Canadian NGO responds to BBC Panorama report on North Korea


[CanKor is often asked by journalists how to go about gaining access to North Korea. There was a time in the late 1990s when the DPRK experimented with allowing media to report on UN and NGO projects in the country. DPRK authorities quickly learned that market-driven Western media like to sensationalize the negative and ignore the positive. The door that was slightly ajar has since been locked tightly.

John Sweeney with DPRK military official at Panmunjom (frame capture from BBC documentary)

John Sweeney with DPRK military official at Panmunjom (frame capture from BBC documentary)

Having been denied access as reporters, some journalists have resorted to entering the country as part of tourist groups. A recent example is veteran newspaper reporter-turned TV journalist John Sweeney, who entered North Korea with his wife and a cameraman as part of a tour of students from the London School of Economics (LSE). The result was a half-hour documentary aired on BBC as a Panorama special.

LSE students and faculty have complained that the BBC’s actions were unethical and might endanger staff and students’ ability to work in difficult or hostile places in the future. Senior BBC executive Ceri Thomas defended the decision to send an undercover team. “This is an important piece of public interest journalism.” Asked whether that justified putting student lives at risk, he replied: “We think it does.”

Ethics in journalism is certainly a relevant issue to discuss. But is this really “an important piece of public interest journalism”?

A Canadian NGO who has gained a remarkable degree of access inside of North Korea doesn’t think so. Founded in 2009, the Pyongyang Project is a Canada and China-based social venture committed to responsible engagement in the DPRK through education, tourism and knowledge exchange. The following “response” was posted on their website in Vancouver on 16 April 2013, signed by the Pyongyang Project Management Team. –CanKor]

Response to BBC Panorama Documentary on North Korea

Recent news surrounding the dispute between John Sweeney, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the Panorama documentary on North Korea offers us an opportunity to evaluate the different ways we as foreigners can choose to approach North Korea.

On the one hand, we can follow Mr. Sweeney’s lead and adopt the attitude of an investigative reporter in search of ever more astonishing reminders that North Korea is indeed a whole lot different from “us”—and not in the good way. The depiction of North Korea as a nation of irate soldiers, inflammatory propaganda and oppressive brainwashing is hackneyed and simplistic at best, and both irresponsible and harmful at worst.

Mr. Sweeney and his crew visited North Korea as part of a highly restricted tour that over forty thousand other foreigners take every year. It is entirely naïve for Mr. Sweeney and his crew to assume that observations from this standard tour, specifically intended for foreign tourists, allowed them to draw meaningful conclusions about daily life in North Korea. To suggest as much, on a national stage, is extremely misleading. In an interview with the BBC, Mr. Sweeney claimed that North Korea is “more like Hitler’s Germany than other state in this world…extraordinarily scary, dark and evil.” This is a prime example of how simplistic and sensational characterizations absorb public attention away from the far more complex challenge of how to encourage productive engagement.

Criticism of Mr. Sweeney’s actions—that he placed LSE students at potential risk while also damaging LSE’s academic credibility—has been given much attention in the media and rightfully so. It should also be noted that concocting the identity of a professor and filming a documentary without permission might well have had repercussions in North Korea as well. By betraying the trust of their North Korean hosts, Mr. Sweeney and his crew unwittingly put their tour guides in personal danger. Mr. Sweeney’s claims that his actions “only deceived the government” are erroneous and betray his overly simplistic understanding of North Korea; it is false to again assume the “Government” is one cohesive unit.

For those of us who have spent years working with various North Korean ministries, bureaus, companies, institutions, committees, and universities, we understand that organizations operate with relative independence; the only group deceived would have been the tourism operator and agent with whom they arranged their tour. Should the Panorama documentary provoke negative backlash against North Korea, these tour guides may bear the brunt of the blame and the punishment. Considering the extent to which Mr. Sweeney compromised the safety of both his hosts and fellow travellers, it is disappointing that his ruse failed to reveal anything more constructive.

