We're the VICE on HBO crew who went to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman. Ask us anything.
Hi, we're Jason Mojica, Producer and Jake Burghart, Director of Photography from VICE. In our HBO series, we travel the world doing stories about the absurdity of the modern condition. Earlier this year, we made headlines when we brought VICE corespondent Ryan Duffy, Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters with us to North Korea, where we played a basketball game with the DPRK national team and met Kim Jong-un. You'll be able to watch footage from that trip in the season finale, airing tonight at 11pm EST. You can watch a preview at http://www.vice.com/read/watch-the-season-finale-of-vice-tonight-north-korea. We thought you might have some questions about the show and our North Korea trip in particular, so here's your chance to ask us anything.
Update: We've gotta get back to work now, but thanks for all the questions—it was a lot of fun. Don't forget to watch the show tonight!
Leaving the country literally felt like the end of Argo. We were up all night quietly hiding footage, trying to encrypt things. We didn't really feel relieved until the planes wheels left the ground. At which point we felt like we could speak freely for the first time in 2 weeks which is a really crazy feeling that we probably take for granted.
Crazier that we all kissed the ground and cried "FREEDOM" when we landed... in China.
Given that you did all the hiding and encrypting, did they actually try to look through stuff and take things away?
not at all
Did any of you guys get to meet Kim Jong-un?
We did. Watch tonight and see it!
How does his hair look in-person?
he's got more of a greaser vibe going than his dad. I think it complimented his round face.
What was the craziest thing you witnessed but weren't allowed to capture it on film.
That's easy. Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il lying in state. I spent every moment trying to memorize the rooms which held their embalmed bodies.
What was the biggest culture shock upon entering North Korea?
Everything was so clean and orderly. No trash, no advertisements, no panhandlers. But all with a very heavy big brother feeling
I have a hard time imagining this. Are you saying there were no cracked walls, peeling paint, or dilapidated buildings?
I can believe that they had minders to pick up all the garbage before you got there, but I would think "sterile" is a better word for that.
Unless you really mean it's clean. Like those fake towns they build at disneyland.
Oh, there's plenty of decay. At one point while we were driving through Pyongyang, I saw these amazing, monolithic, concrete apartment complexes that had a kind of Corbusier feel to them, except they repeated as far as the eye could see, and they looked like nature was reclaiming them. I asked when they were built. Our minder said, "1993."
Feeling like we couldn't speak freely.
Thank you for being the most relevant investigative news source in the US. Can't get enough of your stuff. I saw your VICE news bit with Shane who went to DPRK as a tourist and basically was shammed across the country by tenders and fake banquet set ups. Other than the poverty, what is the most shocking thing about DPRK? Is there any hope?
Related to the first VICE trip to DPRK: Were any of you on that trip? If so, have you seen any changes in the country since then / how was this trip different (besides, you know, meeting Kim Jung Un)?
It was a completely new crew on this trip, the previous crew has been labeled as part of North Koreas "Dirty Dozen" and is not allowed back. However i did spend some time in the edit room with the first piece Shane did. From what I could tell there are a lot more cars on the road, and people out and about, when Shane was there everything seemed like an erie ghost town. So either things are progressing or they're getting way better at their dog and pony show.
Had the north koreans seen the previous piece you'd done on them? Were they into it?
With something like one-hundredth of one-percent of North Koreans having access to a computer, I don't think your average man on the street has seen our multiple docs on North Korea. However, the people we were dealing with certainly had. One of the folks from the DPRK's UN mission informed me that his colleagues in Pyongyang thought I was a "very, very bad person." When we arrived in North Korea, I was pulled off the bus that everyone was on and made to ride in a car with a woman who explained to me that "I know who you are, I know your work, I know VICE's work... I don't like you, I don't like your company. I didn't want you to come, but I was over-ruled."
It was an interesting "welcome to North Korea."
Why do you think they agreed to let you back in knowing what you guys were about?
I suppose it had to do with the fact that the Supreme Leader wanted us to come. I don't get the impression that there's a great deal of insubordination there.
What assurances did you have that they would not simply throw you in a labor camp?
No assurances at all, so we were very... polite.
How was North Korea? I have to say I have enjoyed watching every episode on HBO. I would like to see it in an hour format instead of just 30 minutes, any chance of that happening? What is the scariest situation you guys have been in?
Yes! An hour would be nice. Maybe spend more time elaborating on each story.
exactly my thoughts. Some stories only need the 12 or 13 minutes they allot to them but others seem like they are just scratching the surface.
We've been doing longer pieces for years, and even while doing Vice on HBO we continue to put up longer docs on our website.
But seriously, why don't you get an hour on HBO? That really needs to change.
Send HBO a letter. A real letter. In the mail.
