I have just finished watching BBC Panorama’s “Undercover in North Korea”, perhaps the best example of what documentaries on North Korea should not be like. Let me be perfectly clear: these are thirty minutes of biased, factually incorrect, snobbish, uninformative, stereotypical, absolutely useless footage.
I will later explain why it is so, but first we ought to underscore that in order to produce such a masterpiece, John Sweeney and his crew (plus his wife, who organized the trip) had to put at serious risk a group of students from the London School of Economics (LSE). Even though the visit was not intended as track-II diplomacy, this step may prove detrimental to years of work in engagement for a constructive dialogue with North Korea (and before we proceed: ‘constructive’ means ‘positive’: an attempt of understanding, not an apology for the North Korean leadership’s undeniable wrongdoings). Obtaining authorizations for academic visits, research work or exchanges with North Korea has always proven difficult, and programs like this do not help at all.
This trip, in fact, was organized so that the reporters could join a group of LSE students prior to their departure to Pyongyang, pretending to be either professors or PhD students of the prestigious institution. This would allow them to poke around, take pictures, film here and there; all things supposedly forbidden for journalists, who Sweeney says are not even permitted to enter the country – the first in a long series of absurdities made in the documentary.
Journalists can in fact enter North Korea and sometimes, perhaps because they don’t have to play hide and seek but rather behave like professionals, they even manage to post fairly decent reports. Are things in North Korea staged when foreigners visit? Yes, to a degree. But not always and not so that someone who wants to read behind the façade could not find glimpses of truth.
As Sweeney experienced during his visit, tourists are not free to roam around in North Korea. That is why his film was not much different to what thousands of self-made reporters have uploaded on social media about the DPRK. The point is, with proper arrangements, patience and some background studies on the country, some journalists do manage to inform the average citizen without having to sneak in from the back door. I would suggest Mr. Sweeney to have a look on YouTube, where the work of European, Asian and even U.S. reporters illustrates this point well.
Back on the LSE issue, as the debate has continued the focus has now turned to whether Sweeney and his crew really ever did get crystal-clear informed consent from each student on his trip. The BBC claims they did, but some at LSE, particularly Deputy Director Professor George Gaskell beg to differ:
At the LSE we support investigative journalism, no question about that, but when investigative journalism involves deception, and puts our students at considerable risk, and puts the integrity and independence of my colleagues doing research in sensitive areas at risk, then we have to say that in this particular case, investigative journalism is not something we support.
I personally couldn’t agree more, and yet, was this investigative journalism on North Korea at all? Was this something, at least in theory, worth the risk? BBC News head of programs Ceri Thomas apparently thinks so, even though he had not seen the program yet when he tried to answer pressing questions in this interview:
BBC Interviewer: “So, you have used the students?”
Thomas: “We didn’t use the students, we went ‘alongside’ with them, they would have gone anyway.”
BBC Interviewer: “But you could never get in on your own, so you went with them, so you used them?”
Thomas: “We didn’t use the students, we went ‘alongside’ with them…it was vital for us to get in.”
Thomas stated that it was “vital” that the BBC got into North Korea, because
…at any time, but particularly at this time, the public has an interest in seeing what’s going on inside North Korea and be able to get an idea of the atmosphere and understand what the mood of the country is.
At this point the BBC journalist asked, “Does this program show anything other than what a tourist going in the country with a camera would see?” – an excellent question.
But as mentioned, Thomas admitted he had not seen the footage, so I’ll take the liberty to answer for him with a resolute “no”.
The program shows nothing beyond what an ordinary tourist can see, film and write about. But beyond that, it also manages to misinform and irritate at the same time, as only a handful of other videos made by improvised reporters have managed to do. Compared to Sweeny’s effort, the Vice Guide to North Korea is in fact a pearl of investigative work, complete with a robust academic background and a solid understanding of the history of North East Asia.
Listing all the mistakes and incorrect information here would be daunting for the reader, so we’ll limit ourselves to just a few examples.
The video starts with the usual hyperbole about going to the “most rigidly controlled nation on earth”, with a promise so show viewers the “real North Korea”. Of course, the “real” country being the one that Sweeney understands and knows so well, the one he is so capable of offering us, even for a limited time.
Sweeney’s North Korea is a country “bleak beyond words”, where the regime “marches towards Armageddon”. What surprises me here is that the program managed to host, albeit in very limited form, opinion from very knowledgeable experts like Professor B.R. Myers and former British Ambassador to North Korea John Everard, alongside more security-oriented experts such as Mark Fitzpatrick and a few defectors. I am curious as to whether they have watched the final montage.
The main problem with this program is that Sweeney, like other ‘investigative journalists’ goes in to North Korea with a terrible attitude. The video is full of complaints: “the toilets smells badly”, ‘”the electricity goes on and off again”, “the guides/minders lie to us and treat us like children”, “everything I see looks unreal”, and so on, ad nauseam. Never an informed question, never so much as an inkling towards meaningful interaction with his guides (who can, in some cases, be a surprising source of information). In fact, the whole film is aimed at depicting the usual, trite cliché of: North Korea = nuclear madness, starving children, labor camps and nothing else. Not to deny the existence of such monumental problems, but with all the resources that the BBC could pull, with all the valid scholarship existing, with all the informed reports, media products, and a number of reliable statistics about North Korea, was this all we needed to see?
