Wednesday 24 August 2011

1984 and Vice in North Korea

Rule number one of blog posting: start with a catchy title to hook the reader. Now to sort out how all this fits into the subject.

When I first read George Orwell's book 1984, I always pictured communist Russia but later learned the author had a broader interpretation in the context of the Cold War which included England. I was surprised to think of the concept of a totalitarian state being applied to Great Britain and other democratic countries however considering all that has happened since 9/11 under the guise of the War on Terror, how could anyone not start drawing parallels?

Nevertheless, we here in the West continue on the path we've chosen still feeling warm and fuzzy that our choice of democracy is the right one. I do hear the word oligarchy bandied about to describe where we are or where we're headed but for the moment, we don't seem to be (yet) an Orwellian state. - I wonder if George ever imagined that his last name would turn into an adjective.

There is no doubt that right now, today, if anybody wanted a concrete example of 1984, the totalitarian state as described by George Orwell with his cult of the personality, double speak and warped, out of touch view of the world of perpetual war, North Korea fits the bill perfectly. As we watch the Arab Spring sweep through the Middle East bringing dramatic change to the leadership of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, it would seem for the moment that this holdover from the Stalinist era of absolute rule is not going to change anytime soon.

I've watched some documentaries on the country. I've read articles on those few people permitted to travel to the country. It is quite bizarre and certainly exemplifies the world Mr. Orwell so aptly described in his book. If the author was trying to warn us about a possible scenario for our own future, we need to look no further than North Korea to see just what that future could look like.

Vice Broadcasting System
I recently discovered this Internet based TV system, part of the Vice media conglomerate. At first glance, Vice seems to have an overall feel of gonzo journalism. This isn't one of the big name regular news outlets like Time or Newsweek or NBC or CBS. No, this is more like Rolling Stone with Hunter S. Thompson and an irreverent non mainstream twenty to twenty-five year old look at life. How irreverent?

What does VBS stand for?
Wired Magazine wrote that the cofounders, in a shrewd marketing move, ditched the Vice name for the more oblique VBS, an abbreviation which is open-ended, but is generally understood by fans to stand for Vice Broadcasting System. Considering the more "gonzo" aspect to their journalism, I would go with the "open-ended" interpretation: Vice BS.

VBS goes to North Korea
Shane Smith, one of the co-founders of the original Vice magazine, had the opportunity to get into North Korea. Considering how closed the country is to foreigners, this unto itself seems like a bit of a coup. The amusing contrast here is to see a long haired twenty something cheeky gonzo type journalist speak somewhat disrespectfully of a police state while he's actually in the police state and could find his sorry butt behind bars. Now that's cheeky. However we can only assume his hosts had no idea that this rumpled American tourist would be broadcasting his journey with critical commentary for the entire outside world to see.

The Vice Guide to North Korea
The following video travelogue slash documentary is a fascinating peek behind the (almost) impenetrable iron curtain of the world's last Stalinist regime. It is in three parts and I've indicated the running time of each part.

March 3, 2008
Getting into North Korea was one of the hardest and weirdest processes VBS has ever dealt with. After we went back and forth with their representatives for months, they finally said they were going to allow 16 journalists into the country to cover the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang. Then, ten days before we were supposed to go, they said, “No, nobody can come.” Then they said, “OK, OK, you can come. But only as tourists.” We had no idea what that was supposed to mean. They already knew we were journalists, and over there if you get caught being a journalist when you’re supposed to be a tourist you go to jail. We don’t like jail. And we’re willing to bet we’d hate jail in North Korea. But we went for it. The first leg of the trip was a flight into northern China. At the airport, the North Korean consulate took our passports and all of our money, then brought us to a restaurant. We were sitting there with our tour group, and suddenly all the other diners left and these women came out and started singing North Korean nationalist songs. We were thinking, “Look, we were just on a plane for 20 hours. We’re jet-lagged. Can we just go to bed?” but this guy with our group who was from the LA Times told us, “Everyone in here besides us is secret police. If you don’t act excited then you’re not going to get your visa. So we got drunk and jumped up onstage and sang songs with the girls. The next day we got our visas. A lot of people we had gone with didn’t get theirs. That was our first hint at just what a freaky, freaky trip we were embarking on…
— VBS Founder Shane Smith

FYI: I tried to embed the videos but the loading of the page slowed down to a crawl. My apologies, you'll have to open the VBS page in another window. But, be warned, the videos do take a moment to come up.

