Shane Smith On “North Korean Labor Camps”

23 Dec

VICE News’ Shane Smith has a documentary on North Korean Labor Camps (Sorry, Vodpod is not grabbing the video) that’s, well, unique. I did have this romantic urge to see the Russian Far East and Northeast China, and see the North Korean border from the northern end. Especially, that is, considering my South Korean wife is not allowed to see North Korea from the southern end. How do you think she feels about this injustice? A big, resounding yawn. I don’t think that trip will go down. And now, I’m no longer warm to the idea either.

At the first camp we found, the North Korean guards threatened us and tried to throw us out. Billy the Fish laughed—a great gold-toothed guffaw—and then smiled. “This is Russia,” he growled, eyes glinting. Motioning to the vast expanses around him, he declared, “This is mine.” Then to our camera crew, “Keep shooting. They can do nothing.” So we did.

Later, when we were deep in the forest, we came upon cadres of North Korean workers. A group of them approached and quickly surrounded our truck. One of them was swinging an iron bar, looking like he was going to bash our imperialist brains in. Billy took it from him, looked at it, and remarked calmly, “This your lights-out switch?” Sniff. “You’re going to need more than that.” He smiled and chucked it into the forest.

Later, we had lunch by an old woodpile—spam, hard bread, paprika chips, vodka, beer, and, for dessert, vodka with juice. Billy pulled out some old shotguns, and we released some built-up tension by shooting at our empty beer bottles. It was like being 15 again; naughty boys in the forest. When we came around the corner there were the North Koreans, waiting for us, but cowed and much less aggressive. “Did you know they were there?” I asked Billy. “Of course.” Sniff. “Where else would they be?” Classic Billy.

After an afternoon of playing cat and mouse with North Korean slaves, Billy took us to a freezing cold Siberian river for a swim to “clean it up,” then more vodka to “warm it up,” and then home to his family for the only good meal we ate in Russia. After eating, the Fish family took us to the bar (read: room with lights) for a night of boozing and drunken hugging with hard men whose nicknames included Stalin, Bear Killer, and, my favorite, plain old Killer. Tears, more vodka, giving of cheap presents, and finally the two-day train ride back to “civilization.”

But the North Koreans were waiting for us on the train… And so began the worst 48 hours of my life, which ended with the FSB (the modern version of the KGB), the local militia, plainclothes police, and assorted thugs removing us from the train and placing us into custody. Finding myself wishing for Billy and his ability to effortlessly sort things out, I texted him that the FSB had detained us. He replied, “Of course they have. Just leave.” So we took off, racing across Siberia to the Chinese border (Billy told us about the smugglers’ route) and finally… to freedom.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


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