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Hermit Kingdom Revealed; The World and North Korea; Escaping Syria; Imagine a World

Aired January 15, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight penetrating the most repressive and dangerous regimes. In a moment, we'll look at the Syrian rebels through the eyes of a photographer who was captured by one of them.

But first to North Korea, a hermetically sealed nuclear power under the tyrannical thumb of the world's youngest dictator, Kim Jong-un, who's been at the helm there for just two years.

Already he's conducted a nuclear test and he's threatened South Korea and the United States with nuclear war. He's had top officials, including his own uncle, executed as traitors and subversives and prison camps are proliferating with American Kenneth Bae sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Though the fate of the region balances precariously at the tip of a North Korean warhead, no American or Western official has yet to meet Kim Jong- un. In fact, as we know, all too well now, the only American who has is former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman and his team of "Happy Birthday" singing basketball players.


AMANPOUR: That performance, of course, has sparked a growing backlash as Rodman has made it practically a badge of honor not to ask his new best friend, Kim, anything about human rights abuses, his malnourished population or Rodman's fellow American languishing in jail.

In fact, this week, one member of the crew, NBA veteran Kenny Anderson, told CNN that he didn't know much about North Korea before that jaunt to Pyongyang.


KENNY ANDERSON, FORMER NBA PLAYER: I hold myself accountable for -- I didn't do my due diligence. I did not know the politics of North Korea.


AMANPOUR: If the team had wanted to know, they needed to look no further than a devastating documentary on public television here that shows not just the horrors but also the growing cracks in the system which could threaten its survival. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Tonight, inside the North Korea the regime wants to keep hidden.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The way North Korean regime keeps the (INAUDIBLE) going is this pervasive security apparatus and fear attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People start believing in the regime and in central controls (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): With undercover footage and exclusive interviews, (INAUDIBLE) uncovers a new generation risking their lives to smuggle images out and information in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) have emerged and it's very quiet agents of social progress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Threatening Kim Jong-un's total control of what the world sees of North Korea and of what North Koreans see of the world.


AMANPOUR: That was a clip from "Frontline's" "Secret State of North Korea. And I'm joined here in the studio by the director of that documentary, James Jones.

Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So extraordinary access. How did you get that access?

JONES: So we thought -- we realized pretty early on there wasn't much point in us going on one of the official tours where you're very tightly controlled by the regime, only showing what they want you to see, kept at a very safe distance from ordinary North Koreans.

So reaching out with a Japanese journalist, Yuro Shimaru (ph), who has this incredible network of ordinary North Koreans living in towns across the country, and they film secretly using hidden cameras and then smuggle that footage out across the China border where Yuro (ph) waits for them.

So we filmed with Yuro (ph) going to collect this footage and then watched it with him.

AMANPOUR: And the incredible stuff that they smuggle in and out, they're not armed; they're not drugged. They're not even money. Some people come out obviously, but what's going in is information.

Tell us about the thumb drives, the DVDs, the CDs that are going in to show North Koreans about the world.

JONES: This is really amazing. North Korea has survived for so long because it's so isolated. It has this information barrier. But because of technology cracks are starting to appear in this barrier. And we followed people who are smuggling, as you say, thumb drives and DVDs with American movies, South Korean soap operas, you know, just pop culture.

But that has the effect of breaking the spell of the regime's propaganda, you know, opens people's eyes to the outside world.

AMANPOUR: We have a clip that we're going to play right about -- well, it's by a young girl who eventually her family brought her out. They're all now in South Korea. But they talked about the power of learning precisely what you're talking about from radio.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): I listened to the radio, the more I thought, what we've learned isn't true. I've been fooled. I didn't even want to become free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Chongyang (ph) is 22. She lives in Seoul but grew up in a remote region of North Korea.

Her father bought the family a radio, which he modified to pick up foreign stations.


AMANPOUR: What do you think -- could you tell at all -- is there any kind of figures on how many North Koreans actually do listen to foreign radio, do get sensitized like her?

JONES: If things -- I mean, speaking to people who have escaped, the defectors, which may not be a perfect representation ,but it seems like significant number, roughly a million North Koreans who listen to foreign radio, which is punishable by (INAUDIBLE) prison camp, all the rest of it.

And even more have seen foreign TV. These DVDs are the kind of must-have items, young North Koreans pass them around and they all wait for the latest episodes, which is something I just did not expect when I (INAUDIBLE).


AMANPOUR: And of course you very cleverly insert in your film the elite that most people do see when they go to Pyongyang, as you call them, tightly controlled visits, you know, the state television just propaganda.

