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 North Korea’s global image by examining the film produced there.
Prisoners of Film
In 1978 Kim Jong-il orchestrated the unusual and high profile kidnapping of two South Koreans who he brought to his personal compound in North Korea. A North Korean kidnapping alone is sadly unremarkable. Political kidnappings are an expected, if undesirable aspect of many coercive regimes. What is unusual, however, is that these particular South Koreans, Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband Shin Sang-ok, were not threatening political figures, but film makers. They were taken by Kim Jong-il not, as might be expected, because their films challenged the North Korean regime from across the border and he wanted them silenced, but rather because Kim had admired their film making so much that he was determined to have them make films for him. Kidnapping the pair was just the most efficient way to go about this.
Choi, a much respected South Korean actress, disappeared whilst away in Hong Kong and when her ex-husband, the director Shin, went looking for her he too was abducted by North Korean secret agents. Choi was taken directly to North Korea whilst Shin reported spending five long years in prison, fed mainly on grass, before finally being delivered to Kim Jong-il. Kim apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’ and welcomed him into North Korean high society. As Shin soon discovered, Choi was also living amongst the North Korean elite: half captive and half esteemed guest. At a dinner party held by Kim, Shin and Choi were reunited and under the auspices of the Great Leader they were hastily remarried. The reunited couple were to begin making more films together immediately. This time it would be in keeping with the propagandist objectives of the North Korean cultural industries. Kim would be at the helm as executive producer, naturally.
In what seems an act of cartoonish dictatorship, Kim forcibly took Choi and Shin and detained them to manifest his cinematic fantasies. It is no secret that cinema can be a highly influential tool in persuading the masses of one’s particular political bent, but Kim took this to another level.
The Kim Jong-il Show
In the present day the North Korean nuclear program, political tensions with South Korea and America and a rare change in leadership have put the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the spotlight again. Alongside this, the cultural propaganda produced in North Korea is also gaining attention; spectacles such as Arirang Festival, a mass games featuring thousands of synchronised gymnasts and school children, are relatively famous in the outside world. Badly photoshopped images released by the North Korean government exaggerating military might have also made the rounds. It’s clear from the stories and images that do reach the West that spectacle and display play a key part in maintaining the self-purported image of the DPRK.
North Korea is as dark as it appears inexplicably weird; essentially a dictatorship with its roots in Stalinist ideology, as Amnesty International’s screening of Yodok Stories recently highlighted, it comes complete with labour camps, rural starvation and zero-tolerance on regime criticism. Coupled with this are stories of Kim Jong-il the late ‘Great Leader’s’ flamboyant love of sushi and Jean-Claude Van Damme films amongst other frivolous pastimes. Such light hearted and strange tales of excess against a back drop of human rights violations are all the more sinister and disconcerting.
After the ruling Kim dynasty changed hands when ‘Great Leader’ Kim Jong-il died at the end of 2011 and passed the reigns to his son Kim Jong-un, news reports were accompanied by the disarming spectacle of wailing masses of grieving North Koreans, apparently devastated at the news of their dictator’s death. The Western media began to speculate; did they wail out of fear or was it a form of brainwashed ‘love’ - a kind of mass Stockholm syndrome?
Film and the Soviet Start
Kim Young Soon, a defector and former detainee of one of the country’s most brutal prison camps spoke recently at Amnesty International’s North Korea Freedom Week. She asserted that North Korean’s were generally ‘totally brainwashed’ by lifelong exposure to propaganda about the regime’s infallibility and many genuinely did believe Kim Il-sung to be their saviour. A look at the government produced film of North Korea and the themes it embodies goes some way to explaining why. When the Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung as the leader of the newly split DPRK in 1949, the country began producing films in earnest to prop up the story of Kim as the great liberator of the North Korean people. My Home Village released the year of the separation tells the story of a poor Korean man who is oppressed and exploited by a greedy feudal landlord around the time of the Japanese occupation (1910 – 1945). After much struggling the villager escapes enormous hardship only when Kim Il-sung’s Revolutionary Army swoops in to save him from the Japanese forces. Thus starts the work on the creation of the new North Korean society, headed by the Supreme Leader himself. And so it was.
