North Korea: Can South Korea’s Decapitation Unit take out Kim Jong-un?

4 10 2017

Silmido(ABC Radio’s Tell Me Straight’s Yasmin Parry and Will Ockenden, 30 Septemebr 2017) Imagine a squad of thousands of military soldiers flying helicopters and planes through the night towards North Korea with one job — to assassinate the leader, Kim Jong-un.

It sounds like the plot of a film, or a Twitter threat from US President Donald Trump, but it’s a legitimate South Korean defence strategy.

This month, the South Korean Defence Minister, Song Young-moo, announced a special forces squad, called the Decapitation Unit, would be reformed by the end of the year.

Reformed? Yep, this is the second iteration of a Kill Kim assassination squad.

A motley band of misfits were trained back in the 1970s to take out Mr Kim’s grandfather, but why try again when last time everything went horrifically wrong?

Miscreant hit squad

In 1971, the first Decapitation Unit was formed with the intention of marching north to slit the throat of Kim Il-sung, the then North Korean leader.

Like the plot of the Suicide Squad comic book series, the group was made up of former criminals and thugs plucked from the streets of Seoul.

The government gave them an irresistible offer — the promise of a new life and a clean slate if they completed their mission.

According to Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert from the Australian National University, the special unit was isolated for years on an island called Silmido.

The squad of misfits trained in gruelling conditions, some dying along the way.

But when the time grew close for them to complete their task, the South Korean government called the whole thing off.

“The whole mission was aborted because, well, they’re not professionals,” Dr Petrov said.

“They were still criminals, and they had no idea what’s going on in North Korea so they were doomed to failure.”

The government realised there was no way men from the South could infiltrate the North undetected.

“They already speak completely different dialects, they don’t understand each other, they don’t travel, they don’t visit each other,” Dr Petrov said.

“At that time the satellites wouldn’t provide them with maps and Google Earth didn’t exist at that time.

“They would immediately be identified, arrested, and potentially used in the counter-propaganda war against South Korea.”

Weapons who knew too much

But in their years of training, the men had become trained assassins, and the South Korean rulers feared they would turn rogue.

Dr Petrov said the South Korean guards on the island began slaughtering the agents one after another.

“They were shot and eliminated because they knew too much,” Dr Petrov said.

But when the South Korean guerrillas realised their fate, they rebelled.

The men turned on their guards and sailed a boat back to mainland South Korea.

They landed on the peninsula, hijacked a bus and drove towards the capital, but at one of the road blocks they were annihilated.

For many years, South Koreans knew nothing of the assassination plans and the ensuing chaos, which was severely embarrassing for the then South Korean dictatorship.

It was not until South Korea’s democratisation in the 1990s, and the release of the 2003 film Silmido, that people become widely aware of the story.

“Nobody knew that the South Koreans were doing exactly the same thing that North Koreans would do,” Dr Petrov said.

“But they’re Koreans — they’re brothers and sisters — they live in the constant fear of the resumption of the hostilities and it’s a slow motion civil war.”

Getting the gang back together

Despite everything that went wrong with the Decapitation Unit in the 1970s, the South Korean Government now plans to recreate it.

The South Korean Defence Minister said 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers would be assembled by year’s end and the military was already “retooling” helicopters and transport planes to penetrate North Korean airspace at night.

It sounds like a daring plan, but Dr Petrov said it was nothing but propaganda.

“Everyone in South Korea understands that the South Koreans cannot do much or anything successful in terms of deposing or dethroning the regime of Kim Jong-un, simply because they don’t know how it works. It’s a black box,” he said.

“When South Korean parliamentarians were asked why on Earth they decided to come up with this plan, which didn’t work before, they simply said it was the intention to scare the North Korean regime, because North Koreans have nuclear weapons that South Koreans don’t.”

One of the ways South Korea can respond is with a propaganda campaign, setting up a Decapitation Unit so the North Korean leadership would have to live in constant fear.

Assassination doomed to fail

According to Dr Petrov, there are numerous reasons a hit on Mr Kim by the South Koreans would be impossible.

“It is a fantasy, it’s science fiction. Mission impossible,” he said.

He said the first problem was very few people knew where the North Korean leader was at any given moment.

“Kim Jong-un lives like his father and his grandfather — underground in numerous palaces which are linked by underground tunnel highways.

“He periodically pops up on launching pads to oversee the rockets, have a photo session, meet with peasants and workers and then disappear again,” Dr Petrov said.

