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Recent Video of North Korea
July 7, 2012 12:21 AM   Subscribe

A few American students visited North Korea last month (SLYT) and took some amazing footage. While mostly within the confines of the official guided tour it still offers a fascinating glimpse of life in North Korea under Kim Jong Un. A "relentless stream of hyper-positive propaganda."
posted by gallois (74 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating, but could do without that prejudicial commentary. Western preconceptions about DPRK tend to colour every single thing that happens in that country. Every flag waved is sign of an enslaved mind; every garish pageant is a sign of their cultural backwardness. Our Fourth-of-July-themed kiddie pageant is just good old-fashioned patriotism; they do it and it's a grotesque display of hyper-positive propaganda.

From the uploader's commentary:

People all over Pyongyang walk with purpose, but you can never figure out where they're going.


Maybe that's because you're on a bus, and they don't speak English.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:57 AM on July 7, 2012 [55 favorites]


while I agree that we can't know what is really going on from this very interesting clip, one thing seems pretty constant. The role of women makes my bits tingle and not in a good way.
posted by Wilder at 1:33 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe that's because you're on a bus, and they don't speak English.

Maybe it's also because if they meet a foreigner they have to file an incident report, in true imported-from-Stalin-era-NKVD style.
posted by jaduncan at 1:49 AM on July 7, 2012 [14 favorites]


dontjumplarry, is there some paradisaical side to the DPRK that you say Westerners are overlooking? Is there a single example of how you'd rather live there, than say, Ohio?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 2:12 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


life in North Korea under Kim Jong Un

Much as I loathe the DPRK, I think Kim Jong Un deserves a (narrow) window of opportunity to try running the country in a more humane way and reforming it a bit. I mean, theoretically he could say 'sorry folks, it's all a giant lie so screw it, do whatever - I'm retiring to a modest estate in Switzerland' but I could see that resulting in mass suicides or civil war or worse. I think it's important to put some working alternative structures in place before dismantling the existing ones completely.

I visited the USSR as a student in the 80s and the DPRK seems substantially less free and more propagandized/controlled. This is bad, but you can't just switch things around overnight, sadly.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:16 AM on July 7, 2012


Maybe it's also because if they meet a foreigner they have to file an incident report, in true imported-from-Stalin-era-NKVD style.

I wasn't aware of that. But just because he didn't get the chance to speak to the locals, doesn't mean that they're wandering around mindlessly like zombies in some surreal sideshow enacted for his benefit. They might, for example, be going to work.

dontjumplarry, is there some paradisaical side to the DPRK that you say Westerners are overlooking? Is there a single example of how you'd rather live there, than say, Ohio?

I guess I'm just saying that it doesn't benefit anyone (least of all the North Korean people) to characterise simply everything that goes on in that country as a state-controlled zombie puppet show (They're walking on the street! With purpose! Must be some heinous Communist ritual at work!).
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:23 AM on July 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


I see the North Koreans have discovered after effects technology...
Maybe that's because you're on a bus, and they don't speak English. .... But just because he didn't get the chance to speak to the locals, doesn't mean that they're wandering around mindlessly like zombies
How do you know he didn't speak Korean? The reason he was on a bus and not on the street was because they wouldn't let him off the bus and onto the street to ask them questions.

I mean, you make the assumption that he didn't make a good faith effort to find out what it was they were doing, but what could he have done to figure out where they were going? He never got the opportunity to ask them anything. The only people he interacted with were government minders.
posted by delmoi at 2:32 AM on July 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


This notion of an entire nation living in the way described by the few western visitors allowed in is a product of the bubble those visitors are restricted to. It doesn't scale like that across the whole of the population. Not in North Korea and not in the United States.
posted by jsavimbi at 2:50 AM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Western preconceptions about DPRK tend to colour every single thing that happens in that country. Every flag waved is sign of an enslaved mind; every garish pageant is a sign of their cultural backwardness. Our Fourth-of-July-themed kiddie pageant is just good old-fashioned patriotism; they do it and it's a grotesque display of hyper-positive propaganda.
A fair point. Just because nearly 10% of the population - about 200,000 men, women, and children - are political prisoners in labor camps facing brutal conditions, torture, and even execution (often for no other reason that "guilt by association" with a suspect) doesn't mean that every aspect of life is coerced.

But nothing undermines the sincerity of an individual's actions like knowing there's an invisible gun being held to their heads, and the heads of everyone they love, 24-7.

So maybe some/many North Korean public displays of patriotism are not coerced. But how would we ever know?

You could never be sure you were getting an honest answer from a North Korean unless they were outside of North Korea and had no plans to return.

