North Korea: A Rare Look at the Secret Society

President Obama's visit to South Korea comes 60 years after the start of the Korean War. The fighting ended with an armistice three years later. But no peace treaty with North Korea was ever signed. The truth is, we know very little about the North. For decades, it's been the most reclusive nation on Earth.

But as CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports the door opened, ever so slightly recently, when a CBS News team was allowed in, to put some of North Korea's mysteries in focus.




For nearly 60 years communist North Korea has shut itself off from the world.

Seen from space, it's literally a black hole between the lights of China to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south.

Party Invitation

"When they decide they want western media to come in, it all happens in a matter of hours," said CBS News national correspondent Jim Axelrod.

North Korea gave a CBS News teama four-day window to attend Communist Party ceremonies in the capital Pyongyang. North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il would introduce his youngest son and heir -- Kim Jung Un -- to the world.

"On our flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, an attractive 22-year-old North Korea flight attendant asked me where I was from," CBS News cameraman Randy Schmidt said. "When I said I was an American who lived in Japan, she immediately snapped back, 'I hate America. I hate Japan."" Then, Schmidt said, "She asked me what kind of beverage I wanted to drink."

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Down the Rabbit Hole

"It almost feels like you are on the back lot of some Hollywood studio," Axelrod said. "Because you are driving by all of these stores and restaurants -- but no one is ever in them."

"I can still hear the sounds of the tapping on the ground of their boots," said CBS News Tokyo bureau chief Marsha Cooke. "They may look like Rockettes - but everybody's got guns."

Dissent is met with prison or death. North Koreas have no contact with the outside world. Their focus is president Kim Jong Il.

"Nothing compares to what happens when Kim Jung Il and Kim Jung Un walk out," Axelrod said. "This sound goes through the crowd - this sort of woo woo - and they all start lifting their hands up. And I look at their faces and they are crying. That's when you realize you're in something that is entirely and disturbingly unique."
Despite being backwards and bankrupt, North Korea has built as many as a dozen nuclear weapons - and may be making more.

Clear and Present Danger

"The real concern about North Korea's nuclear capacity is not that they are going to launch one -- but that they are going to sell one," said CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin.

According to a new U.N. report, North Korea sells $100 million worth of non-nuclear arms every year to countries with terrorist ties - like Iran and Syria. Money from the weapons sales goes into the pockets of North Korea's leadership - which is also linked to counterfeiting and money laundering.

"North Korea -- in some ways is a cancer on Asia," said CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate.

In the past, international aid in the form of food and medicine has gotten North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang has repeatedly broken its promises right after it gets what it wants.

Zarate said, "The trick for the United States and the Obama administration is how do you ensure that you aren't rewarding bad behavior?"

Tensions are highest along the 160 mile de-militarized zone. On one side are U.N. forces including 28,000 Americans. On the other side - North Korea. Hidden in those hills are 11,000 artillery pieces aimed at South Korea's capital.

"There are 22 million people in Seoul," Martin said. "100,000 American citizens -- they are all in range of North Korean artillery."

The Heir

"Right now you have a country that is sort of being run by a man who's in his 60's and suffered a stroke," Martin said. "And now it's going to be turned over to a man in his 20's about whom we know almost nothing."

Kim Jung Un will inherit a country in tatters. Starvation is chronic - killing as many as 2 million people since 1990. A third of the country's 23 million are undernourished.

"Given the succession that is unfolding before our eyes in Pyongyang," Zarate said. "I think what we're seeing are opportunities arise to not only explore diplomacy with new figures in the regime, but also to see if there are new actors with whom we could deal."

But it's a giant neighbor that could have final say.

"Chinese leader Mao Zedong once said China and North Korea were as close as lips and teeth," said CBS News Beijing correspondent Celia Hatton.

For now China supports the Kim regime's grip on power.

"First there is the threat of hundreds of thousands of starving North Korean refugees flooding in to China," Hatton said. "Second a new unified Korea would likely be a U.S. ally. And that could bring the possibility of U.S. troops coming up through South Korea into North Korea right up to the Chinese border."

Final Blessing

"Brides and grooms - fresh from their weddings - the first place they go is this monstrous statue of Kim Il Sung - the first leader and father of North Korea and they go to be blessed!" Axelrod said.

From Kim Il Sung to his grandson, the anointed heir one family has ruled one nation since its creation, more than six decades ago.
  • Katie Couric

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