There are more creative ways to approach North Korea. Through our organization we have been working regularly with North Korean students, professors and professionals for the last five years; bringing them abroad for educational enrichment programs, and organizing exchange activities with them in North Korea. We have also brought many Western students to North Korea, South Korea and Northeast China to participate in study tours, language learning programs, and athletic exchanges. What we see is the dedication our North Korean students have for their studies, waking up everyday at six in the morning to prepare for class, asking for extra classroom time and homework to reinforce their lessons, making the most of the opportunity to study abroad under foreign professors. What we do is bring together different viewpoints of Chinese, South Korean, North Korean, and Western professors and practitioners to examine the issues in Korea from as many angles and standpoints as possible. The result: extreme complexity, high emotions, and a very human will to empathize with one another. It is time to be responsible and act constructively; and to stop using the misfortune of others as an entertaining horror show.

Here in Canada alone, there are universities and non-profit organizations implementing educational exchange projects to train North Korean students and professors in economics and humanities. There are also organizations working actively to provide humanitarian assistance to people throughout the North Korean countryside. Can Mr. Sweeney’s eight days looking at the country from a very limited lens rife with preconceived notions and half-baked analysis shed as much light on the reality of life in North Korea as years of on the ground experience?

In the face of heightened geopolitical tension the last thing the world needs is more fodder for the fire. With the increased media scrutiny, Mr. Sweeney has a unique opportunity to shift focus away from the customary narrative of North Korea as an irascible pariah state and elicit conversation on what can be done to make things better.

Pyongyang Project Management Team

3 Responses to “Canadian NGO responds to BBC Panorama report on North Korea”

  1. Erich Weingartner Says:

    CanKor Brain Trust member Aidan Foster-Carter joins other Academics in condemning undercover filming in North Korea

    [The following statement was published by The Guardian, Thursday 18 April 2013. –CanKor]

    We are all engaged in research and teaching about Korea and would like to make four points about the Panorama broadcast North Korea Undercover (Report, 16 April).

    1) The content of the report told us nothing about the DPRK not already widely available in the print and broadcast media.
    2) The unethical misrepresentation by the reporting team of themselves to the DPRK government endangered the LSE students on a study tour.
    3) The misrepresentation has damaged the reputation of the LSE as well as all other academic contacts with the DPRK.
    4) The misrepresentation has probably endangered the DPRK personnel involved with the group.

    For these reasons we believe that the BBC has not offered any service to the public, rather it has damaged reputations, set back attempts to make links with the DPRK, and the BBC should apologise publicly to both the LSE and to the students on the tour.

    Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary senior research fellow in sociology & modern Korea, Leeds University
    Emeritus professor James Grayson, University of Sheffield, former president, British Association for Korean Studies
    Dr Judith Cherry, Lecturer in Korean studies, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield
    Dr James Hoare, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, British chargé d’affaires to the DPRK 2001-02, former president, British Association of Korea Studies
    Professor Keith Howard, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
    Dr Anders Karlsson, Senior lecturer in Korean studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
    Dr Seung-young Kim. Senior lecturer, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield
    Dr Grace Koh, Lecturer in Korean literature, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
    Dr James Lewis, University lecturer in Korean history, University of Oxford, current president, British Association for Korean Studies
    Dr Owen Miller, Lecturer in Korean studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
    Dr Michael Shin, Lecturer in Korean studies, University of Cambridge
    Dr John Swenson-Wright, Senior lecturer, faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, University of Cambridge
    Dr Jaehoon Yeon, Professor of Korean language and linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

  2. Christopher Graper Says:

    Hear hear. Well said PY Project and CanKor. Thanks all, very encouraged to echo what is becoming a clear and distinct Canadian perspective. At the end of the day, isolation is a cruel fate, arguably second only to death as the cruelest of punishments. It’s most insidious effect is to impoverish our imagination and abstract our sense of commonality. What tourism in the DPRK does — such as its modest, limited, managed form — is keep open an important source of connection and imagination, one which flows unquestionably to the memory of our shared humanity, and it is hoped may lead to a more positive future.

  3. Douglas M. Smith Says:

    Typical English tabloid-style journalism. The only thing served by this Panorama article was to attempt to glorify the journalist.
    NOT clever, nor exposing anything new and certainly NOT helpful.
    There is enough tension on the Korean Peninsula right now without this ill-informed, ill-advised and certainly not well-intended journalist. He should be sacked at the very least.


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