Did you see any from the modern outside world that seemed shockingly out of place – a contemporary movie poster, an unexpected meme, or use of the word "YOLO" by a North Korean handler? Thanks!
Yes, there were entire stores filled with out-of-place goods. Kind of Potemkin shopping malls where, in spite of US sanctions, you could purchase Coca-Cola, Doritos, and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Most of these goods are bought on the grey market in places like Singapore (which is where the Coke was from, for example) and shipped in.
How long did it take to get entrance into North Korea after you decided you wanted to go?
It took somewhere between six and eight months of back and forth with both the DPRK's mission to the UN and some back-channel sweet-talking. But considering the previous work we've done on North Korea, we frankly never expected it to happen. In fact, I didn't believe it until we were on the plane to Pyongyang.
Havent seen the show yet (living in the netherlands) but did you revisit the tea girl who was on the vice guide to north korea? That was such a weird situation
We wished we could have! If I remember correctly, Shane met her on the way to the DMZ, which leads to an interesting thing about our trip: our hosts/minders actively avoided taking us to anything military-related. Sure, there were reminders of the 3rd nuclear test everywhere, but they wouldn't take us to the places that are typically on the dog-and-pony show: the DMZ, the war museum, the USS Pueblo. Instead we got... well, you'll have to watch tonight to see what we got, but it led us to ask ourselves at one point, "are we traveling around with the 'liberals' of North Korea?" I mean, a lot of the folks we were dealing with were from the DPRK Olympic Committee, others had worked at the county's embassies abroad, so these are people who know what the real world is like, and I got the feeling they would be fucking thrilled if North Korea could have better relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Do you think your hotel room was bugged? , if so, did you choose your words carefully in conversations?.
Yes. We spoke only in Star Wars analogies.
what's the one thing you remember most from your trip?
Sitting across a dinner table from Kim Jong Un.
I have watched vice documentaries non stop since I discovered them, I think the first one I watched was your first North Korea doc where your editor first visited the DMZ and then ventured inside via China, I have been watching a lot since and there is an endless amount of entertainment, more than I could hope to watch which is amazing.
I have to say I like the more long form and raw documentaries vice posts on youtube over the show, but I am glad you are getting the recognition and mainstream support from HBO.
I have two questions if you don't mind.
A) Has the HBO show helped Vice gain more exposure?
B) What sort of feedback have you had this season, do people like the 2 shorter documentaries per episode format, or would viewers prefer a 1 hour documentary?
Edit : Question marks added, sorry... I am in New Zealand and its the weekend so I have a few bourbons, sue me.
A) Yes. HBO is the gold-standard and now my mom actually knows what I do for a living.
B) I think everyone's got an opinion on this one, but you need to keep in mind not every story should be an hour long.
This piece received a lot of attention and mixed reviews for being either unethical or sensationalist journalism. Do you have any regrets or response to that?
The funny thing is, the bulk of those criticisms came about 3 hours after we landed in Pyongyang. So basically, we were on day-1 of production and meanwhile many in the outside world had already made up their minds about what we were doing there.
To be fair, this certainly does not fit the mold of "traditional" journalism. But we are not stenographers. We are a group of people who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get at difficult stories. North Korea is probably the most difficult place in the world to get in to, and even more so for us, considering our work highlighting North Korea's labor camps in Russia, and more recently on the HBO show, a piece unsubtly called "ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA" (watch a web-extra here), so getting in required taking a page out of the diplomat's playbook.
Did you have to follow any conditions before they let you play against them? E.G. did they have score restriction to stop them looking bad?
What would you say was the most eye-opening/unexpected thing you saw whilst out there?
To be clear, we didn't play a game against the North Korean national team. We played a playground-style pickup game, with two of the Globetrotters as team captains picking teammates. VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy was in the game, and did pretty damn good.
Oh, sorry... conditions. No, there were no restrictive conditions, no funny rules, just multi-hour meeting in which I had to explain the concept of a pickup game to a dozen men in suits.
Have you seen any of the North Korean video of the game? If so, was it edited? There seemed to be several instances where a shot was taken, and then the video cut to another shot of the ball going in the hoop, more like something you would see in a movie than a basketball game.
I saw people commenting on that, but no, it's all legit. I think the editing had more to do with the fact that they had more camera-angles than they knew what to do with.
Do you think the presence of giant basketball players exacerbated Kim Jong-Un's napoleon complex?
The North Korean basketball players were all just as tall. They had one dude who was retired that was 7'6'' or something. he was giant next to the globetrotters. I have a photo of him and Bull, where Bull looks like a little kid.
What kind of footage do you have which didn't make the final cut? Anything interesting that didn't make it?
There's so much footage. We're hoping to release a longer version of it in the not-too-distant future.
