Since the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, North Korean cinema has received a surge of interest. The facts and fictions surrounding the North Korean cultural propaganda industries are as dark as they are bizarre. This three part article interrogates the construction and the function of the myths surrounding North Korea’s global image by examining the film produced there.
Critical geopoliticians have long been alert to the ways in which films not only represent but also influence the way in which the world is understood. From the unrelenting American heroism of Independence Day to the post-Franco ‘Spanishness’ (re)created by Almodovar – the global film industry has a central role in the way we imagine national cultures. Film assists us in developing a national identity internally (in Britain we affiliate with black comedy and social realism) and determines the way in which we imagine other cultures from the outside. Far from being absurd or unusual, Kim Jong-il’s overt use of film as a geopolitical weapon is merely a more frank rendition of the conscious and subconscious politics of film globally. True, most national rulers don’t kidnap directors and insist upon being executive producer – but you only have to look to the UK Olympic opening ceremony last year to appreciate that the cultural output of most nations is very carefully considered. What is so fascinating about Kim’s film industry is not that it is peculiar or anomalistic, but that it displays such frankness and openness about promoting national ideology at a time when other national film cultures promote their ideologies far more insidiously. North Korea’s blatant and overt use of film to spread a message seems in some senses parodic of other national cinema industries. In a telling interview with The Seoul Times, a reporter asks Shin Shang-ok what impact Kim Jong-il’s isolated state has on his awareness of how the world works. Shin responds saying that “sometimes Kim looks at films like social documentaries. I told him that most American films are fiction.”
That said, Michelle Obama recently appeared at the 2013 Oscars, accompanied by several soldiers to announce Argo (2012) as best film of the year (I know!). So although Hollywood is technically unaffiliated with the US government, they can be seen to be in understanding in that they prop up each other’s myths, like the one that frames the ‘merican’s as the good guys and any one with dark skin and an accent as suspicious.
While North Korean film has frequently depicted a swift defeat of American troops perhaps it is a sign of a more powerful global power, a more stable nation-state that can also use cinema to play out national fears of change or threats to current ways of life (usually before restoring the status quo in the finale).The topical threat of North Korea has indeed been played out by Hollywood recently in the 2013 ‘militainment’ flick Olympus has Fallen. A film that possibly did more scare/warmonger against North Korea than anything coming out of Pyongyang. Here leftists and North Korean-led guerrilla forces storm the White House by ground and air attack, intent on destroying America as a global super power and harnessing the US’s nuclear stash. They sneak in under the guise of harmless garbage men and tourists. Unsurprisingly the wicked insurgents are eventually defeated and the order of things is restored by the Americans who are portrayed victoriously as just and democratic saviours. Is this a play out of the threat of counter-ideologies? Is it fear mongering and war propaganda?
In the media commentary on North Korean film from the West there is another ideological game play. The West’s focus on the kitsch and the ludicrous serves to make North Korea appear less threatening, to render it ridiculous and exotic and to detract from the fact that it is, in its own way, a viable country and an alternative and possible political system, albeit monstrous (and we would be naïve to think that there are no equivalent monstrosities in the West). This fetishization of North Korean cinema allows us to safely and enjoyably consume the ‘otherness’ of the DPNK without having to take it seriously. Western approaches to the North Korean film industry make Kim Jong-il into a cute baby Pulgasari that we can coo at and laugh at whilst being able to ignore the fact that people in North Korea may very well live and believe in the Juche mentality just as we live and believe in capitalism. In doing so, the western approach to North Korean cinema betrays our own anxiousness at the potential contingency of the ideology that we ourselves enforce via our film and our media.
Western media is also preserving its own cultural narrative by refusing to seriously recognise an alternative (if unappealing) political ideology. Undermining the cultural output of North Korea also serves to negate the challenge to capitalism; such a laughable country could pose no threat to our current way of life, nuclear or otherwise.
Political scientist Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power describes the ability of a nation to exert influence and thus gain power by co-opting rather than coercion, with ‘culture’ being a primary currency. As he states in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004) "A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.” Disseminating one’s ideologies and myths by spreading one’s culture.
Cinema is a highly important medium for most cultures to echo, confirm and broadcast their ideologies. By trying to deny North Korea the ability to stage its cinema in any serious, meaningful way the Western reception to North Korean film is also undermining the associated political ideologies. Everyone knows that bullies laugh to hide their insecurity, and there is an element of this in the laughter which greets North Korea, a (hysterical) laughter which bellies a nervousness, a fear of taking something seriously in case in doing so you are forced to critically re-examine your own standing.
But what is worrying about this approach is not just that it exposes the insecurities of the Western cultural ideology. Most alarming is that maintaining our laughter requires us to skirt over the reports of torture and starvation. These reports are given attention only in so far as their juxtaposition against mass dances in awe of the Dear Leader intensifies the humour of such spectacles – but we don’t think too long about these terrifying details for fear that we might become sombre and fall into considering North Korea in a more serious light.
Maybe this evasion of seriousness works for North Korea too; the image of North Korea as a two dimensional place led by a bumbling cartoon of a man is not just a reading from the West but, at least partially, a projection from North Korea itself. Projecting this image, in part through the cinema screen, courts the West’s amusement and allows the administration to, quite literally, get away with murder.