Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Enter Pyongyang: The Timelapse As Communist Propaganda Video

It’s pretty clear that, in a sense, all of the time lapse videos I’ve featured here are marketing tools. They market both the film makers who created them, and the cities featured. Clearly the genre is all about making places just seem jaw-droppingly cool.

But at what point does marketing become propaganda? That is, at what point does the sales job cross the line from legitimate to illegitimate activity? I’m not sure where that line is, but a recent time lapse video of Pyongyang, North Korea by JT Singh and Rob Whitworth (who have produced other videos I’ve featured here) is on the wrong side of it.

I’m not going to embed this video on my site, but if you want to watch it you can click to Vimeo.

As you can see if you watch it, this video treats Pyongyang as just another cool emerging world global city, complete with lavish reclaimed waterfront parks, subway commuters, neon lit skyscrapers, a thriving bike culture, smiling happy kids, international brands (DHL), and more. It’s a consciously normalizing portrayal. But beyond that note elements designed deliberately to humanize the world’s most barbaric regime, ranging from using the official name of “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” instead of North Korea in the title and splash screen to eliminate negative associations, to a preponderance of very non-threatening looking female (or androgynous) police officers who help mothers with strollers cross the street and such.

For the record, North Korea is a brutal communist dictatorship that’s likely the world’s most evil regime. You’ve no doubt seen the widely circulated satellite imagery of a completely dark North Korea at night:

Image via NBC News

Oddly enough, Singh and Whitlock didn’t show us any pictures of Pyongyang’s thriving nightlife scene…. (The lack of nighttime scenes is telling given they are a standard part of the genre and feature heavily in Singh and Whitlock’s previous work such as their Shanghai video that actually playfully shows all the lights of Shanghai going out! Apparently the real deal is too much for them).

But that doesn’t even scratch surface of the inhumanity of the North Korean regime. Famine is a recurring reality in the country in which an estimated million people died during the 1990s alone. The country also runs a network of concentration camps in which even children are brutalized. Consider this report from a former guard:

Children were savaged to death by guard dogs in a North Korea concentration camp, it was revealed today. Three youngsters died straight away under the snarling jaws of the prison camp dogs, defector and former prison guard Ahn Myong-Chol said. But two others were still breathing when guards buried them alive.

Myong-Chol,45, spent eight years as a prison guard in the gulag camps before he fled to South Korea in 1994. But he is still haunted by the dog-attack on the children as they left the camp school. “There were three dogs and they killed five children,” he recalled at a Geneva human rights hearing. “They killed three of the children right away. The two others were barely breathing and the guards buried them alive.”

But instead of the dogs being put down, their handlers petted them and gave them special food “as some kind of reward.”

A recent United Nations report described the horrors that exist in the country. As CNN reported:

A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” a United Nations panel reported Monday…North Korea is a state, it concluded, “that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.”

Why in the world would anyone want to have anything to do with making the North Korean regime look good? It isn’t like the filmmakers simply provided a portrayal that attempted to be nuanced and acknowledging complexities or something. Rather, this is a pure play work of propaganda.

They claim not to have been paid for their work. So what? That doesn’t change the reality of what it is. But even their own accompanying text raises troubling questions about the financing behind this. Their expenses were paid by a tour company that they claim is the market leader in North Korean tourism. Certainly at a minimum this company can’t be in that business without staying on Kim Jong-un’s good side, much less help the filmmakers “gain special access to locations.”

But that’s not even worth investigating since regardless of where the money came from, they created a video that serves the propaganda aims of the North Korean dictatorship. Without a doubt it’s “cool,” but that only makes their decision worse, not better. If in fact “Amazingly, we were given complete editorial control in the making of this piece,” that only adds to their shame in giving propaganda assistance to North Korea’s dictatorship of their own free will.


Cities: Pyongyang

7 Responses to “Enter Pyongyang: The Timelapse As Communist Propaganda Video”

  1. George V. says:

    Two points I’d like to make about this video:

    1. Is it just me, or could you not imagine our own architects and urban planners licking their chops at the opportunity to build the dehumanizing plazas and apartment complexes that litter the Pyongyang cityscape? If anything, the Pyongyang in the video strikes me as their dreamscape, a hellish nightmare born of centralized planning.

    2. Though America is clearly a much better place than North Korea, there is an element of propaganda in our own time lapse videos. Take Chicago, for example. Where are the techno time lapses of the South Side – the open air drug markets, the unsupervised children, the demolitions and decay, the liquor stores, the men being put in handcuffs? Read the recent criticisms of the NY Times’ coverage of Detroit, how it focused the majority of its positive stories on the white business community. We have an angle we sell to ourselves that is not exactly truthful or wholesome.

    Just over the last few days, there has been rioting in a St. Louis suburb. We have serious problems in this country.

    North Korea’s government is bad and deserves severe criticism. But I think we should spend more time pointing the finger at ourselves. Change starts with yourself.

  2. John Morris says:

    “Is it just me, or could you not imagine our own architects and urban planners licking their chops at the opportunity to build the dehumanizing plazas and apartment complexes that litter the Pyongyang cityscape? If anything, the Pyongyang in the video strikes me as their dreamscape, a hellish nightmare born of centralized planning.”

    Well said, I have little to add. The revolting eagerness of architects like Zaha Hadid, to work on any big project shows they might work in Pyongyang, if the check cleared. Even worse is the craving for power. Shaping space always means shaping lives to some extent- but the worst type craves the power to control on a Robert Moses scale.

  3. Brian M says:

    I might also note that, horrific as it is, there are many other countries which vie for the title of “worst regime”. Once the farce ends and the Taliban are back in charge in Afghanistan, we will be able to only marvel at the wonders created by purist Wahabiism…largely created via our bestest friends in the world, the Saudi regime, and their clients and partners on the penninsula. Or, for that matter, the failed state situations in the Congo in which 3 million people died and rape is a policy of state by the “government”and “rebels”…

    So…we can’t really make a claim thta North Korea is that uniquely evil. Not because the regime is good, but because there are so many failed states and evil religious dictatorships throuhgout the world today.

  4. John says:

    Is there any chance the directors are trying to make a statement about how meaningless these types of promotional videos are becau

  5. @John, I suppose there is always a chance, but I doubt it. I didn’t see them say anything to that effect, and creating timelapse videos appears to be a professional endeavor for them.

  6. Eric says:

    ‘Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. Be aware that during a trip to North Korea visitors will be constantly monitored to prevent them from doing anything that could “jeopardize” the North Korean system and the persons behind it. Taking “unsuitable” photos, conveying negative thoughts about North Korea or talking to the locals without permission would all probably qualify as “undesirable behaviour” and lead to consequences not only for yourself but even more so for the individual who is responsible for you. If you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behaviour then you should not travel to the DPRK at the present time.’

    So not only did the filmers here fail to portray most of the evil of the North Korean regime (thought the monuments and the police woman did seem creepy to me), but in effect they allowed the content of their video to dictated by the regime.

    When you are filming Chicago, you have the choice to film the South Side slums. If you don’t, perhaps someone else will. In North Korea, there is no choice.

  7. Robin Mercier Kuc says:

    I applaud this article for its painfully realistic depiction of the savage butchery of the North Korean regime. In their attempt to appear “non-partial”, too many architecture and planning professionals these days prefer to conceal their instinctive disapproval of such regimes behind some sort of pretense of celebrating “art” among the “ruins.” What works for Detroit is, however, abysmally immoral when applied to North Korea.

    As an example, there was this article a year ago in Architizer … to which I submitted the first comment below. …. It was a slideshow of “hauntingly beautiful” photos from North Korea:

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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