If Sweeney was looking for a scoop, he could have spoken to some of the brave people who work with North Korea on a regular basis, those who are trying to help, or those trying to build connections or present a different perspective on the country. The NGOs, the academic institutions, maybe even the British Embassy in Pyongyang (opened in 2001, one of the first from Europe); all these could have helped add diversity and texture to an otherwise very blinkered presentation of the country.
He could have done so. Instead, he chose to tell us that Panorama has “tracked down a defector brave enough to go on camera to tell the story”. 워메! (wow!), my Korean friends would say. Who is this never-before-seen-on-TV defector? Jung Kwang-il, who has frequently spoken on the issue of human rights violations in North Korea at the Geneva Summit and on other occasions, just as many other defectors did.
That Sweeney and his crew know next to nothing about North Korea could still be acceptable; after all many other reporters and self-proclaimed experts do not know much either, nor do they speak Korean. But the question here is: did Sweeney and BBC Panorama need to sneak in through an LSE tour to “track down” Jung Kwang-il, whose stories and memories I certainly do not doubt, but that can be heard and seen anytime by anyone, on Youtube? Was this the “vital” reason cited by Mr. Thomas to go undercover into North Korea?
I am just surprised that such a program was not only produced, but allowed to air. I believe anyone with even a minimal knowledge of North Korea and Korean affairs in general would agree that it was simply childish. To be sure, when tourists visit, they are asked to bow in front of Kim Il Sung’s statues, and they do hear the same stories about the U.S. starting the war over and over, but isn’t this something we all knew already? Couldn’t we move on, look at the future of 24 million North Koreans and start asking different questions about the DPRK? A program like this makes life much harder for the organizations and institutions who are trying to approach North Korea from a different angle. Unlike this film, this is an effort that requires enormous patience, time and resources (read the excellent reports by Stanford University on ten years of educational exchanges with the DPRK here, to have an idea of how difficult it is to get North Korea to trust foreign actors, until the odd ‘investigative journalism’ program comes along, of course).
North Korea has been making headlines for nearly twenty years now. Journalists and tourists go in and out, so do North Koreans, Chinese and South Korean businessmen, members of international NGOs and researchers. Or better yet they did, until Sweeney decided it wasn’t enough and we needed his contribution, strictly undercover, of course. And what has he told us? He doesn’t like the ubiquitous presence of Kim Il Sung – fair enough, I guess. North Koreans are brainwashed, robotic beings who live in a country with cold hospitals and a bleak landscape. Maybe, but this would be all the more reason for them to have more interaction with normal western people like the average LSE students and many others who would like to visit the place, keeping an open mind. Too bad that’s probably not going to happen again anytime soon, thanks to this “vital” piece of reporting.
Below are some links to (better) examples of video reporting on North Korea. I personally consider a video informative when there is at least a motivation to listen, on the side of the journalist, and a necessary background check. Videos that provide access to North Korean homes, or schools are particularly useful. The interaction with foreigners is not always as staged, and even when it is, it is important to remember that North Koreans are not blind, nor dumb: they know they are in dire straits (believing you live in paradise when your friends or relatives starve to death is impossible) and they probably feel ashamed of their material poverty. However, they seem to be proud people, and they have some historical reasons to perceive some countries (U.S. or Japan, for instance) as a threat. With this in mind, one can watch the below footage and draw his/her own conclusions.
This is a good starting list, and here are a few specific suggestions:
North Korea, a day in the life
This one is quite famous among North Korea watchers. It can be useful to anyone who wants to see what a day in Pyongyang looks like for a semi-privileged family. It is shot completely in the capital, and has only Korean audio (this version comes with English subtitles).
The Game of their Lives: (in Korean and English) This is a documentary about the DPRK soccer team that scored a good placement at the 1964 Olympics and the 1966 World Cup. It’s not strictly for football fans: it shows how the members of the team have now aged in North Korea, and what their daily life is. Very interesting footage related to daily life in Korea.
North Korea: Desperate or Deceptive (mainly in English with some Korean parts) – a bit politicized perhaps, but especially interesting in the parts where they interview North Korean students.
Sweden’s sticky relations with North Korea: a Swedish journalist investigates the relationship between Stockholm and Pyongyang. Some of the topics mentioned here also appeared in the book ‘North Korea under Communism’, by Eric Cornell, who opened the first western embassy (Sweden) in Pyongyang in the 1970s. The author has also published a book (in Swedish) on the issue.
Dear Pyongyang (안녕 평양 or 디어 평양, in its Korean version; ディア・ピョンヤン in Japanese) about one of the families sent back from Japan to North Korea during the 1960s. Very unique footage, almost completely shot inside Pyongyang apartments and on the streets of the city, without any minders or guides (the family itself made the movie, and being resident in North Korea they were free to film almost anything). Audio in Japanese only.
Picture Credit: Youtube trailer of “Undercover in North Korea”