North Korea and The Observer Effect

by Gabriel Mizrahi on August 5, 2013

You can’t walk in with cameras and expect the real thing. I mean, you can, but the place will quickly set you straight. Another thing you can’t walk in there with — if you’re going to continue expecting the real thing — is a deep resume. The sort of qualifications that make people cover North Korea for public consumption (journalism/filmmaking/etc.) are

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precisely what prevent them from getting the real thing. And so the people most qualified to get the story are the most likely to miss it. Ride in on a journalist’s visa and point your camera, and you’ll find no shortage of innuendo, misdirection, subterfuge and whatever else is in the Potemkin

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handbook these days. (More of a pamphlet, really.) That’s why blogs like this one, and this one, often get the place more right than the pencils and their notepads (even the sharp pencils, the great notepads). North Korea’s funny like that: It bends and waves in response to the visitor. Be open, and it opens. Listen, and it speaks. Talk, and it doesn’t. Point a camera, and it hides. In few countries does the observer effect apply as strongly as it does in North Korea: The act of observation literally changes the place. And just as in particle physics, it is usually the instruments — the camera, or, more precisely, its owner — that are responsible for altering the phenomenon.

North Korea Phones

Is it any surprise that the place continues to mystify?

So it was with typical skepticism that I read Andre Vltchek’s “North Korea, a Land of Human Achievement, Love and Joy,” wondering whether the title indicated another apologist account of the hermit kingdom or just some cute sarcasm after a disappointing trip. I’m still unsure. In some places, Vltchek sighs that

Paradoxically, I was discouraged to [see the real North Korea]. Instead I was asked to march. From a storyteller and a man who is used to document the world, I was converted into a delegate. And whenever the crowd spotted me, it cheered, and then I felt embarrassed, I was longing desperately to become invisible, or to at least find some hiding place. Not because I was doing something wrong, but simply because I was unaccustomed to such naked outbursts of enthusiasm directed at me.

That’s Vltchek for you — modest. And confident in his role. No man used to documenting the world should be co-opted into a march, only to

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be made the subject of documentation by others. How obscene! While in other places, he celebrates that

Outside the capital I saw green fields, and farmers walking home deep in the countryside. Clearly, there was no malnutrition among children, and despite the embargo, everyone was decently dressed.

Clearly. Let’s put aside the obvious sampling

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error and assume he didn’t visit the mausoleum on the same day that the jaundiced suburbanites trained in from the countryside, and just say that the title’s a little ambiguous. Also that there’s nothing paradoxical about it. But then, “storytellers” need not be precise. We can let the contradictions linger.

What a storyteller does need to be, however, is self-aware, and that is where Vltchek scores some points. His opening, in fact, is one of the more honest I’ve seen. It’s his emptiness that caught my eye, because

As the plane – Russian-built Tupolev-204 – was taking off from Pyongyang Airport, I felt nothing, absolutely nothing. The morning fog was at first covering the runway, and then it began to lift. The engines roared. Right after the takeoff I could clearly distinguish green fields, neat villages and ribbons of ample and lazy rivers below the wing. It was undeniably a beautiful sight: melancholic, poetic, and truly dramatic. And yet I felt numb. I was feeling nothing, absolutely nothing.

Admittedly, Air Koryo’s in-flight entertainment falls short. (Unless you talk to the flight attendants, who are fascinating. The things they see.) But anyway — bravo. Nothingness is not ideal territory for a journalist, but in this case, it’s dead on. And familiar. In one of my first posts on this blog, back in 2011, I tried to explain the Mass Games, which

were, in a word, mesmerizing. And yet I didn’t feel much. It was simply too perfect. At what point does perfection become sterile?

When it’s done for it’s own sake, I suppose. Just getting around to answering that one now.

So, look — h/t to Vltchek. I still don’t really understand his piece, but his basic self-awareness (emptiness to awkwardness to reticence) places him ahead of most scribes orbiting North Korea. It gets hazy in the middle, but it usually does in North Korea. (Recall the perils of remembering North Korea.) And the end, despite its womp wompishness, achieves one more victory: recognizing the uncertainty principle — or some paralyzing form of subjective idealism — at work. Also discovering that human love does exist in North Korea (of course it does, and crucially). So two victories:

That evening, after returning to the capital, I finally made it to the river. It was covered by a gentle but impenetrable fog. There were two lovers sitting by the shore, motionless, in silent embrace. The woman’s hair was gently falling on her lover’s shoulder. He was holding her hand, reverently. I was going to lift my big professional camera, but then I stopped, abruptly, all of a sudden too afraid that what my eyes were seeing or my brain imagining, would not be reflected in the viewfinder.

It wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take the picture anyway.


Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony McFadden August 12, 2013 at 8:15 am

Interesting. In one of my recent books I wrote about an Arab Spring type uprising in North Korea (probably not that plausible, but it was fun to write) and I spent far more time researching this book than any other. You’re absolutely correct, to a point. Much of what comes out of N Korea is massaged for Western consumption.

But there are still sources of data that are either fairly straight (a crowd-sourced Google Earth layer with far more detail than any I’ve seen before) or balanced (with respect to the “balance” of N Korean press) media from South Korea.

I usually write, then almost immediately forget any research I’ve done for a novel, but North Korea has stuck with me.

Thanks for this blog. I’ve subscribed and will read with interest.


Gabriel Mizrahi August 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Glad you enjoyed, Tony, and thrilled to have a reader with a keen interest in the real story. Keep writing and stay close! Happy to have you in the NoKo Blog family.


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