Academics condemn undercover filming in North Korea

The recent news of unethical and inexcusable misconduct by a BBC journalist in North Korea has prompted an important letter from UK-based scholars of North Korea. While some have dismissed the controversy as “fuss,” there are huge implications for both academic research and political engagement especially since these “undercover” attempts endanger lives and make heroes out of uninformed reporters.

We are all engaged in research and teaching about Korea and would like to make four points about the Panorama broadcast North Korea Undercover (Report, 16 April). 1) The content of the report told us nothing about the DPRK not already widely available in the print and broadcast media. 2) The unethical misrepresentation by the reporting team of themselves to the DPRK government endangered the LSE students on a study tour. 3) The misrepresentation has damaged the reputation of the LSE as well as all other academic contacts with the DPRK. 4) The misrepresentation has probably endangered the DPRK personnel involved with the group.

For these reasons we believe that the BBC has not offered any service to the public, rather it has damaged reputations, set back attempts to make links with the DPRK, and the BBC should apologise publicly to both the LSE and to the students on the tour.


On a related note, I just heard about a new film titled The Defector: Escape from North Korea screening at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. It’s the Canadian International Documentary Festival, and likely to draw a large audience. In the interview I saw on local Korean TV, the director explicitly said she’s not sure there’s a difference between human smugglers and migration brokers. I probably should watch it for research and review, but I’m not sure if I can stomach yet another one of these self-important exposés…

Under cover of darkness, a man makes clandestine calls from inside a moving car. Dragon is brokering an escape for a group of North Koreans hiding in China who risk deportation if caught. Also a defector, he sees himself more as a human rights activist rescuing fellow North Koreans than a shady broker dealing with human smugglers. But Dragon’s intentions are clear when he states, “There have to be profits for us to work.” Director Ann Shin follows two women from the group with hidden cameras on an arduous journey through China and Laos to Thailand, led by smugglers. Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee are ambivalent about their pursuit for freedom not only because of the constant danger to themselves but also because of the possible retribution for their families. The Defector humanizes the harrowing experience of illegal migrants, who are rendered invisible when forced to travel as commodities across closed borders. [From Hot Docs site]