Tag Archives: journalism

North Korea Undercover – John Sweeney – a review

north korea undercover john sweeneyNorth 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.

north korea undercover john sweeneyIf 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.

Jon Ronson: a love story

las-jrRead Jon Ronson.

That’s my infallible advice for the day.

For those who don’t know, Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist with a penchant for the weirder side of life. We’ve all fallen a little bit in love with him here at the bookshop.

My personal infatuation began last year when I received a proof copy of The Psychopath Test. It sat on my bookshelf for weeks before I decided to give it a go. I was hooked from the start.

The eponymous test is a questionnaire of sorts called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist used by professional mind-wizards to categorise potential misfits. The book deals mainly with the trouble of defining psychopaths and Ronson’s tireless quest for answers puts him in contact with some of the strangest, most frightening characters in print.

The theme of mental health appears to a large extent in most of his work. In the book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, Jon tackles the murky world of conspiracy theorists – those who believe that there is, somewhere, a hidden elite controlling the masses in all manner of nefarious ways. Here, he talks to white supremacists about their rebranding strategy, to David Icke about extra-dimensional lizard-people and to the Rev. Ian Paisley about the so-secret-it’s-obvious Papist plot for global domination.

Thanks to Hollywood, Ronson is probably best known for his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. This book follows the fates of certain top secret U.S. Military projects created to harness the powers of the unknown. The title refers to a project in which U.S. ‘psychic’ soldiers stared at goats attempting to stop their hearts with the power of the mind.

His latest book, Lost at Sea, is a collection of various articles from the past few years. Here, you’ll find everything from behind-the-scenes mysticism at Deal or No Deal to the dark workings of targeted advertising to UFO hunting with Robbie Williams. I’ve been dipping into it regularly over the last couple of months, taking it slowly to prolong the joy. I’m not sure if ‘joy’ is the most appropriate word – last night I read an article about the shocking number of people who disappear from cruise ships and the evident cover-ups that result.

Because Jon Ronson focusses on the more wacky side of darkness, his books are very funny. In the time-honoured British tradition of self-deprecation, he paints himself as the weedy, middle-class outsider desperately struggling to understand what makes people believe the things they do.  At times, however, we are reminded that the characters are in fact real people with real problems and not just sideshows to be exploited.

So if you’re drawn by curiosity to the darkest, most morbid side of life, do give Jon Ronson’s books a go. When you’ve run out of things to read, pop over to jonronson.com and check out his Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson On… All seven series are available to download for free so be sure and snap them up before someone changes their mind. I like to listen to them when I’m ironing but how you chose to enjoy them is entirely up to you.