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tv   Frontline  PBS  April 5, 2017 4:00am-5:01am PDT

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>> narrator: tonight, inside the north korea the regime wants to keep hidden. >> the way the north korean regime keeps the regime going is this pervasive security apparatus and fear tactics. >> if people stop believing in the regime, that means central control is breaking down. >> narrator: with undercover footage and exclusive interviewfrontline uncovers a new generation risking their lives to smuggle images out and information in. >> north korean defectors have emerged as very quiet agents of social progress. >> narrator: threatening kim jong un's total control of what the world sees of north korea and what north koreans see of the world. >> there really is a potential
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here that something quite dramatic could happen. >> narrator: but how far will the dictator go to hold on to power? >> if a government is willing to kill as many people as necessary to stay in power, it usually stays in power for a very long time. >> narrator: tonight, frontline takes you inside the "secret state of north korea." >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information is available at additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires.
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and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. and additional support from millicent bell, through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. narrator: jiro ishimaru is a journalist trying to expose what kim jong un's regime wants to hide: the secret world of the
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north korean people. he has an undercover network which covertly films life inside the country. (translated): obviously, it's an extremely dangerous thing to do. in north korea, even filming everyday life is considered a form of political treason. if they are caught filming, they'd be locked up and may never be let out again. narrator: even filming on the chinese side of the border is illegal.
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narrator: the people who work for jiro smuggle their footage across the tumen river, which divides china from north korea. the north korean border guards have been known to shoot to kill. the border has become even more tightly controlled since kim jong un took over as supreme leader two years ago, the third ruler in the kim dynasty after his father and grandfather. he inherited the world's most isolated country, where the people have no internet and the state has almost total control on any information coming in or out. even with the tight security, jiro and his japanese news organization manage to get the footage out.
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narrator: he is going to meet one of his contacts, who has made it across the border with new images from north korea. narrator: they secretly film in areas no foreigners or journalists are allowed to visit. narrator: these are pictures kim jong un doesn't want the world to see.
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jiro has recruited a network of ordinary north koreans living in towns across the country. they risk their lives to get the footage. one of his contacts is a state employee, but has been smuggling footage out for five years. he agreed to speak if his identity was concealed. (translated): this is dangerous, and if i get caught, i know i'd immediately be executed as a traitor to the korean people. but i've got to do this. i've got to do this no matter what. i'm just one person. even if i have to sacrifice my life, someday, something is going to change. narrator: the famine which killed more than a million north koreans in the 1990s has ended. but the united nations says the country is still vulnerable to food shortages, and more than three quarters of the population
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don't have enough food to eat. narrator: over the past three years, jiro's undercover network has filmed orphaned street kids gathering in the markets begging for money and on the lookout for scraps of food. for the safety of the people filming, he disguises their voices.
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narrator: very few of these orphaned children manage to escape north korea. but we found one who did. he asked to be identified as "lee" and agreed to speak to us if we conceled his identity. (translated): my father passed away when i was three, and then my mother left home and didn't return. i was very hungry. i was almost always hungry when i was young. there were times when i ate a meal a day. but when i starved, i didn't eat for two days.
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because i was hungry, i stole and picked pockets. i lived like that until i was 14 years old. there were many others. and there were children who starved to death. (translated): did any of your friends die? (translated): yes, they did. (translated): how old were you all then? (translated): i was about 11. narrator: undercover footage from last march shows a group of homeless orphans trying to stay warm in below-zero temperatures.
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narrator: there is an elite in the capital city pyongyang, and despite tough international sanctions, they live a comfortable life with the latest luxury goods. this woman was filmed getting into a newly imported mercedes on her wedding day. north korean state tv makes the country out to be a land of plenty. they show pictures of an advanced economy, happy, well-fed children, and shops overflowing with goods.
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pyongyang's department store no. 1 is stocked with imported products from around the world. but as jiro's footage shows, many of the items are not for sale. narrator: the department store is regularly featured on state tv, which tells its people they live in the best country on earth.
