Following World War II and the Korean War, the country of Korea was split in half. South Korea grew to be one of the world's most prosperous democracies. North Korea became a communist regime, evolving into one of the most isolated, repressive and impoverished countries on Earth.
Its 23 million people are ruled by Kim Jong Il (pictured above), the so-called "Dear Leader." His face is everywhere, his reach universal, his power unchallenged. A fearsome army of a million soldiers stands at his command.
A decade-long drought has killed as many as 3 million people. Refugees tell chilling tales of desperate men, women and children reduced to eating grass, tree bark, even human flesh. Attempts at escape are punishable by death, dissent is rare, and news of the outside world is nonexistent. Children are taught their "Dear Leader" is infallible and that their sworn and mortal enemy is the United States.
On October 9, 2006, the world received startling news. North Korea said they had successfully tested a nuclear weapon. It was a frightening development from a country President Bush declared part of "the axis of evil."
CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour says North Korea has moved progressively toward obtaining a nuclear weapon for years, having kicked nuclear inspectors out of the country—at about the same time the U.S. was planning to invade Iraq.
Christiane says that a nuclear armed North Korea poses a very real threat to their neighbors in Asia, the United States and the West. "This has changed the equation and changed the balance of reality. Now it's impossible to turn that clock back," Christiane says. "The question is, how does one deal with it?"
Following the test, the United States imposed economic sanctions, which restrict trade with North Korea—most notably on iPods, cognac, Harley-Davidsons and other super-luxury goods favored by Kim Jong Il—but still leave open the possibility of military action in the future. In November 2006, North Korea agreed to return to diplomatic discussions.
With an already closed society, will sanctions be enough? "This seems to be, at the moment, the only option that is available," she says. "Experts believe that there has been a considerable failure of diplomacy by the United States and the West. Actions taken over the last several years by the United States and the West have exacerbated the situation. Now we are in a situation where there is a potentially dangerous dictator who has potential nuclear weapons capability."
On assignment for National Geographic Channel's Explorer, investigative reporter Lisa Ling got a rare look inside North Korea—something few Americans have ever been able to do. North Korea has a history of hostility toward journalists and Westerners, so Lisa went undercover as a medical coordinator to enter the country.
The nature of the society was quickly apparent. Upon her arrival, Lisa was assigned six government escorts who watched her every move in the country, and even stayed in Lisa and her investigative team's hotel with them.
Lisa says that life in North Korea is completely dominated by the government. Worried about American ability to spy using cellular technology, no one in the country is allowed to own a cell phone. Lisa even had to turn hers over to government officials. Additionally, the Internet is forbidden and there are only two television stations in the entire country—both run by the government. One guard even reprimanded Lisa for having a fashion magazine with her. "People are literally cut off from the rest of the world," Lisa says.
She explains that because there was never an official end to the Korean War, U.S. troops still patrol the border between North and South. The North Koreans she spoke with held favorable opinions about their country's nuclear ambitions. "I asked all of them about nuclear testing, and they are so proud that their country is standing up against America."
As rare as it is to even be in North Korea, Lisa saw something even rarer—the inside of a North Korean home. She went into one grandmother's one-bedroom apartment, which she shares with five of her family members. They all sleep on the floor in the living room.
The only form of decoration was posters and framed photos of the current ruler, Kim Jong Il—called the "Dear Leader" by North Koreans—and his father, Kim Il-Sung—called the "Great Leader." Even though the people told Lisa the leaders aren't gods, many seemed to worship them as if they were.
"I was shocked that they allowed us to go into this home," Lisa says. "It was pretty spontaneous. I'm sure that they went to check it out before they actually let our cameras in that same day. Of course they would have never shown me the starvation and the poverty."
Lisa's "cover" to enter North Korea had her posing as an aide to a Nepalese eye doctor. This doctor and his team were in North Korea with a charitable organization, performing more than 1,000 cataract surgeries in 12 days.
Lisa says she was surprised by the reactions of the patients. They'd remove their eye patches, able to see for the first time in years, and they would not thank the surgeons. Instead, they thanked the "Great Leader" and the "Dear Leader" and broke out into tears and applause. Though the surgeries were not funded by the North Korean government, the outside organization wasn't allowed to put up their signs. "The people are led to believe that the leaders provided for them," she says.
The simple fact that an outside group had to come in to perform this surgery tells volumes about life in North Korea. "In the U.S., if you get even a minor cataract you can have an operation immediately," Lisa says. "But these people—even young people in their early 20s—they'd have mature cataracts and been blind for 10 years. It gives you a sense of the malnourishment and the resources and the conditions there."
Going undercover and reporting from North Korea was one of the craziest trips of her life, Lisa says.
"They literally live in a bubble," she says. "Imagine, the only books that you have to read, the only television you have to watch, the only music is all about your country and about the 'Dear Leader' and the 'Great Leader.' That's it. You are so isolated. Something as innocuous as a fashion magazine provoked our escorts to get all freaked out because they don't want women to see how other women in the rest of the world live. It is that secretive."
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