Monthly Archives: April 2013

Red Idol

Arriving in Pyongyang in August of 1987, Andrew Holloway spent a year in the Hermit Kingdom helping to polish English translations of texts for the DPRK Foreign Language Press. In his unpublished autobiographical account, ‘A Year in Pyongyang‘, Holloway describes the late 1980s local version of ‘X-Factor: People’s Republic Style’ that was screened on DPRK national television:

Every week there is an amateur song contest, when the workers and peasants get the chance to put on their finery and step into the spotlight… Their eyes shine and they make impassioned gestures as they perform the well-loved revolutionary ditties that extol the virtues of the great leader and the victories of the socialist revolution, to the accompaniment of accordion and guitar. When they have poured their hearts out, impassive judges press buttons. A red light comes on if their performance has gained the judge’s approval. A green lights denotes failure. Then the performer has to stand and listen to the judge’s criticism before departing the stage. The performers do not mind. Public criticism has become a standard part of daily life in their culture. It is considered good for people. Before they pour their hearts out, the performers announce their names and occupations. They have exciting jobs like fitter at the Kum Song General Tractor Plant, electrician at the February 8th Vindon Factory, or sub-work team leader on a co-operative farm. At any rate they perceive their jobs as exciting. For this is a society where the highest honour is not to be made a knight of the realm, but to be decorated as a Labour Hero.

The People’s Republic of China has it’s own versions of the television talent show. As described in Rowan Callick’s book Party Time: Who Runs China and How, Super Boys was a follow up to the hit show Super Girls. Concerned that the show would degenerate into the teary bitchy mess that traditionally characterises the format, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (国家广播电影电视总局, Guójiā Guǎngbō Diànyǐng Diànshì Zǒngjú) decreed that only “healthy and ethically inspiring songs should be performed” and that when selecting contestants “their hairstyles, clothes, fashion accessories, language, and manners should be in line with mainstream values.

The Chinese show Red Song Contest took a few steps further towards the red end of the spectrum, showcasing performances of songs like Liuyang River. Yan Su, a veteran army composer, told the official newspaper China Daily, ‘These songs, which were composed in the red revolutionary era, even make me, a 77-year old man, feel excited.'”

I’d rather the dowdy but sweet DPRK version or sanitised auditory M-pop fairy floss than this.


On the evening of 15 April 2013 the BBC Panorama program ran a film about the DPRK. Journalist John Sweeney entered the country posing as a tourist in a group of students from the London School of Economics. The University administration and student union asked the BBC to withdraw the program, with the union’s general secretary saying that “One of the students made it absolutely clear that she was not made aware of what happened… students were lied to, they weren’t able to give their consent”. Sweeney defended going on the trip with the students, saying that students were told beforehand that a journalist would be accompanying them.

Watching the film it became clear that the most interesting part of this story was the debate about what the students who accompanied Sweeney knew beforehand, and not what Sweeney did when he was in the DPRK. Sweeney didn’t sneak into the country to record interviews with counter-revolutionaries. He didn’t capture footage of gulags or uranium centrifuges. He went on a tour very similar to the one I went on in 2012, which was led by the Korean International Travel Company (as are all tourist trips to the DPRK). The scenes that Sweeney captured are similar to those seen by participants on stock-standard tourist tours in the country. To help illustrate this a small selection of the approximately 800 photos I took during my trip are presented below. The photos I took are on the left; images from the BBC Panorama program are on the right.

The shot of Kim Il Sung Square shown at the beginning of the program is from the balcony atop the Grand People’s Study House. We were lucky enough to catch the tail end of a practice parade in the Square (bottom left of centre). If they could weaponise precision marching it’d doubtless be  a force more powerful than their nuclear arsenal.

Grand People's Study House

Sweeney’s tour group visited the Grand People’s Study House, the foyer of which is dominated by a large marble statue of Kim Il Sung. Despite the size and placement of the statue in the centre of the national library, and the profusion of books it contains purported to have been written by him, Kim Il Sung has been described as having a mind “formed by only a very basic education and he showed little inclination to remedy this” with others noting that “He seems never to have read a serious book.”

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The building that used to have Marx and Lenin portraits on the side is on Kim Il Sung Square. When I was in the DPRK in late 2012 the portraits had been removed. They were taken down as part of renovation works around the Square, which included replacing the national and party flags installed on several surrounding buildings.

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One of my favourite moments in the film was when Sweeney visits the Demilitarised Zone. A trip to the Zone is part of most tours to the DPRK. Sweeney noted that it looked eerily quiet on the ROK side of the border, implying that the lack of visible ROK troops was the result of recent tensions. When I visited the site, the tour guides explained that the reason we couldn’t see any ROK soldiers was that in the mornings the DPRK troops come out when visitors from the north tour the site; in the afternoon the DPRK troops go inside and ROK troops stand guard when visitors from the south do their tour.

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Another ‘must see’ attraction in Pyongyang is the Metro. Inevitably noted by everyone who has ever visited it as being the world’s deepest metro system, the stations are decorated with socialist realist mosaics and marble trimmings. On hearing the nationalist music (or as it’s known in the DPRK, music) being piped into the subway trains, Sweeney exclaimed that “There are times when it feels like we’re inside a doomsday cult.” This admittedly might sound like an overreaction however it is hard to tell from the pictures below the similarity between the design of the chandeliers and what one imagines a mad scientist’s doomsday machine might look like.

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The Monument to the Founding of the Korean Workers Party was one of the highlights of my trip. It is a fantastic monument, as far as enormous communistical monuments go. (It also looks great from above.)

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I also saw several building sites, a barbed wire fence, and hundreds of uniformed soldiers (at an amusement park). I have not yet experienced the trauma that Sweeney felt as a result of these nightmarish scenes.

The DPRK has deep structural problems. There are regular reports that corruption is rife, that the prison camps are comprable with those of Nazi Germany, and that they will use their nuclear forces to “target and dissolve mainland United States“. It is unclear whether the reforms of the agricultural sector will meaningfully improve food security, nor whether the promotion of alleged economic reformers will lead to a boost in the production of much needed consumer goods by the light industry sector. But what is almost certain is that simplistic and sensational pop journalism like Sweeney’s BBC Panorama film won’t meaningfully improve the public’s understanding about the DPRK and could make life “much harder for the organizations and institutions who are trying to approach North Korea from a different angle“. That is something the producers of the BBC Panorama program would do well to investigate.

(Note: I own a suit, shirt, telegenic tie, and have a good pronunciation of “Stalinist state”, “Juche”, and “Kaesong”. Offers of documentary development deals are welcome.)