March 19, 2003
Welcome to North Korea

I saw an amazing movie on Cinemax yesterday, a one-hour documentary called Welcome to North Korea. I'd read a review of it before watching (here's another one that compares this film to the similar documentary Uncle Saddam) so I had some idea of what to expect, but I was still blown away.

The reviews cover the main points of the film - the restrictions on who the filmmakers can speak to, the unending tributes to Beloved Leader Kim Il Sung, who is portrayed as a demigod, like a modern-day Pharaoh, and so on - but seeing the emptiness of Pyongyang is just profoundly creepy. The city is full of sleek modern buildings that apparently suit no purpose, since there's no one there to use them. There are plenty of tour guides but no tourists. The whole place is part Potemkin village, part mass hallucination. It's Disneyland as designed by Sartre.

No commerce of any kind was evident. You do see some people on the streets, though not in the main part of town, and you do see one scene in a subway terminal as people whisk past, but the only people you see that are actively engaged in an occupation are the tour guides, soldiers, a few police officers, and the government flunkies that were assigned to mind the filmmakers. The only schoolchildren you see are busy preparing for the 55th anniversary celebration of the Workers' Party. I kept asking myself "How do they pay for all of them empty buildings, all of the Kim Il Sung statues and monuments, all of the idle support staff for these things?" The film has no answers, but it's easy to speculate, and all of the choices are scary.

We see the demilitarized zone from the Northern perspective. I've been to the DMZ on the South side, and it's very different there. Of course, I was in an area that's been turned into a tourist attraction, but the reality is that there's an awful lot of soldiers on both sides and nothing more than a cease-fire that holds back hostilities. The film shows a wall in the DMZ that was built by South Korea as a deterrent against invasion. Apparently, the existence of this wall is not generally acknowledged on the South side, and it's not readily visible from there.

The war memorials that I saw on the south side of the DMZ were primarily about history, healing, and the desire for reunification. The war memorials depicted in "Welcome to North Korea" were all about the brutality of American soldiers in the Korean War. One display item was a burned-out husk of a fighter plane that had been shot down by "our women", according to the tour guide. A soldier at the museum talked emphatically about how his pregnant grandmother had been beheaded and disemboweled by American troops. How much of these stories is true I couldn't say (in the latter, the storyteller's then-five year old father was the only survivor, which left a lot of room for doubt in my mind), but they were very effective as propaganda.

One other thing that struck me about this movie was that Kim Il Sung was a much bigger figure than Kim Jong Il. There were the statues and monuments and portraits, the huge mausoleum, the constant references to Beloved Leader and his benevolence, the scads of books written about him and by him - Kim Il Sung is everywhere. The propaganda machine has started creating myths about Kim Jong Il, but the Beloved Leader cast a huge shadow over his people, and his son is nowhere close to emerging from it as far as I could tell. What will Kim Jong Il do to make his mark on North Korea? I don't know and I'm not sure I want to find out.

Two thumbs up. If you get the chance, check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 19, 2003 to TV and movies | TrackBack

At least that can't happen here....Pardon me while I take a cab to Beloved Leader Ronald Reagan Gippernational Airport, to catch a flight to Great Leader George Herbert Walker Bush Houston Intercontinental Ballistic Airport....I'm meeting Dear Leader George Shrubya Bush for lunch.

Posted by: Ken on March 19, 2003 9:28 AM

Chuck, I seem to recall in an engineering magazine I used to read that one of those high-rises in Pyongyang was so badly constructed that the elevators got stuck in the shafts because the tower wasn't straight. Supposedly, Mitsubishi and another large Japanese corporation (Mitsui? I can't remember) ordered all of their employees not to enter this building when in Pyongyang because of these and other safety considerations.

Posted by: Chuck Nolan on March 19, 2003 12:00 PM

Unfortunately, the movie didn't explore any of that - it was focused more on the lives of the citizens. Given the state of the country, it wouldn't surprise me if this were true.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 19, 2003 1:11 PM

Saw this last night myself.

The views of an 8-lane boulevard empty for miles and miles was simply chilling. Same with the streets and sidewalks in Pyongyang.

To Charles's point -- you see lots of handlers, an occasional hotel staffer, some students and lots and lots of soldiers -- but no economic activity. Exactly how are they paying for all this stuff?

Footage of mourners around the time of Kim Il Sung's death was also very creepy.

Now for the truly scary part -- these are the people GWB has essentially given a green light to open a North Korean version of Nuke-Mart. Not exactly the kind of market economy that either the National Review or the Weekly Standard has in mind for DPRK.

Don't miss it if you can catch it.

Posted by: Don on March 19, 2003 4:05 PM

Sounds like an awesome movie. I am a high school teacher, where can I buy a copy or this Orwellian country? Please respond.

Posted by: Sam on December 8, 2003 3:25 PM

Sounds like an awesome movie. I am a high school teacher, where can I buy a copy or this Orwellian country? Please respond. [email protected]

Posted by: Sam on December 8, 2003 3:25 PM

Hi Sam. A Google search for 'Welcome to North Korea' should throw up some distributor in your area, I think. (Glad you all like the documentary. I'm the video editor.)

