I’ve been on a bit of a North Korea kick, if one can call wanting to learn about a impoverished, starving nation under the heel of a totalitarian dictatorship such a thing. Having recently completed Barbara Demick’s excellent book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea I’ve since moved onto Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, making for an interesting, though not particularly uplifting, reading marathon.
Along with that I have been trying to find as much as I can watch about North Korea as well, and thus far the most interesting, especially in relation to one another, have been 2001’s Welcome to North Korea by Peter Tetteroo and Raymond Feddema and Vice’s unsurprisingly slightly irreverent, The Vice Guide to North Korea. Both are fascinating separately but also in what they reveal as being the same. In the seven years separating them little to nothing has changed except, perhaps, the erosion of North Korea’s building and, of course, its people.
Little changed is the North Korean government’s control over information leaving the country. Tetteroo and Feddema perhaps have the upper hand here, relying less on anecdotal evidence and more on their surreptitiously shot footage. Vice, on the other hand, gives a more complete idea of the showmanship here and a detailed look at the facade erected to impress the few visitors allowed inside its borders. The images of Vice’s Shane Smith, alone in a banquet hall, set for hundreds who will never arrive, each plate carefully arranged with what he describes as “fried matter”, might be laughable but watching the workers carefully put away all the uneaten food and unused tableware, to be presented to the next, state-authorized guest, renders it terrifying.
The fascination, should there be any doubts, lies firmly in the lack of information, the mystery of this place. We live in a society that is awash in information. Right now you have, at your fingertips, more of it than you will ever be able to consume. Yet this country, it’s public image so meticulously (if futilely) preened, its infrastructure so decimated that at night it is seen by satellites as a great black pit above the glowing affluence of South Korea, allows only the smallest drips and drabs to escape, and then only under duress. The reality of North Korea is one that must be stolen. It must be secreted out of the country. It must be extracted from those who have escaped its sphere of influence, and having done so have banished themselves from their homeland. I hope that, in time, this will change. In the meantime I am thankful to those brave people have allowed me this glimpse into what is effectively a nation of shadows.