The Vice Guide to North Korea teaches little and perpetuates pre-conceived notions

December 27, 2011 by Joshua
in NorthKorea

I used to love Vice Magazine. I still like it a lot. Ten years ago or so I would scour the East Village for copies when it came out, back when no one knew to associate its back-cover American Apparel ads with harassment lawsuits. I saved copies for years to reread articles I enjoyed. I think I went to some of their parties, but I forget.

I appreciate that it’s gone more mainstream, though it doesn’t seem to have the edge it once did. I just read a bunch of dos and don’ts, so, as I said, I still like it.

People often comment about having seen its video guide to North Korea. 391,000 people watched the first part of the Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube and I don’t know how many watched it on their own site.

I meant to watch it before going, but didn’t have time. Now I’m glad because watching it would have filled me with ill-founded pre-conceived ideas that would have worsened my visit.

First, I give them tremendous credit for doing what mainstream media could have done decades ago but didn’t. Vice does that well. I credit them for simply going at all. And they went years before I did, when going as an American was harder.

My two main issue are first that it begins by indulging in all these pre-conceived notions about North Koreans being weird because they have weird leaders. No problem. But once they get inside and realize the North Koreans welcome them and that the regular people they meet aren’t weird, they’re just regular people, they should quit treating them like caricatures.

Second, they focus on people more than the system. I found North Korean people like people anywhere, but the system very different. They would try to reveal that individual North Koreans were weird, which I found misguided and counterproductive to mutual understanding and communication.

If I were them, I would have removed the parts that showed their mistaken pre-conceptions, or at least acknowledged their mistakes. They never did anything the government wasn’t happy for them to do.

We didn’t have problems recording, probably because we didn’t treat people condescendingly. We didn’t act special or like we were sneaky. We treated people with respect and we had no problems. And we found the people were pretty normal, even if they lived in an unusual system.

Here are the notes I took while watching it.

  • Vice Guide is about Vice more than about North Korea. It uses the place and its weirdness to show themselves off. We went to the same places, ate the same foods, talked to almost identical people. But people in my group didn’t act like we were doing what anyone special. They did what the country promotes you to do.
  • Fun, but sensationalist. It showed not North Korea but North Korea’s representation of itself, which is a sensationalist dream.
  • That you can’t bring some stuff in is accurate, but not that bringing in a camera is dangerous or you have to keep it secret. Anyone can openly film and videotape. You can tell they could too, despite the implications of pushing limits at the beginning because they do it openly and the North Koreans don’t object.
  • Getting in is easy. Just go with company that’s been doing it for two decades.
  • Once they realized they could take a guided tour and mistook the challenges of entering, why did they keep parts implying getting in was hard? It’s not, as shown by the government showing them around a prepared guided tour. Why did they include the parts implying you can’t record when they film government officials, guides, and soldiers, as well as large groups of other foreigners? If you show those parts, at least acknowledge you showed your misconceptions, not anything about North Korea.
  • There’s plenty to show about North Korea, but they kept missing it.
  • The propaganda films it shows do all have those accents. We found them funny too. I enjoyed the reminder.
  • They played up the government rules, which are annoying, but I didn’t see as the main story. They just reinforced American pre-conceptions. Yes, they have weird rules, but you can learn so much more there than what you already did.
  • They act like their documentary is secret, but end up showing what the government wants you to show.
  • They didn’t sneakily get footage. They recorded at the places the government brings you to record.
  • I enjoyed seeing the same hotel room at the same hotel, see a North Korean girl waving from the same rooftop at the same rest stop in the same way on the same road nearly equally empty.
  • I wouldn’t describe their tours as “indoctrination”. They’re telling their side. I didn’t sense they were trying to force us to believe.
  • They claimed the food was bad. I didn’t find it that bad and I’m vegetarian. They seemed to make a big deal of nothing over the food.
  • Sad to see him sensationalize what could be a learning opportunity and act like he did something secret and furtive that the government produced for many tourists.
  • I worried the impression they created might make regular North Koreans who can’t travel abroad see foreigners as condescending and annoying.
  • They looked like they were antagonizing them. Sure if you push anyone enough they’ll break. And every place has language issues. The people are just people. They aren’t the system.
  • They probably got them annoyed at them by being annoying. We just gave our guides alcohol and cigarettes and chocolate and they were nice. The Vice Guide to North Korea showed if you act like a jerk people will treat you like a jerk.
  • They do get some insights across. Maybe one sentence per five-minute segment. I would have liked seeing them explore those.
  • One commenter on YouTube appreciated they risked their lives and freedom to create it. Too bad someone believed their hype. They didn’t risk anything. They did what little old ladies do too.

Note: Vice returned to treat North Korea in another series on North Korean labor camps in Siberia. I linked to this series because I found it more mature and less self-indulgent.


EDIT:  misperceptions of North Korea in the media as described in this post, leading to misunderstanding how we understand and commincate with North Koreans, led me to write my ebook Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country. I wrote the book to help increase understanding, communication, and freedom.

Joshua Spodek Understanding North Korea cover

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