So I was incredibly stunned when I saw this sequence that you had of this woman pushing around what was clearly a military or a police officer. Let's have a look at some of that video and we'll talk about it.

She was pushing him around, demanding that he leave her alone.

What was the story?

JONES: Well, it's amazing. I mean, women are now at the kind of forefront of private enterprise. And this woman here, I mean it's actually my favorite bit of the film. She -- this soldier comes and tells her to stop running this private bus service which is illegal.

And rather than, as you would expect, saying I'm so sorry and apologizing, she stands up to him and literally chases him off down the street, smashing the van, calling him every name under the sun, which, you know, in a brutal totalitarian dictatorship, is pretty amazing.

AMANPOUR: It is. I've been there and I have never seen anything quite like that. Again, how did you get these pictures? And what kind of a sense did you get from the North Koreans who you were all interacting with on how pervasive this kind of confrontation is?

JONES: We saw lots of little examples. This is the most dramatic. But we saw lots of examples of people standing up to authority in ways that we hadn't expected, you know, it's a long way from the media caricature of brainwashed, obedient masses, you know, bowing to the Supreme Leader.

People are thinking for themselves; people are increasingly cynical and aware of the outside world. And this private enterprise has brought about a massive change in the mindset. So I think there are some signs that there is some kind of fundamental change.

AMANPOUR: And again, obviously Dennis Rodman's visit has been very well timed, gives a lot of publicity and interest into North Korea, so it's great that your film is coming out now.

He did actually bring out some information. I mean, there is literally nothing known about Kim Jong-un.

JONES: Right. We interviewed a former CIA analyst who said that when Kim Jong-un became known, became public, all the CIA knew about him had been printed in "The New York Times" six months earlier. Information is scant. There are no good sources well placed within the regime.

So there is a school of thought, the more contact, the better. Dennis Rodman gets to know Kim Jong-un, finds out, you know, he was the one that found out he had a baby. We had no idea about that.

So there is some value to his trip.

AMANPOUR: And just last and finally, how dangerous is it for these North Koreans to be cooperating with the Japanese team, with you, with everybody, to risk their lives, really?

JONES: Absolutely. It really is a matter of life and death. And one of the reporters says in this really moving interview in the film, I know that I would be executed as a traitor if I'm caught. But I have to do this.

And I think they genuinely are motivated by the feeling that this cannot go on. They want the world to know about the brutal regime and they think that they can play some role in bringing them down.

AMANPOUR: James Jones, really an incredible documentary, thank you so much for joining me.

And this note: if you are in the United States, you can watch "Frontline's" "Secret State of North Korea" online at

Now we want to continue this discussion with Victor Cha, who also appears in the documentary. He's a former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council and a deputy negotiator for the U.S. at the six- party talks, also the author of the book, "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future."

Victor Cha, great to see you again, thank you very much for joining me from Washington, welcome.

Oh, I hope you can hear me.



AMANPOUR: OK, Victor Cha can't hear me.

You know what, we are going to come back. We're going to come back after a break and chat with you, Victor.

We're going to take a break. We're going to come back, talk to Victor Cha and also look at what's going on to try to penetrate what little is known about the Syrian regime and the rebels there.




AMANPOUR: So again, apologies for some technical problems, but we're joined now from Washington by Victor Pha -- Victor Cha, who's the former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council and he was a deputy negotiator for the U.S. at the six-party talks with North Korea.

Victor, you appear in that "Frontline" documentary. You heard my conversation with James Jones. I want to know how consequential you think are these cracks that seem to be appearing in what ordinary North Koreans are learning about the world and about their own system.

CHA: Well, Christiane, I think as you described them, they are cracks. They're just cracks right now, small ones. But like a dam, once you start getting one crack, they start to filter out and you start seeing many, many more.

The reason the regime has been able to hold on as long as it has, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and many other Communist countries is because of the iron grip they have on information. And as they enter not economic reform, but as markets are created in North Korea, it creates demand for these sorts of things, largely coming in through China, where both the elite in Pyongyang as well as people outside of Pyongyang are completely infatuated and obsessed with learning more about the outside world.

So it's a crack but it is a very significant one.

AMANPOUR: And again, one of the most dramatic little bits of undercover video was of this ordinary woman who obviously wants a little bit of private enterprise, has learned a little bit about what's going on across the border and she was willing to risk her life to push around security officials in order to run her private bus service.

This is unheard of, isn't it?

