By jake goldman

Looking into North Korea from the Cheorwon Peace Observatory, South Korea (Credit: Photography by Flickr User Jo; used with Creative Commons license)

Too often, I find myself cornering someone at a party, excitedly reeling off all I know about North Korea. Someone mentions something particularly crazy or unbelievable that they read about North Korea, and I start in with the tidbits:

“Did you know that Kim Il-Sung is technically still president of North Korea even though he is dead?”

“Subway stations in North Korea's capital city, Pyongyang, are bedecked with chandeliers and have marble floors.”

“You need a visa in North Korea to even travel between some villages.”

And on and on until that person walks away.

I've absorbed these facts over the years through various means: documentaries like National Geographic's Inside North Korea, Guy Delisle's graphic novel Pyongyang, a story based on his actual experiences living in North Korea as a Westerner, and Vice’s varied coverage of “The Hermit Kingdom.” I eat it all up — like how Kim Jong-Il was once the largest single purchaser of Hennesey, how his personal chef was was flown around the world each week to hunt for delicacies to be prepared solely for the dictator and whomever else he decided was worthy, or how he once punished that same chef by forcing him to prepare all his meals inside of a gymnasium.

I am not an expert on North Korea nor am I a journalist with a North Korea beat. I just know all these weird facts about the country. Really, I’m a voyeur, a fetishist. I’m fascinated by how much sheer power the Kim dynasty has and continues to have over the North Korean people. I'm floored that that level of control can exist in the same world as mine. In some ways, it's like watching a fucked-up dystopian movie on loop.  

Because of that relentless control over everything and restricted access, especially for Westerners, there's still plenty we don't know and may never know. North Koreans live life in an alternate dimension, closed off to any information that isn't carefully crafted by the D.P.R.K. And so any tiny morsel that leaks out becomes exciting, like I'm seeing behind a curtain I wasn't intended to see.


The Great Teacher

Lately, my obsession has been troubling me. The feeling was triggered by a book: The Great Teacher of Journalists: Kim Jong-Il written by “Anonymous” (likely meaning carefully monitored writers working for the D.P.R.K.). After a late night of binging on North Korea via countless Wikipedia pages and The Vice Guide to North Korea, I stumbled upon the book. It's not as if I'd made some archaeological discovery: Copies are widely available via Amazon or any other large online book purveyor. (Fredonia Books, a press out of Amsterdam, translated the 170-page guide to English; the connection between the press and North Korea is unclear, though the press has published several titles by Maxim Gorky and other writers that operated within the Socialist Realist principles, so there is that communist connection.)

I felt a little queasy when the book arrived. First: I realized that I was, in some way, supporting a horrendous dictatorship, something I hadn't thought about enough when I clicked “purchase” on Amazon. I just wanted that hit, a peek into something rare. Second: The thing itself felt forbidden, which, I suppose, is the main attraction. Here was a book that would be considered absolutely sacred in North Korea. I'm sure the notes I jotted in the margin would amount to a labor camp sentence for defacement. I wouldn't even be allowed to say anything with the slightest hint of sarcasm about the book or Kim Jong-Il himself without swift and harsh punishment.

After a few days of being too afraid to crack open the book, I finally caved. Here's what I was met with in the preface:

"[Kim Jong-Il] is always among journalists and teaches them every detailed problem arising in their activities, and kindly leads them to write and compile excellent articles that arouse the sentiments of the massive [sic] in keeping with the Party's intentions. He also brings up journalists to be the Party's reliable writers under his wings and takes meticulous care of every facet of their life and activity."

I closed the book. I felt gross. Sure, I'd read about things like the horrors of North Korean prison camps and the ruthlessness of high-up D.P.R.K. officials ordering firing squads on citizens for the slightest of missteps, but this felt different. Perhaps it was because I was holding the actual object, the book, a thing that exists in North Korea and is likely coveted by its owners. It felt too real.


