“North Korea: Life Inside the Secret State” shows why North Korea is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s “1984”

By on February 16, 2017

The country of North Korea is in the news on a daily basis these days, and so we thought we’d direct your attention to James Jones’s fascinating 2013 documentary North Korea: Life Inside the Secret State, which is currently streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

These days, life in much of North Korean society is an eerily reminiscent replay of George Orwell’s 1984, and much like Orwell’s “The Party” maintained total control, utilizing a combination of relentless misinformation and “re-education,” by means of unimaginable brutality and/or disappearance, the North Korean government tells its citizenry that they live in the best country on earth.

In reality, North Koreans have spent sixty years isolated from the rest of the the world and are forced to live in an extremely repressive existence.


The British-made documentary — which originally aired in England on Channel 4, and then aired in the U.S. on the PBS network’s “Frontline” program on January 14, 2014, with their usual narrator Will Lyman replacing David Harewood’s voice — explores how life for the North Korean people is slowly but surely changing for the better, thanks to defectors who are defying authority and fighting for change, but they still have a long ways to go.

We also get to hear some of the stories from a handful of those defectors — including North Korean defector Mr. Chung and Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who has been training undercover reporters for fifteen years — who have not only managed to escape from the most totalitarian regime still in existence but have also literally risked their lives by going back into North Korea, where they were sure to be executed if they had been discovered.


The defectors — who have smuggled hidden-camera footage filmed secretly inside the country across the border with China — have also been smuggling all sorts of footage back into North Korea, which helps to show the people living there that everything they have been told about the outside world is usually a pack of lies.

We learn that the defectors have also smuggled in Hollywood blockbuster movies (American-made action-adventure features are very popular), as well as South Korean television shows, shared in the form of USB sticks, in addition to wind-up radios and modified SIM cards, which can be used with the cell phones they now have in North Korea (the phones usually can only make calls within the country, but they can also be modified to call outside of North Korea, which is a very serious crime).



For many of the people living in Pyongyang, the colorful capital and largest city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, life isn’t actually too bad, as we can see in the documentary (although don’t look too close: the buildings are mostly blistered and stained, the paint faded and cracked).

One of the more remarkable buildings in Pyongyang surely has to be Ryugyong Hotel, a 1000-ft. pyramid that is the tallest structure in Pyongyang, located in the Potong District of North Korea’s capital city.

It has been nicknamed the “Hotel of Doom,” because — much like 1984‘s Ministry of Truth, the chief source of The Party’s official lies, which it resembles in shape and size; Orwell describes it as “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air” — it has never been finished and has been collecting dust since its construction was abandoned in 1992.


Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel — nicknamed the “Hotel of Doom” — can be seen in the distance

Many Pyongyang citizens live comfortably in homes where framed portraits of North Korea’s revered founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il look down from where they hang on the walls (failure to clean and look after them is a punishable offense).

There have been some recent changes which show that the country is slowly joining the rest of the world: for instance, until recently it was illegal for women to wear pants — there’s a scene in the documentary, in fact, where a North Korean woman is arguing with soldiers who have told her that she’s breaking a dress code.


Outside of Pyongyang, however, it’s a much different story.

For the majority of the people of North Korea, just being caught with illegal DVDs could mean immediate imprisonment (it is estimated that half of North Koreans have watched foreign TV programs in the past few decades).

One of the many Orwellian ways the government keeps tabs on its citizens are government-run 24-hour informant hotlines, on which North Koreans can rat on their family, friends and neighbors at any time of the day or night.


Kim Il-sung’s former palace is now his mausoleum, which is also home to his embalmed son, Kim Jong-il; maintenance of their bodies costs the impoverished nation over a million dollars annually

Despite this, more and more North Koreans are beginning to question the legitimacy and despotic leadership of the Kim dynasty. They’ve probably been questioning their country’s leadership since the mid-Nineties, if not before, when the country suffered a famine which killed an estimated one million people.

Beggars and vagrant children soon began to appear in the town, roaming the countryside “like living dead” in search of food, while corpses began turning up in rivers.


A satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula that shows the bright lights of South Korea and China compared to the blackness of North Korea at night

The North Korean government blamed the famine on U.S. sanctions — it had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been subsidizing North Korea with food and fuel — and chose to look the other way when illegal markets began to appear after the government stopped being able to feed its people (in the film, North Korean defectors are shown sending balloons with U.S. dollars — one dollar can feed a North Korean family for two days — into the country).

In the documentary we also see that the North Korean people are not happy that most of the rest of the world has complete access to the internet (they’ve never even heard of Google), and they’re realizing that much of what they’ve been told about America, a country they are brainwashed into hating, aren’t really their true enemy.

Similarly to Orwell’s model, any access to the outside world is strictly forbidden. It was recently revealed that North Korea only has twenty-eight registered web domains, including a social network site called Friend.

The main website in North Korea is the state-run propaganda website, the Korean Central News Agency, which much like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, is really a misnomer because in reality it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events, and provides only the information North Korea’s leader believes they should possess.


James Jones

The documentary was filmed, produced and directed by Emmy-winning British documentary filmmaker James Jones, whose work is primarily seen on the UK’s Channel 4 (and also the BBC) as well as on “Frontline.” Jones began directing documentaries in 2011 for Channel 4’s “Unreported World” series.

Jones has won a number of awards for his films, including an Emmy, and he has been nominated four times at the BAFTAs, four times at the Royal Television Society Awards, and at the Amnesty, One World Media, Ilario Alpi, and Prix Europa Awards.


Jones — who had actually lived in Russia and studied Russian while at the University of Oxford — originally worked as a translator for the BBC, on a TV documentary series about Russian oligarchs, when he decided to begin making documentaries on his own. Most of his films are character-driven biographical stories with an investigative edge.

When this documentary was originally released in 2013, Jones was quoted as saying that he wanted to show the side of North Korea that was not commonly seen in the outside world:

“Our objective starting out was to go beyond the media caricature of North Korea – which 90% of the stuff you see is about mad tubby little leaders with bad haircuts threatening the world with nuclear war. That’s not really what affects North Korean’s lives.”

While we suppose this description could apply to our current U.S. president as well, the “mad tubby little leader with the bad haircut who is currently threatening the world with nuclear war” that he’s mainly referring to here is Kim Jong-un, who in 2011, at the age of 28, came to power as the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is commonly called North Korea outside of the country.


Kim Jong-un has a number of titles, actually; he’s also known as the Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (CMC), Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.

In 2012 he was promoted to the rank of Marshal of North Korea, which is why he is often referred to as Marshal Kim Jong-un or “the Marshal” by North Korea’s state media.

Jong Un (sometimes you’ll see his name hyphenated, as Jong-un) is the third ruler in the Kim dynasty, after his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, and to North Koreans it seemed as though he came out of nowhere.


The Grand Monument on Mansu Hill is a complex of monuments in Pyongyang, North Korea, featuring two 22=meters high bronze statues of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

Up to that point, the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il — who was raised by his mother, opera singer Ko Yong Hui, one of Kim Jong-il’s four wives — had barely been seen in public, and even today his life is shrouded in secrecy.

We know that Kim Jong-un spent three years posing as the son of a diplomat in a school in Switzerland, before he was called back to Pyongyang, at age eighteen, and secretly groomed to become North Korea’s next Great Leader.

After he came to power, surrounded by his father’s generals, he began to get rid of nearly half of the country’s top military officials. In December 2013, the year this documentary was released, Kim Jong-un had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, an advocate for reform who’d served at the top of the government for thirty years, forcibly removed from a party meeting and then executed.


In the documentary, we’re told the Kim Jong-un and his regime demands displays of total loyalty towards their leader, who does not enjoy near universal approval and subservience from his people.

There are scenes in the film, in fact, which show that people all over North Korea are being forced to prove their dedication to the new leader, but many resenting having to do it.