Second, the North Korean regime is a “perfect dictatorship”, with many layers of defence.

“The system in North Korea is designed to protect the leadership in such a way that even their own security apparatus people don’t know where the leader is,” Dr Petrov said.

“When they drive the car with high-ranking leaders, there’s a system of block posts that stop the car and change the driver, so that every driver doesn’t know where the journey is going to stop.”

The third reason is the South Korean army is unprepared to take on such a task.

“The South Korean army counts 675,000 people, of which most are conscripts, which means they’re mama’s boys, university students who are not prepared to sacrifice their life for some ideological conflict which has been going on in Korea for decades,” Dr Petrov said.

Special units do exist and are well trained, but it is unlikely they would be effective on enemy territory given they know little about the security infrastructure underground, he said.

“Maybe a dozen of highly trained spies can cross the border, can infiltrate, but again it will be some comical situations when they wouldn’t know the reality of North Korean life. They will be immediately identified, embarrassed,” Dr Petrov said.

“They’re like aliens visiting the Earth. Hello Earthlings!”

With an attempt on Mr Kim’s life unlikely, the leader’s lifestyle is likely to kill him first, Dr Petrov said.

“Kim Jong-un is more likely to die of an overdose of expensive Cognac or cheese or obesity or high blood pressure, but not from a South Korean bullet,” he said.

You can listed to the original ABC Radio podcast of this interview here…

North Korea feeling victimised by the West.

1 07 2014

Seth Rogen_James Franco_The Interview (2SER FM107.3 June 31, 2014) North Korea is back in the headlines again, this time taking pot shots at our own Foreign Minister as well as Hollywood.

Following Julie Bishop’s interview on a radio station in America, North Korea released a statement threatening to “punish anyone who dares slander the dignity of its supreme leader”. This statement was followed by a promise to retaliate mercilessly if the Hollywood film ‘The interview’ which plots the killing of Kim Jong-un is released. Should North Korea feel threatened? And what is North Korea trying to achieve by releasing such statements?

Dr Leonid Petrov joined us on the line from Canberra to help us understand North Korea a little better.

“North Korean Cinema: A History”

8 12 2013

Johannes Schonherr_NK Cinema_A History_cover pageReview: “There is one man who stands above them all in terms of North Korea cinema: Johannes Schonherr. Schonherr has recorded for prosperity’s sake some marvellous adventures associated with North Korean cinema that those of us unable to read Korean may never have discovered…excellent…Schonherr [has] written the only ‘essential’ book on North Korean cinema that you could need.” —North Korean Films.

About the Book: Like many ideological dictatorships of the twentieth century, North Korea has always considered cinema an indispensible propaganda tool. No other medium penetrated the whole of the population so thoroughly, and no other medium remained so strictly and exclusively under state control. Through movies, the two successive leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il propagandized their policies and sought to rally the masses behind them, with great success.

This volume chronicles the history of North Korean cinema from its beginnings to today, examining the obstacles the film industry faced as well as the many social problems the films themselves reveal. It provides detailed analyses of major and minor films and explores important developments in the industry within the context of the concurrent social and political atmosphere. Through the lens of cinema emerges a fresh perspective on the history of North Korean politics, culture, and ideology.

About the Author:Johannes Schonherr is a freelance writer specializing in travel, film and food. He lives in Japan.

Interview with Johannes Schönherr, North Korea cinema expert, by North Korean Films

Read Introduction and Chapter 1 on-line

Read Chapter 6 of this book on-line

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: McFarland (August 13, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786465263
ISBN-13: 978-0786465262
Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches

By this book on

North Korean Films will be screened at the SIFF

25 10 2013

SIFF promoSydney Intercultural Film Festival (SIFF) will be held between the 14th and 24th November 2013 to showcase films that celebrate cultural diversity, whether through topics or through the make-up of filmmakers. Throughout these 11 days of Festival, ethnic communities in Sydney will work together with media professionals, local government and international film industry to show the grand diversity of cultures that are present in Australia.​

The term “Intercultural” usually connotes the relationship and exchange between different cultures, but here it will be a fusion of the terms “Multicultural” and “International” that form the two vital elements of the SIFF. Multiculturalism here is not just limited to the ethnic make up of individual countries or regions but encompasses the cultures around the whole world.

SIFF will be the first film festival in Australia that will screen films produced in the DPRK. A variety of classical movies and new films are selected to represent the North Korean cinematography. Five films with English subtitles and two with on-the-stage English language simultaneous interpretation will be offered.

