in the light of the recent North Korean congress, I think there is one thing worth pointing out. The media coverage of the congress and more specifically the expulsion of a BBC crew from the country.
Undeniably, North Korea has a PR problem, but if we tie this recent expulsion together with the numerous arrests of foreign citizens, Americans in particular, I dare to say that we see an equally large fault in West’s assumptions about the DPRK.
In our Euro-American cultures and traditions the freedom of speech is valued as an undeniable right of all people. A right that should be universal. Unfortunately, just like the value of human life itself, it is not seen so in other cultures and traditions. Our right to enforce these values ends at our borders, but we often have a hard time to accept that. If North Koreans come to our countries we must insist they play by our rules and if we come to their country we must play by theirs, no matter how despicable we think their rules are. Western media, like the BBC crew, and some of the visitors transgress these boundaries and I am afraid to say that they do so unknowingly most of the time. If one breaks the rules to exert influence and make things better it is one thing (still debatable if it is the right thing to do), but doing so out of sheer ignorance makes it much much worse.
In North Korea one’s life has no value, freedom of speech does not exist and every right we think is universal is rejected there. If you travel to North Korea you get a strict set of rules on how to behave, what to do and what to say and there is nothing that protects you if you break them. If you then think about how alien world that is, compared to ours the absolute stupidity of Otto Warmbier (American student arrested for trying to steal a propaganda banner who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in jail) and the BBC crew is immeasurable.
Now back to the previous argument that speaking out could have an impact on the locals and thus contribute to the change. Whatever idealist idea that might be, the world of North Korea is not the same as the old Soviet space. If you travel to North Korea, literally no one you meet is there on their own will. You cannot meet anyone that wasn’t handpicked by the regime and thus all of them are highly resistant to any influence. The scale of it is hard to comprehend, but in truth entering North Korea equals entering an elaborate theatre where you are the only audience. Interestingly, if you look to the bottom left corner of the photo above you will see lonely figures standing behind and in front of the press crews. These soldiers are not there for your safety or safety of North Korean people, but to make sure you are sealed off from the actual world and you never get a glimpse of it. During your visit there will always be several around you even if you cannot see them. Also do not be mistaken, there are many who speak English and they do listen closely at all times. So when you see videos of tourists visiting a musical show in Pyongyang please keep in mind that not only the people on the stage, but also everyone in the audience is there, putting on a show, just for the sake of those visitors.
To sum up, the West needs to finally understand that what worked on Soviet Union and its satellite countries will not work on North Korea. The only effect medias investigative questions will have will be putting your guides and people they talk to in terrible danger and doing things like hiding Bibles or stealing banners is sheer stupidity. Unlike Las Vegas, nothing you do in DPRK remains secret, so let’s not be stupid.