Last year, Dutch stamp dealer Willem van der Bijl was arrested and imprisoned during a trip to buy posters and stamps in North Korea, alarming relatives in the Netherlands. Perhaps even more alarming was when he appeared in the pages of a state-run newspaper extolling the virtues of the DPRK's elections. Now, one year later, we have the full story of how van der Bijl became an involuntary North Korean propagandist. It's a bit more complicated than "They said they were going to kill me if I didn't."
"I have been greatly impressed by the free and democratic elections," read van der Bijl's more-than-slightly inaccurate op-ed in an August edition of the Pyongyang Times. "In the DPRK every citizen is eligible to vote and to be elected."
Van der Bijl, who's visited North Korea 24 times, explained in an interview with NKNews.org how this came about, offering a rare look inside the North Korean propaganda machine. Believe it or not, the elections he'd witnessed were the opposite of democratic!
NK News: Why do you think the authorities were so keen to publish your fabricated opinion about the elections? How did you feel about that report?
Willem van der Bijl: It was by accident that, during my stay, I heard about the elections, and immediately I asked my friend if there was a possibility to visit an election point. After visiting the election building where I was able to see the whole procedure, I was interviewed by several journalists from newspapers and TV, and I told them; "this opportunity gave me totally new view on how elections are held" and that I was surprised to see how the elections system works in the DPRK. This was an ironic comment (in my view) on what I had seen. It works as follows: the voters enter the building and show their identification to two people sitting behind a table, your name is written on a list, and the voter is allowed to take a piece of paper from one of the two piles at the table (in front of the officials, and visible to everybody in the room) the paper is, per pile, coloured green or red, and it is your "free" choice as to whichever colour you like. After you took, in front of everybody, your (green I hope) piece of paper, you take it to a small area where you are all alone, but in front of two photos from the two leaders, and are able to put it in a box. So, there are your "free" elections.
From their point of view, a foreigner who says he is surprised etc., and if you miss the ironic undertone, is is a perfect piece of propaganda. Later I found out, my "interview" is on the internet as well, and even signed by me, with what is indeed my signature, as a scan from my passport.
Van der Bijl's trip ended with him imprisoned for days on charges of "espionage," and essentially being banned from the country for no reason. Surprisingly, he'd still like to return some day. (Especially surprising if you read the full interview about his all-rice diet in prison.) Maybe this time he'll get his own TV show.