The Australian audience is curious to learn more about the film-making tradition evolved on the northern part of the Korean peninsula divided by military and ideological conflict. Drama, action, and national division are the main themes that dominate North Korean films, but comedy and romance are also present and appeal to the aesthetic taste of domestic and international audiences.

The Kites Flying in the Sky_screen shot“The Kites Flying in the Sky” 하늘의 연 (2008, 94 min., English sub., Dir. P’yo Kwang and Kim Hyon-chol)

This film is based on the true story of a former marathon champion, whose family repatriated to North Korea from Japan. Instead of bright career in sports, she devoted her life to caring for orphans left without parents during the Grand Famine era of the late 1990s. “The Kites Flying in the Sky” was the only North Korean feature film to be screened at the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival, where it was awarded. Despite local success, the film was poorly received by foreign viewers, who usually dismiss it as “syrupy and propagandistic”.

Available on-line:

Oh Youth_screen shot“Oh, Youth!” 청충이여(1995, 90 min., English sub., Dir. Jeon Jong-p’al)

“O Youth!” is a mix of comedy, romance, sycophantic zeal and Taekwondo. A North Korean family with six siblings, five of which are young sportswomen, try to marry off the only son, a 30-year-old bachelor who is preoccupied with his studies. His mother wants him to marry an effeminate girl. His father and sisters, on the opposite, want him to marry a sportswoman. Ultimately, the son falls in love with a woman who reconciles the family…

Available on-line:

From Spring to Summer_screen shot“From Spring to Summer” 봄부터 여름까지 (1987, 82 min., English sub., Joint Russian-DPRK production)

This film tells the dramatic story of a Soviet military group that secretly entered the Japanese-occupied Korea during the last days of WWII in the Pacific. Preventing the creation of new powerful weapon in the clandestine military base, the Russian female soldier Masha and many Korean guerrillas sacrifice their lives for the liberation of Korea.

Available on-line with Russian subs:

Schoolgirls Diary_screen shot“A Schoolgirl’s Diary 한녀학생의 일기 (2006, 93 min., English sub., Dir. Jang In-hak,).

One of the most successful films produced in North Korea, “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years: one that’s full of the peer pressure and family problems familiar everywhere. It attempts to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice.

Available on-line:

Hong Kil-Dong_screen shot“Hong Gil-Dong” 홍길동 (1985, 104 min. English sub., Dir. Kim Kil-in)

Classical historical novel about the Korean Robin Hood tells the story of friendship and love in medieval Korea, in which this Kung-Fu action movie takes place. The illegitimate son of a nobleman and one of his concubines, Hong Kil-dong was rejected by his own family and embarked on the travel through the corrupt world, where he robbed the rich to help the poor. “Hong Kil Dong” is different from the other North Korean movies by its psychological depth, and numerous lyrical digressions, full with romance and emotion.

Available on-line:

Destiny of Keumhee and Eunhee_screen shotThe Destiny of Keumhee and Eunhee금희와 은희의 운명 (1974, 101 min. Dir. Pak Hak and Eom Kil-seon, no subs)

One of the classics of North Korean cinematography, this film emulates the best examples of Soviet and Chinese film-making traditions. The story is based on the famous novel about the twin-sisters separated by the Korean War. Never heard about each other again, they live in the very different societies separated by the civil and ideological conflict. This film laments the national division and masterfully portrays the grim reality of the post-war time in Korea.

Partly available on-line:

Partly available on-line:

Partly available on-line:

Our Fragrance_screen shot“Our Fragrance” 우리의 향기 (2003, 85 min., Dir. Jeon Jong-p’al, no subs.)

This film analyses the early changes and nascent conflicts, which began emerging in contemporary North Korean society. Foreign cultural influences, growing materialism and consumerism are believed to create obstacles for the advancement of Korean-style Socialism. A romance between a traditionalist researcher and a young female interpreter turns into a tough examine for both of them and their families.

Available on-line with English subs:

Real lives in North Korea: Three day film event in Australia

14 03 2013

voices-in-exile-poster_smallNorth Korea Film Event in Canberra (20th March, ANU) and Sydney (21st March, Sydney Cheil Church in Strathfield, and 22nd March, University of Sydney).

Panoptic Perspectives is the title of a two-day film event, organized by scholars from institutions in Sydney and Canberra, to be held in venues at the Australian National University, Cheil Church in Strathfield and Sydney University.

