Reporting from inside totalitarian countries, where the government restricts everything journalists can see, hear or do, is never easy. The New York Times a few years ago renounced the 1932 Pulitzer Prize won by Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty because we now know he got practically everything in his stories wrong, including overlooking a government-induced famine that killed a few million rebellious peasants.
So I wasnt expecting much when Vice, HBOs bratty news magazine for millennials, sent a crew to North Korea last spring. The worlds most hermetic dictatorship has managed to defy the collective efforts of the worlds news media for nearly 70 years. Few reporters have penetrated the countys borders, and almost none have gotten past the government apparatchiks who bar interviews or even photography of most anything except the occasional statue.
Happily, I was wrong. Vices team made a virtue of tight government control, obeying every jot and tittle of the Stalinist rulebook under which it was ordered to operate. It turns out that the abject and obvious falsity of what the North Korean government would like you to see is nearly as revealing as the stuff it conceals.
Vice got to Pyongyang by offering up an oddball initiative in sports diplomacy to the countrys basketball-crazed dictator, Kim Jong Un: Dennis Rodman, the cross-dressing, overpierced former NBA star, along with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, would come to North Korea for an exhibition game with North Korean players, and Vice would cover it. To sweeten the deal, Vice promised coverage of a government-directed propaganda tour.
So, no coverage of the slave labor camps estimated to hold 150,000 or more, nor the famine-wracked countryside, where hundreds of thousands have died of starvation-related causes over the past two decades. But journalists sneaking into North Korea under cover of humanitarian missions havent been able to get much on those stories, either.
And what Vice reports from its highly orchestrated show-and-tell trip is fascinating. A store overflowing with imported consumer goods and victuals, everything from pineapples to Coke Zero and Doritos, but none of it for sale. (Just as well there were also no customers.) A gym designed by Kim Jong Un! with machines that enlarge womens breasts and cure their cancer while they exercise.
A richly equipped computer lab where students neither type at the keyboards nor click their mice, just stare at blank screens. A three-hour drive to a museum containing every gift ever given to North Korea by a foreign leader Nicaraguas Daniel Ortega must have busted the national treasury for those stuffed lizards carrying tiny cocktail glasses during which not a single other vehicle is seen on the highway.
Was anything we were seeing real? It felt like we were walking through a real, live Truman Show, created just for us, says correspondent Ryan Duffy. I honestly felt like I was losing my mind.
By the end of the trip, the Vice crew members had begun to suspect that even the bright nighttime lighting of Pyongyangs empty streets was a Potemkin-village fraud staged just for them, a paranoid thought that seems almost plausible when you see the fathomless dark of North Korea on nocturnal satellite maps, like a hole shot in the world. Somewhere, I hope Walter Duranty is listening: This is how real reporters do it.