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60 Minutes Archive: Coverage of North Korea

Marine veteran’s work to help North Koreans
Marine veteran explains alleged fake kidnapping plot to help North Koreans defect 26:13

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi reported on Christopher Ahn, an American citizen embroiled in an international case involving America, Spain, and North Korea. Ahn, who's part of an activist group that broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid, Spain, in 2019, says he was attempting to help North Korean embassy staff defect. North Korea says the incident was an attempted kidnapping that amounted to a "terrorist attack."

To understand the stakes of Ahn's decision — and why North Koreas may want to defect from their own homeland — we turned to some of 60 Minutes' decades-long coverage of North Korea. Reporting on the hermit kingdom is challenging; North Korea is one of the world's most isolated countries. But over the years, 60 Minutes has found a way inside. 

From images of hospitals without food or medicine to a look at the continuing military threat the country poses, here are some of the highlights of 60 Minutes' North Korea coverage. 

2003: North Korea

North Korea (2003) | 60 Minutes Archive 12:27

During his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," in reference to the country's nuclear ambitions. Later that year, during an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Bush said, "I loathe Kim Jong Il. I've got a visceral reaction to this guy because he is starving his people."

To get a sense of how dire the situation was, 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace spoke with Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a German family physician, who had recently spent a year and a half in North Korea as a member of a German group providing medical aid there. Vollertsen told Wallace he was stunned by what he saw and was able to capture on videotape.

"These are little children in [a] children's hospital, eight years old, six years old, some of them 15 years old, but looking like a 10-year-old, because they are suffering from malnutrition," Vollertsen said in the 2003 report. "But what shocked me mainly was how they are looking, how sad. There's no more emotional reaction in those eyes. They can't cry anymore. They can't laugh anymore."

Vollertsen relayed the situation in North Korea hospitals. As he was able to capture on video, some hospitals had to use empty beer bottles to hold fluid for an IV; many other hospitals had simply given up and shut down. 

"In North Korean hospitals, there is nothing," Vollertsen told 60 Minutes at the time. "There is no running water, no heating system, there is no soap. There is no medicine. That's the reality in North Korea. And nobody knows about that."

2004: Lost in Translation 

Lost in Translation (2004) | 60 Minutes Archive 12:02

Isolated from the outside world, most North Koreans know only what they are told, and in 2004, Mike Wallace reported on one form of propaganda the North Korean regime was using to indoctrinate hate toward America. 

Wallace spoke with Dutch reporter Miriam Bartelsman, who had received rare permission to visit Pyongyang to see how North Korea was using "The Diary of a Young Girl" — the chronicle of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis during World War II — to teach students to fear and hate America.

Anne Frank's plea for peace and freedom got lost in translation. The isolated country was not using her diary to teach how the young girl had suffered at the hands of Nazis. Instead, the regime used it to warn the North Korean students how they could suffer at the hands of those they called "American Nazis."

Dutch reporter Bartelsman saw — and filmed — as, time and again, a North Korean teacher instructed her students what to say and watched as the young students repeated the propaganda verbatim. When she asked a student if concentration camps, like those used in Nazi Germany, still exist, the student responded: "Yes, I think such camps still exist. As long as there are American Nazis, there will be secret places where innocent people are murdered. Places like that exist in America."

2005: 39 Years, 6 Months, 4 Days

39 Years, 6 Months, 4 Days (2005) | 60 Minutes Archive 15:26

In 2005, Scott Pelley got an unusual look at North Korea: through the eyes of an American who had lived there for four decades. 

He spoke with Charles Robert Jenkins, a former U.S. soldier who, in 1965, had deserted to North Korea while patrolling the border with South Korea. Jenkins told Pelley he betrayed his country because he had been asked to lead more aggressive patrols on the border and said he was also afraid his unit might ship out to Vietnam. Instead, he walked across the border and surrendered to a North Korean soldier. Jenkins was just 24 at the time. 

"I knew I made a mistake," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes in my life maybe, but that was the worst mistake anybody could ever make, that's for sure."

Among the hardships he endured, Jenkins' tattoo with the words "US Army" inked into his forearm was cut out of his skin with scissors — and no anesthetic. The government then arranged his marriage to a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. She was later released and returned to Japan, where Jenkins was eventually able to follow her. 

60 Minutes cameras were rolling as he reunited with another woman: his 91-year-old mother in North Carolina, whom he had not seen in almost 40 years. 

"I love you," she told him. "I didn't think you ever would get here."

2017: The North Korean threat

The North Korean threat (2017) | 60 Minutes Archive 14:27

Throughout 2017, North Korea conducted more than a dozen missile tests. In February of that year, Bill Whitaker reported on the continuing military threat dictator Kim Jong-un posed to the world with his nuclear weapons and his pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile.    

Whitaker spoke to the then-commander of the 28,000 American troops in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks, who explained how tense the situation was at the border with North Korea. 

"What it takes to go from the condition we're in at this moment to hostilities again is literally the matter of a decision on North Korea's side to say 'fire,'" Brooks said. "And on top of this we have the missile capability that's been developed, over 120 missiles fired just in the time of Kim Jong-un alone."

Whitaker also spoke to Thae Yong-ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador in London before becoming the highest-ranking North Korean to defect in decades. 

Thae told Whitaker his job in London had been to spread North Korean propaganda and report back on his colleagues. However, Thae said he had lost all faith in the regime when Kim Jong-un killed his own uncle in 2013 and executed dozens of perceived enemies, including diplomats. Thae told Whitaker he knew he could not let on that his views had changed. If he had, he said he and his family would be sent to prison camps, including his oldest son back in North Korea. 

"All North Korean diplomats are forced to leave one of their children back in Pyongyang as a hostage," Thae explained.

However, that policy unexpectedly changed. When Thae's oldest son was eventually allowed to join the family in London, they all agreed to defect.

Regarding Kim Jong-un's tests of long-range weapons, Thae told 60 Minutes the missiles were part of Kim's raging obsession with the survival of his regime.

"Kim Jong-un's capability to wreak harm, not only to America but also South Korea and the world, should not be underestimated," Thae said.

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