Can you please do a vice guide to Johannesburg South Africa? Place seems so crazy - post apartheid class/race divisions, razor wire fences and slums... Would love to see a vice style documentary visit
We went with Die Antwoord a few years ago, it should still be online.
I've seen reports that marijuana use is basically tolerated in North Korea. Did you guys witness any marijuana smoking going on while you were there?
To the chagrin of at least one member of our crew, we did not encounter any marijuana.
Did Dennis ever kick any of your cameramen?
Did you or your crew see anything that they covered up or got rid of, such as rushing someone who was going to say something out of line out of a room?
They brought us to a really nice gym that was packed with people happily working out, all wearing matching warm up suits. I noticed there were 2 big busses tucked around back, and when I tried to get a shot of them our handlers got really upset. They ushered me away from the window, and told me not to go over there again. Then they brought someone out to stand guard and make sure i didn't go back there.
How much contact did you have with US officials leading up to the trip and did you meet with them upon your return?
Not at all, but I assume the NSA was on top of it.
do you know if the show will ever be shown here in the uk?
The show will premiere in the UK very soon, on Sky Atlantic, I believe.
What was the craziest thing you saw on the trip?
What other VICE documentaries should I watch?
Kim Jong Il's dead body.
The Vice Guide to Karachi, which I produced and was hosted by my pal Suroosh.
Does Vice allow autonomy with stories or does do they micromanage?
I am the micromanager.
What sort of indoctrination schemes did they use when you arrived in North Korea? How many secret police or security people were always with you at any given time. Did you stay at the hotel on the island, or where did you stay? What were the accommodations like in the hotel? How is Shane Smith doing these days?
There were NK propaganda videos playing on the 1.5 hour flight from Beijing and we had a nice selection of state-sanctioned reading material to choose from.
What were the attitudes of NK's players like? Did they seem enthusiastic?
They were great. Talented and super-enthusiastic. For some more insight into them, look for the web extra that I think goes online tomorrow which features a clip of the lunch we had with the players after the game
How are VICE crews able to get the level of access seen on the show with groups all around the world? How do you approach people who might not necessarily be friendly towards Americans and convince them to meet and be filmed for American TV?
Also, can you please push to extend the show to a full hour? I love the work you're doing but the stories are too short when three of them are crammed into a half hour.
I get this question a lot and everyone hates the answer: you ask.
Be straight with people, tell them what you want to do and why you want to do it. They either say yes or they say no.
Admittedly, when they say yes, it feels pretty good.
Totally unrelated to Korea, But what are our chances of getting a Second Season??? Love the show and want so much more please.
At any point in the trip did you feel as if you would not be let out of the country?
Yes. But I'm saving that story for my memoirs.
Given the recent tensions, would you ever consider going back? If so, would your coverage have a different focus?
I would love to go back. I'd like to open a Vice News bureau in Pyongyang.
Hey there I am a huge fan of your work for year now and I'm now in love with your new show on HBO
Now you have done stories in North Korea multiple times now and I am just wondering if you had less security or it was easier to get filming and stuff done when you had Dennis Rodman with you?
I think the big difference of this trip, one which we only realized a few days into our trip, was that Kim Jong Un personally gave this trip his blessing (remember, that we had NO idea we were going to meet him, or that he would attend the game. Of course we asked, but we weren't holding our breath). So I think to some degree, our minders and security folks were a bit scared of offending us.
On the way into the country, a guy searching my back picked something up and said, "GPS?" I said, "yes, GPS." He looked nervously at me, knowing full well that it was not allowed in the country and he jammed it back in my bag and moved me along. So I think they skipped a lot of the more intrusive searches and seizures for fear of pissing us off, which could in turn piss off Kim Jon Un, which is a no-no.
It's only a matter of time before one of Vice's correspondents takes a risk that gets them killed. Do you think that will cramp your style?
(Put differently, have you gotten criticism from mainstream outlets that your reporters take on more risk than is appropriate?)
How much risk is "appropriate"?
This isn't the first time VICE has gone to North Korea:
Can you tell us how this time was different?
Were you ever scared for your safety?
Did you karaoke?
Edit: I love you guys, by the way. Keep up the great work.
We never had any time for karaoke. Our days were packed full of activities, and when we got back to our hotel at night, we had epic meetings about what we'd be doing the next day.
NK is pretty careful about who they let in and why, and they must be aware of Vice's previous extremely critical coverage of them. Why'd they let you in? Did they mention they were familiar with you or indicate they were aware of and didn't appreciate your piece on North Korean labor camps in Siberia? Did they give try to give any instruction on what they wanted covered or broadcast, or basically tell you not to make them look like such heartless dicks this time?
Eric - The Modernist Recordings Representative - Chicago Branch
This topic has already been addressed. I am reporting you to the moderator.
Sincerely, Jason Mojica
What was the sketchiest moment on this trip?
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