North Korea is a tinderbox where pride and paranoia go hand in hand. The gung-ho confrontational approach and creation of a new world order divided into good and evil, those for us and those against us, as adopted by the Bush administration, is surely the last thing the world needs in dealing with the DPRK.
One thing I did learn from two brief visits there in l994, just three months after Kim Il Sung’s death virtually paralyzed the country, and again in 1996, after floods and famine, was that the people are exceedingly nationalistic and determined to defend their notions of independence and self-reliance, however little is left of these visions in reality. Predictions of a collapse of North Korea have been made for the past ten years, but it still has not happened. They are a very resilient people. South Koreans know this and a sudden collapse of the North is the last thing they want.
My contact was admittedly limited and mainly through the arts. (I was there twice as a guest of the biannual Pyongyang International Film Festival of Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries, showing my feature film Aya in 1994.) North Korean film and performance is often focused on the threat from outside. The belief in such a threat was echoed by people I met, and when constantly reinforced through state-controlled media, it becomes part of a nation’s psyche. To use such a threat to boost the need for unity under one strong leader is, however, a strikingly familiar practice of the DPRK’s enemy number one, the US.
Few North Korean films have achieved distribution in the West. One exception is Hong Kil Dong (1985), a popular tae kwan do romance story, based on a legend well-known both in North and South Korea. It was released in France and Finland. A long-running series, The Nation and Destiny, described as ‘a multi-part feature film’ is akin to a string of linked mini-series of feature films, each bloc focussed on a fictionalized character from recent history. The heroes are often people who have served the dictatorship in the South and become disillusioned and defected to the DPRK. Or Korean War heroes such as Ri Jong Mo, who served 34 years in prison in South Korea before he was freed and allowed to return to the North.
Most North Korean films end with a suggestions that whatever heroic deed or sacrifice the hero(ine) made, it was all for the sake of the Great Leader, and an exhortation to fight to defend the country and its honour. They may conjure up old Soviet films, hardly the trendy programming our festivals or SBS want in order to boost their ratings. But we should be allowed to see them. The very propaganda that the North Korean people are subjected to can tell us much about the attitudes in the North toward the South and the outside world. However flawed or limited, this is a perspective we never hear or see.
It struck me when I watched the South Korean blockbuster Swiri four years ago that the portrayal of the North Korean agents bore a striking resemblance to those of South Korean agents that appear in so many of the North Korean films I had seen. If we look at older films made in Seoul that deal with the divided nation, their melodramatic stories and caricature portrayal of the communist villains are not dissimilar to those we see in North Korea. In the context of much publicized account of the kidnapping of South Korean filmmakers, a story that has been around for some time, and has been questioned by many film industry insiders in Seoul, and the more recently admitted kidnappings of Japanese, we forget that kidnappings were widely practiced by the dictators in Seoul as well. Well-known composer Isang Yun was kidnapped in Germany, transported to Seoul, imprisoned, tortured and released only after international intervention. He is only one example. Former president Kim Dae-jung is another. Isang Yun’s story has also been fictionalized in four episodes of The Nation and Destiny.
In the last couple of years South Korean films have come a long way in their more nuanced portrayal of characters from both sides. And films dealing with the Korean War now attract audiences in Korea, which was not the case some years ago. But we forget that a film such as JSA – Joint Security Area (directed by Park Chan-wook and shown in the Melbourne International Film Festival 2001) could not have been made before the introduction of Kim Dae-jung’s ‘sunshine policy’ and that it is only in recent years that South Koreans can express their opinions openly about North Korea. To make direct contact with North Koreans still requires permission.
SBS has in the past four years belatedly jumped on the bandwagon and shown several films of the South Korean new wave, after ignoring Korea for years. Yet, despite a substantial film industry in North Korea, including animation both locally made and on commission for countries like France, Italy, Japan, we have not to date seen a single North Korean feature film on our multicultural broadcaster, or on any other channel or in any of our film festivals in recent years. 2003, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, would have been the perfect opportunity to show films from both sides. It does seem extraordinary that no festival or broadcaster here has attempted to take up the challenge.
Of course it is not the filmmakers or artists who decide on reactivating the nuclear weapons program, and this is not usually what their films deal with. But seeing their work, however controlled it might be by the system, can help us in some small way to understand that we are dealing with an enormously proud people who feel under siege, even more so after being designated as part of ‘the axis of evil’.
It can also give us a perspective on their sense of history through the stories that the people are subjected to in their media. It is not only they who are subjected to propaganda, but our audience, as well, when we are deprived of such insight in this climate of a new world order.