A look inside the secretive nation of North Korea—from inside the country and from the perspective of the West.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—better known to the Western world as North Korea—is the most isolated, secretive country in the world, so the media pays attention on those rare instances when news leaks out of the country. Earlier this week, when North Korea launched a satellite into a rapidly degrading orbit, the Internet had a good collective laugh at the excitability of the North Korean anchorwoman who announced the news to her countrymen.
Yet the anchorwoman’s behavior, though bizarre by Western standards, was no surprise to anyone familiar with North Korea’s online presence. It’s a country whose citizens are told that their leader is a demigod, with all the powers that implies. Whether it’s foreign journalists filming outsider documentaries or propaganda videos made and released by the North Korean government itself, there’s a bleak and ominous overtone to even the most cheerful footage coming out of the country.
AN OUTSIDER’S LOOK AT NORTH KOREA
North Korea: A Day in the Life
In 2004, Kim Jong-il’s government granted what was then an unprecedented level of access to Dutch filmmaker Pieter Fleury, allowing him to make a documentary about an everyday family in Pyongyang. The resulting film, North Korea: A Day in the Life, was approved by North Korean government censors; this was the face Kim Jong-il wanted to display to the West.
Highlights of part one: an adorable kindergartner singing a cheerful tune with the lyrics “The pathetic Americans kneel on the ground/They beg for mercy,” and somber factory executives explaining why American imperialism is to blame for the daily power outages plaguing Pyongyang.
This later video shows Pyongyang residents watching and reacting to Fleury’s documentary.
A State of Mind
This 2004 BBC documentary follows two young student gymnasts and their families as the girls attend school and prepare for their performances in the Arirang Mass Games. Unlike Fleury’s documentary, in this one the subjects speak relatively frankly about certain downsides of life in North Korea, especially the sufferings they endured during the famine of the 1990s. But they still blame “the Americans” for most of their troubles.
Friends of Kim
This documentary follows some European members of the Korean Friendship Association as they visit North Korea. Initially, they all believe North Korea is superior to the rest of the world, but most change their minds as the reality of North Korea sets in. The film is especially notable for its focus on Alejandro Cao de Benos, a Spanish citizen notorious for his support of North Korea. De Benos heads the Korean Friendship Association, and also operates North Korea’s official website.
The documentary also shows some of the problems foreign journalists can expect to face in North Korea, including government agents breaking into their hotel rooms and stealing any news footage they dislike.
The VICE Guide to North Korea
The tone here is snarkier and more colloquial than in the other documentaries, but the scenes are no less chilling. As you watch Vice co-founder Shane Smith and his fellow journalists wander through otherwise-empty theme parks, streets, and restaurants, remember: The North Korean government believes such scenes will impress Western visitors, perhaps even inspire envy of the rich North Korean lifestyle.
Inside Undercover in North Korea
In 2006, National Geographic journalist Lisa Ling, posing as a medical volunteer, went undercover into North Korea. Since none of her footage was vetted by North Korean censors, Ling’s documentary offers a far darker view of the country than any of the previous examples.
Coincidentally—or perhaps not—three years after Lisa Ling’s trip, the North Korean government arrested her sister Laura and sentenced her to 12 years in a forced-labor camp. Laura was eventually released, but more than a few pundits have speculated that her arrest was in retaliation for Lisa’s documentary. (That would be standard practice for North Korea: If one person is imprisoned for a crime, all of his family members are imprisoned as well. These “family labor camps” are also discussed in Ling’s documentary.)
North Korea: Children of the Secret State
Even Ling’s undercover video couldn’t show all the worst aspects of North Korean life; as a supposed medical volunteer, she could only see those parts of the country where foreign medical volunteers were allowed. Children of the Secret State features far grittier footage taken by North Korean dissidents and later smuggled out of the country. Dissident videos showing, for example, starving homeless orphans picking discarded rice grains out of the mud are contrasted with the shining, sterile face the country officially presents to foreign tourists.
More dissident/defector videos and a much longer list of documentaries (not always in English) can be found at For North Korea Human Rights, the YouTube channel of user Humanpixels. The name is a reference to the tens of thousands of North Koreans who serve as background decor for the country’s Arirang Mass Games: by holding various colored panels over their heads, the people create a vast and ever-changing pattern of patriotic Korean pictures—a mosaic made of human pixels.
NORTH KOREA ACCORDING TO NORTH KOREAN OFFICIALS
Life in the People’s Paradise of DPRK
This four-minute video is narrated by a pretty college student who shows off her family’s Pyongyang apartment and ponders the security and happiness enjoyed by North Koreans compared to the dreadful poverty and rampant homelessness which she believes is the norm in South Korea and other capitalist countries.
Pyongyang, a Great Place to Live
This much-older video is less than a minute long, but Westerners will be impressed by images of what North Korea considers “abundance.”
The Dear Leader
This half-minute video of Kim Jong-il riding a white horse is overlaid with a catchy song praising his qualities. The lyrics, translated into English, are: “When General Kim Jong-il was born, the clouds opened up and he came down from heaven, and then there was huge snowstorm./When General Kim Jong-il shouts out loud, storms always happen, HUGE STORMS ALWAYS HAPPEN!/‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ Kim Jong-Il shouts to the mountains.”
This cartoon’s actual name isn’t given in English, but it shows a young schoolboy who wants to neglect his studies and play. He learns the value of schoolwork after he falls asleep and dreams about an American invasion of North Korea. Luckily, the young boy fights off the invaders and saves his countrymen, thanks to his trusty protractor and geometry skills.
Daily Life Inside North Korea
This nine-minute video was uploaded in 2009 by a presumptive North Korea supporter, who wrote:
“This video shows some more normal things from the DPRK and not only the bad things – like the imperialist propaganda in the western news and documentaries. This video shows the REAL North Korea!
“The video is a tribute to The Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.”
Photo via Oliver Dulwich/YouTube
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