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Case Number 27210: Small Claims Court

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Secret State of North Korea

PBS // 2014 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 13th, 2014

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All Rise...

By law, Judge Clark Douglas' favorite TV program is The Kim Jong-Un Power Hour.

The Charge

A rare glimpse of how some North Koreans are defying authority.

The Case

If there's a flaw in Secret State of North Korea, it's that North Korea is so secretive that it seems to prevent the program from telling us a whole lot of stuff we don't already know. Indeed, the country would seem cartoonish if it weren't so frightening, as Kim Jong-Un and his minions have clamped down on basic rights and propagandized their citizens to an absurd degree. We see North Korean television specials highlighting the many delightful items available for purchase in department stores, only discover that in real life those items are for display purposes only and will not be made available to ordinary people. Citizens are required to attend weekly sessions in which they enthusiastically express their praise for their leader, though they live in fear of being killed for even the slightest of crimes (one of the country's most popular singers and several of his backup dancers were killed after it was discovered that one of them had joked about Kim Jong-Un's wife starring in a porn movie).

The great lengths Frontline takes to protect the identity of some of the special's participants are telling. Not only are voices altered and faces placed in silhouette, but even the silhouetted faces are blurred in order to prevent overbearing government officials from speculating based on the shape of someone's head or nose. Blurred items are all over the place in the secretively-shot camera footage we see (showing hostile police officers interacting with the public, quiet grumblings among North Korean citizens and other things which would undoubtedly upset the government a great deal). They can't tell us or show us much without endangering a whole lot of people, which perhaps says more than anything else in the special about how awful things are.

The most compelling portion of the special focuses on an effort to change the attitudes of North Korean citizens simply by exposing them to mainstream pop culture. Flash drives loaded with popular movies and TV shows (Skyfall is name-dropped, and we see two girls enthusiastically watching some sort of South Korean television series on a laptop) are smuggled into the country, and DVDs are sold on the black market. Simply being exposed to other cultures via entertainment makes an extraordinary difference in public thinking. However, the mission is an exceptionally risky one—in the last year alone, dozens of North Korean people were executed for nothing more than the seemingly minor crime of watching foreign entertainment. Though things look pretty dire, there's a glimmer of hope towards the special's conclusion: pop culture is slowly-but-surely spreading through North Korea, and cell phone use is on the rise, too. An informed, plugged-in public is a public which will prove less willing to silently bend to the will of its leader.

Secret State of North Korea has received a fairly standard 480p/1.78:1 transfer. Frankly, most of the footage included looks pretty rough, so only a few talking head interviews benefit from solid detail. Ditto the audio, which is often so muffled that it would need to be subtitled even if it weren't in a foreign language. Still, that's par for the course for this sort of thing. There are no supplements included.

Secret State of North Korea isn't the most in-depth Frontline episode of all time, but it's a solid overview of what's happening in that troubled country and the efforts being made to turn the tide.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2014
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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