The purpose of this event is to offer different perspectives on a phenomenon much discussed in the popular media, but rarely considered beyond the singular, highly politicized and bi-polemic story of good and evil, right and wrong – North Korea.

Through the medium of film, and the discussion by guest speakers that will precede and follow each screening, it is hoped the audience will gain a more nuanced understanding of some of the issues surrounding ‘North Korea’ and the North Korean people.


Alternative Approaches to North Korean Issues. – 22 March 12 PM at Architecture Lecture Theater 3, Wilkinson Building, University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice


The Journals of Musan (2011). Directed by Park Jungbum

– 20 March 05:30 PM, Coombs Lecture Theatre, HC Coombs Building (8a), Fellows Road, Australian National University

– 21 March 5:30 PM, Sydney Cheil Church (Sydney St & Concord Rd.)

– 22 March 5:20 PM, Old Geology Lecture Theater (next to Footbridge Theater), University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice Network

Q&A with the director (Park Jung-bum) after the screening

A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2007). Directed by Jang In-hak

– 22 March 1:45 PM Architecture Lecture Theater 3, Wilkinson Building, University of Sydney, co-hosted by Global Social Justice Network. Discussion with Dr. Leonid Petrov after the screening

Yodok Stories (2008). Directed by Andrzej Fidyk

– 21 March 2:00 PM Sydney Cheil Church (Sydney St. & Concord Rd.) Discussion with Dr. Leonid Petrov after the screening

Each screening is preceded by a short talk introducing the key themes of the film. Each film will also be followed by a questions and answers session. Guest speakers include Park Jung-bum, director of The Journals of Musan

Admission (access per day): Student $5 Adult $10 (RSVP on the event webpage is recommended to secure your seat)

For more information, go to:


Journals of MusanReleased in South Korea 2011. Synopsis by Markus Bell
Director Park Jungbum said in interviews that he based the main character for The Journals of Musan (무산 일기) on a North Korean friend he met while at university in Seoul. The film highlights several important themes concerning the lives of North Korean refugees. Firstly, that arrival in South Korea is not the end of their struggle to find safety and security; secondly, for better of for worse, organized religion plays an integral role in the lives of these individuals; and thirdly, that ignorance is at the root of much of the prejudice that exists against North Koreans living in South Korea. The Journals of Musan is important in that for the first time, the South Korean public were offered a window into the lives of a few of the 24,000 North Koreans residing in South Korea, many of whom have been through indescribable hardships to arrive in their new home.

Yodok Stories_Andrzej FidykReleased South Korea 2008. Synopsis by Christopher Richardson
For every artist whose career has advanced under the patronage of power, another risked life and reputation to present alternatives to the narratives of the state, whether through graffiti, subversive songs, paintings, or plays. In North Korea, where life is characterized by surveillance and control, such examples are rare. Yodok Stories, first staged in 2006, is perhaps the most famous example. This was a story crying out to be told: a concentration camp, in the early 21st Century, in the heart of East Asia. Although the idea for the musical came from Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Fidyk, its strength comes from the creative participation of so many North Koreans. Yodok Stories is a powerful corrective to the stereotype of defectors as passive victims. Although the bombast, blood and thunder of Yodok Stories might initially seem bizarre, or kitsch, the musical powerfully evokes the aesthetic of North Korean arts, notably the revolutionary operas The Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. There are more than 24 million North Koreans alive today, and at least as many stories. Both at home and abroad, it is time they were told.

Schoolgirl's DiaryReleased in North Korea 2007, in South Korea 2011. Synopsis by Dr. Leonid Petrov
One of the most successful films produced in North Korea, The Schoolgirl’s Diary is an attempt to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years: one that’s full of the peer pressure and family problems familiar everywhere. Echoing the Russian film Courier (Kuryer) (1986), which struck a chord in Perestroika- stricken Soviet Union, The Schoolgirl’s Diary views the grim realities of life through the eyes of a teenager. If something in the film turns out to be politically unpalatable, the immaturity of youth is blamed—not the film director. For a cash-starved North Korea, this film was an instant success. Viewed by some 8 million people in 2006, it received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes.

Local media coverage in Korean:

기획특집 – 노블레스 오블리주운동을 통한 북한이주민돕기 (상)

탈북자 및 북한 문제 관련 영화제 개최

영화 통한 ‘북한 문제’ 조명

재호북한이주민후원회 및 일부 연구자들

Kim Jong-un stars in new North Korean TV documentary

8 01 2012

(The Telegraph, 08 Jan 2012) On what is believed to be Kim Jong-un’s birthday, North Korea’s state television broadcasts a new documentary on the ‘Great Successor’ in which he rides tanks, horses and a fairground ride.

