North Korea, a country of 22 million. Up to 3 million of its’ people have starved to death in the last 10 years. More than 40% of North Korean children now suffer from chronic malnutrition. Children of the Secret State is an investigation into North Korea, considered by many as the last Stalinist dictatorship, a hidden and sealed country riddled with propaganda and saturated with hostility to democracy and the West. Joe Layburn and the Hardcash team discovered a young North Korean, known by the pseudonym Ahn Chol, who has been filming undercover so that the world can see what is going on in his native land: the country where his parents both starved to death.
His devastating footage shows some of the estimated 200,000 street children, mainly orphans, foraging for food in the mud and the gutters, ignored by the adults around them and ignored by the state which claims they are at its bosom.
The movie opens with a clip of orphan children by Ahn Chol and speaks of the humanitarian situation in the country, and then introduces Ahn Chol, who has provided the covertly filmed footage of the children. Joe Layburn, who also narrates the movie, and his camerawoman, Anna Roberts, are then introduced, on their way into Pyongyang. Posing as tourists, they are to get an official tour of the country. Joe Layburn states that Pyongyang is 'like a multi-million dollar film set' and that the atmosphere is 'eerie'. The movie shows the empty streets and unused fun fair and hotels, as well as the well cared-for 'children of the elite', whom he contrasts with footage of starving orphans filmed by Ahn Chol.
Layburn and Roberts then travel across the border to China to rendezvous with Ahn Chol and document the border and border town, using their own footage and interviews and the footage provided by Ahn Chol. Ahn Chol, who planned to meet up with the couple at the border, fails to turn up, but Layburn proceeds to interview refugees who have fled into China from North Korea. He then heads for South Korea and makes more interviews. They also interview a man who has fled a factory complex, as well as a former North Korean prison guard. These interviews cover the well-guarded Chinese-North Korean border, the starvation in North Korea, and hostels where, according to Layburn and the children interviewed, (paraphrased) 'orphan children are deliberately left to die'. He also states that the factories, and most industry, in the country have stopped running - this is later referred to by Layburn as (paraphrased) 'the crisis in the North Korean economy'. An interviewed farmer who states that most North Korean food-producing farms have been made to produce opium for the profit of party officials, and several refugees speak of inhuman treatment in North Korea's prison camps.
By the end of the movie, the fate of Ahn Chol was still undetermined, but it was later revealed that he eventually managed to escape, and that he still films in North Korea.