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North Korea

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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.

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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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Last Friday Hank Green of Vlogbrothers uploaded the boldly titled 4-minute video North Korea: Explained. It was a decent introduction to the current stare-off and will hopefully encourage more people to talk seriously and without phobia or sensation about the country, but unsurprisingly Hank is very Ameri-centric in his outlook, putting too much trust into his own country’s terrifying military power.

He rightly points out that the DPRK could launch a nuclear attack against South Korea, Japan, and Guam, but “almost certainly will not.” US military occupies much of South Korea, and so against these two huge allies, DPRK does not compare. It is also true that the provocations coming from the North are nothing particularly new – as any casual observer of their state media can tell you – although it is not quite like anything we’ve seen recently, particularly with the suspension of work at the Kaesong industrial zone and encouraging ambassadors to leave for their safety. But the nuclear weapons of the US are far more the greater threat to Asia: this was neglected to mention. Between 1945 and 1992, there were 1,054 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the only country that has used nuclear weapons in warfare. Is anyone really naive enough to think that the US government is above killing foreigners?

The claim that everyone and their mums gets sent to a concentration camp is really unknowable at this point. Hank admits that we know very little about the DPRK’s political leaders and day-to-day decision-making. The same critical thinking should be applied to incarceration. When Google Maps claimed to have marked all the main prison camps, they provided no evidence but it was generally treated as factual, when it’s perfectly possible that some of them could have been farms. If we find out that North Korea has a prison population like Mississippi or Louisiana, I’d be more likely to believe the huge claims about concentration camps. But for now, there is enough confirmed tyranny for us to not rely on conjecture.

Hank rightly answers that North Korea is not communist, but for the wrong reasons. He weirdly sites the fact that they have some kind of show-elections. It would be more appropriate to consider the consistent poverty and divide in class. Inequality in the North is even worse than in the strongly capitalist South with its very limited welfare. Of course “communist state” is a stupid term: ‘socialism’ is a better word here.*

Anti-Americanism can be presented dramatically and irrationally but it is essentially a legitimate worldview. Looking past “South: Good, North: Bad” is essentially for any serious discourse. Alternative views aren’t that hard to find, and you don’t even have to look to the nutjobs at the Korean Friendship Association. Kim Young-ik, a South Korean, wrote in the Socialist Worker newspaper (UK) on the 6th a short piece titled US rhetoric and sanctions ramp up dangerous tension with North Korea. He says that “Socialists should not support such actions by North Korean rulers. But their actions and rhetoric are the result – not the cause – of tensions ramped up by the US.” He goes on to claim, like others, that the joint US-ROK military excercises are part of an attempt to extend American imperialism: “It is an open secret that these exercises simulate an invasion into North Korea.”

*Hank was just answering questions from Google’s auto-fill, one of which was: “Is North Korea communist?”

It is also worth mentioning that China, at least formally, is not North Korea’s only ally. Cuba, Russia, and Cambodia are also counted. Hank says that China is NK’s only ally.