Friday Afternoon Movie: North Korean Double Feature

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.

12 Responses to “Friday Afternoon Movie: North Korean Double Feature”

  1. Chet Zar Says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s absolutely fascinating and terrifying.

  2. Mer Says:

    Chilling stuff, Ross. The people who traveled in, or escaped out of NK to bring us these images and stories are brave indeed, and have my deep gratitude and respect.

  3. Celine Says:

    North Korea terrifies me. the average person inside NK believes that Pyongyang is paradise, and that they are at the height of modernity. Can you imagine taking a northerner to Paris, New York, Milan, Tokyo, etc? North Korea is the dark mirror reflection of Pleasantville. When the average person is brought up on such propaganda every hour of their lives, how can they fully comprehend a global society? They are not even allowed to visit the next town over, much less South Korea.

    It is like believing in Santa Claus for your entire life.

    I wish there was more of a grassroots community dedicated to helping refugees from North Korea. Sadly, LiNK is underfunded and can only concentrate on one thing at a time. If only there was a Craft Hope for North Korea; as an artist I would be happy to raise money through my sales for this effort.

  4. Nadya Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Ross. All the scenes of spectacle reminded me of when I felt when I saw China’s opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympics, except that NK is so much more poor. So much skill involved, yet it made me feel so sad, especially the children’s recital. But for whatever reason, the top scene that broke my heart out of everything in these clips was the first karaoke scene. There were so many little sad/funny moments, like their pride over the type of reading desk you can pick up at a yard sale for $11.

    I have to say, I felt that Shane could’ve conducted himself more professionally while they were filming. I know, “it’s Vice,” but I think they could’ve produced a better documentary and gotten to see more if he wasn’t such an ass.

    A lot of Shane’s observations about North Korea reminded me of growing up in the USSR. The Moscow Metro, of course. The other thing that reminded me of Moscow was when they talk about removing the elderly and the handicapped off the streets of Pyongyang because they “don’t fit into the desired picture.” That actually reminds me of a family story. OK, so my grandpa lost his leg in WWII; he was a doctor on the front lines, and kept helping patients after he got shot in the leg, until he passed out. He probably would’ve kept his leg if he’d gotten help immediately when he was wounded, but he didn’t. Anyway, he came home a war hero. But years later, they decided to do a similar thing in Moscow as in Pyongyang; relocate all the disabled, deformed, etc. So even though he was a decorated veteran, many years later they tried to get him to relocate out of Moscow because he was an “invalid”. But he was a respected geneticist, and the entire scientific community was in an uproar over it. People threatened to resign. It was a big deal – and he got to stay.

  5. Ben Morris Says:

    I very much recommend Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. It is about his experiences during the two months he lived in North Korea while working for an animation company.

  6. Vivacious G Says:

    I was also fascinated and perplexed by these videos and agree with Nadya regarding the guide’s behavior.

    Sorta kinda off topic – it disgusts me the way elderlies are sometimes treated by others – who seem disillusioned about the fact that their time is fast on its way as well. Is this how they want to be treated when it is their turn? In my mother’s homeland, they are quite revered. Rant over.

  7. Lauren Says:

    You should check out “Vitejte v KLDR” ( – it’s a Czech documentary about a group of tourists who visit N. Korea. Really fascinating stuff.

  8. Tequila Says:

    I’m no great fan of Vice but I gotta admit I enjoyed their documentary. Shane comes off to me anyhow as completely overwhelmed by the absurdity of the country.

    No doubt it’s a byproduct of being less a tourist and more like being guided through a persons private home. You can’t really experience the place honestly or on your own terms. As a result the doc ends feeling like North Korea as a weird theme park.

    Regardless of what one knows going in the close watch kept on visitors must mess with ones head & behavior. I can see a majority of people acting as Shane did through the experience. Especially if they are not journalists. His experience reminds me quite a bit of one I heard on Off The Wall years ago.

    The most hilarious part was Shane waving to the people on the escalator. It seemed like the only honest moment he was allowed with the NK people. It’s all ultimately sad of course but from this perspective you feel the madness of it all lost in the more BBC styled docs I’ve seen.

    It’s frightening to think what will happen when it all crashes down…

  9. DerelictHat Says:

    One day the game is going to be up, and I’m pretty 50/50 on if there will be an open revolt in North Korea, or if the majority of the people will simply stand around, waiting for the next person to tell them what to do. Of course, watching this also makes me speculate on where other nations in the world are going. Truly creepy stuff.

  10. Heresiarch Says:

    The last couple of years my morning read’s included the DPRK’s English news service:

    The urge to start writing technical documentation in that style has been overwhelming sometimes. Compared to modern Western media, in particular commercial advertisements, it’s just so heavy handed and unsubtle as to almost be a parody.

    With the gap that’s opened up between the South and the North Korea over the last couple of decades economy wise I can only imagine what re-integration between the two would do to each other based off Germany’s experience in the 1990s.

    A rural agrarian society needing what would effectively be a massive dose of cult deprogramming meeting one of the world’s largest modern economies is not going to be pretty to behold never mind what it would take to get to the stage where it’s needed which no doubt wouldn’t be pretty either.

  11. bjacques Says:

    Kim Jong-Il appears to be wasting away, and his favorite son and designated successor won’t have as much time to learn the ropes and acquire protectors as his pop did. My money’s on Kim Jong-Il dying quietly in the next couple of years, his son dying mysteriously shortly afterward or emerging as a puppet of the generals, who will cobble together a strategy to keep the show running while making overtures to grope back towards civilization after 100 years of foreign occupation and dictatorship.

    The people are too malnourished to revolt, so it’s a palace revolt or nothing, I’m thinking.

  12. entropy Says:

    I wanted to echo the above recommendation of Guy Delisle’s graphic novel: Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea. I read it a couple months ago and it blew me away. I gave it to my brother as an Xmas gift. It is difficult to fathom something as Orwellian existing someplace somewhere on planet earth as I type this.