[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.
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]
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
- Academics condemn undercover filming in North Korea (www.guardian.co.uk)
- Undercover in North Korea: making it harder for serious researchers to do their job (www.nknews.org)
- N Korea trip students criticise LSE (bbc.co.uk)
- North Korea Panorama programme was worth risking lives for, says BBC chief (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Students say LSE has placed them at ‘more risk’ from North Korea (guardian.co.uk)