The recent UN report on North Korea likening it to Hitler’s Germany underlined the importance both of John Sweeney’s new book and of his undercover Panorama programme on the country. He sneaked into it last year, posing as an LSE professor (something the school condemned). Sometimes, when dealing with criminals or criminal states, the normal journalistic rules of self-disclosure do not apply. I was looking forward to this book, although I know that eight days in a country won’t tell you a lot. After a chapter or two we get the idea: Sweeney’s is a totally controlled trip to see a totally controlled state with a nearly totally controlled population that seems to adore its rulers.
Sweeney’s narrative reminded me of my first trip to China in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution, when almost everything we were shown was false. It emerged years later that there were no functioning schools: the energetic one we visited was a theatre just for us, and the smiling peasants, teachers,