And North Korean defectors almost universally criticize North Korea and claim that the people live in a perpetual state of fear.
posted by Davenhill at 2:52 AM on July 7, 2012 [25 favorites]


I wish I could read Korean, it would give the TV clips in the beginning some context.
Is it all "North Korea is Best Korea" sort of propaganda?

(Which is what I assume that van is tootling around blasting out, rather than "Re-Elect Mayor Goldie Wilson").

Although I am wondering if the minder knew that by "we are ready to everything" that was actually stated outside North Korea as "we are ready to fuck your shit up with firey nuclear death from above.

It's also very clean. That was nice. Fascinating video.
posted by Mezentian at 3:33 AM on July 7, 2012


I don't think we need to rip a mefite a new arsehole simply because they had the temerity to suggest that a heavily controlled tour provides very limited insight into life in North Korea, or North Koreans.

Prison camps and torture included, it is nonetheless important to remember that just as North Koreans receive mostly propaganda about North Korea, so too do we in the West. The image that we see of North Korea is also constructed - because we see so little - and practically nothing from North Koreans themselves. Acknowledging that does not trivialise or obfuscate the suffering there. Rather, reducing the complex history and reality to angry editorial does.

I think it's important to remember why the US and other Western states are happy to posit North Korea as the most evil of places, yet little was/is said about Burma (which in many ways is/was an equally harsh regime), Uzbekistan, formerly Libya, etc.

Also, as a non-American, I must say this "defending freedom from the keyboard" cant gets a little old to me. It's the kind of language the rest of the world is often used to hearing from America - only when it suits, of course.

It is possible to question the construction of "North Korea" as a concept in and for the West, whilst also acknowledging the suffering and the cruelty of the government there. Jumping on any analysis or nuance on the issue with accusations of heartlessness, ignorance or apathy does everyone a disservice.
posted by smoke at 3:50 AM on July 7, 2012 [32 favorites]


One interesting thing, to me, is the power/prevalence of positive propaganda in authoritarian states. In a democracy - at least here in Australia - it sometimes to me feels like positive propaganda is easily quashed by negative opposition, and thus most propaganda (defined as invective designed to stir up the populace that is either fact-free or in direct contradiction to the truth) is negative.
posted by smoke at 3:52 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm starting to get a little bored by the NPRK's Magical Mystery Tour. Every time one of these videos pops up I get excited that I'll finally see something new and unique but every time it's just the same old song and dance.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:03 AM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Much as I loathe the DPRK, I think Kim Jong Un deserves a (narrow) window of opportunity to try running the country in a more humane way and reforming it a bit.

I don't see how people can believe Kim Jong Un has any actual real power. That's a lie as big as every other one. The people of North Korea are told that Great Dear Cute Leader shits rainbows and pisses roses, and runs everything - and people outside tend to believe that as well, ignoring the constructs around him, the systems around him. If he made any move to say "Sorry folks, show's over..." I'm sure he would very quickly pass away from an unfortunate and quick acting illness. He's there to wave at crowds and look at things in factories. You can't rely on one single person at the top to end the horror show, you have to rely on a whole, entrenched, multi-generational conspiracy of people.

This can happen. It seems to be happening in Burma. But uprising from below is much more likely to incite change. Unfortunately, in the case of North Korea, it's almost impossible to see where this would come from.

But, yeah, the writing in this does annoy me a bit too. I'm a sucker for North Korean Tour Bus photo essays, but someone produces a new one every other month. "People all over Pyongyang walk with purpose, but you can never figure out where they're going." is a bit dramatic - as dontjumplarry suggests, those people are probably going to their jobs as train drivers or teachers or petty bureaucrats. Despite the dysfunctionality of the place, shit does actually still need to get done.
posted by Jimbob at 5:07 AM on July 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I always liked the Vice Guide To North Korea part 1, part 2 and part 3. Or the frankly nuts, nuts, nuts Red Chapel
posted by Damienmce at 5:08 AM on July 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


Or the frankly nuts, nuts, nuts Red Chapel

That looks brilliant! And it's on Netflix streaming!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:27 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


People all over NYC walk with purpose, but you can never figure out where they're going.
So I asked a person once in Times Square where he was headed.
He told me "fuck off, you pinko commie".
posted by lampshade at 5:27 AM on July 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


I've been reading Nothing to Envy; Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It is scary - fascinating.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:32 AM on July 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


More revealing, perhaps, is this journalist's account of what happened when the official tour bus took a wrong turning.
posted by verstegan at 5:43 AM on July 7, 2012


I wish I could read Korean, it would give the TV clips in the beginning some context.

