Just about anyone not holding a select diplomatic or South Korean passport can travel to North Korea. All it takes is money, which you give to a tour agency. They’ll even take you to the countryside if that’s what you’re after.
It’s only the hucksters who try to dress up their North Korean trip as an accomplishment, pretending it involved wile or subterfuge, not to mention danger. When a reporter does it — “undercover,” they all say (swapping a button-up and blazer for a hoodie?) — you can call him a fabulist, a penny-a-liner, one who dreams of the glory of war reporting yet would never leave the Green Zone poolside. Truly the bravest undertake such missions, brave as in unflinchingly shameless, and the latest courageous soul to do so is John Sweeney, who somehow convinced BBC Panorama to put him on a plane to Pyongyang.
Before we discuss the video itself, which aired on April 15 and can be viewed here, please allow me to offer this pro tip to news editors out there: if you need b-roll for your “real” North Korea story, just link to this. That’s the Vice Guide to North Korea, which remains one of the most popular films on the DPRK despite — or because of, probably — being unapologetically prejudiced and slanted. It already reinforces every perception and stereotype we harbor, so you don’t have to. To Vice’s credit, however, it was at least among the first to master this art of deceptive reportage. What does that make Sweeney, then? A shoddy copycat, a witless parrot.
Atop what appears to be the Juche Tower, wearing his best grave face, that magisterially solemn thumb-up-the-ass look which Brits have so mastered, Sweeney pronounces, “Something’s going on.” The clouds are moving. Way over yonder, a barge. A rig. A man breathes his last wheezing breath. A baby cries, and his mother, only a smile. Oh wait, that’s a bird. “We’ve seen loads more soldiers in town today” – compared to what, when you were here the day before? – “…you can feel the tension rising.” I see earthquakes and lightnin’. I see bad times today. Don’t go around tonight, well it’s bound to take your life, there’s a TENSION on the rise!
And then there are the lonely country roads, the squatting Korean, the sound of an off-camera voice exorting “no photos, no photos!” — one imagines this Panorama team had a wonderful time, over pub pints and hushed tones, planning these shots. Of course there’s barbed wire, which Sweeney sidles up to after “slipping out of his hotel” one morning (ahem, waking up before everyone else). It’s all too silly, or as one commentator described it on NK News: “It was revealed to be a pitiful, underwhelming collection of ridiculous clichés about the North, decontextualised, paranoid and strangely edited into something akin to a Stalinist horror movie.”
The worst part about this whole thing, the absolute worst, is that the overwhelming majority of the story was geared toward making one point: North Koreans are poor. The country features “landscrape bleak beyond words.” Its plants are quiet: “On the production line, no production that day.” Its farms, barren: “no animals.” Its factories, ironic: “Factory making electricty generators; no electricity.” The people, cripples, emaciated waifs, deformed beasts: “Our tour guides were anxious for us not to capture the poverty.” And yet, if one were actually looking — with eyes, as opposed to BBC camera lenses in which images run through the filter of Western narratives and bias — here’s what we’d see: people pushing bikes, digging next to roads, washing clothes, going about their daily lives. They are unquestionably poor, and have unquesionably been dealt a lousy hand, but they carry on as gracefully and humanly as they can, as humans are wont to do.
“So. Welcome to the real North Korea,” Sweeney says, wearing a sad face. The North Korea that you already knew: the poor one, the weird one, the one under the control of a barbaric, dynastic, totalitarian government, the one whose farms are yellow, and is cold during the early spring.
Actually, wait a sec. That’s not the worst part. There was also this:
As tensions escalated between North Korea and the world late last month, a small group of students from the prestigious London School of Economics crossed the border into the reclusive country for what was described by organizers as a government-sanctioned “week of sight seeing, meeting with ministers, government officials” and academics.
But among the students, the university announced in an outraged statement over the weekend, were three BBC journalists filming an undercover documentary. The BBC, the university said, “deliberately misled” the group to underplay the scope of the reporting, placed the students in danger and jeopardized its work in politically fraught nations.
The BBC has defended its actions, citing “overwhelming public interest” (have they thought about recommending Bradley K. Martin, Barbara Demick, Andrei Lankov, or any of the documentaries by VeryMuchSo Production and Koryo Tours?). Sweeney has doubled down on the piece as well, despite admitting, “I told a lie: I said that I was an LSE PhD.” Add that to the lesser journalistic sin of being a hack. Welcome to the real John Sweeney.