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one of the regime's senior propagandists defected and is now living in the south. (translated): as well as a physical dictatorship, they oppress people with an emotional dictatorship. in north korea, they promote the leader to be the sun. if you go too close, you burn. if you go too far, you freeze to death. you think of him as incredibly god-like. we thought he didn't even go to the toilet. narrator: north koreans can't escape the omnipresent propaganda. kim jong un's speeches are pumped from speakers on street corners. (speech playing) narrator: this one was on a loop for three months, promising his people
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a bright economic future. (music playing) narrator: since the north and the south split in the late 1940s, hatred of america has been central to north korean indoctrination. this government video shows a north korean dreaming of new york city being destroyed by a missile attack. the average north korean believes a significant part of the anti-american propaganda. they believe that americans are ready to invade. they believe that america is a threat. they believe that americans started the korean war in order to enslave or maybe commit large-scale genocide in korea. they believe it. not all, but a majority. narrator: in pyongyang, state tv news is broadcast
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on public squares, warning of imminent war with america. (children singing) narrator: once a week, whole villages are required to attend meetings glorifying the leader. (children singing) narrator: the regime demands displays of total loyalty. if you don't attend these weekly meetings, you could come under suspicion. the way the north korean regime keeps the regime going, one of the reasons is fear tactics.
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narrator: in north korea, it's not only the person who commits the crime that is punished. often, their whole family will be arrested for "guilt by association." it's up to three generations. when the senior-most north korean defector hwang jang yop defected, his relatives were rounded up in north korea and were sent to prison camps. these guys didn't even know they were related to hwang jang yop when the security guys came knocking on their door. they said, "i'm related to hwang?" it was, like, a ninth cousin. this is how north korea operates. narrator: recent satellite imagery analyzed by amnesty international shows that since kim jong un came to power, the political prison camps have grown. 200,000 civilians who are outside of the criminal penal system. one of the camps, hwasong, is 540 square kilometers, three times the size of washington, d.c. narrator: it's estimated that as many as one in 100 north
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koreans is a political prisoner, many of whom were caught trying to defect. still, several thousand north koreans try to escape through china each year. lee, the former street kid, fled when he was 18. (translated): i was very scared, but i thought, "it's better to die than live like an insect." before i left, i prepared a little bit of food. i roasted some beans. i ate little bits of that as i went on my way. i went to the top of the mountains to see where the guards were positioned. then at night, i crossed the river when nobody was watching. i crossed the river alone and made it into china.
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i used the sun to get my directions and went inland. narrator: defectors like lee risk getting caught and sent back by china, north korea's closest ally. but lee says he met a broker who smuggled him 2,000 miles to the south korean embassy in thailand. he was granted asylum and flew to seoul, where he has lived for the last two years. he still hides his identity because he's afraid of north korean agents discovering him. (translated): i graduated from high school in february this year. i'm currently looking for a job, but i'm not working yet. although i live in south korea now, it still troubles me to
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think about the north korean children who suffer out there like i used to. (translated): north korea is a society that has fallen ill. it's a diseased society that needs to be cured. our footage is forcing north korea to acknowledge the hardships that their people face. the authorities don't like it at all. because if the truth gets out, it would put kim jong un's power under threat. narrator: jiro ishimaru smuggles footage out of the country, but there is also a steady flow of information back in. jeong kwang-il is a defector living in seoul who smuggles foreign films and tv shows into north korea.
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(translated): the men prefer watching action films. men love their action films! i sent them skyfall recently. the women enjoy watching soap operas and dramas. they like that kind of film. now they're sharing thumb drives a lot. even officials have one or two thumb drives. north korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people's mindsets is popular culture. it probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in north korea. narrator: jeong and his partner, also a defector, are on their way to the chinese border to smuggle in laptops, radios, usbs and dvds. (translated): of course there's a risk. but i want to send them in, so i just do it. in north korea, rumor has it there are 100 people that are
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desperate to get their hands on me. but they don't know when i go, do they? narrator: they are filming their trip with a hidden camera. narrator: posing as mushroom importers, they bribed a border guard to let them across. narrator: the border guard isn't where he said he'd be, so they call him.
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narrator: the guard says he can't get them across, so they decide to wait until night.