Rien Post

Posted by: Rien Post on January 4, 2004 9:59 AM

This documentary is something that all free people in the world should see. It makes me shudder at what would happen if we went to war with NK. Obviously we would win, but at what cost? The fanaticism of the NK people makes the suicide bombers of the Islamic world seem a little uncommitted to their cause. One thing is for sure, something needs to be done about little "dear leader" having nuclear weapons. If I were a President in his 2nd term I might be inclined to put aside all world reaction and launch some sort of massive sneak attack air strike on any facility linked to nuclear activity. And on another note to Don that posted "these are the people GWB has essentially given a green light to open a North Korean version of Nuke-Mart" all I have to say is HUH? That statement makes no sense. Anyways, incredible documentary. Probably the most fascinating documentary I have ever seen.

Posted by: Ken O on February 15, 2005 1:37 AM

i too am looking for a copy of this movie. it was just incredible and breath-taking. i was completely stunned and breathless after it was done. if anyone knows where i can purchase a copy, please let me know!

Posted by: J son on March 12, 2005 2:57 PM

I had the opportunity to see this movie just the other day. I served with the US Army defending the (obviously) south side of the DMZ. I grew increasingly fascinated by every bizarre aspect of this country and have since studied just about everything I could find about the current North in as much detail as I possibly could. I have found things about the “fairs” the government puts on for the people with some of the kids games being “kill the American” where they try to shoot a depiction of an American solider with who knows what. I have also read extremely detailed accounts from the very few that managed to escape from the labor camps which I will not even summarize here. I have to say that I was glued to the TV watching this documentary. It really did an excellent job of covering the basics without going into undue speculation. The video footage was also outstanding. I also would love to get a copy of this movie for my personal collection as well as any recommendations of material I may not yet have seen on this topic. My e-mail is [email protected]

P.S. In reference to the above comment about the buildings being of extremely poor quality, the movie briefly shows a building that looks like a giant three sided spike with the very top still a framed skeleton. From what I understand that was to be the largest building in the world and an icon of North Korean prosperity to show the world just like the flag tower in Kijong-dong propaganda village (not a real city, just building fronts) but they ran out of money and resources so the project was never finished.

Posted by: Jeremy on September 26, 2005 3:08 PM

The Ryugyong Hotel (or Ryu-Gyong Hotel) is a towering, empty concrete shell intended for use as a hotel in Sojang-dong, in the Potong-gang District of Pyongyang, North Korea. The hotel's name comes from one of the historic names for Pyongyang: Ryugyong, or "capital of willows". Its 105 stories rise some 330 m (1,083 ft), and it boasts some 360,000 m� (3.9 million ft�) of floor space, making it the most prominent feature of the city's skyline and by far the largest structure in that country. If the building were ever completed it would be the world's tallest hotel, and the seventh largest building in the world.[1] Today, however, it remains unfinished and uninhabited.

Construction on the pyramid-shaped hotel began in 1987. Its 105-story planned height was reportedly a Cold War response to a South Korean company's completion of the Stamford Hotel in Singapore the previous year. North Korean leadership envisioned the project as a channel for Western investors to step into the marketplace. A firm, the Ryugyong Hotel Investment and Management Co., was established to attract a hoped for 230 million dollars in foreign investment. A representative for the North Korean government promised relaxed oversight, saying, "The foreign investors can even operate casinos, nightclubs or Japanese lounges if they want to."[2] It was added to maps and North Korean postage stamps before it was half-finished.

The Ryugyong's 3,000 rooms and 7 revolving restaurants were to open in June 1989 for the World Festival of Youth and Students, but problems with building methods and materials delayed it. Japanese newspapers estimated the cost of construction was $750 million[3]�2% of North Korea's GDP�and it is generally assumed construction came to a halt in 1992 due to lack of funding, acute electricity shortages, and the prevailing famine. It still has a crane on the top.

The basic structure is complete, but it has never been certified as safe for occupancy. As a result, no windows, fixtures or fittings have been installed. According to Emporis,[4] the concrete used in building the Ryugyong Hotel is of unsuitable quality and therefore unsafe. The building is sagging so badly that it will never open as presently constructed. The North Korean government is trying to invite a foreign investment of $300 million to build a new structure for the hotel. In the meantime, it has removed the Ryugyong from maps and stamps and built a newer five-star hotel of more conventional design on the Taedong River.

Posted by: Tim Hendricks on April 16, 2006 3:47 AM

I caught this on PBS last night. I didn't realize it has been around for so long.

There is irony in this film, but the irony is that it is propaganda, and sloppy propaganda at that.

Any dunce on earth knows that North Korea is the most oppressive, corrupted, twisted dictatorship on Earth. The filmmakers apparently didn't think that stating the simple facts would help, so we're treated to one strangely contradictory statement after another.

One scene shows a huge library in Pyongyang and the narrator remarks that it is empty except for their crew. Later in the same library we see people sitting and reading.

We are told early in the film that no North Korea will look at their movie camera, because they could end up in a work camp just for glacing, but a later shot shows several of them looking right at the camera.

In the scene where they show the group of little girls dancing and playing music, the narrator remarks that while those kids we healthy and well fed, their contemporaries are "starving to death." What - all of them? Give us some numbers, some rates over the yersa. This is very basic stuff in documentary journalist.

Instead they go for spooky music, a narrative that is more stream of consciousness than journalism, and few interviews with experts, which makes this a terrible squandering of a great opportunity to really learn the facts on this country.

Its funny that the only North Korean I can remember them interviewing outside of North Korea was a former proganda writer! Gee, there's a witness I'm going to give a lot of credence to.

If you want a factual, first hand look at how f'd up, but human, North Korea is, read Guy Deslile's graphic novel "Pyongyang".

Posted by: Socialist Jew on October 8, 2006 2:49 AM