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Review: Panorama - North Korea Undercover documentary


The BBC defended its Panorama film about North Korea as being “strongly in the public interest”. One certainly imagines a lot more members of the public were interested after the row over the methods employed in filming it, which included its excitable reporter John Sweeney growing a beard and — if you buy the line of attack mounted by academics at the London School of Economics — using innocent students as camouflage.  But the question only the film itself could answer was whether it actually contained anything that would interest the public — this being the kind of country where they may let the occasional Trojan horse in but never, ever leave it unattended long enough for the occupants to climb out and get up to mischief.  

Sweeney did manage to sneak away from the minders just once, slipping out of a dingy spa hotel (the best country had to offer) to look through a barbed wire fence at a wretched looking slice of North Korean normality. And he, or his colleagues, managed to ignore the repeated cries of “No photos, no photos” from the guides a couple of times. Elsewhere though what you got was the official tour, a numbing itinerary of inert bottling plants and mausoleums which isn’t going to do a lot for the republic’s etiolated tourist industry. Very little that they looked at was what it purported to be -- the only saving grace in this charade being that North Korea is so poor that it can’t even build a convincing Potemkin village. The factories were idle, and the model hospital they visited empty but for wary-looking medical staff. Where are the patients, Sweeney asked. Mostly they come to be treated in the morning, replied a doctor. One can only hope she delivered her lie convincingly enough to satisfy her masters, given that she and others like her are most likely to bear the brunt of any North Korean displeasure at Sweeney’s subterfuge. 

Simply pointing a camera out of the tour bus provided evidence of the astonishing backwardness of the country -- and there may have been a journalistic value in that alone, the proof that Orwell was not just a realist but had actually fallen a little short of the horror. And there was too a certain frisson in seeing the BBC’s man bow respectfully to a statue of Kim Il Sung, along with the rest of the LSE party. But if you judge a current affairs film on its ability to deliver new information there really wasn’t a lot here other than local colour, much of which is already available from other sources. Tellingly the murky black and white footage of the Yodok political prison camp came to us not from a covert meeting with a North Korean subversive but courtesy of YouTube. In the end North Korea Undercover was both fascinating and frustrating -- a glimpse of oppression so complete that it constantly trembles on the edge of absurdity -- but not really delivering anything new. As Sweeney himself said at one point “Something’s going on. It’s impossible for us to ask. What’s going on? We don’t know”.