An Interview with Shane Smith, the man behind ‘The Vice Guide to North Korea,’ on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s auspicious 69th birthday

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Sixty-nine. It’s not the Valentine’s Day present you gave your sweet-something on Monday. It’s how old Kim Jong-il is today.

For the past 17 years, North Korea’s Dear Leader, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, oppressive dictator has treated the country and its people like his own personal flea circus. Kim Jong-il doesn’t rule North Korea, Kim Jong-il is North Korea.

But what does anyone know about this country-of-one, apart from the fact that its leader likes to wear Elizabeth Taylor’s hand-me-down shades and steal South Korean movie stars?

One of the most closed-off areas of the world, North Korea has only very recently allowed Western tourists to visit. Not that anyone is really itching to go, which of course means that it’s exactly the kind of place wanted to visit.

In shanty towns like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the VICE conglomerate (née magazine) is kind of a big thing. It’s head-butted the mainstream media into submission and is garnering absolutely too much buzz for that assault on conventional reporting. After all, they’ve only done crotch-deep immersion journalism in places like Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. To its credit, VICE has had foreign correspondents in Detroit.

For years, the VICE staff have been reporting from places no one else will cover — from following heavy metalheads in Iraq’s “Red Zone,” to its much-lauded look into war-torn, cannibal-populated Liberia. Before launching the MTV-produced series, “The Vice Guide to Everything,” which just wrapped up its first season, also managed to take a lovely little tour through North Korea.

Leading the team like Anderson Cooper coming down from a successful PCP trip is Shane Smith, also one of VICE’s founders. (He’s received too much press as well.)

In dishonor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday, The Daily Caller spoke with Smith about VICE’s experience in the country as well as all things North Korean — which isn’t much.

TheDC: The most recent news is that Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is reportedly now the No. 2 leader and the heir apparent to his sickly father’s dictatorial throne. Have you seen any changes since you went in 2007?

Shane Smith (SS): I mean, when we were there, there was a very obvious fight between people saying “let westerners in” and “let’s be nicer,” and sort of hardcore militants saying “fuck the west!” or “Army First!” and all that stuff. I think that’s still going on now. During this transition the military is definitely going to get stronger and I think they’re showing that with the recent bombing of South Korea.

TheDC: So do you expect it to be more open after Kim Jong-un takes control?

SS: I don’t think so. I think the military being stronger makes it much more closed. They don’t have a job if they get more open because their job is to take over South Korea. When you’re in North Korea, they tell you 20 times a day, “We can be in Seoul in an hour and a half.”

So you know, the military maintains its power and it gets the best. There’s a policy in North Korea called “Army First”– it means that the army gets everything first. They get the food first, they get the power, they get the money, they get the electricity. Everything. So they’re not going to go away and they definitely don’t want to lose that.

TheDC: What’s the best way to break that barrier between North Korea and the outside world then?

SS: It’s going to have to be like Gorbachev and Russia. You have to have an absolute dictator and that dictator is going to say “Ok, now we can open up.” It’s going to be a problem. They’re essentially going to become cheap labor. I mean they can’t do anything. They’re 50-100 years behind everybody else. They don’t know how to use computers or phones or anything else. So, they’re going to be in serious trouble when they do open up.

TheDC: In “The VICE Guide to North Korea,” you call the country “freaky,” “surreal,” “weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” How can this be the case? You’ve been to Liberia.

SS: Well, Liberia is fucked up because of 20 years of war and you really see how man if left to his own devices can be truly evil — cannibalism and rape and murder. It’s the heart of darkness. North Korea is pretty interesting because it’s like going back in time to Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. It’s total dominance. Big Brother. It’s “1984” personified.

It’s interesting because you realize, “oh, that was half the world at one point.” It’s crazy. Military parades and the only posters you see are Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung and they’re in every room. Every single fucking room. It’s mind-boggling that that’s how the world used to run.

When you go to North Korea you understand Stalin, you understand Mao, you understand Hitler. You understand this sort of “I AM GOD AND I WILL RUN EVERYTHING” mentality. It’s incredible that just 60 years ago, that that was how a lot of countries ran.

I think North Korea is one of the last places, so it’s really interesting. At the same time, you realize that for me to have a nice, Disneyland view of the police state there’s like 40 million people who are suffering.

TheDC: What about the North Korean population? It seems to easy to say “these people are stupid! How can anyone fall for all that shit Kim Jong-il does or says?”

SS: First of all you have to understand that the majority of the people in North Korea have grown up with their education system and they’re educated to believe that Japan and America are evil, terrible, corrupt countries that are imperialists, etcetera-etcetera.

So they believe what they’re told, (A), and (B), everybody in the country makes a pilgrimage to the [Jong-il’s father] Kim Il-sung’s International Friendship Museum, the depository of treasures or something. It’s cut into a mountain. They spent a lot of money. They cut it deep, deep, deep into a mountain.

