It’s strange, but when it comes to those poor people from that evil country, some in the media seem incapable of understanding nuance. A North Korean is either a victim or an indoctrinated weirdo. And that, apparently, is all we need to know.
Maybe it is easier for the world to think this way, especially in a time of heightened tensions. Dehumanising a people makes outrageous suggestions like this one seem so much less shocking. They are not like us and therefore do not deserve to be treated like the rest of humanity.
North Korea is secretive. It is run on an ideology few outside comprehend. What little we know or think we know of the country is typically gleaned from images released by the state, or through stories told by those who’ve escaped, or from silly memes on the internet. But it’s all a little ironic. We laugh at North Koreans for their seeming lack of independent thought, and yet allow the media to condition us to think of the country and its people in the narrowest of ways. Here’s the thing: There are an estimated 25,000,000 of them. They can’t all be the same.
When we were making ‘The Great North Korean Picture Show’, our three guides were Mr Kim, Mr Kim and Mr Kim. Yes, those really are their names. And yes, we could tell them apart.
The first Mr Kim is a music buff and film lover. He had seen ‘Atonement’ and ‘Bend It Like Beckhem’ and was curious about the latest James Bond movies. He played piano and adored ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. When he wasn’t stressed out he would sing to himself and encourage the rest of us to join in. Most days though, Mr Kim walked around with disheveled hair and a furrowed brow. He had taken a big risk negotiating for us to film in North Korea. Many of the things we asked to see and do were until then, off-limits to foreigners. It was not easy dealing with the bureaucracy and two outsiders who didn’t understand how his country worked. There were days when he looked completely sleep-deprived.
Despite all this, Mr Kim made sure we got everything we needed. He was also surprisingly thoughtful, showing up at our room one morning with cake and a bottle of wine. It was my birthday. We’d forgotten. But Mr Kim remembered.
The second Mr Kim used to be a soldier. A little bit older, a little bit more guarded, he fretted constantly about all sorts of things. Were we perhaps breaking some rule we didn’t know about? Was the weather too hot? Too cold? Were we hungry? Did we have too far to walk? Mr Kim likes order and he likes things predictable. We must have caused him unimaginable stress whenever we asked to change the schedule.
He also likes his whiskey. His face lit up whenever we brought him bottles from Duty Free in Beijing. In return, he gave us ginseng wine to take home.
The third Mr Kim loves cold noodles. There isn’t a lot more we know about him. He was our driver and we didn’t get to talk much. The one time we had lunch together, he kept his attention focused on his noodles – piled high on a platter, drenched in cold soup. He polished it all off quickly, purposefully. We were not even halfway through our own portions when he announced he was done, a grin on his face.
This was something we noticed about the older generation in North Korea. They always finished their food. Mrs Pak, who translated for us during our very first trip to the country in 2008 – and who subsequently became the subject of a nasty prank by a Danish filmmaker – would shake her head every time she saw leftovers on anyone’s plate. It was, she said, bad to be so wasteful. She still remembered the great famine, the terrible hunger that plagued North Korea in the 90s.
“We are lucky to have all this,” she often said. “So lucky.”
She played a mean game of ping pong. One night, just for fun, we challenged her to a match at the basement of our hotel. Mrs Pak didn’t hesitate. Her long skirt swished as she beat us over and over again, a tiny little thing, barely five-feet tall.
We often think about Mrs Pak. Shortly after our first trip to Pyongyang, she became the unwitting star of this film. The filmmaker said she worked for the Secret Service and proceeded to effectively destroy her life. What possessed him? Perhaps it was the unwavering belief that everyone in North Korea was brainwashed and evil and hence fair game.
Despite repeated requests, we never got to see Mrs Pak again.
There’s a scene in our film where Director Pyo Hang berates a group of young extras drawn from the military, for failing to understand his instructions. He’s making a period drama about the Korean Army’s defeat by the Japanese, and he wants the soldiers to react in anger. But nothing they give him is good enough. One young man can barely keep a straight face. Director Pyo has to yell and scold and yell and scold before he gets something that works.
If we needed a sign that North Korea was changing, we saw it right there, on set that afternoon. Many from the older generation still remember the humiliation inflicted on them by their former colonial masters. Pyo himself specialises in anti-Japanese propaganda films. His motivation for doing so is intensely personal – his grandfather died during the occupation and he can still remember his family’s pain. Pyo’s anger continues to simmer but for the young extras, revisiting that bit of history doesn’t evoke the same emotions. They grew up in a different time. They cannot identify.
So too, with the other young North Koreans we got to meet – an elite group handpicked by authorities to become future movie stars. They’re familiar with their country’s history, are regularly reminded of what the Japanese did. But despite knowing all the right things to say, all the right sentiments to articulate, they never once gave us the impression that they hated anyone.
Observing Yun Mi, the actress-in-training in our documentary, as she fussed over shoes and make-up and moaned to her mother about a prettier, more talented classmate, I was struck by how normal it all felt. She reminded me of young women in my own country.
Throughout our shoot, Yun Mi fretted about her weight. She refused to finish her food and rolled her eyes when her parents spoke. She was wilful and giggly and difficult and charming. And she proved she had a mind of her own. She told us her father refused to listen when she said she wanted to go to acting school. He had dreams of her becoming a scientist instead. Determine to forge her own path, Yun Mi auditioned without telling her parents, and was accepted.
There’s no denying that North Koreans are surrounded by propaganda. In Pyongyang at least, it’s everywhere – the singing of patriotic songs and chanting of slogans. The spectacle of the Mass Games, of towering monuments erected as tributes to the genius, the contributions, the benevolence, the greatness of the country’s leaders. These are what most people associate with the regime. Over-the-top displays of adoration for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now, Kim Jong Un. The visual impact is so powerful, the emotions expressed so mind boggling, outsiders think it is all the country is about. All that its people are capable of.
But they are so much more than that.
Yes, it’s true I’ve only ever met a handful of North Koreans – a privileged lot who are perhaps not representative of their fellow citizens. But this is precisely the point. If diverse personalities exist within this tiny group, what more among 25,000,000 people?
North Koreans are more than just a mass of quivering Kim Il Sung-devotees. They are, like you and me and every other person – complex and layered and… surprise, surprise, very human. The same can perhaps be said of the country’s leadership. We can laugh all we want, circulate as many silly memes as we like. But none of this brings us any closer to understanding their motivations. None of this explains Kim Jong Un’s recent bout of sabre rattling.
Perhaps this is how some journalists like to keep things. This sense that North Korea is closed off and unpredictable, bleak and creepy and paranoid. That there’s nothing anyone can do because no one can negotiate with the irrational. This kind of narrative makes headlines so much easier to write, stories sound so much more exciting. It makes it easier for journalists like John Sweeney to ignore the very real possibility that his ‘undercover reporting’ endangered the North Koreans who assisted him during his trip.
Mrs Pak once told us she felt the world misunderstood her and her fellow countrymen. Maybe she was hoping then that we would say something to dispute her point. We didn’t. We couldn’t.