Lost in the Movies: Inside North Korea

Inside North Korea

Update, November 2017: While I was rightly critical of this documentary's tone at the time, and remain wary of the DPRK government today, this nearly decade-old review now strikes me as far too credulous about all of the film's claims - and frequently too glib in its characterization of an entire nation. It remains as a marker of where I was in 2008 but I would advise readers to look elsewhere if they want a more well-rounded picture of this society and its relationship to the U.S.

Though an interesting idea, "Inside North Korea" is a rather slapdash production, the kind of thing you'll watch and be fascinated by on the History or Discovery Channel late at night, but which is too sensationalistic to really stand on its own. Of course, it's admittedly hard not to be sensationalistic when dealing with North Korea. A Stalinist prison camp shut off from the outside world, ruled by the whims of a madman, North Korea is so impoverished that satellite pictures taken at nighttime show it as an island of darkness while surrounding countries shine with the bright lights of civilization. And yet they have nukes, which is a cheery though (and why this doc is included in this series).

"Inside North Korea" is an episode of "National Geographic Explorer" and as I indicated, it doesn't really ascend above the level of your average TV doc program (this ain't "Frontline" for sure). The ostensible premise is that some journalists go undercover with a doctor curing eye ailments in Pyongyang - they are allowed to film his operations but they also smuggle the cameras around the city. This whole adventure made me a little queasy - how will it impact further humanitarian missions? And what about the people the journalists interviewed - who presumably did not know they'd end up on television? Would the government, demonstrably paranoid and sadistic (it sentences the families of political prisoners to gulags) retaliate for any perceived lack of enthusiasm (what about the "guides" who let this happen under their noses)?

Granted, everyone we see grovels before portraits of Kim Jong Il, weeping and screaming for joy at mention of his name. When the doctor finishes his operations, removing bandages so that now his patients can see, the first thing they do is prostrate themselves before their Beloved Leader's portrait, weeping and praising his name to the sky. Soon hundreds of people in this dingy little room are joining in a chorus of praise for him (or should I say Him), trying to outdo one another. It's a surreal scenario, and the narrator notes that it's impossible to know which among them really believes in the president's divinity and which ones are praising him out of fear - or if there's even a difference anymore (one thinks of the end of 1984).

These scenes are fascinating to be sure but much of "Inside North Korea" is disappointingly straightforward. Despite the title and the premise, and the risk it entailed (or perhaps because of that) the filmmakers don't actually document much behind-the-veil action. We see desolate parks and vistas - this must be the most depressingly barren and sterile country on earth - and hear official guides admonish the Americans for taking inappropriate pictures of Kim Il Sung's gigantic statue, but even these images feel modulated by North Korean intervention. I suppose it would be just too impossible to attempt anything more.

Some of the most interesting sequences take place at the border. Americans (who, if this program is to be believed, have far more of a presence on the South Korean side of the border than the South Koreans themselves) have to communicate through convoluted methods with the North Koreans, who are mere inches away but cannot interact with the other side unless they get permission from on high. On the North Korean side of the divide, two guards face one another, ready to shoot the other if he tries to jump over, while another guard stands further back, evenly between them, facing the other way in case someone tries to escape from that direction.

We also hear of a daring escape by a North Korean border guard (though the reenactment used to portray his escape is unnecessary and further undermines the "exclusive undercover" implications of the film's title). Having made a mundane mistake one night he realized he would probably be executed and plotted an immediate and risky exit from his country. Yet even this is not exactly an uplifting moment - a compatriot is electrocuted by the fence, and when asked about what happened to his family, the survivor says he'd rather not talk about it.

Ultimately, what makes North Korea more than a curiosity or yet another unfortunate humanitarian disaster is the fact that Kim Jong Il, who kidnaps Japanese actors and forces them to star in his home productions and spends millions on expensive toys while his population starves, now has a finger on the nuclear button. We've heard a lot of drum-beating about Iran in the past few years, but a) they are apparently years away from a bomb and b) they strike me, for all their Ahmadinejad wackiness and fundamentalist fervor, to be an essentially shrewd nation-state. North Korea (or rather Kim Jong Il) is like the globe's irrational Id, armed with missiles and singing hymns to the Dear Leader as it marches off to the Apocalypse.

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