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Guests of the Dear Leaer: Shin Sang-Ok, Choi Eun-Hee, and North Korea's Cultural Crisis
Region: Asia
Theme: Security
Location: Korea, North
Published May 25, 2011
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On 19 October 1983 in Kim Jong-il’s office at the Central Party Building in Pyongyang, a private conversation took place between Kim and two South Korean filmmakers: director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, who had spent five years in North Korea after they had been abducted and brought there under Kim Jong-il’s personal direction in 1978. That day, Shin and Choi secretly recorded what they describe as “Kim Jong-il’s tirade-like monologue rather than a dialogue between Kim and us,” which lasted for more than two hours.1 According to the transcript of this recording (Shin and Choi 2001, 249), Kim Jong-il was struggling with the questions of how to elevate North Korean film to an advanced level without jeopardizing the tight control of its people:

"We send our people to East Germany to study editing, to Czechoslovakia to study Camera technology, and to the Soviet Union to learn directing. Other than that, we cannot send our people to go anywhere since they are enemy states. No France, no West Germany, no Great Britain. We especially have to have conduct exchange with Japan, but we cannot even allow [North Korean people] to watch Japanese films. We end up analyzing foreign films to imitate them but there is limit to what we can do, but our efforts have brought no progress. I have been struggling with this problem for 5 years [since 1978]. All we ended up doing was to send a couple of people to the Soviet Union after the liberation and to establish a Film Institute, but they are not that impressive after all. I acknowledge that we lag behind in filmmaking techniques. We have to know that we are lagging behind and make efforts to raise new generation of filmmakers."

Although very little is known about North Korean cinema in the outside world, many have heard of the “beloved leader” Kim Jong-il’s intimate relationship with film. As this speech testifies, he played a wide range of roles concerning North Korean cinema—from producer, editor, and script writer to critic, historian, and visionary.

According to director Shin, Kim Jong-il is not only a dedicated film producer, but he is also a highly talented critic of drama and music, allegedly capable of pinpointing a single out-of-tune instrument from a full orchestra (Shin and Choi 2001, 288). Further accounts by Shin point out that Kim’s boundless knowledge in arts owes to a large amount of materials collected from around the world, materials he has been systematically compiling over a long period of time. Shin had a chance to see Kim Jong-il’s enormous private collection of films, which he thought was possibly the largest of its kind in the world:

"On March 14th, 1983, Eun-hee [Shin’s wife] and I were invited to a tour of Film Archive. I hurriedly got prepared because this was a place I always wanted to visit. The Film Archive stood on the hills in the middle of Pyongyang. Tightly locked heavy metal doors were guarding the Archive and no people were to be seen around. This was a controlled access area . . . We were invited inside for a briefing and were told that 15,000 copies of films were stored here. Nearly 250 employees including voice actors, translators, subtitle specialists, projectionists, and recording specialists, were working for this facility. The films at the Archive came from all around the world—from both communist and capitalists, developed and underdeveloped countries alike. The size of the three story building measured up to that of any main school buildings in South Korea. As I was listening to the briefing of an Archive employee, I thought that this could possibly be the largest [private] collection in the entire world. After the briefing the manager took us around for a tour. The width of the building was about 100 meters, and all three stories stretching 100 meters were filled with films. The room with the best equipment was the one holding North Korean films. In that room every single North Korean film ever made was stored according to chronological order. The room boasted of a perfect temperature and humidity control system." (Shin and Choi 2001, 274–75)

Shin goes on to describe that after this impressive introduction, he was given permission to visit the Film Archive and watch all kinds of movies as much as he wished. Access to this building was limited only to those who were recommended by Kim Jong-il himself, and for this reason there was an archive employee whose only responsibility was to take care of communications with Kim Jong-il’s office, which testifies to the fact that the archive was indeed a private one. Choi and Shin also noticed that all of Kim Jong-il’s residences across North Korea have projection rooms where Kim is known to watch films almost every night (Shin and Choi 2001, 289). Kim Jong-il was a highly motivated autodidact of world films, which, according to Shin, made Kim Jong-il’s cinematic knowledge and talent surpass those of other North Korean filmmakers. Most filmmakers were barred from using this library owing to North Korea’s stringent ideological control, and consequently it was difficult for any filmmaker’s understanding of world cinema to measure up to Kim Jong-il’s knowledge. Kim Jong-il’s predilection for film became a well known story through the accounts of the few people who had a rare chance to work closely with him. Director Shin was one of those inadvertently “chosen” ones who had a rare glimpse of Kim Jong-il’s involvement in North Korean films while assisting him to realize his grand cinematic vision. In the mainstream media, this bizarre story of the abduction of the South Korean couple has often served as a popular entry point for exploring the psychotic nature of the “Dear Leader.” Nonetheless, the fact that the North Korean leader chose South Korean filmmakers, citizens of the sworn enemy state, to bail the local film industry he had fostered out of the cultural dead end it found itself in provides us with the opportunity to delve deeper into more complex issues surrounding North Korean society and culture, such as the regime’s attempts to strike a balance between outside culture and indigenous culture and the ways in which the North Korean leadership envisioned culture as an effective tool for shaping the minds of its people. Although Shin and Choi’s book offers an in-depth analysis of the films produced by the kidnapped South Korean couple, we will look at the presence of this film couple as a way of exploring a complex matrix into which North Korean society’s contradictions and ironies are woven. The filmmakers’ book provides an opportunity to think about North Korea’s culture as a highly politicized form of power.

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