CHA: Well, I loved that. That was one of my favorite parts of the documentary, and I think what it really speaks to is the fact that these women, as the documentary showed, are -- operate in the markets, right? They're the ones that are trying to be the entrepreneurs in North Korea. And so that was a good example.

But I've also heard of many others, where these local officials come to a market and they try to shut it down and these women who are there trying to sell goods basically tell these young (INAUDIBLE), just get out of here because we're not done yet.

So it's that form of resistance, largely based in the opening of markets in North Korea that is so interesting to watch in terms of social resistance. And the irony is that those markets didn't grow out of economic reform; they grew out of the failure of the North Korean economy to provide for its people, the failure of the government ration system or public distribution system, caused these people to create markets to try to survive on their own.

AMANPOUR: And how do you analyze what looks to be Kim Jong-un's pushback? We've seen that he's had his own uncle killed; there may be dozens of people who've been killed in the hierarchy. We know that there's a huge sort of pushback on that front. And one of the experts in the documentary says, look, in any regime that's willing to kill people and masses of people to stay in power, they will stay in power.

Is that -- I mean, that's probably going to go on also for a long time.

CHA: Well, I think it will go on and we probably will see more purges and more executions. At the same time, though, this is extraordinary for North Korea. This is a country that has always said it has complaint, utter and total control and never would reveal to the public that there's some sort of internal churn.

And the fact that they released a statement in which the leader of the country executed his uncle and talked about him as conducting actions against the state shows that there is some sort of turmoil inside the country because this fellow is so young, because he took power so suddenly.

So contrary to the assessments at the end of the first year that everything's OK in North Korea, it's going to go on for another 60 years, I think the recent events show that it's not that clear that everything is OK and that he is fully in control.

AMANPOUR: All right, Victor Cha, thank you very much indeed for joining us, particularly as the U.S. continues to grapple with how to deal with this regime.

And of course no matter the regime, no matter what we know about it, more contact is always better than less. Perhaps the Hermit Kingdom may become a little more acceptable now that a new luxury ski resort is open for business.

Yes, it is for the elite. But even they have stories to tell, and perhaps they'll share some of them with the foreign tourists who are hungering for extreme and exotic resorts that North Korea hopes to attract.

Still, of course, for journalists on the hunt for the truth, Syria is as dangerous and as risky as North Korea, where at least 29 people have been killed last year and some 60 others have been abducted.

My next guest was one of those who was kidnapped, photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie was kidnapped by an armed rebel group at checkpoint in Damascus last April. For the next 81 days, he had what can only be described as an extreme experience. But we're glad he made it out to tell his story and Jonathan, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: We want to show some of your pictures, of course, which were dramatic and really interesting. I want to start with the -- one of the first ones you took while you were in Syria, just before you were kidnapped.

What -- can you describe for us a little bit the picture that you took and also how did you manage to get yourself abducted?

ALPEYRIE: Well, to start the question, this picture, this was a group of refugees from Homs who had just fled the city because the government had been launching major infantry assaults on the city to take over different areas held by the rebels. And these people had just fled with their lives and whatever they could carry into Yebrut, which is a controlled town by the rebels.

And they were just there, living in an empty school. And that's how I met them.

AMANPOUR: How did you get abducted?

What were the circumstances?

ALPEYRIE: My last 48 hours, I was planning to kind of up my game a little bit and go closer to Damascus. I was only about 50 miles, and I was getting as close to about 20. And I was abducted on my way. There was a checkpoint; they were waiting for me. It was about five men armed, wearing ski masks. And that's how it happened.

AMANPOUR: So these were the anti-Assad rebels?

ALPEYRIE: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: Who were they? You know, this is a big mystery to many people. There are very few people, some journalists, who really do have a good grip on who the rebels are, but very few. And everything seems conflated.

Tell us a bit about them and apparently you were handed around to various different groups.

ALPEYRIE: Well, it's interesting because, you're right, in the beginning we had this idea that the rebellion was uniform and moderate, Muslim group fighting, you know, to unseat Assad and his Alawite regime. Obviously with time that changed; a lot of Islamist groups started pouring in from Iraq, from Iran, from Libya, through Turkey, mostly -- and through Iraq, obviously, going through the desert north and fighting jihad against the Assad regime.

And so the -- all the different groups started spreading out like this. In my area was a different kind of -- they're ASL units --

AMANPOUR: What's that?

ALPEYRIE: -- they're basically moderates, Muslims who are freedom fighters, fighting against the government. And but they're also local people and they also kidnap for a living. And that's very common in the region.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell us a little bit how you were treated? Were there some who -- and what they told you about their aims?