To compensate for Kim Jong-un’s lack of experience and hearing of the resentment, Kim Jong-un’s regime have tried to associate Kim Jong-un with his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who was a much more benevolent leader than his father, and is still widely revered across the country (he’s officially the “Eternal President of North Korea”).

There are even rumors that he has had cosmetic surgery in order to look more like his grandfather.


Here in the United States, North Korea is one of the three countries (along with Iraq and Iran) that was mentioned in then-president George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2002 as belong to an “axis of evil,” countries which pose a grave and growing danger for “arming to threaten the peace of the world,” and “seeking weapons of mass destruction.”

Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, like Kim Jong-il before him — whose approach to relations with the United States and the international community has been described as “erratic” — made the list mainly because of their desire to continue fighting a war they believe never officially ended, that being the so-called Korean War, a war they are told that the U.S. started in order to enslave or maybe commit large-scale genocide in Korea.


Since then, North Korea became the first country since the Cold War to threaten the United States mainland with a nuclear attack.  The average North Korean believes much of what they’re told about America, even that Americans are ready to invade their country.

Nationwide, television sets are hardwired to receive a single signal, broadcast by the state. In Pyongyang, state TV news is regularly broadcast on public squares, promising a bright economic future, showing happy, well-fed children and retail shops and grocery stores overflowing with plenty of supplies and food (the reality, of course, is that the shelves are not always full).


They also warn of imminent war with America. They have even aired government-made propaganda videos which show a North Korean dreaming of New York City being destroyed by a missile attack.

Anyone caught defecting or speaking against the state is publicly executed; sometimes, as many as three generations of their blood relatives, some so distant they didn’t know they were related, have been are arrested (“guilt by association”), separated from their families and sentenced to serving life terms in labor/prison camps.

North Korea’s government place a high percentage of its resources into its military spending, which is estimated at as much as 25% of GNP, with up to 20% of men ages 17-54 in the regular armed forces.

(By comparison, U.S. military spending – despite its astronomically high figure in absolute terms – has been about 3% to 5% of GNP over the last two decades).


Since this documentary was made, North Korea continue to conduct nuclear missile tests and launches in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Since he came to power, Kim Jong-un has launched long-range rocket tests, carried out at least one nuclear test and has been accused of orchestrating a cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

Executive Order 13687, imposed on January 2, 2015, and Executive Order 13722, on March 16, 2016, following recent missile launches and a nuclear test in January of that year, constitute the most restrictive sanctions on North Korea to date (there are likely more Executive Order sanctions coming from the Trump administration soon).


Across North Korea, countless billboards and posters bear military slogans and propaganda, accompanied by the likenesses of the Great and Dear leaders, just like in Orwell’s 1984

For the eight years of his presidency, President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” — which involved increasing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure — doesn’t seem to have impeded North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and now it falls to a new president to deal with the problem.

Already just this year, in January of 2017, leader Kim Jong-un boasted that Pyongyang was in the “final stages” of developing an ICBM missile in an apparent attempt to pressure the then-incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump. Jong-un has boasted that North Korea could test an ICBM “anytime and anywhere.”

Washington D.C. has repeatedly vowed that it would never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation and the latest launch on Sunday, February 12th, was a medium- or an intermediate-range missile, and not an intercontinental missile, or ICBM, capable of reaching the United States (missiles like this one pose a potential threat to American allies in Japan and South Kora and American forces in the Pacific, but could not strike the United States).

These tests, however, ensure that President Trump will no doubt need the help of Beijing, Pyongyang’s closest ally, to deal with the reclusive state (so far that hasn’t worked out, in part because China doesn’t want to risk triggering a collapse of North Korea’s regime).


The symbol of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK)

We will just have to wait to see how President Trump deals with this continuing North Korean conflict, and we’re sure North Korea will continue to be regularly test missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Trump, who has already criticized the nuclear treaty Obama and our allies struck with Iran, now stands at a critical crossroads with North Korea, and it seems like the fate of world peace may rest in part on what choices he makes.

North Korea: Life Inside the Secret State is streaming now on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.