Opinion & Analysis

A little-seen side of North Korea

After more than a year of preparation, a team from TVNZ 1’s Sunday programme succeeded in travelling to North Korea in April 2018. Producer Louisa Cleave reports back on the experience. 

OPINION: “You had better introduce or present to the world what you have seen and heard here, like it is. There should never be cases in which you defame our country or slander our Supreme Dignity.”

By Supreme Dignity, our lead minder Mr Ri is referring to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. And he points out that we definitely should not change that wording when we produce our story back in New Zealand.

It was both spoken (as during the interview quoted above) and unspoken that the North Koreans had a lot riding on our visit. The Sunday team knew that if we mis-stepped in any way it would be more than a Twitter storm – people like Mr Ri probably had their careers, possibly even their lives, at risk.

Mr Ri had been instrumental in getting our visit approved. He was the main point of contact at the Nature Conservation Union of Korea (NCUK) which has developed close ties to the Pukorokoro Miranda Naturalists Trust on the Firth of Thames.

Members of the trust had been inside the Hermit Kingdom five times before we turned up at Miranda in January 2017 suggesting we might join them on their next trip into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

Filming in North Korea. (Photo: TVNZ)

Filming in North Korea. (Photo: TVNZ)

They carry out crucial work to understand more about the extraordinary flight of the Godwit, whose numbers have suffered greatly through development in China and South Korea gobbling up vast areas of their feeding grounds.

The DPRK represents something of an oasis on their important Yellow Sea stopover, a feeding ground on the journey north. Its undeveloped economy and heavily fortified coastline offers the birds acres of pristine mudflats crawling with food, and extensive reed beds in which to roost.

New Zealand last sent a diplomat to the DPRK in 2014 so basically our highest-level contact is this group of birders, led by a West Auckland builder called Adrian Riegen.

It was Adrian’s dogged persistence which paved the way for Sunday to join the team some 14 months after that initial meeting at Miranda. We proposed to produce a 23-minute current affairs story about this little-known relationship built on the back of one of the world’s most threatened birds.  

As Adrian put it one day out in the field, “these birds recognise no borders, they don’t recognise any of the political structures we put up”.

Godwits in North Korea. (Photo: TVNZ)

Godwits in North Korea. (Photo: TVNZ)

Travelling to North Korea

The prospect of filming in the DPRK presented a myriad of issues, first and foremost the concern that we would be out of contact and have no diplomatic help should anything go wrong.

We spoke to other news organisations, including CNN reporters and camera operators who regularly went in, were briefed by MFAT and discussed the assignment with our families. The risks were weighed up by TVNZ management at the highest level.

At the time we were negotiating access, young American Otto Warmbier was sent home in a deathly coma. Insults and threats were being fired back and forward between the US and North Korea. The fact we’d have limited power, basic food options and rarely experience a hot shower during our 10 days on the ground were quite further back in the big picture.  

Thankfully, the tension had significantly eased by the time we crossed the border by train from the Chinese city of Dandong to Sinuiju. We arrived on the birthday of North Korea’s founder and eternal president, Kim Il Sung. Our minders very quickly ushered us out of the train station, placed flowers in our hands and directed us toward two towering bronze statues of the Great Leader and his son and successor Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il. We were advised to bow.

Bowing in front of Kim Il Sung statue. (Photo: TVNZ)

People bowing before the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. (Photo: TVNZ)

The reality sunk in that we were now in North Korea. As reporter Mark Crysell has said, it was like going into a Tupperware container and the lid put on. There was no internet, no idea of the big story breaking back home about something the PM’s partner may or may not have done. Our passports were taken from us. Everything we did was planned by others and we assumed we were monitored.

We were not allowed to leave our hotel unless we were with the NCUK people. We were joined on our trips to the field by secret police types. We’d ask who they were and get a vague reply about some official or another.

Apart from Mr Ri we were travelling around with a group of young scientists, NCUK staff and even a North Korean film crew supposedly making their own documentary. We decided that about half of the people were who they said they were.

But despite the restrictions placed on us, we were granted extraordinary access to parts of the country no foreigner – let alone foreign media – had been allowed to visit. The main concern was around filming soldiers and border fences which resembled something out of central Otago with a bit of wood and wire. They asked for our footage on a hard drive but did not take the original cards so the clips they deleted were never permanently gone. However, when we returned to New Zealand we could see their only issues were showing anything to do with the military or the poverty which would contradict the images North Korea wants the rest of the world to see.

Cyclist in DPRK. (Photo: TVNZ)

The TVNZ crew saw a side of North Korea that was little-seen before. (Photo: TVNZ)

The work of the Miranda team has showed the North Koreans that they can trust foreigners and we were acutely aware of this when it came to putting the story together. We wanted to show the world what we had found there and represent things as we had seen them.

The world knows about the massive military parades, the nukes, the stories of defectors and the shiny streets of Pyongyang which misrepresent that most of the country lives in poverty with barely enough to survive. There’s numerous videos and docos to be found online about that side of North Korea.

What we found and reported was something that no one had ever seen before. It was another side to North Korea. A side where people are instructed to have great respect for the environment and young scientists delight in spotting a Godwit with a colour band from New Zealand or Australia (or any other country they will probably never visit themselves). A side where people express pride in being included among countries signed up to international conventions protecting shorebirds, something that has been hidden behind the better-known façade of fear and distrust.  

The Sunday crew travelled with the support of an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant.

– Asia Media Centre