The lyrics to the song that begins at 0:58 are:

la-la-la la-la-la la-la-la-la
our classmates
are the best, are the best

our classmates
as one, full of energy
#1 at football, #1 at running races
#1 at everything
la-la-la la-la-la la-la-la-la
our classmates
are the best, are the best
are the beeeeest, are the beeeeeeeeeest!
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:47 AM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


More revealing, perhaps, is this journalist's account of what happened when the official tour bus took a wrong turning

That is an interesting perspective, although I can't help but think that gaining those few glimpses behind the facade weren't worth the life of the bus driver, who no doubt was punished with typical egregious harshness for that wrong turn.
Its the same way I felt when watching one of these North Korean docs, including "Red Chapel" and the Vice one. Like, on the one hand I want the Western documentarian to push and prod and perhaps produce some truthful statements about what life is really like in the DPRK.
But I also find myself worrying excessively about the people whose job it is to represent the face of the regime to Outsiders. They have to really walk a tightrope to avoid getting shipped off to a labor camp, it seems, and I hate to see some glib Westerner come along and try to point out the fallacies and inconsistencies of their minder's platitudes without a thought as to the potential repercussions that this sort of verbalized critical thinking and earnest discussion might bring for the minders, guides, or model families who are forced to cheerily represent the same regime that, as someone said above, is "holding an invisible gun to their heads".
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:36 AM on July 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Many streets in New Delhi, the capital of one of the world's fastest-growing economies, look far more battered and poor.

Never judge a book by its cover is still apparently holding true.
posted by infini at 6:39 AM on July 7, 2012


Like R. Mutt I recently read Nothing to Envy. It cured me of any notion that North Korea was this fun kooky authoritarian place, or that maybe things weren't so bad there. Truly a horrifying picture of what life has been like.

The crazy thing to me is that so many ordinary citizens mostly believed the North Korea is Best Korea propaganda. Turns out that after 50 years of strict isolation and absolute control over all information flow, people start believing what their Dear Leader tells them about the rest of the world. Absolute mind control. That's broken down some since the famine. Partly because the lie is so apparent when you are starving to death and partly because so many people started crossing the Chinese border that information started flowing in. Also the state had to finally tolerate some black market trading in goods because the state economy had collapsed; they lost some power then.

Some bonus life-in-DPRK links: the economics blog North Korean Economy Watch, the official Korean Central News Agency, and the dissident Daily NK.
posted by Nelson at 6:39 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


dontjumplarry:

Western preconceptions about DPRK tend to colour every single thing that happens in that country. Every flag waved is sign of an enslaved mind…

You mean "every single thing that [we learn] happens in that country" via refugees who risk life, limb and the safety of the families they leave behind to escape from a place they uniformly describe as a giant prison?

Or is it what we learn from watching their own television programs?

smoke:

don't think we need to rip a mefite a new arsehole simply because they had the temerity to suggest that a heavily controlled tour provides very limited insight into life in North Korea, or North Koreans.


It's not the temerity of invoking subjectivity or limited perspective, it's the apparent ignorance of the carefully established consensus on what a hellhole North Korea is.

Please, any one: criticize and bemoan the jingoism of Americans et al as you like, all you like, but don't drag the North Koreans into it.
posted by noway at 6:42 AM on July 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


The crazy thing to me is that so many ordinary citizens mostly believed the North Korea is Best Korea propaganda.

In a very important way, it is. Korea's modern history begins with the end of Japanese imperial domination of the entire Korean peninsula (comfort women, etc.). While America and Russia were occupied in other spheres, Kim Jong Il was the man who more or less single-handedly organized and led the fight against Japanese occupation.

At the end of WW2, with the Japanese defeated and the Russians occupying the North and the Americans occupying the South, the Russians threw their weight behind a legitimate Korean war hero - Kim Jong Il - and the Americans threw their weight behind the Japanese collaborators in the South - who were seen by ALL Koreans as traitors.

So yeah, there is some truth to the Northern "propaganda" that the North has the moral high ground on the Korean peninsula.

Of course, you have to cut through all of the Western propaganda to see it.
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on July 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sorry, I'm having too hard a time seeing through the gulags and starvation. Also, did you know Kim Jong Un's grandmother was a Japanese collaborator? Technically that makes him one of the hostile classes, but somehow he skated.
posted by Nelson at 6:53 AM on July 7, 2012


Davenhill: nearly 10% of the population - about 200,000 men, women, and children - are political prisoners in labor camps

Isn't the population of NK somewhere in the 20 million range? That's the figure I most commonly see quoted, at least, making the percentage of prisoners there 1%, not 10%. In other words, more or less the same percentage of adults are locked up in the United States. Not to say that their justice system is anything resembling just, or that their prisons are in any way humane, or the conditions aren't torturous and harsh, because we really just don't know - thought it's safe to assume. I'll let you make up your own opinion on how the U.S. penal system compares.
posted by item at 6:58 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Goddamn, guys, as much as MeFites like to talk about nuance there's a lot of people in this thread who hear "hey, let's not assume our perceptions are 100% isometric with reality and not act as though North Koreans are inscrutable robots" and respond with "WELL MAYBE YOU'D LIKE TO MARRY THE DPRK THEN SINCE YOU THINK IT'S SO GREAT".

