A locally produced documentary based upon Washburn University professor Bob Beatty’s visit to North Korea is going nationwide.
“North Korea: Inside the Hermit Kingdom,” a 30-minute documentary released in 2018, was recently picked up by a national distribution agency to make it available to public television stations across the country.
Chronicling political science professor Beatty’s 2009 trip to North Korea for a cultural festival, the documentary was licensed by KTWU in July 2018 and has aired several times on the locally accessible station.
Valerie VanDerSluis, KTWU director of programming, content and social media, said the station agreed to provide the film to American Public Television, one of the major distribution agencies of public television content in the U.S., for a two-year license term. She said 233 public television stations licensed the show, with 80% U.S. market coverage.
Beatty visited Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2009 for its annual Arirang Mass Games festival. The month-long mass gymnastics and artistic festival is one of the few occasions foreigners are allowed into the country. Beatty teamed with Washburn media production specialist Lyall Ford to produce the documentary, which pairs Beatty’s original footage with archival material to illustrate political and cultural changes in the Asian nation from 1948 to present. Washburn students Ben Faires and Blake Hopper acted as assistant producers for this film, and Josh Cannon served as an assistant editor.
Beatty envisioned the documentary as a teaching tool, similar to films he previously produced with Ford, including “The Kansas Governor” and documentaries on the British Parliament and the Cao Dai religion in Vietnam.
“I teach international relations, and I really like to visit the places I teach about,” Beatty said. “I like to be able to bring that to the students. And I have a bit of an adventurous streak in me. So when I found out that Americans could actually go to North Korea, I was surprised, but I immediately called the company running the tour, and I said, ‘Sign me up!’ I was given a grant from Washburn, so this has been a Washburn project from day one.”
Since Beatty’s visit to North Korea, leadership of the nation changed hands in 2011 from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un. Beatty said that the timing of his visit, and the development of the documentary, was fortuitous.
“North Korea is in the news almost every day, and so we really hit a sweet spot in terms of an issue that almost everybody is really interested in,” said Beatty.
“It was a surreal experience, which I think can be seen in the documentary. And I wouldn’t go now. One thing that has changed with Kim Jong-un is that I think it’s just too dangerous now for Americans. But back when I went, it sounded very dangerous, but it didn’t feel dangerous. The North Korean government wasn’t messing with Americans as long as the Americans didn’t break any of their rules at that time.
“The government does not allow tourists to mingle with people in the sense you would think about it. There is always a ‘minder’ with you all the time. When the tour was over each day, we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel. So it is an authoritarian system. There is an element of rule by fear there, but they are a country that has successfully closed itself off over the past 60 years, most successfully sealed itself off of all the communist countries.”
VanDerSluis said public television licensees typically record the show from the satellite feed and air it whenever they have time in their schedules. She noted that KTWU has succeeded in licensing and distributing a number of locally produced documentaries and series nationwide.
“Basically, it is not common for smaller local public television stations to have national distributions, but KTWU has changed the paradigm on this,” she said. “We are a smaller public television station, with a small budget, with a small staff, located in the middle of the country, doing national distribution activities commonly seen from the bigger public television stations.”
Having the documentary picked up by stations across the country brings notoriety to Beatty, Ford and the university, which could pay off in funding for future projects, VanDerSluis noted. It is also a significant accomplishment with benefits for the local station.
“The more success we have on the national front, the better chance we have of achieving big projects around the country,” she said. “Stations see a KTWU offering and know they can trust to pick it up and air without a lot of screening, which helps us in our deals with large production outfits. Producers and production companies can come to KTWU and know they can achieve a successful national distribution based upon our previous history and the relationships we have been able to build with public television distribution agencies and programmers across the country.”
Beatty called the documentary the most gratifying of the projects he has collaborated on with Ford. He said he hopes viewers will gain an understanding of the challenges presented by North Korea on the global stage.
“I always say that North Korea is the land of unanswerable questions,” Beatty said. “I think Donald Trump is finding that out. Everybody finds that out. You sort of think you know what’s happening in North Korea, but you really don’t. Their behavior is often inexplicable.
“One of the things that to this day I don’t really know is why they let me shoot video when I was there. I don’t know why, but they did.
“I hope what people will see is that North Korea is a very difficult political system to understand. Not just talking about Trump currently. We’ve had other leaders through the years that it’s happened to. During both (President Bill) Clinton and (President George W.) Bush, North Korea violated agreements with them. This is a government that in no way trusts who they are dealing with, and our leaders need to understand that.”
To find when “North Korea: Inside the Hermit Kingdom” will air in the Topeka area, check KTWU's program schedule at https://ktwu.org/program-schedule/.