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before defecting, jeong used to cross the border illegally as a smuggler until he was caught and accused of being a spy. he was taken to a notorious political prison camp, yodok. (translated): when i arrived at the prison camp, it was april 6, 2000. it was awful when i went inside. that day, they completely beat the hell out of me. they'd put a wooden stick behind your knees and make you sit down, like this. if they pushed down on you, you'd collapse and then you'd hear your kneecaps cracking. i got beaten up and tortured for about nine months. before i got arrested, i weighed 165 pounds.
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after ten months, i had a physical. when i looked at what i weighed, i was 79 pounds. i couldn't endure it any more. narrator: after three years in yodok, he says the authorities determined he wasn't a spy and let him out. a year later, he defected, and has been working against the regime ever since. tonight, he's going back to the border.
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narrator: jeong waits on the chinese side of the tumen river for his north korean smuggler. they find each other by sparking their cigarette lighters.
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narrator: the dvds and thumbdrives make their way to markets across the country, filled with goods illegally smuggled from china.
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narrator: within days, jeong's smuggler delivers some of his thumbdrives and dvds to two teenage girls and films them watching. (music playing on computer)
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narrator: it's been reported that almost half of the north koreans who defect had watched foreign television even though it's illegal. information and knowledge of the outside world is beginning to widen out. there's far more inner penetration of north korean society today than before. if north korean people themselves stop believing in the regime and the story they tell themselves, that means central control is breaking down in some ways. narrator: kim jong un has reportedly been sending his security forces house to house, searching for illegal dvds, and last november ordered the execution of as many as 80
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people, some for watching foreign television. narrator: open radio for north korea is a station staffed by defectors transmitting stories into the country from across the border in the south. (translated): what the north korean regime fears the most is
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information about the outside world going into the country. we tell the north korean people how vicious their dictatorship is. if someone listens to these broadcasts and passes the story on to other people, and if the story is political, it becomes a very serious matter. in these cases, i understand that some even face public execution. narrator: the story they are broadcasting today-- that kim jong un's wife, a former pop star, recorded a pornographic video-- is quickly spreading around north korea and has provoked a vicious reaction. the station reports that the singer of the popular song "horse lady" and other performers in this video have been executed for starting the rumor. (translated): because north koreans are so cut off, they're
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incredibly curious, and we've found that people take the risk of listening to these broadcasts. narrator: open radio says that almost a million north koreans regularly listen to illegal foreign radio. (translated): the more i listened to the radio, the more i thought what we've learned isn't true. i've been fooled. and this made me want to become free. narrator: chanyang is 22. she lives in seoul but grew up in a remote region of north korea.
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narrator: her father bought the family a radio, which he modified to pick up foreign stations. (translated): my father was preparing to come here since i was nine years old. living constantly in fear like that was really difficult. if we got caught, the whole family would get taken away. i was exhausted by it all so i asked my father, "even if it's north korea, can't we just live safely?" but he said, "no. i want your generation to learn freely." narrator: when chanyang was 17, her family decided to defect. to avoid raising suspicion, they left at different times. she was the last to leave. (translated): i was always being watched. the people watching weren't just from the government.
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the people who were watching me were my friends and neighbors. i knew all of this, but had to act as if i didn't. narrator: after two years laying low, chanyang escaped through china and reunited with her family in seoul. (translated): my brother and sister had grown up so much when i saw them, and their accents had all changed too. but we were all back together again, in a circle. we're a family of five. we were all just so happy that we didn't even need to say a word. the first thing we did was just eat together. narrator: chanyang now appears on a weekly tv show with
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other defectors called on my way to meet you. here is my name and where i'm born. narrator: it's broadcast in south korea, but is a popular show smuggled back into the north. (translated): my friends back home watch it, and all the children of the party officials in north korea watch it and say they will defect. we're going to talk about that today. when my friends see me on the show, they'll fantasize about south korea. they'll say i've changed a lot. in north korea i never smiled. narrator: the show is part current affairs... part talent show...
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part beauty pageant. north korean defectors have emerged as very quiet agents of social progress in north korea, because people often assume that they just leave north korea and that's it. and at this point where you have over 20,000 north korean refugees that have resettled in south korea, that's a significant population that are joining forces to reconnect with their families back inside. and when they see that one of them can leave the community, go to south korea, that's a huge wake-up for them that shows just how much more advanced and how much more open south korea is.
