Documentarian: ‘North Korean pizza is actually pretty good’

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Rob Montz confesses that perhaps the most interesting detail he discovered while putting together his new documentary about North Korea was that the Hermit Kingdom actually has excellent pizza.

“Sadly, what’s irresistibly jumping to mind right now indicates precisely which organ holds the most sway in my life: North Korean pizza is actually pretty good,” Montz told The Daily Caller in an email interview about his documentary,”Juche Strong.”

“We had some our last day there. Ham and cheese. Right amount of sauce. Crust was properly cooked. Washed that down with room-temperature coke.”

Montz traveled to the country many label as the world’s most oppressive in the summer of 2012, just three years after the economically-backward communist dictatorship opened its first pizza parlor, which is likely an unobtainable dining luxury for most North Koreans.

But Montz’s documentary isn’t about North Korean pizza. It attempts to counter the notion that the Kim family has maintained power merely through brutal repression. Their propaganda, which looks comically ridiculous to Western eyes, is crucial to understanding why the regime is still around, argues Montz.

The footage of horrific poverty in the film helps demonstrate that it is “all the more amazing that North Korea is still around given that it’s been desperately poor for so long,” he said.

“In an odd way, pointing out how desperately weak the economy is shows how incredibly powerful the other pillars of the socio-cultural system are, including the ideological apparatus.”

WATCH: “Juche Strong” trailer 

Read TheDC’s lively interview with Montz about North Korea, his film and where you can see it below:

So, what made you want to make a documentary about North Korea?

The honest but personally unflattering answer is that I was initially fascinated by North Korea because I’d bought into the most common media representations of the country — that it’s this antiquated Soviet satellite subsisting purely on oppression that’s dominated by a strange and stupid family. However, as I started to seriously research North Korea and its history, I bumped into the unfortunate fact that that representation happens to bear very little resemblance to reality. And when I came to terms with the fact that I’d been misled about North Korea, I realized most Western observers had as well. And so the film evolved into an attempt to combat the most common misperceptions of the country and to lay out the particular internal ideological logic that plays a vital role in keeping the country running.

There is some footage in the film that his horrifying. I’m thinking specifically of the footage of the North Korea kid in the field who looked like she hadn’t eaten for days. How did you get the footage for the documentary? Did you travel to North Korea yourself?  

I travelled and shot in North Korea in the summer of 2012. The vast majority of video in the film of the country itself was shot then. That particular segment, though, wasn’t from me — it’s secret footage taken by a freelance journalists that was first published by the UK’s Telegraph. And that footage is in this film on purpose — it’s a brutal and vivid representation of just how economically depressed and mismanaged this country is. Turns out top-down, command and control socialist economics is slightly suboptimal. But part of the reason I make that point is to emphasize the fact that it’s all the more amazing that North Korea is still around given that it’s been desperately poor for so long. In an odd way, pointing out how desperately weak the economy is shows how incredibly powerful the other pillars of the socio-cultural system are, including the ideological apparatus.

The documentary tries to counter the notion that North Korea has lasted so long merely because of the Kim family’s brutality — it suggests the regime’s staying power is at least partially the result of its effective use of propaganda. What makes their propaganda so effective?

It’s effective on two layers. First, it taps into these very specific cognitive structures inherent in all human beings — structures that shape the way we process information and the way we form our own identity. Evolutionary psychology has shown there are these embedded, deeply powerful instincts we have for mentally structuring the world — that we love to form in-groups, that we have powerful notions of communal purity, that we naturally form rigid social hierarchies. North Korea’s propaganda speaks to these specific structures — and this is the second layer it works on — but in a way that’s sensitive to the particular cultural and religious history of the Korean people. So that means, for instance, having these Confucian overtones in the way the Kim family is depicted, emphasizing self-reliance because of the history of brutal Japanese imperial rule, making Americans the feared “out group,”  etc.

As the film notes and as anyone who has eyes would concur, North Korea’s propaganda seems comically ridiculous to an outsider. How is it received in North Korea – and, more importantly, how do we know how well it is received in North Korea? There are so few defectors and it isn’t easy to talk to ordinary North Koreans.

First, 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 as proof positive that the caricature of the country is correct. Turns out that video is a fraud and was easily debunked (by NKNews.org).

Also, a big reason that their propaganda looks so odd to us is simply because we’re outsiders. I actually don’t think most of their propaganda is any more odd or irrational than, say, the average video shown during Sunday school at an American church or one of the rah-rah video hagiographies projected at the Democratic/Republican nomination conventions. But we’ve been acclimated to these cultural products so they don’t seem that strange to most of us.

