Il Communication

Last night I watched a fascinating National Geographic documentary about North Korea. Fascinating not just because it was the only NatGeo show all week not to feature plane crashes, tsunamis or other disasters, but because it gave an interesting insight both into North Korea itself and into how the US views those parts of the world that don’t play by its rules.

The programme featured a Nepalese eye doctor who had been invited by the North Korean government to go to the country and perform operations on 1000 cataract sufferers to restore their sight, whilst simultaneously training local doctors to do the same. The government had also graciously allowed a NatGeo film crew to come along and film the events, on condition they only filmed inside the hospital. So of course they smuggled in hidden cameras to film everywhere else, thus making it more difficult for future humanitarian/medical missions to the country. Great, well done guys.

Much of the commentary conveyed the usual blinkered US worldview, as extreme and fundamentalist as anything issuing from North Korea itself.

“The country has nuclear weapons, and could even USE them, or GIVE THEM TO TERRORISTS!” said the presenter. Yes, and they COULD also paint their arses blue & run around singing Una Paloma Blanca. But they probably won’t.

“They HATE America!” – North Korea is hardly unique in this respect.

“They call us IMPERIALISTS!” – as if this was some sort of insane leftist delusion, rather than a reasonable conclusion formed after observing US post-war foreign policy.

And so on and so forth.

But equally interesting were the insights into life in North Korea itself, admittedly a pretty grim place to live. Its citizens seem to be in constant competition to outdo each other in displays of loyalty to Kim Jong Il – as the presenter, in a rare moment of insight, observed, it no longer matters whether these displays are caused by brainwashing, fear or genuine loyalty, because they are a fact. For example, when asked what was the worst thing about being blind, one old woman replied “Not being able to see Kim Jong Il.” When their bandages were removed and they discovered they had regained their sight, the patients ignored the surgeon and ran straight to the nearest image of Jong Il to thank him and pledge to work harder in the salt mines in his honour etc. It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

There was also footage of Kim Il Sung (Jong Il’s dad)’s funeral, streets lined with weeping hysterical mourners. Not entirely dissimilar to the lines of quivering morons lining the streets of London back in August 1997, it has to be said.

As for Jong Il, we learned that he has a collection of over 20,000 DVDs, and is the world’s no.1 individual customer of Hennessy Cognac. Obviously all that booze doesn’t affect his golfing prowess, as I learned elsewhere that on his first ever round he came in at -38, having hit a number of holes-in-one.

South Korea, in contrast, was portrayed as an oasis of “freedom”, freedom, as usual for the US, symbolised by capitalism – the freedom to drink Coke, eat at McDonalds, wear Nike and generally be a fat, unthinking consumer. Pyongyang, devoid of street advertising and chain stores, looked like paradise in comparison.

Interesting stuff then. I wouldn’t want to spend any time whatsoever in North Korea and Jong Il is obviously a bit of a sod, but at the same time, his country’s isolation is not some random whim but the result of decades of threatening murmurs from the South and its powerful ally. Omit this context from any documentary about the country (and as we saw post-11/9, the US media doesn’t do context) and you don’t educate, you merely fuel hatred & mistrust.


One of the funniest vids on youtube – North Korea v South Korea, B-Boy style. Superb soundtrack too, and amazingly it appears to have actually been filmed along the 38th parallel.

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