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narrator: jeong is back in seoul, meeting with a group of defectors who are plotting against the north korean regime. narrator: yong hee and her husband jeong oh have found another way to penetrate kim jong un's secret state. narrator: like jeong, yong hee says she suffered at the
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hands of the north korean regime. her brother was caught trying to defect and she was punished. she says she was locked up and tortured by security agents. narrator: she says the officers tied her brother's hands to the back of a truck and dragged him along a dirt road as an example to others.
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narrator: yong hee escaped with her husband and son, leaving her brother and mother behind. (train whistle blowing)
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(explosion) sharp new warning of all-out war. for the first time, the mysterious and secretive nation... there is nothing imminent, but these threatening statements have everyone on edge. are we on the brink of a nuclear war? narrator: last spring, north korea became the first country since the cold war to threaten the united states mainland with
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a nuclear attack. when watching this i thought, wow, even from north korean standards, this is really over the top. they always do this cycle of provocation. it's just the intensity of the recent provocation was even greater. i don't think anybody really believed the north koreans were going to launch a nuclear missile at the united states. but the basic question that rose, "does this guy know where the red line is? does he know when the bluster should stop or is he really gonna do something stupid?" this fellow may not know what is real and what is a video game. (men singing militaristic song) narrator: western intelligence agencies were concerned because they knew so little about the young leader. it's really sad but when kim jong un first became known,
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the cia had this one picture of an 11-year-old boy with that bratty grin. and that's what we were working with. that's the photo that we had. and what we knew about it was already in the new york times. it wasn't really much more than that. narrator: kim jong un was brought up by his mother, opera singer ko young-hee, one of kim jong il's four wives. he spent three years in a school in switzerland, posing as the son of a diplomat. at the age of 18, he was called back to pyongyang, where he was secretly groomed to become leader. state media had never shown kim jong un or mentioned him by name until the year before his father's death in december 2011. he was then unveiled to the north korean public in this
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state-produced documentary. narrator: kim jong un succeeded his father and grandfather to become the new leader of north korea. in north korea, reverence for age, experience. these things matter. and now you are sort of parading around this 29-year-old guy who did not serve a day in the military. i doubt that people genuinely have the kind of feeling towards kim jong un as they did for kim jong il. (translated): we would say, how can this boy who's still wet behind the ears be in power? but the north korean government spread these rumors that
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although he was young, he was very wise. that's what the government kept saying. narrator: jiro's undercover footage shows people all over the country being forced to prove their dedication to the new leader, but some resenting having to do it. these soldiers were ordered to build a railroad from kim jong un's birthplace to pyongyang to mark him coming to power. narrator: the undercover footage even shows a local official criticizing kim jong un's succession.
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narrator: to compensate for his lack of experience, the regime made parallels with his grandfather kim il sung, who is still widely worshipped and is officially eternal president of north korea. there are all kinds of rumors that kim jong un even had cosmetic surgery to look like his grandfather. but certainly his style seems to be more like kim il sung as well. trying to be a reincarnation of his grandfather is actually smart in a way because his grandfather is remembered by a lot of north koreans as a much more benevolent leader than his father. it's pr style at the moment, according to the defectors that
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i've spoken with who have left the country fairly recently. the economy has not improved under kim jong un. narrator: the problem for kim jong un is that north koreans' expectations are changing. (translated): because more information is flowing in, it's getting very difficult to make people obey. there are very few people left who blindly obey every command that comes from on high. narrator: behind closed doors, even members of the north korean elite have voiced unhappiness with the regime. like this businesswoman filmed at a private lunch.
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narrator: the cynicism about their leaders comes partly from radical change in the way people make a living. (translated): looking at footage shot inside north korea, we can see that a huge number of people have started doing business with each other. this used to be illegal, and anyone caught buying or selling for personal gain was severely punished.
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narrator: illegal markets first began to appear when the state became unable to feed its people during the famine. today the state tolerates them, but people are pushing the limits of private enterprise. this woman is running an illegal private bus service. an army officer tries to stop her from picking up passengers. (translated): people's willingness to confront or ignore authority has become more and more common.