There’s trains there that Mao and Stalin gave to Kim Il-sung. They spent a fuck of a lot of money and time or whatever to make this thing and what it is. And it has like 10 million presents or something to Kim Il-sung. If you stopped for 10 seconds at each present, it would take you two years to see the whole museum.

So every North Korean makes the pilgrimage there once in their life. They get really dressed up and there’s this sort of shitty wax figure of Kim Il-sung and when they see it, they cry and fall down and faint because they’re meeting the “Great Leader.”

The presents are interesting because they’re all like, “To The Great Kim Il-sung, Leader Of Juche; To The Fantastic Founder Of Juche; To The Leader Of All Man.”

It’s funny because I guess in embassy protocol they say, “Oh, they’d like to be ‘Leader Of All Man’” or be referred to as “The Great Blah Blah Blah.” So all these gifts are labeled to the “Greatest Leader of All Time.” It’s genius because the people see that and go “Oh! Every single leader, every single workers’ group from every country in the world believes Kim-Il sung is the greatest leader of all time.”

TheDC: So it’s just a matter of “in time, the country will change?”

SS: Well, I don’t think they’ll ever be allowed to get that kind of media as long as they have a dictator, unless the dictator says, “Ok, now we can open up.” And once they open up its … there’s so many stories about North Korean defectors going to South Korea and being so fucked up — they can’t use phones, they can’t use computers. They can’t handle modernity. And some go back because they’re just like, “I-I-I-I-I … I can’t handle it.”

It’s like going into the future and being like “I don’t, I don’t … this isn’t my time. I can’t be here.”

TheDC: On the flip-side, people in the U.S. don’t seem to know much about North Korea and have resorted to caricatures of both the country and Kim Jong-il.

SS: There’s a lot of reasons for that. No one can go to North Korea, it’s very difficult to go to North Korea and it’s very difficult to see anything when you’re there. Nobody really knows anything about North Korea so of course they’re fascinated by it.

Anytime you don’t know anything about anywhere it becomes sort of a caricature. I remember, I was studying East European Soviet studies when I was in university and it be like “you can buy a house for the pear of blue jeans” or “Bolsheviks eat babies” or whatever just because people just didn’t know.

It turns out, North Korea  wasn’t that much different than anywhere else. But people don’t know what the fuck’s going on in North Korea so they make these caricatures because if it was just like Angola (or, I don’t know, I’m just using ‘A’ countries, Andorra) then no one would care. They could just go there and go, “Oh yeah, it’s just like anywhere else pretty much.”

I mean it is unlike anywhere else but people don’t really know. All they see is some of the propaganda footage that comes with the marching armies and crazy shit. So they make fun of it. You know, what else are they going to do?

TheDC: I guess you don’t hear about those who went back to North Korea?

SS: I’m sure if they come back they go through the whole process of saying, “Oh it’s terrible everywhere else. You should stay here!”

We interviewed a lot of refugees in South Korea. We were there probably about a week and we were just interviewing North Koreans who live in South Korea. They were all fucked up.

TheDC: What about VICE’s guide? You shot footage on two short trips?

SS: It’s a combination but most of it came from the second time because the first time was a disaster.

They would put you in a truck, drive you out to, like five hours to some like “Great Feat of the Korean People.” Or they would drive you out to the DMZ. Wherever. They would drive you out to all these places and sort of let you out for 45 minutes and then they put you back into the truck and put you back in the hotel. So you just couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t shoot anything. So you’re just sitting on a truck for five days going “Fuck, this is great.”

And the second time, we had nicer guards so we could go do stuff.

TheDC: Get a lot of directional advice from the North Korean officials?

SS: Yeah, you’re not allowed to shoot actual people. You’re not allowed to shoot Pyongyang. You’re not allowed to shoot the roads. You’re not allowed to shoot … they tell you everything what you can and can’t shoot and basically, you can’t shoot very much.

The first time I was there, they were like, “If you shoot out the window again,” (and we’re just shooting B-roll), “If you shoot out the window again, there will be serious or dire consequences,” or whatever.

So we were very worried.

TheDC: Get any feedback from North Korea after broadcasting the guide?

SS: Yeah. My PA, he called me one day.

He said, “Don’t come into the office, today.”

I’m like, “Why?”

He said, “Oh, two North Korean dudes showed up in the office and wanted to talk to you.”

And they don’t even have an embassy here or anything. So yeah, I said “Yeah, no. I’m not coming in.”

I know they watch everything about their … they have a whole division of their secret police that watches out and sort of see what the reaction of people to North Korea is. And since we have something like 45 or 50 million video views of that piece, they’ve obviously seen it.

So I won’t be going back to North Korea any time soon.

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