof of the hunger). Supposedly, one can't find such a stark contrast in the US, no way. But filming a dinner in an expensive Manhattan restaurant and some child suffering from hunger (there are millions of those in the US) doesn't enter the minds of the journalists. Then we hear some unsubstantiated claims that all well-fed children rehearsing for the parade are the children of the elite. How do they know it? Of course, the American viewer is unlikely to question the words of the journalists.
I mean, you don't need to go far. Russia is no longer a totalitarian state, but you can find children, who are drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless, orphans, prostitutes and theives. How are isolated facts (even filmed on video) a condemnation of a country? Also, how is it a fault of the government, when the people living in that town/village do not help the kids?
The journalist is near the Chinese border. He is allowed to drive there in a car and he has to exaggerate the dangers. If they spend too much time in one place, they may be interrogated by the police. Well, try to spend too much time in one place next to the Mexican border. I bet you would be interrogated by the police as well. It's illegal to film at the border (like in many other countries), but the brave fighters for freedom managed to do it. Apparently, they filmed some border guards, who appear to be guarding the border. Clearly, that is some evil North Korean plot. Is it possible that they are looking for possible violators, who intend to cross the border illegally? Well, I am sure no civilized nation would ever do such a thing. Certainly not the United States... Well, pardon me my sarcasm, but insinuations are everything. It is possible to film perfectly legitimate activities, but if they are in North Korea, they suddenly become menacing, dark and evil. Such as border guards hiding in bunkers.
Then we get a lie about refugees facing execution after being returned from China to North Korea. There is no evidence, just hearsay. Signs such as "Never help an illegal alien" are presented as something horribly wrong, even though (no sarcasm this time) most countries have some regulations against illegal aliens and helping illegal aliens is a misdemeanour in many countries as well (North Koreans are facing a fine, which, supposedly, is horrible).
We are in China now. The woman buying some foodstuffs who is looking strangely at the foreigner filming her is presented as visual evidence of "paranoia and suspicion" filling the air. Perfectly ordinary images of normal life, combined with a alarming music reinforce the feeling that the air is indeed filled with paranoia. It might be the paranoia of the journalist, however. Then we have one interview, where we are not told anything substantial except that some people died from hunger.
OK, we're back. Here a child repeats to the journalists some hearsay about cannibalism. I don't think this can be considered evidence, but the guy appears to have some very lax journalistic standards. Some child drawings and "a friend told me he saw" are now considered sufficient evidence.
OK, now we are shown some Chinese girl eating some soup. We are told that "these children are well-fed". This time we aren't told that Chinese leaders "decided to favour these children", no, it's implied that there is no hunger in China. But, as a matter of fact, China (the "nice" neighbour of North Korea) is still home to the world's second largest number of undernourished people after India. According to some estimates, all over the world over 1 billion people are chronically undernourished. 20 millions die each year from hunger and its effects (almost the population of North Korea). And yet the US and its venal journalists chose to pick on North Korea. Even though, the United States isn't without its own share of problems... Particularly, 3.5 million people are homeless and 35.9 million people live in poverty. They don't seem to notice the mote in their eye...
It's part three and franly I am tired. It's not easy to consciously withstand attempted psyops. But I can't leave the task unfinished, I will have to endure the lies and deceit for 20 minutes more.
We are shown some positively chubby North Korean children, but the disquieting music somewhat compensates for that. We feel that all is not well. We are shown something which is claimed to be a "ghost town" (shot from the nearby mountain). Then we are informed that "industrial activity has ground to a halt". We are made to think that this isn't an exaggeration, but a statement of fact - this is accompanies by the image of the supposed "ghost town". Of course, simple logic dictates that it's impossible for all industrial activity to stop in a country and even the CIA factbook admits real GDP growth of 1% in 2004. But who needs logic in a times like this? Then we hear an account of a well-dressed "escapee" from the town, who tells us that the town's poor stole the equipement and parts from the factories and sold them... The question of whom did they sell factory equipment in small town in a country with a planned economy is not discussed, perhaps, for the better.
We are shown some more children and told some more stories about hunger.
Then a random guy tells us about growing opium. There are some links online that support this claim, however, they all tend to rely on people who make questionable claims such as "Ninety-nine percent of their factories are not operating"...
OK, we are going to South Korea now. In passing we are told that one in every 100 North Koreans is in prison camps. We are not told that 1 in 142 USA residents is in prison as of 2002. One in a hundred (if accurate at all) doesn't sound that bad now, does it? Anyway, images of capitalism (skyskrapers, well-dressed people, etc.) demonstrate that South Korea is clearly a better place.
Then we hear a story of a former guard, which (if genuine) does make a point. What is happening in the camps, if true, is brutal and horrible. However, no other evidence is presented and it's extremely easy to exaggerate (or downplay) the reality.
We are told that North Korea receives more food per capita in aid than any other country. Well, it appears to have received about 30$ per person served per year (in total), which is about average of what WFP does... Other sources, while providing some criticism of North Korea's handling of aid, disagree that it's a deliberate diversion and say that the problems are not as significant.
We see the black market, but the opinion of experts is that this diversion of aid doesn't affect the situation that much.
Again we are shown some children. This time the journalist claims "but children go empty-handed as these pictures reveal". I don't know what these pictures reveal, other than blatant attempts at manipulation. Does he claim that all children are denied food in Korea according to some evil plan? Does he claim that Korean government actively discriminates against children? He is trying to mislead. The footage of children he presents is biased so much as to be almost useless.
Well, the film is over. What can we say? That Discovery, Channel 4 and the journalist are manipulative? Yes. That people are being systematically mislead about North Korea? Certainly. That people in North Korea suffer from hunger? Yes. That Kim Jong Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed? That's not so clear. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.
See my previous post about North Korea: Remembering the Revolutions
The photos are from a report of a Russian visitor to North Korea, who saw a very different picture while travelling around the country.