Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Book Review: North Korea Undercover

world-map pyongyangGreetings!

It’s been a while since we’ve had a book review so here’s my thoughts on BBC journalist John Sweeney’s offering on North Korea.

As you will soon learn, I was none too impressed, which is all well and good except that it begs the question of, if that is what one should not read before heading to the DPRK, then which books are a better alternative?

To be honest, quality travelogues are short on the ground; the only other I have read is Clive Leatherdale’s ‘To Dream of Pigs’ which is ok but deals chiefly with South Korea.


But whilst there may not be good travel writing, there are other good books to be perused. To prepare for my trip I read a trio of real-life tales of people who’ve escaped from North Korea. I recommend all of them but found ‘Nothing to Envy’ by Babara Demick to be the best. Both that book and ‘This is Paradise’ by Hyok Kang deal with life in the far north-east of the country which was of interest to me since that is where I travelled. The final book of that nature that I read was ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang’ by Kang Chol-Hwan which dealt with the capital more. Nonetheless, well worth a read although surely the title should read ‘Aquaria’?!

aquariums of pyongyangnothing to envythis is paradise

I also read a couple of books on the political situation in North Korea. Both were good although I must admit that I read ‘North Korea through the Looking Glass’ by Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig a while back so I can’t recall it in great detail. Andrei Lankov’s ‘The Real North Korea’ is, however, still fresh in my mind and I have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to the seemingly surreal but in actual fact, wholly rational behaviour of the North Korean elite.

nk through the looking glassreal north korea

And finally, my guidebook for the trip was Bradt North Korea by Robert Willoughby which was excellent although, be warned, sometimes it is confiscated if you try and bring it into the country. Mine was although Bradt, to their credit, replaced it free of charge. And if that isn’t a recommendation, then nothing is.

bradt nk

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State

John Sweeney


It's understandable I suppose, that the first thing you do after booking a trip of a lifetime to North Korea, is read a book about the country. And as the only one in my local library dealing with “the world's most secret state” was this offering by the BBC's John Sweeney, then 'North Korea Undercover' it was.

I'd heard about it beforehand mind. Sweeney's trip to the DPRK caused great controversy. He'd latched onto a university tour pretending to be a professor but in reality making a TV documentary and getting the material for this book. The claims that he had endangered the lives of the students on the trip were not unfounded but they worked wonders for his viewing figures; record numbers including me tuned in to watch the Panorama programme that resulted from it all but to be honest, whilst I can't speak for the other 5 million, I was disappointed. If you're going to put others at risk, then do it for something worthwhile, use the opportunity to tell the world something we don't know about North Korea. Instead, I learnt nothing new: North Korea is run by a dictator who is, all in all, not very nice to everybody including his own people. True, maybe, but hardly very enlightening. Still, perhaps the book would be better...?

It wasn't. In fact, if anything, it was worse. The first chapter starts with “Of the five most creepy buildings in the world... the Pyongyang Planetarium... is the creepiest.” There's a picture of said offensive structure in the book, a large Saturn covered with mirrors. Cheesy perhaps, tacky, yes, but conversely not unsuitable a design for a planetarium and definitely not creepy. Elsewhere Sweeney would not notice it but here he does because here he is looking for creepiness. He has a conception in his head before he even sets off and over the next 294 pages he makes sure that everything that he sees fits into that conception.

And ultimately, that's what is so disappointing with this book. The whole thing is so close-minded, so biased and ultimately, so pointless. Sure, North Korea is the bad guy of world politics, a really bad guy in fact, but it is also a very secret state and I read the book hoping to learn a little about everyday life there. Instead I learnt little beyond the fact that John Sweeney is an old grump with a grudge.

Indeed he goes further than most, onwards towards a bigoted one-sided approach that is an anathema to both good journalism and good travel writing, (the book is a mixture of both). In one section he slams mercilessly Nicolas Bonner and Daniel Gordon, two British film-makers who are using cinema, (and in the case of Bonner, tourism – he is also the head of Koryo Tours), to get the DPRK to interact with the outside world. Sweeney doesn't like this, in fact he really doesn't like this. He lambastes them for not criticising the regime in their films and promoting James Dresnok, a “regime stooge”, (Dresnok is an American soldier who defected to the communists during the war and has stayed in North Korea ever since). Yet they would never be allowed to work in the DPRK again if they did criticise the Dear Leader and surely any interaction must be better than none?

And that's the whole point. Sweeney may feel that he's taking the moral high ground with regards to Leaders Great, Dear and Young, but his book has made neither a positive impact on our understanding of the DPRK nor a real difference to the conditions of ordinary North Koreans. The same cannot be said of the work of those whom he criticises so harshly. A little lesson worth musing upon me thinks.


June, 2014

Smallthorne, UK


  1. Great article! I can't wait to read your recommendations. I just came back from 12 days in DPRK, I want to learn more. Thanks.

    1. Matt, thanks for your comment and how did you find the DPRK? I had an incredible time and would love to return one day although finances and so many other places that need visiting may well prevent that. I shall be writing my DPRK trip up over the coming year but in the meantime check out this link where our guide wrote up the trip: http://www.youngpioneertours.com/north-east-adventures Also in the intro to this post on Armenia I reviewed another DPRK book: http://matthewepointon.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/day-4-yerevan-to-sisian.html