The documentary is the second in a week seeking to highlight Kim Jong-un’s experience in leading North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong military and was aimed at showing that he was in charge of the armed forces long before his father, former leader Kim Jong-il, died of a heart attack last month.

The film, entitled Succeeding great work of military-first revolution, showed new footage of Kim Jong-un in various locations such as military bases, parades and even an amusement park.

The footage, according to broadcaster KRT, was filmed when Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was still alive.

Sunday reportedly also marks Kim Jong-un’s birthday, although the documentary appears to make no mention of the landmark. North Korea tends to recognise the birthday of its leaders as a national holiday as part of efforts to deify them.

The son, who is in his late 20s, has moved swiftly into the role of “supreme leader” of the people, the ruling Workers’ Party and the military despite questions abroad about how easily he could assume power with only a few years of grooming behind him. Kim Jong-il, in contrast, had 20 years of training when his father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, died of a heart attack in 1994.

LP’s video comment… NK State Media creates personality cult

KOFFIA is back in Sydney

16 08 2011

The Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) first began in October of 2010 and was the inaugural festival of its kind. KOFFIA is back for a 2nd edition in 2011 and will take place in both Sydney and Melbourne. The festival is organised by the Korean Cultural Office, with support from the Consulate-General of the Republic of Korea in Sydney.
It aims to:
– Generate an interest in Korean Cinema within the local community.
– Raise the understanding of the aesthetics of Korean films throughout the community.
– Share the virtues of Korean Culture and Tradition.
– Provide support and give opportunity to aspiring Korean filmmakers residing in Australia.
– Develop relations with Australian artists.

KOFFIA MEDIA FORUM / Discussion on “J.S.A Joint Security Area”, “Secret Reunion”, “The Journals of Musan”

DATE: Sun 28th Aug 2011 (4:00pm – 4:30pm)
Venue: Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney
Dr. Leonid Petrov (Korean Studies Lecturer, University of Sydney)
Dr. Jane Park (Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney)

TOPIC: Korean War in Films
The Korean War in Korean cinema has always been one of the most prolifically recurring themes. This year at KOFFIA there are three films deals with the Korean War directly as well as indirectly. Leonid Petrov and Jane Park, from their own respective academic background, will share their own insights about the theme of the Korean War in Korean cinema with the audience.

The Journals of Musan (2010)

127min, HD Cam, 2.35:1
Directed by PARK Jung-bum
Keywords: Drama, North Korea, Award Winning, Based on a true story
Cast: PARK Jung-bum, JIN Yong-ok, KANG Eun-jin

The award winning realistic depiction of a North Korean south of the border. Seung-chul is a North Korean defector now living in Seoul. He is constantly stigmatized as his identification number gives him away to the local people. His personality does not help either, he seems neither smart nor particularly strong-willed and his introverted nature beings to clash with his Seoul surroundings. Changes creep in slowly and secretly, as his new home lacks the freedom it promised.

The Journals of Musan has garnered, so far, 14 awards at various international film festivals including Busan, Tribeca and Rotterdam. This independent film is simply a tour de force. PARK Jung-bum not only produced and directed the picture, but also performed as the protagonist in the film. The film is dedicated his late-friend JEON Seung-chul, a North Korean defector who died of cancer and who he was inspired by to create the film.

This is PARK Jung-bums 1st feature film, having previously worked as an assistant director to Lee Chang-dong on Poetry (2010) and being a keen observer of all of Lee’s films. What results is a unique point of view of an often not talked about situation. A must see of KOFFIA 2011!

Screening Schedule:
26th August / 10:00am @ Dendy Cinemas, Sydney
27th August / 4:30pm @ Dendy Cinemas, Sydney

Secret Reunion (2010)

116min, 35mm, 2.35:1
Directed by JANG Hun
Keywords: Thriller, Espionage, Buddy Comedy, Box-office hit
Cast: SONG Kang-ho, KANG Dong-won, JEON Gook-hwan, KO Chang-seok

A Korean buddy action comedy like never before! Agent Lee (SONG Kang-ho) was once one of the top National Intelligence Agents in Korea, however he soon falls from grace as a High Profile case goes bad. A North Korea spy Ji-won (KANG Dong-won) gets marked as a traitor in the same incident as neither side got the result they were after. 6 years later, the two outcasts stumble across each other and form an unlikely partnership in order to steal information from the other. .