Jesus.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:59 AM on July 7, 2012 [20 favorites]


smoke: I think it's important to remember why the US and other Western states are happy to posit North Korea as the most evil of places, yet little was/is said about Burma...

Or maybe it's because North Korea's own propaganda - in fact, its whole raison d'etre and justification for harsh control of its own people - is deeply rooted in belligerent animosity towards America, and they keep a massive military force poised to fight a war just on the other side of the DMZ. That also might be a reason they get more attention in the American media than Myanmar, which mostly keeps to itself.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:59 AM on July 7, 2012


three blind mice:

Kim Jong Il was the man who more or less single-handedly organized and led the fight against Japanese occupation.

Kim Jong Il was 4 years old in 1945. You mean Kim Il Sung. Also, Syngman Rhee was not a collaborator with the Japanese, he was a pro-independence leader who lived in exile in America until 1945.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:10 AM on July 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


The person who made the video is answering questions on reddit's IAmA, here.
posted by Houstonian at 7:19 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


our classmates
as one, full of energy
#1 at football, #1 at running races
#1 at everything
la-la-la la-la-la la-la-la-la


North Korea is not number one at lyric writing, obviously.
posted by Mezentian at 7:31 AM on July 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I just watched The Red Chapel on Netflix after seeing the comments above. I can't recommend it enough. It is absolute genius, and you should watch it if you can.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:49 AM on July 7, 2012


Also, The Red Chapel really explains and demonstrates the intense hatred of the US that fuels their propaganda. (And it was made by Danes; it's not all axe-grindy about it.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:52 AM on July 7, 2012


Here's another great Vice production related to North Korea. This one is about North Korean labor camps in Siberia, so you get a different perspective somewhat, from the few laborers who dare to speak to the camera (with a guarantee that their face won't get exposed).
posted by aydeejones at 7:58 AM on July 7, 2012


The Lisa Ling NatGeo documentary can't be missed either. Also on Netflix last time I checked. Beyond the moral dilemma of challenging the minders and getting them into deep shit, this one ups the ante quite a bit, using a medical mission (cataract repair and training) as a pretext for filming the documentary and getting more access than your typical whitewashed tour.
posted by aydeejones at 8:14 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Popeguilty, I couldn't agree more with your defense of nuance and subtlety, but you're making it on the back of a weak example.

I very, very seldom comment on MeFi despite reading hundreds of comments a week. After reading the first response in this thread I was all like O_o (!)

To liken the public acts of patriotism in North Korea to contemporary Fourth of July celebrations in the U.S. is sloppy.

I'm all for questioning how truth is constructed – one of my top three favorite books is Truth & Method.

But Western prejudice is not needed to determine that North Korean flag-waving and pageantry is a direct response to an authoritarian regime that attempts to control every aspect of its citizens' lives.
posted by noway at 8:21 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'm completely cognizant of that- I don't disagree with the popular consensus that the DPRK is a fucked-up authoritarian shithole. I just hate to see "hey guys let's keep in mind that our perceptions are our perceptions and they color how we interpret reality" responded to the way it was. It felt strawmanny and reminded me of some of the post-9/11 "hey you know maybe we should figure out why the attacks happened" "WHAT ARE YOU, A TERRORIST SYMPATHIZER?" dialogue that bothered me then.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:58 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Come on people. You think Vice has an interest in toeing some kind of "Western Narrative" to make N.K look bad?

Obviously we're not hearing the whole story from these tourist because they can't go off on their own and tell it. If it were possible to go off and talk to individuals on their own, they would obviously do so. The guy who did the vice guide actually went to eastern Siberia to find these North Korean offshore work camps to interview people who worked there, and he actually managed to talk to some workers. So obviously they wanted to talk to the average North Korean.

And that's the key difference here. There have been plenty of documentaries about, say Iran, and everyone says it's a vibrant, interesting culture - no one says oh everyone is oppressed. People can actually go to Iran, see what it's like, talk to the people and so on. That's completely different then the situation with north korea. And that's because North Korea really is bad
The Lisa Ling NatGeo documentary can't be missed either.
So apparently that video was posted to YouTube on March 16th, 2009. In an apparently insane coincidence Her Sister was captured on the North Korean border the very next day Obviously the date of posting and the date the documentary aired might not be the same, but still pretty weird.