This creation myth of North Korea is echoed in much of the state media, always omitting the defeat of Japan at the end of the 2nd World War by the Americans and the fact that it was the Soviet Union that stormed on North Korea after the Japanese left and installed Kim as the de facto head of state. Films and other propaganda from this point onwards paint Korea as a country with a rich 5,000 year history, much of it plagued by selfish and corrupt aristocrats, landlords and feudal kings who kept the people poor and would do anything to preserve their own privilege and lives of luxury. It took Kim Il-sung’s socialist revolution to break this cycle and free the North Korean people, guiding them towards collective happiness. The cult of personality around Kim Il-sung in North Korea is enshrined in law and endures today (he was proclaimed ‘Eternal President’ after his death).
Pyongyang clearly learned a few tricks from the USSR’s propaganda arm, reflected in unmistakeable echoes of socialist realism in the style and subject matter of North Korean film. Lenin’s aphorism, “Cinema is the most important of all arts”, was held in high esteem by the late Kim Il-sung. The film making he oversaw consistently portrayed communist or revolutionary themes. The Soviet Union reportedly even donated film making equipment to the North Korean government to get things kick started. Cinema was seen as an essential vehicle by both regimes for instilling government ideology in the populace and in the case of the North Korean administration was, and still is, a tool for bashing the earlier Japanese occupation or disseminating anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiments.
In 1966 Kim Il-Sung made a call for juche art. Juche is a specifically North Korean brand of self-sufficiency and resilience: "Our art should develop in a revolutionary way, reflecting the Socialist content with the national form" he announced. North Korean films of the early 1970s such as The Rays of Juche Spread All Over the World and The People Sing of the Fatherly Leader envisage a socialist utopia and proclaim the infallibility of Kim Il-sung’s leadership.
Kim Jong-il: Film Fanatic
By the time despot-son Kim Jong-il took in over the film industry from his father Kim Il-sung he had already been supervising the North Korean film output for several years. Somewhat fanatical, it is widely reported that he had amassed a DVD collection of around 15,000 titles in a temperature controlled vault and was particularly partial to Japanese and American films. He was delighted by Elizabeth Taylor and the Japanese Godzilla franchise and sought to emulate the powerful spectacle of some of the films from around the world that he had been watching.
Kim Jong-il became a master of the art of propaganda and with his captive audience of 24 million he could use film to manipulate an entire nation. In 1987 he even wrote a book, The Cinema and Directing, on how it’s done.
The vast journalistic appeal of Kim Jong-il’s obsession with film is unsurprising. There is something fascinating and absurd about the dictator’s film-fanaticism. It is an absurdity created by the seeming incongruity of something so serious (political totalitarianism) with something as frivolous as film (amusingly, one of Kim’s favourites is said to be Bend It Like Beckham!). However, Kim’s love of film, far from highlighting the frivolity of the medium compared to politics, actually illuminates the vast importance of film as a political vehicle.
The bizarre story of Shin and Choi’s kidnapping itself seems like a cinematic fantasy; it’s difficult to believe that any world leader would spend time, money and military resources on the kidnap and upkeep of film makers. The story of Shin and Choi’s capture would perhaps be less surprisingly had the kidnappings been related to espionage or national security, these being explicitly political matters. But a cultural kidnapping seems ridiculous. However, what Kim’s kidnapping of Shin and Choi demonstrates is the extent to which cultural mediums are very much implicated in the construction and dissemination of political ideology in North Korea.
Eventually Shin and Choi managed to escape from Kim’s clutches. Having convinced the Great Leader to let them travel to Vienna for a film festival they made a run for it to the American Embassy where the pair were granted political asylum. They lived and worked for some years in America, before eventually returning to South Korea.
Far from being just a means of entertainment for Kim film, along with grand spectacles such as Arirang Festival, is a vehicle to educate and rally the population. Behind the outlandish stories and wild claims, the human rights violations and nuclear threats, North Korea is an apparently functioning society where socialism has survived long after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell. Kim’s dedication to cinema is not just a funny hobby but, along with his efforts in other means of cultural propaganda, helps to explain why North Korea has managed to continue in such discord from the outside world for so long.