Awarded Best Film at the 31st Blue Dragon Film Awards, Secret Reunion was the 2nd highest grossing film at the 2010 Korean Box office behind only The Man From Nowhere. JANG Hun had been known mostly for his assistant directing work to Kim Ki-duk on the likes of Time (2006) and The Bow (2005). That was of course before his feature debut, last years KOFFIA 2010 hit film, Rough Cut (2008). Even bigger and better things are expected from Jang Hun’s 3rd feature currently in theatres, Battle of the Hills.

Screening Schedule:
25th August / 6:00pm @ Dendy Cinemas, Sydney
29th August / 10:00am @ Dendy Cinemas, Sydney
12th September / 8:15pm @ ACMI Cinemas, Sydney

J.S.A. Joint Security Area (2000)

110min, 35mm, 2.35:1
Directed by PARK Chan-wook
Keywords: Drama, War, North South Relations, Classic
Cast: SONG Kang-ho, LEE Young-ae, LEE Byung-hun, SHIN Ha-kyun

Simply one of best Korean films of all time, see it on the big screen! At the DMZ, one South Korean soldier kills two North Korean soldiers. The international investigation begins as to find out exactly how this happened, but everyone who is related to the incident tells a different and contradictory story. The truth is shelled in four soldiers from the South as well as North.

The vengeance trilogy may be PARK Chan-wook’s most widely known works, but JSA is the film where his career really took off. Featuring an all star cast of SONG Kang-ho (Thirst), LEE Young-ae (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), LEE Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil) and SHIN Ha-kyun (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), it is a must see for all Korean film fans!

Screening Schedule:
28th August / 2:00pm @ Dendy Cinemas, Sydney
11th September / 6:15pm @ ACMI Cinemas, Sydney

Park Jung-bum Offers Notes on his Unique POV

24 05 2011

by Adam Hartzell (SF360, May 16, 2011)

Eleven directors were in the running for the $15,000 New Directors award at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and the jury (Nick James, Daniela Michel, and Marie Therese Guirgis) selected South Korean director Park Jung-bum’s The Journals of Musan (English trailerInfo.) as the winner. “The unexpected ways that the film fuses the personal with the sociopolitical makes it truly original,” they offered, “especially its sophisticated use of imagery and point of view.” Director Park was in attendance at the Festival and, before the honor was announced at the SFIFF Golden Gate Awards, I was able to interview him thanks to the arrangement of San Francisco Film Society’s Hilary Hart, with Korean translation provided by Jacki J. Noh.

SF360: I understand that this film was based on a friendship you had. Could you tell me a little bit about how the film developed?

Park Jung-bum: Jeong Seung-chul is a friend of mine whom I met in 2002 when he came to South Korea from North Korea. He came into our University and he was my friend at school. We both majored in physical education and that’s how I met him. He used to play ice hockey in North Korea. He was always very positive and very bright. I felt like we matched. He was more like my younger brother. I felt very close to him and there were times that we lived together. As a friend of his, I naturally met people that he hung out with, other North Korean defectors. So I was able to see their world. It was a kind of darkness within South Korean culture.

SF360: So it sounds like the relationship you had with your friend is very different from the portrayal in the movie, but you learned about the more pessimistic experience that North Korean refugees had through your friendship with him?

Park: That is correct. [North Korean refugees] came to South Korea to be happy. Well, the main reason was because they had nothing to eat there. But you cannot just live with food. You need other things. What they were seeking was general happiness, but what they found was that it’s also difficult to find genuine happiness in South Korea as well. South Korea did not allow them to be happy, to seek what they were looking for. So people get really disappointed and some do commit suicide and some were even tying to return to North Korea. And, as you see in the movie, some betray their friends.

But I also saw this [dark side of the experience of North Koreans in South Korea] was a kind of dichotomy that existed in our [South Korean] society. I thought, well, this darkness is not just about them, but also about the very poor people, the people we don’t pay attention to or are very difficult for us to meet. So I wanted to throw a question to the audience that with these kinds of people surrounding us, how should we live? What kind of life should we lead?