But look. The narrative about what life is life in North Korea has to be constructed, reconstructed from the few bits of information that we get. Both the guided tours, which are very strange, the song and dance routines and all this creepy weirdness. And also from the people who were kept prisoner there and we hear their stories, which are horrifying. We don't hear any middle ground because we're not allowed to see it
posted by delmoi at 9:17 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


BTW that second vice doc, where they interview workers is really interesting because you actually do get to hear what "ordinary" North Koreans have to say. It isn't super interesting on it's own, other then the fact that it's actual North Koreans not government minders, not high level political people and at the same time not people who are prisoners either.
posted by delmoi at 9:25 AM on July 7, 2012


delmoi: It aired in 2006. I really think it's just a coincidence. And, you'd think they'd have caught her sister whatever day it was she decided to go there, and I doubt that was determined by when the video was posted?
posted by floam at 9:27 AM on July 7, 2012


It's a beautiful country. It just needs about a billion tourists. All at once. "We're here! Have some foreign currency and a sandwich, tell us more about that pudgy little leader of yours, and then we can all go look for the monsters in Lake Tianchi."
posted by pracowity at 9:50 AM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the AMA:
not as bad as everyone said it would be. We had some good Duck BBQ and Korean Hot Pot. i think they finally figured out that tour groups were reporting "the food sucks, everyone was intimidating" so they seemed to have made some improvements in their service. Though they served us a "hamburger" on Air Koryo when we left that was unsettling in every sense of the word.

Also, my friend and I got dysentery when we drank water from the childhood well of Kim Il Sung. North Koreans believe if you drink it you'll be president of something one day. We are idiots.
Heh.

Floam: I'm sure it's a coincidence. But how crazy is it that the video was posted to the internet the day before? It's just a pretty interesting coincidence.
posted by delmoi at 10:09 AM on July 7, 2012


delmoi; is it possible that the video was uploaded after the imprisonment and you're just getting confused by time zones / date line? That makes a lot more sense.
posted by Nelson at 10:27 AM on July 7, 2012


We don't hear any middle ground because we're not allowed to see it

It is a good point delmoi but I understand there is no middle ground so to speak, perhaps for the elite and that is the problem. I am sure it is not a country of robots and they make a nice model rocket. I found it interesting that Pol Pot and Co. recogized NK and they had missions and advisers during the KR years. During that time there was no middle ground, hence my comparisons. Middle ground got one on the run (Heng Samrin and Hun Sen) or sent to toul sleng. I think this is the evil of a totalatarian regime.

Anigbrowl- I hope Kim III does open up but we both know who pulls the strings internally. China needs to take a more external role because if they sit around and watch the north and south go at it again like last year, China will lose more face then it can handle.
posted by clavdivs at 10:32 AM on July 7, 2012


I'm just wondering what a middle ground would look like in this situation.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:12 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


You mean Kim Il Sung.

Thanks for the correction. I did indeed mean Kim Il Sung.

Also, Syngman Rhee was not a collaborator with the Japanese, he was a pro-independence leader who lived in exile in America until 1945.

Which was precisely why Syngman Rhee was brought into the country by the Americans. After 50 years of Japanese occupation, there were hardly any Korean leaders who were not collaborators with the Japanese.

Instead of cleaning house, the Americans, for the sake of expediency and ignorant of Korean politics, simply re-employed the same bureaucracy as the Japanese did and this was not lost on many Koreans. When Kim Il Sung marched on the South (you can't invade your own country) in the minds of many Koreans he was still fighting Japanese occupation.

My only point is that there is a lot of history on the Korean peninsula which erodes the "them evil, us good" narrative upon which democracy survives.
posted by three blind mice at 11:12 AM on July 7, 2012


Lets not forget either, that South Korea was hardly a barrel of laughs until a few years ago. Democracy wasn't exactly flavour of the month in those parts either.

Perhaps that's why the portrayal of North Korea is much less strident in South Korean television drama and movies than it is in the American media? The South Koreans don't underplay the degree to which people in the North are controlled by the state, and often want for many of the basic necessities in life, but they avoid reducing them to robotic ciphers.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:32 AM on July 7, 2012


I'm just wondering what a middle ground would look like in this situation.