From The Great Teacher of Journalists: Kim Jong-Il

A few weeks later, I forced my way through the book. It’s more a collection of stories concerning Kim Jong-Il's greatness and contributions to the betterment of North Korean journalism practices than a guide on how to be a great reporter. For example, Kim Jong-Il's tips on television:

"Unlike the cinema, the TV has a small screen. Therefore, you should close up the object and should not make it small. In particular, this is all more so when you show men. Only then will one take interest in looking into the TV screen."

It'd be easy to tear through this book, quoting excerpts, then riffing on the lunacy of it all. It might even be fun — translation issues aside, nearly every line has something worthy of ridicule and critique — but that's been done before and too many times. Pointing out North Korea's absurdities isn't anything new: A cursory search for “weird laws in North Korea,” produces myriad results with headlines like “10 Bizarre Things You Might Not Know About North Korea,” “18 Strange Facts About the North Korean Leader” and “50 Fascinating Facts: Kim Jong-Il and North Korea.”

Instead, reading The Great Teacher of Journalists prompted me to confront my obsession. I thought about how we see North Korea in the West and how we cover it. I thought about how that might help produce fetishists like me.


Kim Jong-Un and Dennis Rodman

North Korea: Land of Endless Absurdity

There is a particular way publications frame North Korea. Take, for example, a recent issue of The Week: In its “The world at a glance …” section, there’s a story about Kim Jong-Un ordering his ex-girlfriend’s execution via a firing squad. The story contextualizes Kim's former relationship with Hyon Song Wol and gives the stated reason for her death: She allegedly made a pornographic film, a capital crime. But before the piece (which is only about 100 words) ends, we're left with this:

"Meanwhile, former basketball star Dennis Rodman went to Pyongyang this week to visit Kim, whom he called 'my friend, the marshal.' The family of American missionary Kenneth Bae, jailed in North Korea for proselytizing, said they hoped Rodman would persuade Kim to release him."

On the one hand, Rodman's growing, weird and disturbing relationship with Kim Jong Un is indeed news, especially if it means that he'd have some influence in terms of Kim releasing Bae, an American being held in a labor camp for alleged religious conspiracy. However, it seems odd to shift to Rodman's play-date with Kim right after relaying a story about grisly deaths. Furthermore, since the story has run, Rodman has made his trip and did not come back with Bae, saying he never intended to ask about Bae in the first place. In fact, he had this to say to reporters, regarding why he did not ask directly for Bae’s release:

"That's not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae. Ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton,” he told a throng of reporters. “I don't give a shit."

Ultimately, what the mention of Rodman does do is shift the focus away from the gruesome and toward the wacky. The addition of Rodman pushes the reader toward seeing North Korea as this endlessly absurd land, one that is so out of control that all we can do is just sit back, mouths wide open and gawking, like we’re tapping a fishbowl with our fingernails.

The Rodman issue is particularly thorny. His second visit to North Korea has been covered to an almost maddening degree. On September 9, “Dennis Rodman” was at the top of CNN's “Trends” list, and the top two stories listed on the site's sidebar were “Rodman vs. Reality on North Korea” and “Rodman to Obama: Let's Talk,” the latter of which is a video of Rodman explaining his “special” relationship with Kim and how he wants to help repair diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States.

If you watch the video on CNN's website, you're then directed to immediate analysis of Rodman's words as well as a pre-taped package on Rodman's most recent North Korea visit.  Rodman is seen laughing with Kim, eating expensive food with the dictator and generally having a grand old time in the Hermit Kingdom. The story, altogether, is silly, absurd and sad. It fails to remind the viewer of the real horrors the country faces each day. It pushes North Korea to outermost fringes of crazy. It makes the country seem unreal, a made-up world in a George Saunders short story: “Yes, there are people starving — but, hey, look, a crazy, tattooed, washed-up basketball star is best bros with a ruthless dictator! Fun!”

The United States: Land of Snow Coffee

March of 2013: A video surfaces on YouTube claiming to be a North Korean propaganda film about the state of America and its people. In it, a British voice narrates over grainy footage of what is purportedly the United States:

"This is how Americans live today, drinking coffee made from snow, and living in tents and buying guns to kill each other, especially children. Some people complain about the guns."