SF360: Your film completed a triptych of North Korean refugee films in San Francisco, The San Francisco International Asian American Festival was a couple months ago, and they showed both Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town and Zhang Lu’s Dooman River. Like yours, they are all very pessimistic of the plight of North Korean refugees. Do you see your film as a counterweight to mainstream portrayals of North Korean refugees in South Korea or are most portrayals of that community consistently pessimistic?

Park: I know the director Jeon Kyu-hwan. But I didn’t get to see his film. I saw Dooman River. So I am aware that all these movies talk about North Korean defectors. So I am very familiar with [Zhang Lu]. We are close. We talk a lot. What he portrays is from the perspective of Koreans living in China, [coming over] from Yanggang [Province in North Korea]. What I portray is the lives of North Korean defectors in South Korea, what they experience.

But if I can find something in common between myself and Zhang Lu, we didn’t make the films to attract some empathy or sympathy or attention [to the plight of North Korean refugees]. It’s more showing the reality of these peoples’ lives. We both feel that the most realistic film [is what we should] pursue and try to create. So in that sense, we both agree.

I asked myself this question How should I live? We have these neighbors that share the same space but there’s indifference [towards them]. There is lack of empathy and sometimes we might not even acknowledge that they exist. Is it OK to do that? Is it the correct way or is it wrong? [What is] the meaning behind that? Again, we are living in the same society, same era, same space, yet is it OK to just ignore, is it OK to pretend that they don’t exist? And I find that very sad and maybe that’s a very selfish [response] that capitalism breeds. So I wanted to report that. These people exist. They are your neighbors. So that’s the kind of question that I wanted to ask the audience, but also, it’s the question that I ask myself. With these neighbors, how should I live? Interestingly, I get a lot of questions about that via email or questions when we have a screening…

See the full text of the interview with Park Jung-bum here…

Documentary Film and North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian (38 North, 20 May 2011)

Foreign documentaries on North Korea suffer from a number of unique challenges, including issues of access, verifiability, and potemkinism. They also face the challenge of how to fairly represent “the other” to an audience that has no direct experience of the object of study. To what extent can the filmmaker allow audiences to make up their own minds, when so much mediation necessarily takes place? How can he ensure some balance between competing voices? How can the film be fair to its subject? These are challenges that face any documentary, but are present to a greater degree when the subject is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a radically different society with a singular media image that has been built up over the past six decades. Four of the most widely-viewed documentaries on North Korea illustrate the many failings and occasional successes in addressing (or avoiding) these issues: Welcome to North Korea, The Vice Guide to North Korea, A State of Mind, and North Korea: A Day in the Life

Foreign Films Show in North Korea

3 10 2010

by Ian Timberlake (AFP, Pyongyang, 01 Oct. 2010)

One of the world’s most tightly-controlled societies got a rare glimpse of the outside world at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last week, where even Western films were screened. Communist North Korea strictly controls access to information, including via mobile phones and the Internet, leaving most North Koreans in ignorance of the wider world. A tour guide had never heard of the late pop star Michael Jackson. Yet participants in the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival, which ended on September 24, say it helped open a window for the impoverished country.

Only a minority of the population was able to attend the event, but it gave them access to documentaries, feature films and shorts from several European countries and Canada. Productions from Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere were also on the programme. Henrik Nydqvist, a freelance film producer who was Sweden’s official delegate to the eight-day event, said anything which breaks North Korea’s isolation is positive. “We think we’re doing something good here,” he said. “We feel we can make some positive impact… and that outweighs the other things.”

The festival has its own venue, the Pyongyang International Cinema House, which includes a 2,000-seat theatre as well as other smaller halls. Red, blue and green neon signs hanging in the atrium beam the country’s foreign policy slogan: “Peace, independence, friendship”. A 300-seat hall was almost completely filled with Koreans for an afternoon screening of the comedy “Pieces d’Identites” from Congo. They sat quietly behind padlocked doors in a hot, airless room for the story of an African king who travels to Belgium in search of his daughter, who has been forced to work as a nude dancer.

The film’s images include bordellos and a heaving African nightclub, depicting a world alien to North Koreans who are bombarded with propaganda from childhood and whose showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in a time decades past. Such images can only help to bring about change, said a source connected with the film festival. “They have in mind: Why is North Korea, my country, different?” Connections are required to gain admission and authorities do not want the rural masses outside of the capital to see foreign movies, he said. “I watched some poor people who wanted to see the movie, and the guard stopped them.”