Well, it wouldn't be government propaganda and it wouldn't be from someone who was unhappy enough to attempt escape. We don't know what the lifestyles of the typical rice farmer, or party members living in Pyongyang are like, or what their nuanced feelings are.
posted by floam at 12:13 PM on July 7, 2012


While living in South Korea, I met several North Korean refugees including the author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang which is a first hand account of NK prison camps. I don't see North Koreans as robotic ciphers by any means, but I heard enough to make me deeply uncomfortable with the idea of supporting the regime via tourist money. Most of the stories I heard about life in NK were pretty similar to stories of life in China during the Great Leap Forward.
posted by peppermind at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Everyone needs to go out and buy Guy Delisle graphic novels right now. He's had some wonderful insight and access into the following places:

- Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
- Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China
- Burma Chronicles
- Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
posted by Fizz at 12:26 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


And North Korean defectors almost universally criticize North Korea and claim that the people live in a perpetual state of fear.

Well, yeah. They're defectors. I'm not saying you're wrong in general but that seems like a shaky argument.
posted by brundlefly at 12:38 PM on July 7, 2012


I feel like countries become more patriotic as they become stricter. I don't think it's always only because the patriotism is required by the state. I think a lot of it is socially manifested and perpetuated cognitive dissonance. How else do you cope but to love? It becomes neccessary to love. Plus, it starts with fear but after a few generations it gets socialized in and becomes matter-of-fact.
posted by windykites at 12:44 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


PDF Preview of the Guy Delisle travelogue.
posted by sneebler at 12:59 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


We don't know what the lifestyles of the typical rice farmer, or party members living in Pyongyang are like, or what their nuanced feelings are.

Actually, we do know something about life for ordinary North Koreans, from Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I realize this is the third time this book has been linked in this post. But seriously, if you have more than a passing interest in North Korea this book should be on your to-read list.

Her interview subjects aren't "ordinary North Koreans" in the sense that they are all people who chose to leave North Korea (no easy feat). Also they're all from Chongjin, an industrial city further in the north that I gather is more "typical" than the Pyongyang which is all the outside world normally sees. None of the people Demick covers seem particularly remarkable or political, a lot of what makes the book compelling is how ordinary the people are. Most left after ten+ years of starvation and misfortune and there's nothing to suggest that experience is atypical.

Something like 10% of North Koreans starved to death during the Arduous March of 1994–1998. I don't see any way to put a good face on that or frame it in terms of some cultural relativism equivalent in the US. We certainly have our economic problems in the US too, including shameful undernutrition, but it's nothing like 10% of our population dying because the state run economy collapsed when fuel got so expensive you couldn't run the irrigation pumps anymore.
posted by Nelson at 1:02 PM on July 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I just hate to see "hey guys let's keep in mind that our perceptions are our perceptions and they color how we interpret reality" responded to the way it was. It felt strawmanny and reminded me of some of the post-9/11 "hey you know maybe we should figure out why the attacks happened" "WHAT ARE YOU, A TERRORIST SYMPATHIZER?" dialogue that bothered me then
Pope Guilty

I think you're misreading the frustration you're seeing in reaction to the first comment. It's not that "YER WIT US OR YER AGIN US!!!1", it's that these ideas are not just "Wesern preconceptions". Every scrap of available information, from tours like these to books by refugees like the above-mentioned Nothing to Envy, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman (and the Congressional testimony of its author Lee Soon Ok), etc all confirm that this is actually what life is like there. This isn't Western prejudice, it's how it has been reported to be.

So when people so graciously remind us benighted plebes (with bizarre certainty, as if they know what it's really like and we're all just Western dupes) that we need to keep an open mind, it comes across as patronizing and insulting. Especially when we're told "Hey, we do Fourth of July celebrations, who are we to talk!", which manages to both insult our intelligence and trivialize the suffering there.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:15 PM on July 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


And also, we do have open minds. If some of these posters who are so advanced and thoughtful have some information or sources that portray life in North Korea as different than all the others sources linked here do, we'd love to see them.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:19 PM on July 7, 2012


Here's photos from a Pyongyang press bus that got lost and showed people the "real" Pyongyang. I can't help but noticing that there's really nothing remarkable photographed or conditions I couldn't find somewhere in my own city. Heck, they witness wheelchair-bound folks waiting for a bus. After watching Red Chapel I was left with the impression disabled people are all turned into soylent green or kept out of Pyongyang or something.
posted by floam at 1:33 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


What makes you think Pyongyang is representative of the country in any way though?
posted by peppermind at 2:04 PM on July 7, 2012


Well, it's the most populous city with 2.5 million people. I didn't say it represents life for the average North Korean. Last numbers I can find for percent of the population classified as urban was 59.6% in 1987. We look at life there for the same reason you have to look for your dropped keys in a dark parking lot under the streetlights.
posted by floam at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2012


I think it's important to remember why the US and other Western states are happy to posit North Korea as the most evil of places, yet little was/is said about Burma...

