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The Propaganda Game

Imagine North Korea. Don’t imagine a place on a map, a system of government, or a wacky caricature of a leader. Imagine a street in North Korea. Imagine a tram taking people to work. Imagine a street vendor selling hot dogs, imagine friends queuing for the underground metro, imagine children playing in the park. Imagine what North Korea looks like from the ground, imagine what it feels like to be in North Korea. It’s difficult, right?

However, getting to film inside North Korea isn’t as hard as you might think. The filmmakers are allowed into the country with cameras because they say they want to meet “the real” North Koreans. In effect, they offer North Korea a free piece of humanising propaganda for Western audiences. Western viewers are used to North Korea documentaries which show the regime to be both bizarre and cruel – in effect, another form of propaganda. The Propaganda Game crew pretend to be making pro-North Korean propaganda, and when they’ve finished they market the film as revealing anti-North Korean propaganda. In reality, exploring the effects of North Korean propaganda is a pretence. Really, The Propaganda Game does everything it can to avoid becoming propaganda. It serves to debunk myths about North Korea that are perpetuated in Western Media, without replacing them with the opposing North Korean propaganda myths.

While the crew must always be accompanied by government officials, they are allowed to talk to whoever they wish. We meet a wide range of Pyongyang residents, including tour guides, soldiers, businessmen, kids, and rollerblading teens. On their commute to work, Koreans laugh and wave to the cameras. At “the most heavily militarized border in the world”, soldiers jokingly push each other around, trying to impress a passing group of girls. At every turn expectations are challenged.

At times, filmmaker Alvaro Longoria seems actually fond of North Korea. He enjoys talking to the people, and praises the country’s beauty. However, the origin of this newfound respect is open to scrutiny. Longoria himself seems uncertain. Possibly he has spent so long immersed in North Korean society that the ingrained propaganda has started to take effect.

In the West, propaganda is so subtly pervasive that when we saw people crying at the funeral of Kim Jong-un, many respectable news outlets speculated that the images were faked. Our preconceptions of North Korea are so hard to shake that the government employing thousands of actors to attend a funeral seemed more plausible than people actually paying respects to the leader they loved!

Trying to understand the intense and sincere love Korean people feel towards their Glorious Leader, the documentary notes that Kim’s government provides each citizen with a home for free, healthcare for free, and education for free. However, to avoid bias, the film follows these facts with the claims of a defector, who says that the healthcare is poor, citizens get no choice over where their home is, and the free education is just another way for the state to deliver propaganda. Then again, these claims are countered by a North Korean official, who calls into question the credibility of defectors’ claims. And indeed, there are North Korean defectors who have made claims which were later revealed to be false.

Clearly there is misinformation inside North Korea, and there is misinformation outside as well. So where is the truth? The documentary examines one story which ran in the New York Times, claiming that a senior official was executed by live dogs while Kim Jong-un watched. This story is false, and has been traced back to a single microblogger in China who made up or exaggerated facts to draw more attention to their site.

The stories we hear coming out of North Korea are so often unbelievable, and yet they are so often believed! The Propaganda Game seeks to bypass media misinformation on both sides, wanting to meet real North Koreans and present its findings free from any judgement or bias. However, despite the compelling testimony of numerous citizens, it is hard to know how representative the filmmakers’ experiences were of North Korea as a whole. Inside North Korea, there is plenty of strong and sincere love for the regime. Outside, there is a hatred or mistrust which is equally sincere. The take-away is this: to be convinced is easy, but to be certain is impossible.