North Korea is probably the most secretive state in the world. They have good reason to be too – they have an appalling human rights record and a strict policy of hatred and mistrust for anyone who isn’t North Korea.
It’s no surprise then that the country had become a magnet for investigative reporters, cultural voyeurs and dictatorship ghouls – and John Sweeney can tick at least a couple of those boxes.
In his career, John Sweeney has uncovered the grim secrets of a number of modern dictatorships and rogue states, from Ceaușescu’s Romania to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. His intrepid reporting aside, he’s probably best known for losing his rag with a scientologist. If you haven’t seen the footage, he proudly displays the video on the home page of his website.
So synonymous is he with unrestrained rage that his Twitter handle is @johnsweeneyroar. If you can’t laugh at yourself, right?
John’s penchant for mockery extends to his subject matter as well as his own unabashed fury. I’ve read quite a few books about North Korea, from the heartfelt accounts of defectors in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, to the exhaustive fact-sheet that is Victor Cha’s The Impossible State. In North Korea Undercover, John Sweeney approaches the country with his fists out and his teeth bared. His mission is to demystify and expose the regime for the self-serving totalitarian slave-state that it is.
Nowhere can you find the fearful reverence for the Kim dynasty. Instead John substitutes the names of Kim Jong Il for ‘Bad Elvis’, and Kim Jong Un for ‘Fat Boy Kim’. In North Korea you can get thrown in the gulag because your grandfather might have forgotten to dust his Kim Il Sung portrait in 1975. Were Sweeney to return to Pyongyang, I’m sure his bitter irreverence would earn him a special torture all of his own.
Not that we’d ever hear about it though – North Korea is a black hole into which many people have simply disappeared. We can’t be sure of their exact fates but from what we know, the lucky ones have been allowed to live in Pyongyang as curious capitalist zoo exhibits. The less fortunate have more than likely been forced to sit alone in cold cells for years, with only the occasional beating to break the monotony and the odd bowl of grass soup to prolong their starvation.
If you haven’t read anything about North Korea yet, I would recommend North Korea Undercover as an excellent starting point. Sweeney gives a concise account of the country’s history, making sure to insult the Kims at every opportunity. Many reporters might prefer a more unbiased method, but given the circumstances, I think Sweeney’s approach is wholly justified and, if anything, it’s refreshing.
Too many people have tip-toed around the issue with guarded diplomacy. I found North Korea Undercover all the more enjoyable simply because Sweeney tries to send up the regime whilst expressing a very real anger and frustration at the cost of human suffering.
This suffering continues today and because of Fat Boy Kim’s nuclear threat, there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it except hope that the regime is toppled from within. Such is the stranglehold on liberty however, we needn’t hold our breath.