Behind the Nuclear tests: Understanding North Korea through its films and books - Africa, Asia and Australia - Haaretz.com
A detail from Pyongyang's Film Studio mural. John Pavelka. Mural: Mansudae Art Studio

Behind the Nuclear Tests: Understanding North Korea Through Its Films and Books

The Democratic People’s Republic remains a mystery to most of the world, but there are ways of discovering more about this most secretive of states

Given the growing tension between North Korea and the United States – exacerbated by the former’s nuclear tests, and two leaders who like to play with fire (and fury) –  now seems like the right time to get to know the enigmatic North Korea’s culture in some depth.

Haaretz asked Dr. Jooyeon Rhee - a senior lecturer at Hebrew University’s Department of Asian Studies and head of its Korean studies program - to recommend some seminal North Korean books and films that can help us understand the enigmatic country and its culture a bit better.

For anyone who wants to get to know North Korean film, Rhee recommends starting with “The Flower Girl” (1972), directed by Pak Hak and Choe Ik-kyu, which is available on YouTube with subtitles (like most of the films mentioned in this article). 

“This is a cinematic adaptation of the legendary musical with the same name, both written by none other than the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. This is one of the ‘must see’ films that reflects the revolutionary vision of communist ideals and one that shows why communism was attractive to colonized people at the time,” says Rhee.

The film is a musical whose touching story takes place in the 1920s and ’30s, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule (it was divided into North and South Korea following World War II). The plot revolves around the troubles of a lower-class girl who gathers and sells flowers to help her sick mother and blind sister, who have an evil landlord. She attains political consciousness against all the hardship. In fact, the flower girl character is so significant to North Koreans that she even appears on the country’s currency (the one won note).

“We are so infatuated with the U.S.-based mass media’s ideologically based reports on North Korea,” says Dr. Rhee but adds that it’s almost impossible to separate North Korea’s propaganda from its artistic output, which is always produced under a government umbrella. Nevertheless, many works, which are also available in the West, contain details that enable us to paint a picture of daily life in that country, get a glimpse of relations between the sexes and find explanations for North Korea’s overt anti-American sentiment.

“We can see how important it is to educate youngsters about the colonial history, and the history of the Korean War in North Korea compared to South Korea. There is much emphasis on the Juche ideology of self-reliance and a simple and frugal lifestyle, unlike the hyper-consumerism you see in South Korea,” explains Rhee. “In terms of family life, we see a very close tie among family members (and among different generations), unlike the disintegration of family that has been quickly happening, and represented in South Korean films. A close tie among community members is also unique compared to South Korea.”

Strong women full of hope

Another North Korean classic is “My Hometown” (1949). This film, by director Kang Hong-sik, is about a young man who evolves from an exploited proletarian into a communist revolutionary. His political consciousness is depicted through his protests against the wealthy, and his participation in the war as a North Korean soldier.

Another film with a clear ideological bent is “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2007). “This is categorized as an art house film in North Korea. It depicts a young schoolgirl’s conflict with her father who, in her mind, doesn’t pay attention to his family. It’s a story of a family who will eventually reconcile by the film’s end. It shows North Korea’s rural landscape and the lives of schoolchildren and families. Although it is quite ideologically oriented – dedicate your life to the country – it gives us the pleasure to see some detailed and yet subtle descriptions of family lives,” noted Rhee.

The first North Korean film made with Western cooperation was the 2012 feature “Comrade Kim Goes Flying.” Surprisingly, this isn’t a propaganda film, and that’s also apparently why it was invited to international film festivals. Produced with British and Belgian backing, the film describes the efforts of a young female coal miner to realize her dream of becoming an acrobat. “It is a heartwarming human drama and enables us to glimpse at gender roles and relations in North Korea,” wrote Rhee.

It’s clear that female characters play central roles in North Korean films. Is there any special reason for this?

“You make a very interesting observation. There are many films and works of literature that feature heroic male figures. However, at least on an official level, women play significant roles in cultural expressions, since women often became a sign of backwardness in public discourses about modernity since the turn of the century and a sign of colonial exploitation during the colonial time. It was North Korean official policy to ensure gender equality and improve women’s lives from its establishment year, though it has been pointed out by scholars in South Korea and the West that the image of strong and hard working women do not necessarily represent the reality there. Relatively speaking, I can say that women receive more attention in cultural expressions in North Korea than in South Korea, and images of them are positive, forward-looking, passionate and strong.”

Rhee also recommends documentaries made in North Korea by Western directors, of whom the most prominent is British filmmaker Daniel Gordon. His 2002 documentary “The Game of Their Lives” tells the story of North Korea’s national soccer team, which stunned the world by making it to the World Cup quarterfinals in 1966. The film follows the lives of the players since that tournament, in an attempt to depict North Korean society during those years and the way it was driven by the desire to build an exemplary communist state.