Part 1/3 (20:51 minutes)

Part 2/3 (17:46 minutes)

Part 3/3 (19:49 minutes)

Final Word
This documentary was made back in 2008 however it has recently (spring 2011) been discovered by several media outlets who have written about the documentary. Personally, I found these videos to be quite interesting and on the strength of this endeavour, I have every intention of digging further into the Vice company to see their other efforts.


Wikipedia: is an online television network owned by the Vice media conglomerate. The network produces original, short-form, documentary-style video content. Subject matter includes humanitarian issues, music, insider travel guides, and news. The creative director of the network is Spike Jonze.

Wikipedia: Vice (magazine)
Vice is a free magazine and media conglomerate founded in Montreal, Quebec and currently based in New York City.Vice is available in 27 countries. Editions are published in Canada, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States. It is free and supports itself primarily through advertising. Jesse Pearson was Vice's editor-in-chief for eight years until resigning in December, 2010. The current editor-in-chief is Rocco Castoro, and the global editor is Andy Capper. (formerly VBS TV)
VBS is an online broadcast network that streams free original content 24 hours a day. We carry a mix of domestic and international news, pop and underground culture coverage, and the best music in the world. People have used words like eclectic, smart, funny, shocking, and revolutionary to describe VBS, but we prefer to simply think of ourselves as the future of all media. Join us as we fulfill every utopian vision the internet has failed to live up to so far.

Wired - Oct 18/2007
The Snarky Vice Squad Is Ready to Be Taken Seriously. Seriously. by Jason Tanz
Most of the VBS staff has no experience in journalism or television production, which may explain the absence of network news staples: no makeup, no artificial lighting, no handheld microphones, and — most crucially — no bones about being totally biased. "Traditional journalism always aspires to objectivity, and since day one with the magazine we never believed in that," says Suroosh Alvi, a Vice cofounder. "Our ethos is subjectivity with real substantiation. I don't think you see that on CNN." (Their tagline: "Rescuing you from television's deathlike grip.")

VBS: Shane Smith
Shane Smith is one of the founders of Vice magazine and the President of Vice’s media empire. In 1994, along with Suroosh Alvi, he helped start a small Montreal punk zine -- which would soon grow into the first ever free worldwide youth-culture monthly, with 22 international editions and a global circulation of over one million. Vice has since topped the Cassandra Report’s “trendsetter publications” poll for years running and has been lauded by outlets like Rolling Stone, CNN, and ABC as the voice of the current generation and a magazine without peer.

Wikipedia: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nineteen Eighty-Four (sometimes written 1984) is a dystopian fiction written by George Orwell about a society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship.

Wikipedia: Dystopia
A dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-, "bad, ill", and Ancient Greek: τόπος, "place, landscape"; alternatively cacotopia, or anti-utopia) is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian, as characterized in books like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity's spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.

Wikipedia: North Korea
The peninsula was governed by the Korean Empire until it was annexed by Japan following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. It was divided into Soviet and American occupied zones in 1945, following the end of World War II. North Korea refused to participate in a United Nations–supervised election held in the south in 1948, which led to the creation of separate Korean governments for the two occupation zones. Both North and South Korea claimed sovereignty over the Korean Peninsula as a whole, which led to the Korean War of 1950. The Armistice Agreement of 1953 ended the fighting; however, the two countries are officially still at war against each other, as a peace treaty was never signed. Both states were accepted into the United Nations in 1991.

CNN World - Feb 8/2010
Vice Guide to North Korea By Shane Smith, Founder of VICE and VBS.TV
[An article with details of the trip.]

CNN presents VBS.TV
[Apparently CNN has taken a shining to VBS by presenting their reporting on their web site.]


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