Only one of the two nations has shown a recent and persistent interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and views the US as their mortal enemy.
posted by zachlipton at 2:28 PM on July 7, 2012


Only one of the two nations has shown a recent and persistent interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and views the US as their mortal enemy.

The US has had the stance we have on North Korea for over half a century. They rattle that sabre as a bargaining chip for cash aid. I don't giving up nukes or closing prisons would get the US to drop the embargos we've had in place since 1950. If anything history has shown the US will treat you real nicely once you acquire nukes.
posted by floam at 2:42 PM on July 7, 2012


Our Fourth-of-July-themed kiddie pageant is just good old-fashioned patriotism; they do it and it's a grotesque display of hyper-positive propaganda.

There's a movie on netflix--totally approved of by the north korean government--that describes the preparations they do for their celebrations. They have kids doing gymnastics for hours a day on hard concrete for months on end. These are relatively privileged kids and that's what they're willing to show. Give me a break with this kind of relativistic bullshit.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2012


Defending the North Korean regime is a little like suggesting 'Come on, Pol Pot wasn't all bad.' At best, you come off as soft-headed.

I'm all for recognizing our common humanity and all that crap, but.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:44 PM on July 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


Defending the North Korean regime is a little like suggesting 'Come on, Pol Pot wasn't all bad.'

Interesting; I see literally no one in this thread doing that.
posted by smoke at 5:10 PM on July 7, 2012


No, perhaps not. The dotted line for me would be between saying 'Hey guys, maybe we're looking at North Korea with soot-colored glasses and it's not really all that bad' (which is clearly happening in this thread) and evincing some defense of the regime.

That may not be fair. In which case, apologies for putting words in people's mouths. But the sheer human horror that exists up there... it makes me angry to see it minimized.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:21 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


No one in this thread minimized the situation in North Korea. I saw one person express disappointment at the commentary in that clip. I personally thought the Americans commenting were talking about North Koreans like they were some sort of exotic animals, or aliens. I did not appreciate it and muted the sound. I think people need to take a deep breath, and stop putting words into people's mouths.
posted by Shusha at 6:00 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


The problem is, how do you express unease about preconceptions perhaps distorting the exact nature of a bad entity, when dealing with something that's still quite awful? It can be a really terrible place and the commentary might be freaking out about the wrong things. There's 20 million people living in DPRK and I'm not certain there's parity between their humanitarian needs and the geopolitical desires of the west. Would North Korea be a worse place for a family to live if not for our economic sanctions? I would prefer the international community more often consider the harm reduction approach and I don't think getting ourselves worked up about their standing armies and hating us and pipe dream nuclear desires or writing their culture off entirely helps us to be receptive to that.
posted by floam at 6:12 PM on July 7, 2012


Yeah, I'm completely cognizant of that- I don't disagree with the popular consensus that the DPRK is a fucked-up authoritarian shithole. I just hate to see "hey guys let's keep in mind that our perceptions are our perceptions and they color how we interpret reality" responded to the way it was. It felt strawmanny and reminded me of some of the post-9/11 "hey you know maybe we should figure out why the attacks happened" "WHAT ARE YOU, A TERRORIST SYMPATHIZER?" dialogue that bothered me then.

It seems the people in this thread who have issue with that comment are people who have actually read up on the details of NK. It's not a kneejerk strawmanny statement...it's actually a "you don't have any idea what it's like there, do you?" statement.

It's pretty much akin to reading about the holocaust and hearing someone say "well you know, our American perceptions are totally not seeing the German side of things." Yeah, to a point. TO A POINT. When it's discussed as the most salientof points, it kind of makes me shake my head in disbelief, really.

And yes, I AM Godwinning it. That is the level of human tragedy unfolding in the NK, I'm sorry to say.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:47 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a totally inappropriate Godwin, because the commentary was much more akin, if we're going to use the Holocaust in our analogies, to somebody watching the Holocaust happen and wonder why the Jews aren't fighting back with every breath. That's stupid and offensive, and the effort to paint "hey maybe we shouldn't assume the North Korean people are robot sheep" as apologetics for the DPRK is disgusting and dehumanizing and serves no humanitarian need I can imagine.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:33 AM on July 8, 2012


I started with Nothing to Envy, and moved on to Aquariums of Pyongyang and the more recent Escape From Camp 14. Obviously we can only experience the actual conditions of NK through filters, but I do believe that as time goes by there will be more escapees who will confirm the horrifying control that ordinary citizens live under.

