I was watching a repeat of BBC Four's excellent documentary film 'North Korea: A State of Mind' yesterday. It followed the day-to-day lives of school girls training hard to be prepared for the Mass Games, celebrating 55 years of the revolution. You got to see their intimate family lives, their school lessons, day trips, picnics, parades, their hopes and fears and them just mucking about and being kids. All under the long shadow of this cartoonishly menacing Big Brother state. It felt like a throwback to 50 years ago and was utterly captivating.
Don't confuse this with Panorama sending John Sweeney to North Korea in the imaginatively titled 'North Korea Uncovered' in which our heroic reporter destroys communism by dicking about. "This is an electricity factory" says Sweeney "But none of the lights are on." BOOM! Nice journalism, Sweeneyator. "Look, I've snuck out of my room after lights out and might try and climb over a fence. Aren't I the naughtiest boy in the dorm?" At one point he 'interrogates' a nurse in an empty hospital. "There's no one in this hospital is there? Come on! You can't fool us." I'm not quoting him directly here. I don't need to. You can imagine his voice: "BLAH BLAH BLAH!" That's probably the most accurate quote of all. Sweeney is a panicky, irksome, shit-stirrer. Plain and simple. It's quite incredible that he was able to interview the obnoxious, fraudulent and loathsome Church of Scientology and still somehow make them seem less revolting by comparison. He has all the subtlety and investigative instinct of a breeze block being hurled from the top of a flyover.
of investigative journalism.
In fairness to Sweeney, his team did manage to get some secret filming showing just how bad things had become (people scraping about in the mud for food, or maybe they'd lost their contact lenses. It's hard to tell), but 'A State of Mind' managed to hint at just the same thing whilst, presumably, satisfying the North Korean junta that they had nothing to fear from the film. One of the mothers of a schoolgirl talking about the 'Ardous March' (the euphemism for the terrible famine that is said to have killed millions in the 1990s) and how difficult things had been was particularly moving. More fortunate North Koreans had to live on one chicken and six eggs per person per month, plus anything else they could lay their hands on. Even though she could only talk about hardships in party-friendly terms of self-resilience and striving forward for socialism and the dastardly machinations of the American Imperialists, the strain in her eyes when papering over it all was painfully telling. Certainly more telling than Sweeney visiting a library and saying "Have you got 1984 by George Orwell?" and then giving the camera a look which said 'That's right. Bringing down communism, yeah?'
What was so majestically appealing about the BBC Four documentary was the ability of normal people to live almost normal lives under the most difficult conditions. This may seem vaguely patronising (after all, we capitalists manage it) but under the jackboot it seems that people can still laugh and relax and have close relationships. The propaganda may be relentless, the living conditions may be harsh, but you can't spell 'totally communism' without community, and there really did seem to be a great sense of that. Almost a 1940s Blitz mentality to it all; a glory in strife, a real sense of togetherness. That's probably no coincidence. The best way to spy on your neighbours is to share dinner with them.
Or maybe I'm just seeing what they want me to see. Kids will talk freely about how much they like dancing before then slipping in to "My dream is to dance for our dear leader and the father of our nation on top of a heroic mountain." The television constantly seems to feature either cartoons about revolutionary squirrels or some pretty sweet close-formation marching. The grandpa of the family made the off-the-cuff yet carefully pre-rehearsed comment: "Even those arrogant Americans will tremble in fear to see such discipline." As this was shot in 2003, most of the world news on state TV was about the American invasion of Iraq. It was fed to the North Koreans as American world-domination, ordinary people seemed fascinated by it. Yet one individual (who was a member of the state assigned 'intellectual classes') said "I like to learn about the world. I recently learned that this (holds fingers up mimicking Winston Churchill) means justice. I didn't know that before." North Koreans aren't kept in total ignorance about the world outside, they're just told certain things in a certain way, and some of those things are quite surprising, quite trivial and sometimes seemingly at odds with the party cause. It's utterly bizarre.
John Sweeney presented a desolate, totalitarian wasteland and then compared it to South Korea: a Garden of Eden of bustling streets, disconnected i-phone junkies going about their lives under the searing lights of mega-malls and super brands. The idea being to show how superior the latter is to the former. But I really didn't like the look of either.