In October 2005, Channel 4’s documentary series, Dispatches, showed a programme on North Korea entitled Undercover in the Secret State. In the run up to the airing of this programme, audiences were primed to expect a damning exposé of the “last bastion of Stalinism” based on secret footage smuggled at great peril out of the country. As it turned out, the programme was nothing more than a very crude and patronising (both to the North Korean people and to the programme’s audience) propaganda exercise.
The narrator, a Chinese woman, kept her face hidden throughout the documentary – a measure, we were informed, that was necessary in order to protect her safety and those of the ‘dissidents’ she was interviewing. This lack of accountability was continued throughout the programme.
As it turned out, however, the narrator did not actually set foot inside North Korea! Instead, she choose to mill about the North Korean/Chinese border in the hope of catching some of the many people we were assured were regularly crossing into China. She also interviewed a few so-called North Korean defectors in various other Asian cities, including Seoul and Bangkok.
Since the filmmakers had entirely failed to go ‘undercover’ in the DPRK, the programme was entirely lacking in actual North Korean footage. Instead, much of the documentary’s visuals consisted of scenes of poverty and grime shot in the cities where the alleged ‘defectors’ were living. This device served not only to fill the gaps, but also to help the audience associate grime and poverty with North Korea.
The narrator did manage to interview a few people who we were told had fled North Korea as political refugees, and there was a small quantity of footage of North Korea filmed on video cameras smuggled into the country. For the most part, this footage contained absolutely nothing of any interest – a group of people sitting in a circle with their backs to the camera; scenes of a harsh Korean winter, etc.
The narrator made wild claims that the footage contained proof of public executions taking place in the DPRK. In the event, this “proof” turned out to be nothing more than a shot of a dark alley leading out onto a brightly lit area – not exactly convincing!
It cannot be assumed that the ‘execution’ footage was not shown because it was considered too sensitive for the audience, because later in the documentary, the narrator stated casually that a woman, shown inexplicably lying down in a road (we are told in North Korea), was “dead” and that this was “a common sight in North Korea”. Shots of other “dead” people lying down in the streets followed, but no explanation was given as to the cause of death of these people or why they were left lying in the street.
It is laughable that the programme makers expect their audience to swallow this clear lie without further thought. To believe such an assertion is to believe that the people of the DPRK really are inhuman and barbaric savages. That is simply not borne out by the history of North Korea or by the way it is conducting itself in world affairs – having beaten imperialist invaders in the Korean war and gone on to successfully rebuild a country that was literally flattened by imperialist bombs; and now commanding six-party talks, bringing the US to the bargaining table, and winning important concessions from the most powerful imperialist nation in the world without a shot fired or bomb dropped.
Once this lie is exposed, the credibility of the whole documentary comes crashing down. If the documentary makers are forced to utter a lie of such proportions, then how can the audience believe anything else they say?
Other footage of North Korea was manipulated in the documentary in order to further denigrate the socialist state. Scenes of harsh weather and hostile environments were designed to reinforce the idea that North Korea is an isolated hermit state and its people cut off from the rest of the world. Scenes of North Korean culture, including the world famous Arirang gymnastic production and a mass dancing display in a city square, were presented in such a way as to imply that the participants were puppets and childishly naïve, instead of the displays of national pride, culture, strength, unity, health and hope that they are.
It was possible from the documentary to get a sense of the difficulties that the North Korean people face in their struggle to build socialism in a hostile world. Peasants were shown using hand tools and equipment and competing to scrape up fertiliser which had fallen from the back of a truck. It is a well known fact, openly acknowledged by the DPRK government, that the country is still recovering from the worst days of environmental disaster combined with severe fuel shortages, which wrecked havoc in the countryside and caused widespread food shortages that peaked in the years 1994-1998.
It is with pride that the Korean people are now able to declare that the worst days of famine are over. And it should be a source of inspiration to all working people across the world that the Korean people have shared the burden of hard times equally and are moving forward towards a prosperous future on an equal footing.
Serious question marks must also be raised about the manner in which the narrator extracted her information on Korea from defectors. Her ‘interview’ style actually consisted of making clear the preferred answer to any question in the most overt and leading way. Questions such as “Is there something you want to tell me but are too afraid to say over the phone?” and “Are people beaten inside North Korean prisons?” exacted the required positive responses. Money was seen to change hands at several points in the documentary, along with cigarettes and alcohol. This, we were told, was for bribing border guards so that people and footage could be smuggled over the Chinese border.
The one meaningful insight that the documentary did give (although not one intended by its producers) was into imperialist interference in North Korean affairs. In particular, the programme exposed the US’s rigorous campaign of anti-communist propaganda. This propaganda, broadcast from South Korea and aimed at the people of the DPRK, is put out by such instruments as the US-backed radio station for Korean dissidents, the ’Freedom Youth League‘ that US imperialism has been set up in order to encourage young Koreans to fight for “democracy and freedom”.
We were told that South Korean and US soap operas and films are smuggled and distributed in the DPRK, with the aim of showing “how prosperous people in the outside world are and hopefully making the North Korean people question whether their leadership is telling them the truth”. We met one North Korean woman who claimed to have left the country in search of the prosperous life promised by the films she had viewed. She explained that she had young children, one of whom was ill, that she had got into debt after her husband died and decided to go to China in order to “pay off some debts”. Having left her country, she admitted that life outside North Korea was not as she had been led to believe from watching the films.
All in all, the documentary totally failed to put forward a case on the basis of reliable evidence and sound journalistic practices that actually damages North Korea. It is a testament to the strength of the North Korean people and socialism that a documentary of this nature is considered necessary. Such is the strength of the anti-DPRK propaganda in our society, however, that the documentary makers obviously feel they can get away with such blatant slander without comeback.
There is a duty on all working-class and progressive people to counter propaganda of this kind and stand firm in support of the DPRK, which represents a future of equality and freedom for working people freed from exploitation of the capitalist system.