John Sweeney’s “North Korea Undercover”

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If you think that almost everyone in North Korea is a brainwashed idiot and a threat to the rest of the world, you might just be believing uncritically whatever the pro-capitalist media tells you about other countries. This BBC Panorama documentary spends most of its time reenforcing the same old horror story about the DPRK, unveiling no new secrets and considering no original perspectives. It wasn’t what I expected from an “undercover” documentary, but it was what I expected from the BBC. The reporter is the familiar John Sweeney, who seems to have done a little bit of reading about the country on the flight over, but he probably nodded off at some point. His constantly descending mumble makes him sound utterly bored of being in North Korea.


Even if it was called “An introduction to North Korea” instead of Undercover, it would be a pointless programme. The same old images of tanks and salutes are shown in the documentary’s introduction, when Sweeney’s voiceover tells us “We’re flying into the strangest nation on Earth.” He commits the same crime as the Vice Travel Guide, of totally dehumanising North Koreans and standing around pointing out how crazy everything is. From the view of the documentarians’ hotel, we see a group of construction workers apparently building a new bank. Footage is shown of the work in the afternoon and at 4 in the morning. “They’re building a bank, night and day, day and night… They never stop.” Maybe they’re not forced to work endlessly without any sleep. It’s conceivable that at some point, different builders took over. Maybe. Possibly.

The only truly interesting footage – even though it was nothing new – was the images of people living in poverty while the tour guides shout “No photos! No photos!” More time probably should have been given to the defectors and experts. On calling into question the officially communist ideology, Professor B.R. Myers, an American analyst living in Seoul, says, “I think it’s far more accurate to look at North Korea as a far-right… ultranationalist state.” Many other Pyongyang-watchers will disagree, but it is the kind of fresh look at the country that such a documentary needs more of. The increase of mobile phones was also an issue well worth addressing.

At the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), John Sweeney takes a moment to trivialise the US’s military power by mocking the North’s “current paranoia” about America. This is not paranoia, but a very justified and rational fear. The circumstances and provocations at the start of the Korean War are presented in a one-sided way. It would have been a good use of 60 seconds to instead ask an expert to speak more complexly about the US and South Korea’s role.

The most bizarre part comes at the visit to one of the DPRK’s biggest hospitals. Sweeney notices that there are no patients in any of the rooms he has been show. Ignoring how unusual it is that a tourist has been invited to a hospital, he becomes suspicious, he then asks if he can see some of the patients. This is perverse! Korean tourists would not go for a look around a hospital in the UK and say, “Wahey! Let’s see some sick people!” Not booting John Sweeney out of the hospital showed incredible politeness from the Korean doctors. He even comes close to being enthusiastic outside of the building, asking another doctor, “Why aren’t we allowed to see them?” It is totally reasonable to not be allowed to see patients. This is a matter of elementary privacy, treated with all the sensitivity of a tabloid journalist.

We end the documentary with some more fear-mongering, over the top of the images that everyone has already seen. The closing statement is something that could have been written by the same people that did Red Daw: “For the moment, Kim the third remains armed with nuclear power, the most dangerous man on the planet.” This is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said. If you want to describe the human rights abuses of the North Korean government and how much of a threat they are to their own people, well, that documentary could last for days. But their rule does not extend to any other countries and they only have a feeble amount of military power that would not stand up to US-occupied South Korea even if they did make some kind of attack. There is a chance of course, that if John Sweeney was capable of putting expression into his voice, it would have sounded like a question rather than a statement.


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