Debunking Panorama Paranoia: North Korea Tour Leader Simon Cockerell
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Debunking Panorama Paranoia: North Korea Tour Leader Simon Cockerell

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Last week BBC caused a furor in international media when word got out that its reporter John Sweeney, posing as a PhD student, entered North Korea undercover with a group of students from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Sweeney was sent to the North to report for the prime-time BBC program Panorama.

Most media reports focused on the potential danger to students posed by Sweeney’s ruse, while at least one in the Huffington Post underscores the fact that Sweeney’s covert reportage could have put North Korean tour guides in a perilous position.

Aside from verifying what is already widely known about North Korea – it’s poor, it’s tightly controlled, military presence is always close at hand – reports tend to offer only skewed accounts. Hence the rife misconceptions about what North Korea is like – especially amid recent tensions – and the media’s grossly simplified portrayals of the local tour guides who bridge the nation with the outside world, albeit in a limited way.

The Diplomat recently spoke with Simon Cockerell of North Korea tour operator Koryo Tours in Beijing. In this interview, Cockerell shares his observations on what it’s been like to be inside North Korea in recent days, the intricacies of tourism to the nation and the humanity of its misunderstood tour guides. He describes a very different experience to the one Panorama presented.

For perspective, how many times have you been to North Korea?

I’ve been to the North 119 times, starting in April 2002, and my most recent visit was last week.

What were your thoughts on the recent BBC Panorama episode that was covertly filmed in North Korea?

I thought it had its interesting moments, and Professor Myers always provides good analysis, but it’s unclear to me what benefit was gained from the reporter actually going on this trip to discover the ”real“ North Korea. The parts of the program where he was in-country making comments seemed to undermine the rest of the program. To anyone who is even slightly experienced as a DPRK-watcher these parts were very lightweight indeed.

The revelations that tourists in North Korea have their movements restricted and that the country itself is poor and frequently has power cuts are hardly earth-shattering bits of news. Likewise, observations that some markets have little produce or that building crews work through the night seem simply like filler; and a 30-minute show should not need filler. Nothing was shown in these parts of the program that would not be seen by every single visitor to North Korea.

On a side note, an interesting analysis of the program can be found here.

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