University mag's travel story with a 'different perspective' on North Korea sparks backlash

A travel story published in an Australian university magazine has sparked a fierce backlash, with politicians and commentators deeming it “disgusting”, news.com.au reports.

A controversial student magazine has come under fire for publishing a piece that appears to glamorise North Korea.

The article, published in University of Sydney student magazine Honi Soit, is a first-person account of PhD student Jay Tharappel’s nine-day group tour in the reclusive country.

“What I saw was a highly organised, egalitarian and energised society, with good reason to believe that they’re now reaping the fruits of past sacrifices,” he wrote.

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North Korea is arguably best known for its brutal regime and woeful human rights record.

Human Rights Watch described it as “one of the world’s most repressive states”, noting there are no political or civil liberties, independent media or political opposition.

But Tharappel dismisses the concerns of human rights organisations, claiming life in the hermit nation is not as bad as the media makes it out to be.

In the article, he refutes claims that tourists in North Korea aren’t allowed to travel without an escort.

“We spent three evenings away from our two Korean guides, did our own thing, got back to the hotel late, and greeted our two guides slightly hungover in the morning.”

He also compares the communist dictatorship favourably with free countries like Australia, saying the inequality between people “pales in comparison to the inequality you see in the capitalist world”.

“Two years ago, a North Korean defector, Kim Ryon-hui, went public saying she was surprised by the homelessness in Seoul, South Korea, and that she had never seen homelessness in Pyongyang, the capital of the North, according to United Press International.

“While this is not the only account offered by defectors, and plenty are certainly more unfavourable, this testimony accords with my experience. I didn’t see a single homeless person either, and the people at the embassy are convinced that it’s one of the safest places to live.”

This Honi Soit article has caused a ton of controversy.
This Honi Soit article has caused a ton of controversy.

The article has been slammed by politicians and media commentators.

Labor MP Tim Watts posted a link to the article on Twitter, saying: “Everyone associated with this article ought to be ashamed.”

“He’s a PHD student, not a ‘kid’,” he said of the author. “And he’s part of a group in that University led by the Professor there who have been apologists for North Korea and Syria for years. This isn’t about finding yourself.”

Others described the article as “disgusting”, “f*cked up” and an “unashamed PR for a murderous regime”.

The article was also slammed on-air by 2GB radio host Chris Smith, who questioned whether the author doubted “the thousands of accounts by defectors exposing the human rights abuse”.

“The torture, the forced labour, widespread poverty … because he said ‘I didn’t see a homeless person and the people at the embassy are convinced it is one of the safest places to live.'” Smith said.

“What a load of absolute rubbish … in fact, it is probably closer to disgusting.

“The North Korean regime isolates its people from the rest of the world, not because it’s standing up to anyone. But because of a leader’s twisted desire to control its people. To smother freedom and human rights.

Human rights organisations have described North Korea as
Human rights organisations have described North Korea as “one of the world’s most repressive states”. Photo / Getty Images

“Its dictator is happy for people to die from a lack of food and from disease, so he can pour more money into nuclear weapons.

“This is the country that has basically held the world to ransom with threats of war.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Honi Soit said complaints had been received, but it would not remove the article.

“The article was approved by a majority of editors.” the statement read.

“We consider a number of criteria when approving pitches. These include whether an article is relevant to USyd students and young people, whether it adds something to the discourse it belongs to and whether it is original.

“No pitch must satisfy every criterion, and each editor may have different reasons for approving a pitch. We do not consider whether an article conforms to the political opinions of editors.”

Tourism in North Korea is on the rise, but visitors are said to be treated to a tightly-controlled tour that only includes the best of the capital, Pyongyang.

The New Zealand government advises travellers against “non-essential travel” to North Korea, citing restrictions placed on foreigners, the potential for arbitrary arrest and long-term detention, as well as the country’s nuclear tests and unpredictable situation with world leaders as potential risk factors.

Reports of homelessness, starvation and suffering were said to be trivialised in the article. Photo / Getty Images
Reports of homelessness, starvation and suffering were said to be trivialised in the article. Photo / Getty Images

AUTHOR SLAMMED OVER ANTI-SEMITIC REMARKS

The author of the article has also been linked to anti-Semitism, prompting outrage at the magazine for publishing his work at all.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff criticised the magazine’s decision, saying: “This is an individual who … denies the Holocaust — and that’s before defending North Korea.”

Tharappel recently drew controversy after 7 News published a photograph of him wearing a jacket with slogans that translated to “Curse on the Jews” and “Death to Israel”.

He later told the magazine: “I wore the badge for its symbolic meaning, not its literal meaning.

“I wore it because it represents the national resistance movement that defends Yemen against this genocidal war of Saudi aggression that unfortunately, our university is complicit in by investing in arms companies that sell weapons to the Saudi regime …’

Tharappel was accompanied on his trip to Pyongyang by University of Sydney lecturer Tim Anderson, who according to a Fairfax report has raised eyebrows over his support for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

On social media, Dr Anderson defended Tharappel as a “great friend of Syria” and a “Syrian solidarity activist” who was “under attack from Zionists” and “friends of Israel”.

But despite all this, the article may not be removed.

Honi Soit’s editors told the ABC it would not be taking the North Korea article down, saying it had been approved by a majority of editors.

News.com.au has contacted Honi Soit for comment.