Saturday 19 January 2019

North Korea really isn't a lovely place

Walter Duranty
Walter Duranty
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Most young journalists - one would hope, anyway - will be familiar with the name Walter Duranty.

Duranty was the New York Times man in Moscow in the 1920s and 30s and is remembered for being hoodwinked by Stalin about the extent of the famine in the USSR at the time.

He was famously dismissive of the rumours at the time, and was quick to denounce anyone else who brought up the uncomfortable fact that millions were starving to death in the Ukraine and other regions.

Duranty became the most infamous victim of a scam known as the Potemkin Village, where visitors sped by train through apparently prosperous, bustling villages full of happy peasants merrily waving at the passengers from the platform as they passed by.

The villages were, of course, entirely fake and a ruse which had first been used to impress Catherine the Great as she travelled through her region in the 19th century, and became one of the great con tricks of the 20th.

I fear one Irish lad may have fallen victim to a Potemkin Village scam following his trip to North Korea.

Mark Nugent, speaking to one Irish newspaper following his trip across Asia which included North Korea, says it is actually a nice place and reckons Pyongyang is pretty cool with lovely people who don't hate us.

Nobody would doubt that the average North Korean is a perfectly pleasant person, and I've never met anyone who thinks the North Koreans hate us - but it ain't a nice place.

In fact, it's the largest open-air prison camp in the world, and a society which makes the Gilead of fiction (see left) look like a tolerant beacon of hope and fun times in comparison.

I fear that Mr Nugent, in his admirable desire to see things for himself, may have unwittingly stepped into Duranty's shoes.

There is always a question of which country is the worst in the world. Now, I'm not referring to either the United States or Israel, which are undoubtedly the most hated countries. But in terms of where would be the worst place to live, North Korea takes some beating.

Sure, there is plenty of competition, particularly from Middle Eastern theocracies. Venezuela, with its inhabitants reduced to killing and eating their pets, doesn't sound like a great place these days, either.

But there is something almost horrifyingly comical about the levels of madness afoot in the hermit state - the three-generation punishment rule, the vast gulags, the industrialised torture, the fact that in the 50 years of state-mandated deprivation since the war, North Koreans are now, on average, two to three inches shorter than their southern neighbours.

A few smiling, presumably carefully-screened and terrified locals, doesn't change the hideous reality.

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