The Friday Afternoon Movie: North Korean Labor Camps

Switched to a YouTube playlist because the VICE video would auto-play. You can see the full-length version at the link at the end of the article.

Perhaps not the best thing for the week of Christmas, but history cares not about holidays. Last Saturday, as I’m sure you all know, Kim Jong Il, the iron handed dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, died from an apparent heart attack at the age of 69. The past week has seen a continuous outpouring of grief (some real, some staged) from within the Hermit Kingdom, while the rest of the world seems to look on with trepidation, waiting to see what his heir apparent, Kim Jung-un, will do.

Less than a week before Jong Il’s death, VICE News ran another of their fascinating looks into North Korea. Shane Smith, accompanied by freelance journalist Simon Ostrovosky, traveled to Siberia to investigate North Korean logging camps located deep in the forests. Here, North Korean citizens are contracted as laborers for up to 10 years, during which time they are housed, fed, and paid a pittance for their work. The North Korean government, meanwhile, was paid handsomely for what basically amounts to slave labor.

Smith’s interest seems to be twofold: to expose these camps, and to try to talk to North Korean citizens, a feat nearly impossible in his visits to the country itself. If you’ve seen Smith’s past work, then you’ll know what you’re in for. The reporting is solid, but there is a Gonzo aspect to it as well. A decent chunk of the forty minute documentary is spent on a crowded, sweltering train where the only thing to do to numb the boredom is drink. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be rather difficult to get near these camps, but he and his crew manage to at least talk for a bit with some of the laborers.

Regardless of your feelings on the style, VICE has done a stupendous job exposing yet another facet of the horror that was Kim Jong Il’s regime. In the closing minutes of the piece Shane reveals that much of the scrutiny they found themselves under was no doubt due to the fact that the Dear Leader was visiting the same area of Russia at the time to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and broker another labor deal, to sell more of his people. If that isn’t evil, I’m not sure what is.


North Korean Film School

Al Jazeera English has proven to be, perhaps, the best news organization going at the moment with their top-notch coverage of the events transpiring in the Middle East. In this particular segment of their program 101 East, they turn their eye to another oppressed nation: North Korea, specifically the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. Here, as everywhere else, the curriculum is focused on the teachings of the state, specifically Kim Jong Il, heralded in his country as a cinematic genius. The university, then, is a training ground for the actors and directors who will make up the North Korean government’s propaganda machine.

To their credit, reporters Lynn Lee and James Leong have few illusions as to what their report is about. While they do manage to get inside the school, much of their footage is confiscated due to the draconian rules for filming within the university (only uncropped, stationary shots of images of the Dear Leader and his words). It is, however, an interesting look at how the elite live in the nation’s capital city. The country is once again experiencing food shortages, but while most of the country starves, its embassies instructed to beg for food, high ranking members of the North Korean government live in relative luxury. Of course, as we have seen before, not everything is quite as it seems in the DPRK.

The DPRK Wishes You A Happy Holiday

It would be remiss of us here at Coilhouse to not pass on this, admittedly belated, seasonal offering from the great nation of North Korea. By way of a gift, we see the land that Kim Il-sung built in all its wintery glory, as we are presented with some beautiful footage of a cozy cabin nestled in a snow covered forest. It’s like a Thomas Kinkaid painting as painted by a committee.

Also, lest we forget, the Leadership would like to gently remind us that, yes, they will absolutely destroy us. Happy Holidays!

North Korea’s Hell March

Mmm. Military upskirt.

Earlier this year, North Korea let a bunch of international journalists in to document evidence of the country’s enormous, throbbing doom cock. Apparently the military parade was part of a campaign to establish Kim Jong-il’s youngest son as ruler-in-waiting.  This stunning slow-motion footage (shot on high end Canon60D and 1DmkIV camera with a smooth-tracking pocket dolly) was captured by UK Guardian reporters. Shortly thereafter, Galaxygamma came up with the completely unsettling idea of juxtaposing the “Hell March” theme from Command & Conquer: Red Alert with the Guardian’s footage.

Happy Black Friday, y’all! Wooo!

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.