What do you know about North Korea?

Let me help you with a few basics I know from the news. It owns nuclear weapons that could allegedly reach the west coast of the United States; there is an incredible food shortage causing the population to starve; their dictator managed to shut down the theatrical release of a US-American satirical film evolving around his own assassination; traitors of the revolution are being executed on the grounds of religion or political ideology; one man was even executed and then fed to dogs in a public showdown.

Sounds like a rather uncomfortable place to stick your wanderlust-y nose in, right? And yet, I’m actually quite intrigued to see the country for myself one day. People say all sorts of things when they are uncertain about or scared of the unknown; rumours can quickly spread and cultural differences are easily portrayed as ‘the undesirable other’; the news are not always the objective truth – if such thing even exists. The allegations against North Korea weigh heavy on the country’s shoulders and while I am certain that the regime violates its people’s human rights (as any totalitarian regime does), I am still curious to look behind the curtain.

Not in person, though – for now I prefer going to the cinema, so I got myself a ticket for Álvaro Longoria’s documentary ‘The Propaganda Game’ which screened just recently at Glasgow Film Festival. You can watch the trailer here:

The film is a strange journey to an even stranger place. Of course the filmmaker is not allowed to just walk and film wherever he pleases, but is dependent on the personal invitation of the only foreign employee of the North Korean government, the Spanish Alejandro Cao de Benós. The film crew gets a strict travel itinerary and is always accompanied by their Korean guides. Although, they are theoretically allowed to interview who they want, their encounters are steered and controlled by their itinerary.

They have school children singing nationalistic songs for them, a regular housewife showing them her kitchen (but not the contents of her fridge), young war veterans telling them their dream is to further serve their country as locomotive drivers and tour guides breaking in tears of their national pride. All of it looks staged, but the funny thing is, none of it looks forced. The people’s pride and love for their country and leader seems real, and who am I to judge this.

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In-between his own footage from North Korea Alvaro shows interviews with North Korea experts, human rights activists, North Korean defectors and tour operators offering tourism packages to the country. One of these tour operators, a man from the UK, mentions that a lot of tourists complain that everything seems staged. What I thought was really fascinating about this was his response, ‘tourists should stop taking themselves so important’. And indeed, why would an entire nation stage itself for a group of tourists? The line between staged and authentic in North Korea seems to be less clear than one might assume.

A guided tour will always be staged to some extent. The tour guide takes you to places he or his company selected and you get to meet locals who have agreed to share an insight on their lives with you. To get a truly authentic image of a place you need a lot of time to explore individually.

Of course, unlimited time and individual exploring is hardly something the North Korean tourism policy would encourage, and the tourists and Alvaro’s film crew are denied a response to their more critical questions. What is the living situation like in terms of food supplies and freedom to choose your job and home? What are the conditions in the prisons and detention camps? Where does the regime take the money from to build all the state-owned apartment buildings and infrastructure and supply the military?

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The filmmaker Álvaro Longorio with Alejandro Cao de Benós The filmmaker Álvaro Longorio with Alejandro Cao de Benós.

Instead of trying to find answers to these questions though, Alvaro goes down another route. He turns towards the other side of the propaganda coin. While there is little ‘truth’ in the propaganda of the regime, he reminds me that the western media is not a newbie to steering opinions either. The way we think about North Korea, or any other foreign place on that note, is strongly dependent on how these places are represented in our media. By the way, there is absolutely no evidence for the rumour of the man being executed and fed to dogs and several defectors have admitted to having embellished their accusations.

I’m not trying to whitewash any of the horrible human rights violations of the North Korean regime, but if I learnt one thing by watching ‘The Propaganda Game’, it is to always question where your criticism comes from and sometimes be a little bit more critical about your own culture’s ideological imperialism.

In times of a severe refugee crisis in Europe and increasing misconceptions about ‘the other’, about refugees and about members of different religious confessions I would like to encourage you to look behind the curtain and try to understand where the other party in a conflict is coming from. Because, we’re all playing a role in the propaganda game.