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


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.

Mark Spangler
May 5, 2013 at 19:02

While I agree with posters who said the Panorama documentary didn't shed much new information on what is really occuring in North Korea,  I disagree that it was not of value.  Mr. Sweeny did what I would like to do if I ever had the opportunity to visit this mysterious nation, and that is, to ever-so-slightly break the propaganda ice with a little dose of reality.  His "not stupid" comment was right on target when referring to the patient-less hospital.  The charade of the ruling family as being anything other than pure gangsters has to be addressed.  The entire nation is a prison, and while there are nuances that need to be explored, this one, simple fact cannot be denied.  One makes a horrendous mistake in assuming that this can go on forever.  This isn't communism or any other form of dictatorship that we've seen before.  It's whole-scale mass brainwashing in an information era that makes it no longer possible to maintain the facade.

Want a solution?  Through diplomatic channels, offer the murderous leading family and their cronies amnesty for their crimes,  then begin normalization and humanitarian aid to the north.  It will take a massive effort under UN command, but it can be done.

I never agreed with George W. Bush about much, but he did have one thing right:  North Korea is an axis of evil.  The very fact that journalists have to lie, put others at risk and do things in such an underhanded way is proof that all we ever get out of this sick, demented and childish regieme is ridicuolous nonsense.

I sincerely hope the students and tourist officials aren't put at risk, but let's face facts:  unless you want the same, old regurgitated garbage,  things have to change.  Cozying up to a murderer doesn't make him any less murderous.

April 30, 2013 at 14:44

Actually, it is Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours that has been there 119 times, not Mr DeHart and I would not call him a tourist, but a tour leader after that many visits. I myself went on a Koryo Tours trip to the DPRK last year and I understand and agree with his comments (from what I saw from my very limited 4 day trip).

Simon tries hard to avoid any direct black and white comments, and to see the guides and population of the country as real people, he expressed this view clearly both on the tour and here. We had some very interesting, humorous and intelligent guides that were also keen to hear information from "outside" particularly when it was linked to certain historic events within the DPRK. I think we all need to understand the system and environment they inhabit.

Hope for the best
April 28, 2013 at 07:26

@ Been there many times

No, I think you are being apologetic. N. Korea is humanitys' prime example of human rights violations right now. In light of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, of which P.C. Chang of China was a main author, and in light of the Bangkok Declaration, which emphasized "Asian values," one does not need to "[sic] understand Confucianism, Korean culture, history, and collectivism before venturing into condemnation." Read testimony from N. Korean defectors who escaped. Read the Bangkok Declaration. This is not based on western views of individualty and human rights.

Devindra Sethi
April 27, 2013 at 14:31

An interesting article by Mr DeHart, who has been there 199times!! Wow. This article reminds me of the USSR. Panorama paranoia was even evident in those times, and we all used to laugh at the stories being broadcast about the people of the country. The best & most pertinent  question posed by The Diplomat was the last one. The answer is also a revelation to the ordinary person in the West, who has never seen a communist society or lived there. Does that mean the government  of DPRK is also to be taken at face value. NO! The official hierarchy of the government has its thinkers and policy mandarins who are Janus faced. A different set of rules need to be applied in all dealings with them. Many of them still have very strong links with the Russia of today and speak fluent Russian. To them Putin's Russia is a wonderful come back as they were most comfortable with the USSR.   

Been there many times
April 27, 2013 at 02:02

The DPRK and Nazi Germany are not comparable. First I would ask anyone about their experiences within North Korea. We are not delusional about experiences in the country as we see the mundane, human as well as the Orwellian. Asia in general and standards of human rights are developing and the self-imposed isolation of the DPRK does not help. What of human rights in China? What was Tibet's penal system like prior to 1959? What of the human rights record of the ROK prior to 1988? The issues are far more complex than a simple comparison to a western nation that constructed factories for the annihilation of peoples based on ethnic or religious prejudices. I think it debases the Shoah and misses the mark about the human rights situation in North Korea. I am not apologizing for it but I think one must understand Confucianism, Korean culture, history, and collectivism before venturing into condemnation based on western views of individuality and human rights. 

Paul Zerzan
April 26, 2013 at 18:21

This reminds me of an article that appeared in the September 1938 Reader's Digest by Douglas Reed entitled "What's Good in Germany?".  In the article Reed talks about the nice Germans he met in his numerous trips to Germany and while the Germans had their problems the Nazis weren't so bad and they did nice things like plant trees etc.  North Korea is like Nazi Germany. The horrors are hidden from tourists like Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours.  I recommend reading the 1938 article to get some perspective.

April 26, 2013 at 16:48

Finally, a bit of sanity! Sweeney's documentary was shallow, irritating and disappointing, given his reputation as an investigative journalist. His arrogant and petulant order to his guide to tell the doctor "we're not stupid" made me cringe. I went to the DPRK in 2005 and had a fascinating and unforgettable experience watching a world-cup qualifier between the DPRK  and Iran (yes, football in the axis of evil) with major crowd disturbance thrown in for free. By talking with the guides, we got to visit a high school and talk to the students and teachers in an English class, have an impromptu kick-about with the school football team, visit a German language class in a university and go to places that weren't on the itinerary. Yes, there were things that were frustrating. Yes, being told what you could and couldn't photograph and where you could and couldn't go was irritating. Yes, we were watched. Yes, there was extreme poverty and hardship. Yes, we had to take gifts. What else did we expect? People go there for this very experience. Even when I applied for my visa at the DPRK's embassy in London and there was a problem with the number coming out wrong when it came back from Pyongyang by fax, the official was cool about it, called them up and confirmed that the fax paper had got snagged and that someone had simply misread the number and written it down wrong. He didn't say, "no you can't go; you're clearly a spy and a running-dog lackey of the imperialist American aggressors," but he put the visa into my passport there and then, smiled (as did all the other staff there) and wished me a pleasant trip. The border guards at the DMZ and at Sinijiu are not automatons and do have a sense of humour. At the Chinese border, the train was delayed and one of them looked at my passport and said in perfect English, "oh, you've visited our country before." I looked confused, said "no" and he pointed to the South Korean stamp. He looked stern for a second, then broke into a grin and he and his colleague joked that we could all stay at his place and drink beer that night if the train didn't leave (and, yes, we know that that wouldn't have happened). We know that the DPRK is weird and we know that anyone who goes there as a tourist accepts that he has to enter into a dance, but all of these cliches about a "Stalinist theme park" don't help. Sweeney should know that you're not going to get any serious investigative journalism that furthers our understanding of DPRK policy from a tour like the one he was on, so I don't know exactly what he was after when he went there – maybe just to say he'd been. I'd recommend Billy Bragg and Andy Kershaw's witty BBC documentary about Korean music at! to anyone who wants some genuine insight.

April 26, 2013 at 13:13

Hmm, a very good article assuming that TheDiplomat didn't edit it in any particular way in the first place. After reading it I would rather live in North Korea than my own place where despite the government's assertion that it is the 'most peacefu'l place in the region, there are lots of targeted murders (gang vengeance), robberies, street thugs, dead bodies turning up in rivers, highways, abandoned houses and in drains on a regular if not daily basis.

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