And as far as how we know if the propaganda is working: No one can really know for certain. But the rate of defection is actually very low relative to other totalitarian regimes in history. And virtually all of the interviews done with defectors — including the one I include in my film — confirm the impression that the vast majority of people in the country are deeply compelled by the national ideology.

Wait, you really believe that North Korean propaganda is no stranger than what you see at the Republican and Democratic conventions? I don’t remember American presidential candidates portraying themselves as gods or suggesting they once hit 11 holes-in-one during a round of golf. 

I’m absolutely not engaging in the pseudo-intellectual moral equivalences you’ll find in the work of reactionary left-wing filmmakers like Oliver Stone or Michael Moore. I’m a big fan of America and love our freedoms. However, there is absolutely an underlying shared genetic code between pernicious political and religious rhetoric deployed here in the States and the propaganda used in North Korea to cultivate social solidarity. I don’t think the founding myths of Kim Jung Il’s birth, for instance (it was purportedly signaled by a double rainbow over Mt. Paektu and birds singing in Korean), are any more illogical than the founding myths of, say, Christianity. They’re both evidence-immune stories that lots of people believe because those stories make them feel good about their position in the world and/or because the stories connect them to some sort of transcendent purpose and community.

You concede there are few defectors, but suggest that’s because few want to defect. It strikes me that there are other possible explanations, including that North Koreans have been so deprived of access to the outside world that many don’t know that most people in the world don’t live in such abysmal conditions. Also, it’s not particularly easy to escape North Korea, especially with China cracking down and North Korea making it more difficult even to get to the border. 

The propaganda is not the only reason people don’t leave. There are others — not least of which it’s very tough to leave your family and your friends and the only community you’ve only known, regardless of what country you’re in. However, I do think people tend to overstate how little outside information North Koreans have access to. Most importantly, the people in the country with the most access to the outside world — the ones who most frequently travel abroad and see Western wealth with their own eyes — are the people highest up in the party structure. And there have been very few high level defections. And a disproportionately large slice of the defectors come from the northeast tip of the country which evidence suggests is also the least propagandized.

The documentary ends with a clip of an interview from the late Christopher Hitchens saying, “The will to power is easy to understand. The will to obey is the problem we have as humans. That’s the real filthy secret at the heart of power.” Isn’t it possible the will to obey is directly proportional to the brutality of the regime? There were less people willing to disobey regime dictates in Stalin’s Russia than in Gorbechev’s Russia — and for good reason. In North Korea, if you refuse to obey, you could be sent to a concentration camp, which seems to me like a pretty good incentive to obey.  

I don’t ever want to play down the oppression in North Korea — the ruling regime is brutal in a lot of ways, including locking up some 100k-200k people in those labor camps. However, I do think the media tends to overemphasis the role hard-nose fascism plays in keeping the country together. For instance, the rate of police-per-capita in North Korea is actually lower than it is in Chicago. The vast majority of ideological enforcement is carried out by average citizens — people who aren’t directly on the government dole.

I know you say you don’t want to down play the brutality of the regime, but it does seem you are downplaying the brutality of the regime a bit. How do you know what the police-per-capita is in North Korea? I don’t imagine it is easy to discover given the lack of access the regime provides — and a closed regime like North Korea is anything but trustworthy. 

My sense that the vast majority of ideological enforcement comes from average citizens isn’t exclusively based on that per-capita stat — its one part of a broader set of evidence. But you’re absolutely right that there’s a limit to the level of confidence you can have when talking about North Korea. Hopefully, the film itself reflects the fact that it is a highly complex society that limits outsiders’ access. Though there is a growing body of compelling evidence that does support my thesis about the nature and effects of the propaganda.

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while putting the film together?

Sadly, what’s irresistibly jumping to mind right now indicates precisely which organ holds the most sway in my life: North Korean pizza is actually pretty good. We had some our last day there. Ham and cheese. Right amount of sauce. Crust was properly cooked. Washed that down with room-temperature coke.

Where can people see the documentary? 

I’m screening the film at the Cato Institute and New York University in April. Both events are totally free and open to the public. All details here.

Also, I’m game to hold screenings literally anywhere. So if people reading this would like to set one up and/or a director Q/A, shoot me an email and we’ll make it happen: juchestrong@gmail.com

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