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people around the world have this image of north koreans as being brainwashed, but that's very mistaken. often now when north koreans are challenged for infringing a certain law, as long as the offense is not political, they don't hesitate to protest if they believe the law to be irrational. narrator: until recently it was illegal for women to wear pants. soldiers are arguing with this woman about breaking the dress code. narrator: the soldiers put an armband on her to mark her offense. narrator: but before long, she rips it off and a senior officer steps in.
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narrator: five years ago, cell phones arrived in north korea. the undercover footage shows dozens of people lining up to buy sim cards. the phones can only make calls inside north korea, but they can be modified to call outside the country, a very serious crime. there is an awareness and ability for the population to communicate instantaneously that was never there before. north korea went from zero to one million cell phone registrations in three years. but to get from one million to two million, it only took one year.
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and probably, to get from two million to three million will only take six months. that concrete wall that has been there for 60 years or so will become more porous. these changes cannot be stopped. marketization, information flows... all of these kind of trends lead to a transformation one way or another of north korea. the system as it stands is just unsustainable. kim jong un faces the dictator's dilemma, which is they need to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to the collapse of the regime-- not the state, but of the regime. and so this is a dilemma that he faces, it's one his father faced, it's one his grandfather faced. narrator: this dilemma has led to a power struggle at the very top of the government, according to the regime's former propagandist.
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(translated): in the past, there weren't hardliners and reformers. there was only party loyalty. today, however, rival factions have formed. the fact a split exists shows he hasn't got a stable leadership like his father. so the only way for kim jong un to hold on to power is through a reign of terror. narrator: kim jong un came to power surrounded by his father's generals. since then he has purged almost half of the top military. in december 2013, his uncle, jang song thaek, an advocate for reform who'd served at the top of the government for 30 years, was forcibly removed from a party meeting.
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a week later, he was executed. if a government is willing to kill as many people as necessary to stay in power, it usually stays in power for a very long time. there are many people who are not happy. there are many people who, in the privacy of their bedrooms, sometimes say something very, very subversive to their wives and most trusted friends. but no networks and no activities yet, because the government is brutal. even if, let's say, the public's more aware of the outside world, is that going to necessarily lead them to have a revolution? several people cannot even get together to even talk about it. with what's happening in the middle east, there's twitter, there's facebook, people can get mobilized, they can get together. the way the korean system is set up right now, they don't have any kind of mechanism to do that.
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but i think in the case of north korea, there are credible pieces that you can put together and say, "there really is a potential here that something quite dramatic could happen." no one could predict the collapse of the soviet union, no one could predict the arab spring. afterwards, everybody said it was obvious. (translated): it's not easy to predict when the regime will fall. however, the foundations of change in north korea are being laid. north koreans have undergone a huge shift in their collective mindset.
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i think change will come. >> for over 3 years, with extraordinary access frontline filmed prisoners in solitary. and what happened when they get out. >> ultimately, i ended up shooting somebody and coming back. >> a revealing investigation f an institution trying to change. >> you could have them do their whole time in segregation. but i don't want him living next to me when we release him. >> "last days of solitary" >> go to for more on kim jong un, including exclusive childhood photos and interviews with those who know him. find out how life has changed
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for ordinary north koreans. plus, what are the possibilities for reform in north korea? >> the system as it stands is just unsustainable. >> connect to the frontline community on facebook and twitter or >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information is available at additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler.
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and additional support from millicent bell, through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. captioned by media access group at wgbh >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at frontline"secret state of north korea" is available on dvd. to order, visit or call 1-800-playpbs. frontline is also available for download on itunes.
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[music] narrator: he may be best known as the author of the famous serenity prayer. hal holbrook reading niebuhr: "god, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed." narrator: but american-born reinhold niebuhr, a theologian, a celebrated writer, and a progressive social thinker, brought a distinct and prophetic voice to some of the most defining years in america's history. david brooks: barack obama, a pretty progressive democrat. jimmy carter could draw on niebuhr. some of the reaganites like niebuhr,