• Tourists in North Korea are instructed how to show due deference. (SBS)Source: SBS
Propaganda, theme parks and dancing in the streets... a new documentary takes you inside North Korea.
SBS Guide

24 Apr 2018 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2018 - 1:47 PM

Thanks to the escalating tension between North Korea and the US, there is currently a great deal of speculation surrounding dictator Kim Jong-Un. Is he genuine in his promise of no more nuclear or missile tests? What strategy will he employ in his negotiations with Donald Trump? More broadly, what do we actually know about the small, but politically significant Asian country’s ruler and what life is like for the people who live in North Korea?

Not that much, on account of his enigmatic history and refusal to give interviews.

But the two-part documentary Kim Jong-Un: The Man Who Rules North Korea sheds light on parts of his past that might surprise you – he was educated in Switzerland, for example – and takes us inside North Korea itself. Posing as tourists, two French journalists are part of a small group of Westerners taken on a heavily edited tour of the country. Although locals were kept at arm’s length from the party, what they saw and were able to film without arousing suspicion provides a fascinating insight into one of the world’s most mysterious countries.


Propaganda is everywhere…

In a country where internet access is extremely restricted, the official line is pretty much the only message that’s disseminated to the people. At every turn, posters (some of which are quite graphic) and monuments to Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors reinforce the cult of the dictator.


…and the population worship their dictator

It’s not surprising the North Korean people hail Kim Jong-Un as some sort of messiah figure – that’s certainly the message that’s rammed home. What is eye-opening is how young the indoctrination starts. In the documentary, primary school children are shown performing tributes to the leader, including one song with lyrics that boast “When he was young, our general never missed the round target/All the targets. Bam! Bam!/Perfect shot. Bam! Bam!” Meanwhile, throngs of uniformed grown-ups are seen literally dancing in the streets (and plazas and squares) to show their support for the regime.

North Koreans hate the US…

Much of the propaganda is blatantly anti-American – sometimes violently so – and as a result, a strong feeling of hatred for the US pervades the country. Given America’s involvement in the Korean War, that’s to be expected, but obviously, since there’s a lack of access to objective analysis of the conflict, the citizens are getting a one-sided version of the story. (Although, in this respect, it might be argued that the same is true in the US.)


…but like theme parks

One of the most unexpected things about Kim Jong-Un is his love for certain elements of Western culture – like skyscrapers, Disney characters and theme parks. A number of amusement parks exist in the country, but how often they are frequented by the locals is unclear. More likely, they service the small number of tourists who visit North Korea.

There are a lot of rules…

If the experience of the two journalists pretending to be tourists is anything to go by, life in North Korea is a constant barrage of prohibitions and restrictions. As they arrive at their hotel, they discover their bags have been obviously searched. And during their “vacation”, their every move is scrutinized – they can’t even take a tourist snap without someone looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing it correctly. Interviews with North Koreans who have managed to leave the country reveal it’s no different for those that live there.


…and questioning or breaking them is a big no-no

As the journalists covertly film what they see and stealth interview people they encounter, there’s the constant reminder that if they’re caught out, the consequences would be dire, especially since journalists are on the list of people prohibited entry to North Korea. The example of American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained for 17 months and ultimately died in mid-2017 after he was part of a tour group, casts a dark shadow over their endeavours.


Watch Kim Jong-Un: The Man Who Rules North Korea Tuesday 24 April at 10pm on SBS.

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