Another Gordon film, “A State of Mind” (2004), follows two female students participating in the Mass Games, a huge national gymnastics event that takes place over two months and is meant to glorify North Korean communism. “Viewers will understand what it means for North Koreans to become ‘perfect communists’ in the ‘paradise,’ and how important it is to dedicate one’s life for the nation through a close following of these girls’ everyday lives surrounding the game,” noted Rhee.

Joohui Rhee

The biggest best-seller ever

English translations of North Korean literature are almost nonexistent, making it impossible for Western lovers of culture to get to know the country’s literary oeuvre. Still one of the best books that is available is “The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi.

Rhee also recommends looking at English-language blogs about North Korean literature, which include both translations and analyses of literary works. She especially recommends the blog North Korean Literature in English.

Are there any books that are considered great works of literature in North Korea?

Charles Dharapak / AP

“Apparently, the best seller of all time in North Korea is the "Complete Collection of Writings by Kim Il-sung,’ a collection of essays, speeches, roundtable talks, etc., that were produced between 1926 and 1967. Ever since it was published in 1992, it became the most selling book in NK. Besides the revolution-genre, some ‘North Korean-style’ bildungsroman are popular, especially short stories by Cheon Se-bong. It is also noteworthy that a melodramatic novel, despite it being subject to state censorship, has been so popular among readers.

How do books leave the country? Is there even a publishing industry?

“The cultural industry is strictly controlled by the state in North Korea and there are various state institutes that handle cinema, animation, literature, performance art, and other forms of fine art such as painting and sculpture. Only those who are ‘hired’ by the state can publish their works, and writers belong to a writer’s guild that is controlled by the state.

“I would say that any work – no matter where it is produced – is political. Especially with the examples of "Comrade Kim Goes Flying" or "A Schoolgirl’s Diary," there are works that are less propagandistic. And certainly there are literary works that are less politically oriented – especially those that were produced in the ’50s right after the Korean War. In principle, all cultural works must follow the communist party’s guideline closely, but at times we discover works that are quite touching. I would say [there are] more works to be discovered in the future that may change our stereotype about cultural productions in North Korea.” 

Ron Edmonds / AP

Girl groups in miniskirts

Rhee said that not many North Korean works are popular in South Korea, but some have aroused interest precisely because South Koreans had no access to art and literature produced in the north until the late ’90s. Even today, access remains limited. 

“Each side doesn’t necessarily think it needs the other side for economic and cultural development – at least on an ideological level,” said Rhee. “However, it is evident that contacts between North and South have been increasing, especially in the area of cultural productions such as animation and film, scholarly exchanges (history, archaeology, science, etc.). There is a well-known story about Kim Jong-il abducting the famous South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee in 1978, demonstrating how enthusiastic the political leaders were in utilizing cinematic expressions for political and cultural purposes”

In this context, she specifically mentions Sang-ok’s 1986 film Beyond Happiness and Sadness.

“This is quite unique in terms of the theme, which is rarely handled. It is a melodramatic film that deals with a love triangle during the colonial period and the Korean War period. It shows how the historical tide affects young people like the three characters in the film, and how those who contributed to the nation are commemorated.” Rhee said the film was scandalous because of its “strongly melodramatic dimension” and the kiss scene, which was a “first in the history of North Korean film.”

Since that kiss, a surprising degree of openness has emerged in North Korea. “In recent years, North Korean television features girl groups such as the Moranbong Band, which appears on stage wearing miniskirts when performing music! I believe North Korea was influenced by the popularity of girl groups in South Korea, which proved their enormous power to draw audiences. With the new government administration that is willing to collaborate with North Korea more actively than ever, I am hoping to see the growth of these kinds of exchanges in the near future.”

Rhee, who was born and raised in South Korea under a military regime, moved to Canada as an adult. She earned a doctorate in Korean literature and culture and, after teaching at both Canadian and American universities, came to Israel in 2013 to work as a full-time lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she teaches Korean history and culture, including about North Korean society and culture.

KIN CHEUNG / AP

Her research focuses on Korean literature and culture under Japanese colonial rule, specifically the crime fiction of that era. She also researches the Korean diaspora and plastic arts in both North and South Korea.

You’re currently in South Korea. Do you see any changes since the tensions erupted between North Korea and the United States?

“The reason I sent you a photo with the shopping mall as a background is that people here are not affected by the North Korea issue much. One significant change over the last few months is the transformed image of Kim Jong-un. Whether you like him or not, he successfully [transformed] himself [into] someone who can talk tough and stand against the U.S. Kim will not do something that could damage his image or endanger his country, but I think he will keep playing smart for a while – until he can position himself better in negotiating with the United States. I think Kim really wants to be connected with the outside world, without losing North Korea’s ideological faith and pride.”

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