Despite the fact that travelers may only visit designated areas and are forbidden from filming civilians and the military, Montz shot footage of elaborate public displays that helped paint a rich portrait of life in North Korea.
If demystifying was his mission, I believe Montz succeeded…[I]t did challenge a largely American audience to think differently about a region that our media has sensationalized for years.
‘What they’ve done is tapped into the deep structures of the human brain that aren’t just found in North Korea but in all of us,’ Montz said. ‘The way we’re taught to think about North Korea misses one of the central elements of control, which is ideology.’
Juche touches on some basic cognitive structures that are inherent in all people. I think there’s a lot of pernicious political rhetoric regularly deployed by major political parties in America that is equally stupid and base.
The struggle against an all-encompassing evil. The promise of a single sacred leader to guide us to paradise. Warnings against polluting outsiders.
These aren’t exactly foreign concepts in American politics — or religion, for that matter.
Mr Montz doesn’t underestimate the strangeness of North Korea, but the experience of filming in Pyongyang led him to a different reflection. If juche and the cult of the Kims has “worked” as an ideology, that may be because it appeals to universal human needs in the way other religions do. “People are susceptible to the idea that somewhere, a single great human exists who can free them from their darkest fears; it’s in our cognitive structures.”
When Kim Il-Sung takes over in the 50s, he’s staring at people who have just relieved themselves of 40 years of incredibly brutal Japanese control. Then they go through the Korean War. This is a people primed to the idea that foreigners are not to be trusted,and that we need to figure out a way to operate completely independent of foreign influence.
A lot of what gets presented to Americans as North Korean propaganda actually isn’t — most people never double check to see if it’s authentic. As long as the video fits with the prevailing Western narrative that the country is hopelessly bizarre and oppressive, the average American will assume it’s the real deal and will tweet it/facebook status it/leave a typo-heavy blog comment about it. Most recently, there was a video said to be DPRK propaganda that depicts Americans “eating snow.” That video went viral and plenty of people used it a proof positive that the caricature of the country is correct. Turns out that video is a fraud and was easily debunked.
Part of what I want to do with the film is demystify North Korea — to show how if you look beneath superficial media representations it is actually a lot less odd than you’d think, that there is a deep and powerful internal logic to the place.
They have incredibly difficult lives. Common sense would tell that it would absolutely make it easier to endure that if you felt it was part of some grand national project. And there is no grander project than standing up to the evil American imperial intruders. It seems to be a really intoxicating force. Having an all-encompassing enemy that you can fight against is a hugely animating force in the human psyche.
So if the North Korean people are not that different from us then the political rhetoric that is enabling the Kim family to maintain control might share some similarities with the political rhetoric regularly deployed by American politicians.
The ideal society gives people lots of freedom to pursue their own happiness and use their own talents in whatever way they choose. But if you look around it seems like a large slice of humanity is all too willing to stomp out individualism as long as you convince them its part of some great good — if you tell them a good story. And that — I think — is a very very prominent fact about North Korean society. That yes, absolutely there is “hard” tyranny there — secret police, labor camps, etc. But at least as crucial to the country persisting and avoiding collapse is the “soft” tyranny of ideology — of using well-crafted propaganda to convince most of society that they’re vital parts of a great story.
The narrative crafted by the regime — of a morally pure Korean people struggling mightily against imperialist powers — effectively taps into deeply rooted Korean cultural norms and human psychological instincts.
I do think the American media’s coverage of NK is so bad it borders on a war crime. You just saw it in the press about North Korea’s Olympians (who did surprisingly well at the London Olympics). The stories were either a) north koreans are mindless, brainwashed automatons or b)some outlandish, unsourced story about the latest evils from the North Korean regimes. For a), the most poignant moment for me was when the male North Korean weightlifter won a gold medal and thanked the spirit of Kim Jong Il for propelling him to victory. There was an avalanche of mockery from a couple of big time American blogs that covered it. But how is that any different than an American athlete thanking, say, jesus after winning a gold in gymnastics?
I’ve immersed myself in scholarly material analyzing North Korea and its ruling regime. I’ve interviewed nearly a dozen top-notch North Korea academics. I just traveled around the country for over a week. And, to my mind, the truth about North Korea is much different — and much more distressing — than the standard narrative.
Though both Kim and his progeny – first, Kim Jong-il, and now, Kim Jong-un – have continued to stress Juche as the heart of their political philosophy, scholars have long debated the extent to which the ideas of Juche are taken seriously by the North Korean population, as opposed to simply being imposed upon them at the barrel of a gun.
It’s a fascinating topic, one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the United States. Like any totalitarian regime, the DPRK couldn’t survive without people truly believing in the righteousness of its leaders and the purity of its ideology (Juche).