What makes the NK situation so different to other totalitarian regimes is the extreme level of paranoia by all citizens. No one is safe. Individuals at every level of society are cut off from each other by fear because the slightest doubt or lack of zeal can land you and three generations of your family in a death camp with no trial or recourse. This plus the cultivated worship of the Dear Leader and his son ensures mindless but enthusiastic obedience.

What is frightening to me is the way that the government has become a mindless machine with no accountability. I was greatly disturbed by the story that not only does each family home have to have framed pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall, but that the pictures have to be cleaned daily with a special, dedicated rag. Who makes up these absurd rules and why? Why does the cleaning cloth have to be special? My guess is that it was a rule made up by a mid-level bureaucrat trying to elevate himself: "My worship is higher and purer than anyone else's" and now everybody who lives in NK has one more requirement to worry about.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:30 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a totally inappropriate Godwin, because the commentary was much more akin, if we're going to use the Holocaust in our analogies, to somebody watching the Holocaust happen and wonder why the Jews aren't fighting back with every breath. That's stupid and offensive, and the effort to paint "hey maybe we shouldn't assume the North Korean people are robot sheep" as apologetics for the DPRK is disgusting and dehumanizing and serves no humanitarian need I can imagine.

As the comment didn't actually refer to the holocaust in the way you're saying, I disagree. There is no mention of that, only the response of "hey, look at the stupid Westerners", devoid of actual context.

In light, it is doing what it accuses the Westerners of doing.

Anyways, I'm trying to explain why some of us are responding to that comment in that way. You feel differently and that's fine. We're just going to have to disagree on this point.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:11 AM on July 8, 2012


First thing I thought of, looking at the footage, was Star Trek. Maybe some other long time watchers of ST:TNG might have an idea of what I'm talking about.

Basically, the crew lands on some planet. And, in theory, it's a planet with a population in the millions. But because this is a relatively low-budget sci-fi TV show, and not some epic with a cast of thousands, all we actually see are maybe 2-3 speakers and a dozen or so extras, and that is the entirety of the population of this planet. If we see the people doing something, it's usually centered around performance, art, or a display of luxury/opulence (It contrasts strongly with the street scenes of Firefly which focus largely on grungy border-town like open markets and bars). And of the planet, we see maybe one or two buildings, which are generally very clean, uncrowded, and devoid of apparently any purpose other than ceremonial (unless it's a science station and this features in the plot).

North Korea feels like this: sparsely populated, with most images reflecting monumental or artistic endeavors. There's no evidence of life happening here, no signs of community, of social cohesion. It's just a few speaking parts and a whole bunch of non-speaking extras, pulled in for a few minutes to make it look like there's something there other than a facade and a few props.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:20 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


i read most of the novels about Inspector O by James Church.

reading Nothing to Envy gave me a whole new appreciation for those novels - a lot of historical background about the wars and Japanese occupation that i didnt know about.

here's the wikipedia entry about James Church

James Church is the pseudonym of the author of four detective novels featuring a North Korean policeman, "Inspector O".

Church is identified on the back cover of his novels as "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia".[1] He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the United States, and was over sixty years old in 2009.[2]

His "Inspector O" novels have been well-received, being noted by Asia specialists for offering "an unusually nuanced and detailed portrait" of North Korean society.[3] A Korea Society panel praised the first book in the series for its realism and its ability to convey "the suffocating atmosphere of a totalitarian state".[4] A panelist as well as The Independent's[5] and the reviewers at the Washington Post compared the protagonist to Arkady Renko, the Soviet chief inspector in Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, for providing "a vivid window into a mysterious country".[3]



I've seen some of the documentaries on NK on netflix. i forget which one it was, but the filmakers were allowed to visit a home in pyongyang that was picked by the minders. the people seemed absolutely terrified. you'd have to be quite literally blind to not notice it.

some of the stories in the book Nothing to Envy talk about how many people (including one of the women who was a main part of the book) really believed it all, especially after the wars and the japan stuff...and that things were really really better in NK for quite a while after the war. but things fell apart pretty badly in the late 80s and never really recovered. the true believers had as much trouble believing that the guy (and then his son) who helped get them out from japanese occupation could be fallible.

i think that NK is every bit as bad as we think it might be and probably worse.
i don't think that even if the tourist had gotten off the bus, spoke korean, and talked to the random NKorean in the street, they would have gotten an honest answer, especially in Pyongyang, which is only where people who are selected to live are allowed to live.

it is indeed a showcase city. those people didn't choose to live there. they were picked, just like the kids in the gymnastics spectacle and the people in the military.
posted by sio42 at 5:37 PM on July 9, 2012


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