The mocking account of an English investigative journalist’s undercover visit to North Korea underscores the fact that the dire state is no laughing matter.
Embedded with a group of London School of Economics students in 2013 on an official guided tour to Pyongyang, the author was fired from the BBC after the dust-up over his subsequent documentary for BBC Panorama, North Korea Undercover. Sweeney has previously taken on some of the evil forces of corruption and power without flinching (The Church of Fear: The Weird World of Scientology, 2013, etc.). In this account of his strange and troubling visit inside North Korea, on and off the tourist bus, minded at every step by Mr. Hyun and the more sunny Miss Jun, Sweeney doesn’t even have to try too hard for laughs—e.g., his chronicle of the first day’s stop at the mausoleum housing the open viewing of the country’s first two tyrants, Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. (“How can you satirize this?” Sweeney muses.) Most glaring for the author was the enormous chasm between the very few elite—they had electricity, cars, Chinese roller skates, foreign delicacies, the ability to take trips to the zoo or circus—and the rest of the 23 million oppressed masses struggling to survive with inadequate food and appalling living conditions. The “robotization” of the totalitarian message has been relentless and all-encompassing. There are statues of the dictators everywhere, widespread denial that the North was the instigator of the Korean War, and a complete lack of acknowledgement of the horrific famine of the late 1990s. Within the frame of the visit, Sweeney delves into reports of those who visited and witnessed the dictatorships before him, from Ceausescu’s translator to IRA bomb-makers to gulag prisoners to defectors.
In a carefully footnoted and documented work, Sweeney has done his homework, though the snide tone grates.