Television Review: ‘Vice.’ 11-11:30 p.m. Friday. HBO

In revealing report, ‘Vice’ reporters make virtue of North Korean control

 
 
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Monday with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series.
Jason Mojica / AP Photo/VICE Media

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

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 wasn’t expecting much when Vice, HBO’s bratty news magazine for millennials, sent a crew to North Korea last spring. The world’s most hermetic dictatorship has managed to defy the collective efforts of the world’s news media for nearly 70 years. Few reporters have penetrated the county’s 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. Vice’s 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 country’s 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 haven’t 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 women’s 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 — Nicaragua’s 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 Pyongyang’s 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.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category