With shaking hands, the North Korean climbed onto the shoulders of a buddy to reach the underside of the bridge. As another accomplice stood guard, he hung up a banner denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in bright red paint.
Then he took out a video camera, disguised to look like a carton of cigarettes, and filmed his handiwork for posterity.
Today, the North Korean who says he shot the video on behalf of a group called the Freedom Youth League lives in hiding in Thailand under an assumed name. A small, wiry man in his 30s, he smoked L&M; cigarettes nervously as he recalled his daring feat against the totalitarian government.
Everything had to be done with the utmost secrecy, he said, to the point that he and his associates communicated by means of notes passed in sacks of potatoes. He didn’t dare tell even his wife.
“If we were caught, everybody would be dead,” said the man, who goes by the name Park Dae Heung.
The 33-minute tape has created a sensation in Japan and South Korea, where it has aired repeatedly. South Korean human rights advocates say it is the first evidence of a nascent dissident movement inside North Korea.
Besides the banner hung on the bridge, the video shows an anti-government banner in a factory restroom and has one particularly eye-catching scene in which the camera pans over an official photograph of Kim Jong Il defaced with graffiti as a man denounces him off-camera.
The video is one of a series of samizdat videos that provide a rare glimpse of life in what may be the most secretive country in the world. Since the beginning of this year, videos have emerged from inside North Korea of a public execution, children begging at a train station and humanitarian aid from the United Nations being sold at a market.
Among North Korea watchers, there is some debate about whether the filmmakers were motivated mainly by their opposition to the government or by greed. Many of the videos have been sold to Japanese television stations, which have paid as much as $200,000 for choice footage, according to some accounts.
That people are able to make such videos challenges many of the assumptions about Kim’s grip on power. The videos do not necessarily mean the government is on the verge of collapse -- the majority opinion among analysts is that it is not -- but their existence shows that social control is fraying at the edges.
“Nobody would have dared to do such a thing three or four years ago,” said Hitoshi Takase, president of Japan Independent News Net, a Tokyo-based company that distributed footage in March of an apparent public execution in North Korea.
The footage of the anti-government banners was smuggled out of North Korea across the Chinese border by activists working with the Seoul-based Citizens Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees. It has been widely shown on television and Internet sites, including www.dailynk.com/file/2005/01/19/DNKR00001267.wmv.
Do Hee Yun, secretary-general of the group, says it is the first solid evidence of nascent dissident activity within North Korea.
“Of course, the filmmakers have made some money with these videos, but I don’t think that is their primary motivation,” said Do, who introduced a Los Angeles Times reporter to Park, the defector, for his first interview with the Western press. “They believe their society should change, and they want to bring the world’s attention to the human rights situation.”
Do said Japanese television paid his organization $15,000 for the video and that it tried to pass on all of the money to Park’s group, but that after money brokers took their cut, only $3,000 made it into North Korea.
Park, who fled North Korea early this year, said he worked as a driver for a state-owned company in Hoeryong, a city near the Chinese border. About five years ago, he was approached by a well-connected trader from the capital, Pyongyang, with a business proposition. The trader asked him to use his car to distribute pirated DVDs and videos that were being smuggled in from China. Foreign films are banned by the government, which considers them cultural imperialism.
But then his Pyongyang contact asked Park to start shooting videos to send abroad.
Park said he was eager to oblige. Even though he was a member of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, and relatively privileged, he said he was disenchanted. “I saw that everybody was starving, and the state wasn’t doing anything but building mausoleums to Kim Il Sung” -- the late founder of North Korea and father of Kim Jong Il -- “and villas for Kim Jong Il.”
Moreover, Park had watched many of the DVDs he was distributing, and from his glimpses of life abroad, at least as depicted by Hollywood, he knew that North Korea badly lagged.
