Grace Dent on TV: North Korea Undercover: Panorama

I loved the chipper ferocity of John Sweeney's tour guides. But where are they now?

With only the deep sense of disrespect for news that other breaking news can have, John Sweeney's big brave jaunt into North Korea this Monday to report Kim Jong Un's inhumanity was upstaged by other nefarious terror-making at the Boston Marathon. I caught the first 15 minutes of this much-anticipated Panorama with one eye on the breaking US news, the Twitter eye-witness accounts of lost limbs, blood-puddles, dead runners, the Vine smartphone app clips of screaming and incomprehension. Eventually I turned everything off. Ignorance was kinder. Sometimes it's better simply not to know.

Days later, due to the glory of iPlayer, I am up to speed on the London School of Economics's trip to Pyongyang. Sweeney travelled with the students “undercover”, he claims. In fact, John Sweeney's cover was to be exactly like John Sweeney the wholly recognisable and immensely Google-searchable TV reporter. If one quickly types “John Sweeney” into YouTube, an infamous clip of him screaming at Scientologists, boasting 1.5 million hits, appears, along with nine other pages of John Sweeney-related high-jinx. Sweeney completing any trip to North Korea without causing the indefinite detainment in a gulag for a bunch of British young people, an international incident/threat of a geo-nuclear war, or simply another heavy BBC management drubbing depended on North Korean intelligence having no access to WiFi.

Part of me is quietly grateful people like Sweeney exist, brimming with “film and be damned” derring-do. Another part is aware that if one of my family had been traipsing around a North Korean hospital with “Sweeney the lecturer” as he quibbled with officials over his jilted demands to speak to patients, his brass neck would make me incandescent.

In truth, I'm not sure we learnt anything fresh about North Korea from Sweeney's stunt. Yes, as we thought, this is a grimly neglected, largely barren country full of brainwashed or at least feigning-brainwashed citizens, although it was indeed pleasing to get a fresh sneaked glimpse. We saw Pyongyang underground railway, devoid all of advertising, just grinning paintings of Kim Jong Il and his delightful flyaway hair, yet deep enough to shelter in when missiles begin flying. We saw the poor and hungry huddled by roadsides steeped in filth. Terrible, yes, but I have similar people on my own road in London and we're supposed to be the good guys. We saw a variety of North Korean luxury hotels aimed at tourists which were stark, grubby and either dilapidated or unfinished. In fairness I've stayed in worse hotels in Blackpool, but the ominous, chilling backing score which played each time Sweeney fumbled his way to a urinal during a hotel power-cut definitely upped the ante.

“They're building a bank,” Sweeney whispered, filming from his hotel room window. “It's 4am in the morning. They don't stop. Night and day.” But we build, maintain, clean and refurbish 24 hours a day in Britain too, I thought. We are strivers, not skivers, remember.

For me the most fascinating part of this documentary was the chipper ferocity with which the tour guides and officials maintained their party line about the North Korean infrastructure: “The factories are all closed, the market stalls are empty, electricity supplies are sporadic, due to the American threat of terror. Healthcare of citizens is in full working order, yes it is, look at out lovely MRI machine! It's just that the patients were all there this morning and they've gone now. It's a pity too as they'd have loved to meet you! Kim Il-Sung hasn't been dead since 1994, he has simply transcended to a different earthly plane and is still very much relevant as a leader. Yes South Korea has electricity, WiFi and Starbucks but they are evil miscreants who want to kill us.”

Despite the show not having enough juicy insider intelligence to fill 10 minutes, I could have watched these people confabulate and pay allegiance to their mighty pigeon-chested leader Kim Jong Un for hours. For their faces display an emotion – blank, permanently subservient, inwardly fearful yet eerily upbeat – which we British simply don't have a word for.

Defectors from North Korea popped up several times to state that any form of backchat or whiff of dissent, however tiny, however subtle, against the regime resulted in death. We heard of gulags where the corpses mount up in a warehouse in winter, then are slung into the ground 200 at a time when the soil is softer.

But what happened to the chipper translators and guides who failed to realise that Sweeney was a reporter? That sweet North Korean lady standing at the front of the tour bus, microphone in hand, tunelessly yet passionately wailing a party anthem. Where is she now? I shut down the iPlayer and tried not to think about her. All in all it's been a good week for burying one's head and avoiding the unpalatable.

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