ALPEYRIE: Well, there was (INAUDIBLE) about everything I would ask and they always tell me I couldn't get out because Hezbollah was around and I was surrounded, which was true, actually. But that wasn't the reason why they were holding me. Because we were being attacked heavily every day mostly shelling, helicopters, airplanes.

And the first five weeks were the most difficult. They broke my ribs. They --

AMANPOUR: How did they do that?

ALPEYRIE: They would force me to wrestle with them, to show me how tough they were. And they snapped my ribs on the right. So I couldn't breathe for a while. So (INAUDIBLE) for them it was just amusement, but you know, obviously for me, it wasn't.

But and I was handcuffed for about five weeks to a bed mostly. And the first three weeks, I was blindfolded.

AMANPOUR: And were there some who were more jihadi than others?

ALPEYRIE: Yes, I mean, you know, they had heavy beard and they were shaved on top. So that's a sign always. But I would say compared to other Iraqi extremist groups, Al Qaeda, they were not as hardcore in terms of their village's belief. Because money, at the end, was what mattered.

AMANPOUR: Money mattered?

ALPEYRIE: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: Did they think they were going to win? Do they think this was just, you know, falling into a, you know, an endless enterprise?

ALPEYRIE: It's interesting question because while I was captive, Qusayr fell and Homs also mostly fell. So there (INAUDIBLE) situation got really bad. And I went through with them on that specific thing, since we were being shelled more and more every day. So they knew that I knew that this was not good for them.

AMANPOUR: And tell me how you managed to escape.

What was the last bit of your captivity like?

And, yes, how did you escape?

ALPEYRIE: From what I can tell, it's somebody close to the regime, of Assad regime, who paid my ransom for his own benefits, mostly to get out of a blacklist written by the E.U. for high ranking officials and business people in Syria, cannot travel because of the list. So you want to get one of that. That didn't work out.

But he got me out. I was hidden in Damascus in this area for about 24 hours. Then smuggled back in a truck of a car to Lebanon. In Beirut, I escaped to the French embassy.

AMANPOUR: Let's look at the last picture you took. And just describe for me what that was.

Is the last picture there?

What was the last picture you took?

ALPEYRIE: These -- that was the day before I was captured. So that was my last day covering the more civilian side of things. And then the next day I went and took more military stuff, and I was captured the next day.

AMANPOUR: All right, Jonathan Alpeyrie, thank you very much indeed --

ALPEYRIE: Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: -- for joining me.

And despite draconian and ultimately fruitless efforts to control the story, history refuses to remain buried and forgotten.

Way up in the Italian Alps now, another plush ski resort stands on what was one of the highest and coldest battlefields of World War I.

With time and climate change, melting glacial ice mummified casualties and their artifacts, which have been preserved for almost 100 years, are slowly being revealed.

Now imagine ghostly battalions from that same great war whose voices can be heard again. Rising from the trenches, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, as we've just been discussing, getting the real story today can cost a journalist their life or their liberty. During World War I, censorship was rigid. Journalists were banned from the front lines and British soldiers were issued postcards to send home reassuring family and friends that trench warfare was more a stroll in the park than an unparalled killing field. The result was a shocking disconnect between the scarred and shell-shocked soldiers who returned home to a very British teatime with their families who, of course, had no idea of the horrors their young men had known.

Now imagine a world where the voices of the dead from that war rise from the grave and speak to us today. To mark the centennial of the war, Britain's National Archives has put more than 1.5 million pages of diaries online, the day-to-day records kept by each army unit fighting in France.

Operation War Diary is cataloging the details of daily life in the trenches. One officer writes with early and tragic optimism that the war would end quickly.

He said, "We are to assume the offensive. This is the best news we have received and everybody is pleased."

But as the war settled into a bloody stalemate dragging on year after year, the tone of those diaries changes.

"All the villages are broken -- dead horses, graves, et cetera. Nasty sights. However, one is accustomed to such sights," says another officer.

And yet despite the horrors, some humanity manage to survive, like this officer's delight even in a bar of soap.

"Searched the farmhouse and found a large washing tub. All hands on to boil water and at 10:00 pm a glorious bath."

By the end, of course, 8 million soldiers on all sides had been killed in World War I, over 1 million from the British commonwealth alone, and a staggering 22 million were injured. Thanks to Operation War Diary, this remarkable peacetime campaign, their sacrifice and their stories, live on.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.