The media response was swift, and many major outlets, including The Washington Post, The Daily Mail and Slate, fired off blog posts speculating on the video's origins. While few posts admitted outright that the video came directly from North Korea, no one denied its authenticity. Max Fisher of The Washington Post even noted initially that “The narrator is speaking in the theatrically emotional, sing-song Korean often used in state media broadcasts. And the message is consistent with North Korean propaganda.”

But the vitriol in the so-called propaganda wasn’t real. The video proved to be real in the sense that the footage came from an actual North Korean propaganda video — however, the narration was completely made up and voiced by a British travel writer by the name of Alun Hill. (He meant it to be satirical.)

D.C.-based NK News, a website dedicated entirely to North Korean news, chastised the media for their hasty reportage. NK News wondered why journalists hadn't tried to confirm the video's legitimacy by trying to translate the Korean-speaking woman underneath Hill's narration or why they didn't try alternate searches for the video in the first place. If they had, they would have been directed to North Korea's actual YouTube account, which includes the original video in its library, under a title that (according to NK News) translates loosely to “The Dark Reality of Capitalist Societies.” The video does decry American culture, but also other capitalist nations, and the narration is far less outrageous than Hill's version.


Pyongyang Opera (Credit: Photograph by Flickr user (stephan); used with Creative Commons license)

Land of Endless Absurdity and Snow Coffee

Not all coverage perpetuates the wackiness. The best example might be Gawker's response to news that Vice completed shooting an episode of their HBO series in North Korea, which revolves around Dennis Rodman's first visit to the country. Gawker's post is titled, “10 Absolutely Unbelievable Images from Dennis Rodman's Vice-Sponsored Trip to North Korea,” a Buzzfeed-esque headline that would lead a reader to believe that “crazy” photos without much substance would be revealed — ones that would make fetishists like me salivate.

Instead, Gawker turns the whole thing on its head. First, writer Cord Jefferson notes a tweet from Vice producer Jason Mojica while he was in North Korea:

Then Jefferson writes:

“It sounds like a lot of fun! And because North Korea tends to be so secretive about what's happening within its armed borders, we thought we'd offer up some of our favorite recent photos from the nation in an effort to let you in on the action. Party on, Rodman and friends!”

Instead of showing snaps of Rodman and company getting wasted and dining on expensive meats, Jefferson posts disturbing photographs of starved North Korean children. Each shows a child or a group of children with bones clearly visible under sickly skin, looking unhappy and completely helpless. In one sense, this sort of writing is effective, calling attention to the lack of self-awareness in Vice’s approach and reminding readers that there is still a humanitarian crisis taking place. However, it doesn’t do much to shift the paradigm for Western media coverage of North Korea. In framing the critique this way, Jefferson still keeps the attention

on the sensational, failing to shift the focus. He’s fighting absurdity with more absurdity, albeit of a different variety.

Part of what colors the particular tenor of the American media's coverage of North Korea has to do with access — as in, there really isn't any. Many of us know the story of the jailed American journalists Euna Lee and Lisa Ling, and how Westerners of any sort are rarely let into North Korea. Further, any official message that comes out of the country can likely be discredited as these missives come straight from master propagandists, making any official statement from the D.P.R.K. nearly impossible to confirm.

But part of the problem is something that’s plagued journalism since its inception: Sensationalism sells. And so, when little tidbits do leak out that aren't rife with dictatorial rhetoric, journalists tend to pounce and disseminate, knowing that the public is hungry for more glimpses of extreme, wacky otherness, preferably in slideshow form.

I realize, of course, that the onus is also on me, the reader. And so I'm trying. I'm trying not to imagine North Korea as some mythical place out of a novel. I'm trying not to dispense facts about the D.P.R.K. gleefully. I'm trying to remember that North Korea is very much real, with very real, deeply sad and often disturbing problems. Because underneath the veneer of strange customs and unbelievable laws are people, and no weird factoid about North Korea will change that.