Friday, 19 April 2013

TV Review: Panorama - North Korea Undercover

As undercover reporting goes its hardly up there with Donal MacIntyre's tattooed two year infiltration of the Chelsea Headhunters or Antonio Salas learning Arabic, converting to Islam and getting circumcised in order to infiltrate terrorist organisations.

No, in Panorama - North Korea Undercover (BBC1) shouty documentarian John Sweeney manages to impregnate the secretive womb of communism by growing a bit of a beard and nodding his head in a professorial manner. Let's hope North Korea's long distance nukes are as effective as their border controls.

Judging by the media furore generated by his masquerading as LSE history teacher on a study trip, I was half expecting Sweeney to have offered up LSE students as free labour for the Korean gulags. The reality is much more prosaic. Sweeney just went along for the ride on the same lame coach tour as the students and filmed it. His guide offers words of reassurance for those tourists worried about security.

"Our bus has the mark of the Korean International Travel Company so the Americans won’t strike our bus. Ha ha .  .  .’

Despite Sweeny's attempts to ramp up the jeopardy,

”We’ve seen loads more soldiers in town can feel the tension rising”

no one seemed to be in the least bit of danger during his eight day visit.

In fact for such a secretive society they seem relatively lax in their security. On the bus, despite repeatedly being asked not to take photos of the poverty stricken Koreans scrabbling about the drab countryside (they do anyway) the tour group are free to wave their cameras about during the scheduled stops and video whatever they like.

Some of these stops are laughable staged. A farm devoid of animals or crops, a bottling plant without any bottles or a pristine hospital that doesn't actually have any patients in it. This was the only point where Sweeney has the balls to conduct any challenging journalism.

‘Tell the doctor we’re not fools. We haven’t seen any patients."

Whilst their enemies to the South offer all the trapping of a prosperous, free western society North Korea's tin pot regime isn't even able to keep the lights on. Pyongyang suffers constant city wide power outages on a daily basis. Is this really a country we should be worried about?

Yes, according to North Korean expert, Professor Brian Myers, who suggests we should take them seriously in case their rhetoric inadvertently turns to war by accident.

‘We may see a thermo-nuclear war but it wouldn’t be because the North Koreans wanted it. It’s not their plan to unleash that, but it might come to that as a result of a disastrous miscalculation.’

Most telling are the stories from defectors talking about the work camps where bodies are buried in mass graves and the reality of living in this totalitarian regime is chilling. In South Korea Sweeney interviews an escaped doctor who explains that rank is no guarantee of protection in this oppressive society.

‘If you as a doctor had said, “We need more money for medicine for the patients”, what would have happened?’ ‘They would kill me that very day"

Offering a peak into this Orwellian country, Sweeney documentary is interesting enough from a voyeuristic prospective, but it's hardly ground breaking. Yes, Kim Jong Un comes from a long line of despotic nutcases. Yes, North Korea is a paranoid and warlike state. Yes, its inhabitants are routinely brain washed by 24hr propaganda. This is all common knowledge.

North Korea's "mystery" may have more to do with the fact it is such an utterly depressing place, very few people have actually bothered to visit it.

You can watch it on iPlayer for the next 12 months

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