Park started filming in 2003 with a small camera that was smuggled across the Chinese border. He concealed it in a shoulder bag or an empty cigarette carton, pointing the lens through a small hole. He recruited several other people he knew in Hoeryong to help.
With his hidden camera, he shot footage of wanted posters, of women crouching in the dirt at a dismal black market and of people waiting to hitch rides. Last fall, he painted three anti-government banners in his apartment and with two other people put them up. The posters were only up for a few hours. But the filmmakers wanted the footage to serve as a gesture of their resistance to the government because it is impossible to hold a demonstration or speak out openly.
“The camera is our weapon,” Park said. “We wanted to break the myth that North Korea is an impenetrable fortress.... Our goal is to bring down the regime by spreading knowledge to the outside world.”
Their posters were all signed in the name of the Freedom Youth League, an appellation chosen to embody hopes for the next generation, and detailed their accusations against Kim Jong Il. They blamed him for the country’s poverty and for stifling reforms. They accused him of arresting reformers and causing the death of his father, who they claimed died of grief because of the country’s deterioration.
Park said his Pyongyang boss told him that the Freedom Youth League had cells in other cities -- Pyongyang, Chongjin, Kaesong, Musan and Nampo -- but that for security reasons he never met anyone other than the few he was working with in Hoeryong.
Much of Park’s account can be confirmed. A Japanese broadcaster, Asahi Television, which also interviewed Park, did a sound analysis and concluded that he was the man whose voice is heard in the footage, program director Hiromichi Shizume said.
Numerous defectors who have seen the footage say that several scenes, particularly the one at the bridge, were clearly shot in Hoeryong. But they, along with North Korea analysts, expressed doubts about whether the Freedom Youth League was a genuine dissident movement or just a few guys trying to make a quick buck.
“I don’t believe there are conditions in North Korea for any kind of real opposition movement. These people are out for money,” said journalist Chu Sung Ha, a defector in Seoul who covers North Korea.
North Korea permits only state-owned publications or broadcasting; even the slightest criticism of Kim Jong Il can result in execution or deportation to a prison camp. Under its law, three generations of a family can be punished for the crimes of one member.
Regardless of the motives, there is little doubt that a growing number of North Koreans have found new purpose as amateur filmmakers trying to document their country for foreign TV. In many cases, the video cameras have been supplied by activists and defectors living in South Korea.
In March, Japan’s NTV aired the most dramatic footage, purportedly of a firing squad executing three men in Hoeryong for helping North Koreans escape across the river to China. It was apparently filmed by a North Korean who was among the hundreds of spectators.
The first underground footage from North Korea appeared in 1998, when the Japan-based Rescue the North Koreans group gave a camera to a North Korean refugee in China and sent him back across the border. He captured harrowing images of people lying near death in the streets and begging children that helped to convince the world that refugee accounts of a famine ravaging the country were true.
“It was almost impossible to film inside North Korea then, because nobody owned a camera,” said Lee Young Hwa, the founder of the Rescue organization. “Now, it has gotten much easier and you’re seeing many videos. There are some rich people in North Korea who own video cameras. You don’t immediately fall under suspicion just because you have a camera.”
The videos are stored on slim memory cards that are easy to smuggle into China. From there, they usually end up in Japan.
“All the videos have been shot with the cooperation of South Koreans, but they go to Japan. The reason is that the South Korean government is reluctant to criticize North Korea,” Takase, the TV executive, said. “In Japan, the demand for North Korean videos is very high, as are the prices.”
The most coveted footage is that from inside the political prison camps, but nobody has succeeded in penetrating what is widely considered a gulag holding up to 200,000 people. There have, however, been shots of ordinary prisoners.
When Park Dae Heung was told that the video of the posters had been aired in Japan and South Korea, his career as an underground filmmaker came to an end. Fearful that his voice could be identified reading out the denunciation of Kim Jong Il, Park fled across the Tumen River into China. He has been in hiding ever since and is seeking political asylum in the U.S. or South Korea.