26 February 2016

The Propaganda Game: Inside North Korea’s Dreamworld


The Propaganda Game is a documentary film made inside North Korea that attempts to take that mysterious country’s version of reality at face value. Set mostly in the capital Pyongyang it shows North Koreans eating ice cream in the street, skateboarding in the park, and generally larking about during what seems to be a perpetual sunny Sunday afternoon. And strangely enough this approach ends up telling us more than any number of hard-edged news reports. Invited to tell their own story on their own terms the North Koreans reveal more than they intended.

On the face of it The Propaganda Game sets out to pit the propaganda of North Korea against the propaganda of the rest of the world, and ask if they are really any different? The answer to that question is very simple: whatever reservations you may have about the ‘rest of the world’, nothing changes the fact that North Korea is a bizarre prison that happens to have 25 million people in it.

According to the most recent fully documented report on North Korea published by the UN in 2014, there are around 100,000 political prisoners in North Korean gulags living and dying in conditions of the utmost barbarity, and the rest of the population is subjected to surveillance, mind control, and an unrelenting programme of organised absurdity. Luckily as far as the film is concerned it turns out that the idea of matching propaganda with propaganda is nothing more than a marketing ploy. What we really see in The Propaganda Game is what happens to ordinary people on the receiving end of totalitarianism in its ultimate expression.

The film contains many memorable moments. Here is one: the film crew accompanied by their ever-present minders (including the ineffably strange Alejandro, a Spaniard who is the self-appointed foreign spokesman and cheerleader for all things North Korean – more on him shortly) collar a man at random waiting for a train in the impossibly grand Pyongyang metro system. The incident does not appear to be staged. The North Korean man is clearly unprepared. He is asked to make some comments on life, politics, and the issues of the day.

There is a pause. Sweat appears on his forehead. Before he launches into the inevitable paragraphs on his love for the Dear Leader and the beauties of life in North Korea, his eyes flick from side to side, and for one instant you can guess what thoughts are travelling through his mind. What is happening? Why have I been selected for this trial? What dreadful thing is about to happen to me?

One more moment. The crew finds a group of surly-looking teenagers kicking away the hours on a street corner. This being North Korea they quickly stand respectfully to attention and do their best to answer the inscrutable questions of the westerners. One youth with the look of a North Korean Liam Gallagher announces that he is a university student, following a course of study in ‘locomotive driving’. And what – he is asked – is your ultimate aim in life, your dream? Here in one long drawn out moment the young man stares silently into the camera, his mind far, far away from this street corner, this country, this reality. And then, clicking back into robot mode, he offers: ‘my dream … is to be … a locomotive driver’.

North Korea looks madder than it is. A little history goes a long way to unpick what at first sight looks less like a political system and more like an epidemic of self-destructive psychosis.

For the Korean peninsula the last five centuries of history have been extremely painful. Korea is a small country unlucky enough to be caught between two Asian superpowers, China and Japan. At first Korea was invaded and exploited by the Chinese. Then the Japanese took their turn, invading, occupying, and stripping the country of talent, wealth and technology. By the end of the Second World War when both China and Japan were removed from the equation, the one driving force in Korean thinking was how to prevent domination by outside powers.

For South Korea the solution was to make itself as strong as its neighbours, or preferably stronger, copying Japanese patterns of development with the express aim of outdoing Japan itself, a project which has exceeded all expectations. North Korea tackled the same challenge by the opposite route, choosing to create an alternative and unique ideology protected by a military wall that would admit no challenge. Both Koreas sought to proof themselves against further domination – but in the official mindset of Pyongyang, it is North Korea that has been more successful.

Initially under Kim Il-sung, this programme of total self-reliance – as expressed in a sort of cod religion known as Juche, which is a mish-mash of Marxism and extreme ethnic nationalism – went well enough, ironically because ‘self-reliance’ was actually underwritten by the Soviet Union. But the death of Kim Il-sung, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the North Korean agricultural economy all combined to put a terrible strain on the country’s utopian project. The ideology transmuted into cult worship of the new leader Kim Jong-il, and now of his successor Kim Jong-un, while the supposedly classless society is actually highly stratified according to a codified system which determines your fate in life depending entirely on how fervently you adore the leader now referred to as ‘our Generalissimo’.

Meanwhile North Korea has more or less given up on running a productive economy; instead the regime profits from what is effectively a blackmail scam on a geopolitical scale. With its million-strong army and its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang says to its neighbours ‘either pay up and keep us going, or we will go down in a holocaust so total that you will burn with us’. This is probably the most ambitious shakedown in history, and one that has proved quite successful. That is partly because (as one contributor to the film says) none of the interested parties – South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, the US – actually has a strong desire to see North Korea collapse and the Koreas re-unite. “The only people with a reason to want the collapse of the regime are ordinary North Koreans, and no one seems to care about them.”

If it is true that no one cares about the North Koreans, one reason for that might be that the face of dissent is all but invisible. The film moves from one pre-prepared Pyongyang location to the next, interviewing a stream of party apparatchiks and pseudo-academics of Juche and Supreme-Leaderism, all of whom are liable get emotional and teary-eyed the moment the talk turns to the ‘Generalissimo’. Do they actually believe all this tosh, the film asks? How can they have persuaded themselves that their world of junk is the greatest country on earth?

The film has the answer to that question, in the person of Alejandro Cao de Benós, unofficial North Korean ambassador without portfolio. Alejandro is a baby-faced middle-aged Spanish misfit who dresses up in North Korean army uniforms (complete with banana republic-style medals) and marches around Pyongyang telling anyone who will listen (he can’t actually speak Korean) about his undying love for this system of total repression. If Alejandro can convince himself that black is white and day is night – the film implies – then it certainly can’t be too hard for ordinary North Koreans, whose lives depend on it.

The many scenes that feature the needy, deluded Alejandro have an uneasy comedy to them. The default setting is for outsiders to see North Korea as a kind of joke, a ‘game’, as this intriguing film’s title suggests. But if North Korea is playing a game, it is not the funny kind.

The Propaganda Game is on limited theatrical release in selected cinemas from 26 February.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.