North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney
reviewed by Glyn Ford
7 May 2014 — The origins of North Korea Undercover lie in a “clandestine” trip organised by the author’s wife under the auspices of the London School of Economics (LSE) Grimshaw Club, the student society of the International Relations Department. John Sweeney, a renowned investigative journalist, went on an eight-day visit as a tourist that traced the self-same path trodden by three thousand Western tourists a year and turned his week’s holiday into a supposed heroic feat of derring-do.
The BBC’s flagship Panorama programme went out illustrated by Sweeney’s wobbly pictures out the back of his tourist bus. It remains unclear is whether Panorama got conned by Sweeney as to exactly what he was doing, or whether they believed that anything of world-shattering significance was likely to come out by allowing Sweeney, wife and cameraman to tag along incognito on what was effectively a school trip. The BBC has nevertheless subsequently apologised to the LSE for abusing their name and their students.
This less than entirely edifying audio-visual exercise has now been transferred to paper in North Korea Undercover, where it has been padded out by an apparently hurried reading and too-close-for-comfort summary of a dozen other recent books on North Korea, all accompanied by the kind of off-colour humour that might down a storm in a comedy club but is just plain embarrassing in print with references to “Bad Elvis” and “Fat Boy Kim”, “Dr Evil” and “Big Zombie”, some of whom may have ‘enjoyed a shandy too many’.
No one can be under any illusion about the serious concerns over human rights in North Korea, but Sweeney picks the wrong targets. Intra-Party faction fights condemn the losers to the grim camps—or worse—but Sweeney lays great emphasis, for example, on the plight of the disabled. These echo the claims from the late 1990s in the New Yorker that they suffered genocide and discrimination which led Tony Blair to question the British Ambassador in Pyongyang. The Embassy part-sponsors a school for the deaf in Wonsan.
Life is hard for everyone outside of the privilege of Pyongyang, but in the city of Hamhung the NGO Handicap International run a factory and training centre—partly staffed by the disabled themselves—that has been producing artificial limbs for more than a decade. In 2003, under pressure from the NGO, the normally supine Supreme People’s Assembly adopted disability rights legislation providing equal rights in the workplace and rehabilitation and medical care. One suspects today’s reality may fall as far short of the law in North Korea as it does in parts of Europe. Yet this year the same NGO reported that the recently-established Korean Federation for the Disabled was one of the first beginning to operate like a quasi-civil society organisation.
Apart from such distortions, North Korea Undercover is littered with errors. Obviously Sweeney took exception to Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel. While the revolving restaurants may, as he notes, move slowly—although it’s questionable whether fast would be a selling point—the Koryo is neither the location of the basement casino (that’s in the Yanggakdo Hotel several miles away) nor was it where Cho Man Sik was held under House arrest in 1950, as that would have predated its construction by almost a quarter of a century.
Yet Sweeney turned up interesting titbits.
The Official IRA sending their armed wing for weapons training with the North’s military in the late eighties more than 15 years after abandoning the armed struggle is a fascinating vignette, and so is their—and possibly the Provisionals—role in supposedly laundering the North’s $100 fake “super notes”. It is surprising that neither of these has become a bigger story.
But these do not save the book. North Korea is a serious subject; readers deserve better.
Glyn Ford is a former Euro-MP and author of North Korea on the Brink.
North Korea Undercover, John Sweeney (Transworld Publishers Ltd, November 2013)
© 2014 The Asian Review of Books.