North Korea: travelling the road less travelled

Vice is an international magazine and Youtube channel that creates travel documentaries. Their 2008 documentary follows Vice’s founder Shane Smith as he travels around North Korea.

Vice’s documentary on a ‘holiday’ to North Korea is the epitome of a holiday to the unknown. To anyone unsure what this would entail, a North Korean ‘holiday’ is an experience where the tourist is guided through staged experiences with waitresses, barmen and karaoke hostesses all trained to create an illusion of fun and freedom.  While it feels easy to call these people actors who pretending to relay a truthful and spontaneous North Korean experience, the word actor implies that they are in on the act, while in truth they are victims of the propaganda that creates their entire nation.

kim jong un

Photo: Kim Jong Un looking at things

The audience to this documentary sees what any trip to the totalitarian military dictatorship is like, as the narrator and cameraman are given their staged tour, and film it illegally. What is interesting about this documentary is how ignorant the production team are. While most travel documentaries have a team behind it who through research and personal experience are well-informed about the destination, this one differs in that the crew and narrator know just as much about the political workings and general life in North Korea as the audience and even world leaders do. The documentary offers a unique experience where all information  and all experiences given by the tour guides is constructed and fake, meaning all ‘real’ information given by the narrator is mere speculation. It is a documentary that informs not by relaying facts but by purely filming an experience and giving it to the audience to, much like on a real holiday, make up their own minds about the place.

So why are people so drawn to going down the road less travelled? While many will think that  North Korea holds the title of being the least visited in the world, it is actually only sixteenth from bottom. The attraction of visiting such a place must lie in the human desire to know the unknowable. North Korea is politically a mystery and is the most opaque nation on Earth so it’s natural for people to feel that they need to understand how it works as well as marvel at the sheer alien nature of a world so opposed to their own.

However, the question remains; can anything good come out of visiting such a place? While travelling traditionally broadens the mind, such a trip as this where no real truthful information about life there can be gleamed and the only available information is propaganda arguably does the opposite. However, as seen in the documentary visiting a place so unknown and different has the ability  to change the life and perspective of someone. While you may not leave the country feeling as if you understand it, you will inevitably leave it knowing at least one objective truth: that one can never understand it. Visiting such a place, or at least watching a documentary about visiting it, is almost the only way of comprehending the existence of such a regime in the 21st century.


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October 2021
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