The Kim Il-Sung International Friendship Exhibition has a gift store.
Walk up to a huge, windowless concrete complex in the middle of the woods. Put dingy surgical covers on your shoes. Leave all personal belongings at a security station. Walk through a single, structurally questionable metal detector manned by no fewer than six military personnel. Then spend two hours touring room after room stacked full with gifts given to the Great Leader by international envoys from a surprisingly broad breadth of countries.
There’s an iPad from a Chinese electronics manufacturer. An elephant tusk from Robert Mugabe. An embarrassing amount of embroidered art from American communist groups.
You end with the gift store. Economic egalitarianism has its limits, apparently. And so do the wares — DVD copies of the revolutionary soap operas incessantly playing on state-run TV, postcards of Koreans practicing Taekwondo in the forest, room temperature sodas, and the like.
The perceptions my film is designed to combat were in ample supply in the media swirl surrounding North Korea’s unexpected successes at the London Olympics. The nation’s athletes nabbed six medals, including four gold. And virtually all the resulting coverage operated under a formula now standard in the Western press: make fact-free speculations about the ruling regime’s latest brutalities and/or brazenly exotify the Korean people.
Case A: You’ve probably seen reports that North Korean Olympians who don’t medal get thrown into labor camps. Digging into the hyperlinks, it’s hard not to notice that every one of these reports has neglected basic journalistic standards for sourcing.
Go check them out yourself. Find anything remotely resembling hard evidence for this story?
At best, you’ll bump up against “rumors” from unnamed sources. That’s standard operating procedure. Western media outlets are free to pass along any tidbit burped up by the ether so long as it supports the prevailing narrative that North Korea is a pathological, irrational, fascist state sustained purely by social suppression.
Case B: When sub-five-foot weightlifting powerhouse Om Yun Chol told reporters Kim Jung Un’s spirit powered him to a Gold Medal, sports blogs blew up in condescension and scorn.
Seems so ridiculous right?
Talk to the actual experts, and they’ll admit that the information coming out of North Korea is severely limited and all theorizing needs to be accompanied by a metric ton of salt.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve immersed myself in scholarly material analyzing North Korea and its ruling regime. I’ve interviewed nearly a dozen top-notch North Korea academics. I just travelled around the country for over a week. And, to my mind, the truth about North Korea is much different — and much more distressing — than the standard narrative.
I’m not going to give it all away here. Come see the film this winter. But…
North Korea’s central religious tradition is Confucianism. For about forty years leading up to the Korean War, the peninsula suffered under brutal Japanese colonial rule. Before that, Koreans had been governed exclusively under dynastic dictatorships — these people have never experienced democracy.
It is not a coincidence, then, that the national ideology carefully crafted by the country’s propaganda apparatus revolves around a man who’s been dead for almost two decades; stresses racial autonomy and social solidarity in the face of existential foreign threats; and makes a single Korean family god-like kings.
Don’t mistake this view as apologetic. North Korea is brutal and economically backwards. It’s horrifically poor. And in countless ways, the nation is really, really weird. But the stories told to placate the populace are smartly designed and quite effective at providing serious spiritual nutrients and a strong sense of purpose.
My film, “Juche Strong,” includes interviews with some fantastic North Korea academics, including Bruce Cummings, David Kang, Stephan Haggard, and Suk-Young Kim. Also participating: The New Republic’s Franklin Foer, who authored 2007’s fabulous “How Soccer Explains the World”; New York Times-bestselling soccer journalist Grant Wahl; and, a North Korean refugee now living in Maryland.
There was one especially striking moment at the Friendship Exhibition.
The building is fitted with long sparse hallways lit like a dentist’s office. About halfway through the tour, walking between display rooms, we passed a gaggle of Chinese tourists coming from the opposite direction. The group was remarkable because they could have been American. Their clothes could have come from the Gap. A couple needed some time at the gym. All the teenagers looked bored.
Immediately after that, we walked by a large group of North Koreans. There were the obvious contrasts — these were rural, breathtakingly physically homogeneous peasants sporting matching dark blue onesies with the standard Kim family pin for bling.
But after a double take I noticed that all of them – at least two dozen people — had synchronized the swinging of their arms, palms loosely clenched and elbows extended out military-style.
This wasn’t a parade. No one that I’d seen had ordered them to synchronize their movements. There was plenty of room in the hallway to spread out. But they had lined up, two by two, and coordinated the swing of their arms. Naturally.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire