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BBC Filming on North Korea Trip Sparks Anger

  • Henry Ridgwell

Students at the London School of Economics say the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) used a university trip to North Korea as cover for filming an undercover documentary on the reclusive country.

While the students say they're angry about the incident, others have expressed support for the British broadcaster, which said the program is in the national interest at a time when North Korea is threatening nuclear war.

Three BBC journalists entered North Korea, posing as students on a university trip organized by the London School of Economics. In secretly filmed footage, BBC reporter John Sweeney is seen walking in the countryside close to the capital, Pyongyang. There are no government minders present. Other excerpts show beggars on the street and hundreds of military officers applauding at a circus performance.

Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the university's students’ union, said possible risks were not made clear to the students.

"We were shocked that they would put our students at that level of risk without informing them beforehand," he said. "I feel it’s an absolute disgrace to be so reckless with students’ lives. And I think the BBC took a bit of a gamble."

The BBC insisted that it did inform all the students on the trip about the presence of the journalists and the risks involved. But the lead reporter on the documentary, John Sweeney, said full details were deliberately withheld.

"We were anxious that if I was arrested, if that happened, then the less the students knew the better," said Sweeney.

University authorities have complained to the BBC about the incident. Some of the students who were on the trip say they have received threatening letters from the North Korean state.

"There is still in North Korean detention a Korean-American tour operator who was arrested, allegedly for passing memory sticks or CDs to North Koreans," said James Hoare, a former British ambassador to North Korea. "It's a dangerous business, going undercover in North Korea, and it is a very big mistake, I think, to endanger other people in the process."

A Window on Real Life

But the BBC said the footage gives a window on real life in North Korea at a time when its leader is warning of nuclear war.

"We don't understand what the motivations and intentions are of this regime," said Ceri Thomas, head of news programs at the BBC. "We very, very rarely get access to it. And for the BBC to have this documentary is a very important piece of public interest journalism."

Opinions among the student body were mixed.

"If the BBC documentary is able to provide some sort of aspect of originality, of novelty to that same sort of re-hashed journalistic story, then maybe the sacrifice made on the part of LSE would be worth it," said Matt, an undergraduate.

Nabila Munawar, a graduate student from Canada, said,"As a PhD student, when I go out and do my fieldwork, I feel like this could impact on what people believe of what you're doing."

The London School of Economics has asked for the broadcast to be cancelled, fearing possible retribution if the students' identities are revealed.

The BBC did agree to blur students' faces - but is going ahead with the broadcast.
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