When we think of Norh Korea we see images in our minds of crazy, bouffant sporting dictator Kim Jong-il (or photoshopped Kim Jong-il). We think of an anti-American Axis of Evil hell bent on creating a successful nuclear arms program. We might even remember something about a famine in the 1990’s.
But how much of North Korea can we actually say we’ve seen? What do we really know about North Koreans? What are they like?
When famines, floods, catastrophes, or celebrations occur in most other countries, we are fed sounds and images of the events. News crews have access to take pictures and shoot video and bring it all back in living color for us to be shocked, horror struck, or happy. Obviously, this is not the case with isolationist North Korea. Like a haunted tomb in some horror flick (or Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome) hardly anything gets in or out.
Enter Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice Magazine and vbs.tv correspondent with The Vice Guide to Travel – North Korea. The documentary is made up of fourteen five-minute long segments of Vice stylized gonzo journalism and rare video footage of North Korea.
Smith, through the advice of N. Korean refugees living in South Korea, was able to find a backdoor into the country by bribing the consulate in Shenyang China. He disguised himself as an American tourist entering the country in order to observe the Airirang Mass Games in Pyongyang.
Somehow, he and photographer Jamie-James Medina were able to get away with not only getting into the country, but carrying around small, hand-held cameras while they were there. The content truly is freaky. To quote Smith, “You are not a tourist, you are on a tour.”
The two are always accompanied by a guide and escorted from location to location with only a set amount of time allowed for each stop. Every “tourist stop” on this trip is completely staged by the Government with the intent of projecting the image of a happy, modern and thriving country. Almost everywhere is quiet and empty as the government does not want or even allow its citizens to interact with foreigners, especially Westerners.
While touring Pyongyang Metro, one of the very few places where they were able to see and interact with everyday North Koreans, Smith notes, “they look at you and they are fascinated. They do not like you. They have been told you are the devil since they were two-years-old.”
This look into the world’s most reclusive nation is fascinating, though some may feel that Smith isn’t respectful enough of the people and the culture that he documents.
The final episode shows him celebrating at a karaoke bar. On the South Korean made karaoke machine is a version of Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, which he sings, emboldened by drink and with much enthusiasm. At one point he is even able to get the obviously uncomfortable karaoke hostess to sing, “I am the antichrist.” While this scene is awkward and even unimaginable, it somehow fits.
We see two people of two hugely differing cultures. They are completely foreign to and unaware of each other’s worlds. And here they are being exposed to and even shocked by their great differences for the first time. I would argue that it isn’t so much a case of Smith being disrespectful as it is of him being honestly shocked, surprised, and disturbed at all he’s seen
Smith closes the Guide with the following thought: “This is a time machine. This is 1930’s Russia or 1950’s Soviet Union. They see me as the Yankee Imperialist Aggressor and I see them as the Land that Time Forgot.” Watch the entire series at VBS.TV.