Vice’s Guide to North Korea: Review

I remember going to the DMZ and being curious about what the experience would be like from the other side. Even though we saw documentaries during our internship about North Korea, they involved commonly photographed locations, like the stadium for extravagant displays of gymnastics and the theme park from hell. However, recently I saw the Vice Guide to North Korea online, and, though it made the same conclusions about the process of touring North Korea as a foreigner, it did highlight some different occasions, not to mention a funny host that livens up the grim locations. Here are some interesting locations and details they covered that I had not seen in other documentaries:

1. Getting into North Korea:

One of the details that I liked about the documentary was the way the host got into North Korea. First of all, it was pretty illegal. Or at the very least, under the table. After applying to get into North Korea through a variety of embassies and being turned down, a North Korean refugee gave him a tip-off about how to get in. She told him to go to China and bride an official to let him it, and soon enough he was in Pyongyang

2. Food situation:

As we saw in other documentaries, when you are a tourist in North Korea, you are shown only what the officials want you to see, and taken to fancy restaurants and hotels that are only used for tourists. A creepy, abandoned feeling is prevalent throughout the entire documentary. One moment was his first meal in his first hotel in Pyongyang. He is brought into a banquet hall where every place is set, but he is the only one eating. As he makes a comment about the hotel going out of their way to prove that there is no food shortage in North Korea, we can see the waitresses placing meals in front of all the set places, and then taking it all back to the kitchen.

3. Unification and Indoctrination:

During one of the trips of propaganda for the tourists, he asked a citizen if unification would happen. The citizen said of course, because North Korea was so great.

4. DMZ from the North.

Complete with a bunch of Chinese visitors, the DMZ from the North was exactly as I suspected. It was surprisingly easier to get to from the north than the south, probably because, if you’ve gotten that far, the government knows you’re there. Also, there were many more troops on hold from the north than the south, along with statues that the officials claimed were filled with explosives that would fall down to create tank blockades in case of an attack.

5. “The land that time forgot:”

The host of the documentary perfectly stated what I feel whenever studying North Korea—more than anything else, that it is lost in time, like a time capsule.  The fact that there are official government mandated professors to answer any of your philosophical questions harks back to a time when there was little room for discussion for questions of morality. The footage of children playing music for the state was enlightening—the accordion playing children helped explain why my mentee at the Hangyore School raved about her accordion skills.

However, something major that this documentary was missing was hard facts about North Korea or any insight into the average life of a North Korean. Even though a tourist’s experience in North Korea is limited, I wish I could go there—even if only so that I could better connect with refugees in South Korea and to hear their experiences living and escaping from North Korea. One thing that the documentary did do for me was help me understand how cut off they are from the rest of the world, and how much energy the government puts into impressing the foreigners that they claim to not care about. I also had a hard time understanding before this video the pervasiveness of the government’s philosophy in its people. The people who were interviewed (maybe because they lived in Pyongyang and worked in the party) had an opinion that unwaveringly agreed with government propaganda. However, when you have heard nothing else your whole life, what would tell you to question it? I hope I can learn more about this from talking to defectors.

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