At the event’s closing ceremony attended by more than 1,500 people, including foreign diplomats, Nydqvist read a letter of thanks to Kim Jong-Il, ruler of the country which has twice tested nuclear weapons and is under various United States and United Nations sanctions. “The Pyongyang International Film Festival is unique,” the letter said, thanking Kim for his “care and interest.” Such messages are common practice in the country, Nydqvist said.

Kim, 68, is said to have a collection of 20,000 Hollywood movies, and engineered the kidnap in 1978 of a South Korean director to help him make films. He has also written books about movie-making, including one slim volume which says cinema “has the task of contributing to the development of people to be true communists and to the revolutionisation and working-classisation of the whole of society.” At Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio, the country’s centre of film production, a director said Kim had visited “on more than 500 occasions”. Kim has also provided “guidance” to the film festival, Nydqvist said, citing organisers of the event. But the ailing Kim’s time on the political stage appears to be nearing an end.

On Thursday, 30 Sep., the regime released the first-ever official photograph of Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son Kim Jong-Un, which analysts said confirms the young man’s status as leader-in-waiting. Jong-Un, believed aged about 27, has assumed powerful posts in North Korea’s ruling party, state media said after the Workers’ Party of Korea held its highest-level meeting in 30 years on Tuesday. Whether he shares his father’s cinematic obsession is unknown but Jong-Un did have an interest in Hollywood tough-guy Jean-Claude Van Damme, say staff and friends at Swiss international schools where he studied, according to newspaper reports.

Several North Korean films were screened at the festival, including “Hong Kil Dong,” a 1986 production about a type of Robin Hood martial arts fighter in ancient times, whose flute-playing induces terror in the villains. The festival programme listed Germany’s “Four Minutes”, the Serbian documentary “Let There Be Light”, and Swedish feature “As It Is In Heaven” among the many international offerings.

An organising committee chooses delegates from among those who apply, Nydqvist said, adding their expenses in Pyongyang are paid for but airfare is not. A Briton and a Vietnamese were among the members of the film jury which chose a Chinese film, “Walking to School,” as the grand prize winner. China won at the previous festival, too, but Nydqvist said: “I’ve never heard anything suggesting that the jury was encouraged to favour a specific country…”

See the full text of the article here…

Korean War comes back to life

9 09 2010

(SBS Film, 06 September 2010) Cinema depicting the Korean War can help raise awareness of the conflict and offer clues to how ultimately Korea might be unified, according to Leonid Petrov, an organiser of the Korean War in Film screening and discussion program.

The lion’s share of Australia’s Korean community is from the South; with only about 10,000 of a 125,000-strong Korean population having their roots in North Korea. As such, within the local Korean community, perspectives on the 1950-1953 war are largely one-sided.

Petrov, who lectures in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney, says many Koreans living in Australia have a somewhat limited knowledge of their nation’s history. Young South Koreans are particularly curious about their past, particularly as North Korea remains isolated to this day, whilst the North-South struggle for State legitimacy continues. Here, Petrov believes “the art of film plays a role”.

Organised in conjunction with the Korean Media and Culture Club (KMCC), the Korean War in Film event is taking place over three successive Wednesdays this month, following an earlier round of screenings held in May 2010.

The following three films are being shown:

Kang Je-gyu’s The Brotherhood of War (2004), the highest-grossing Korean film of all time upon its theatrical release, revolving around two brothers who are drafted into the army by force during the outbreak of the Korean War.

Lewis Milestone-directed US film Pork Chop Hill (1959), which depicts the fierce battle fought between the US Army and Chinese and Korean Communist forces at the tail end of the War.

Kim Song Gyo’s On the Railway (1960), a North Korean classic set during the autumn of 1950, when a locomotive engineer is attempting to evacuate precious machinery and equipment during the North Korean retreat.

“Until the early ‘90s, the Korean film industry was suppressed, there were only about a dozen films a year and they were underfunded,” Petrov explains. “They managed somehow to produce good quality films, but could not compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

“Then the legislation changed and quotas became favourable to local films. More investment came and venture capital streamed into the industry. Films started to be exported, along with Korean songs, fashion design, computer games, industrial design etc.”

Despite this cultural gain, Petrov stresses that a “Cold War structure” remains in the region; not only in Korea but in China and Taiwan and Japan and Russia.

Locally, the Korean community is very tight-knit, with organised cultural activity revolving around Korean businesses, Korean newspapers and, especially, the Korean church.

Founded by fellow Korean Studies lecturer, Ki-sung Kwak, the KMCC is an informal group that aims to promote Korean culture and foster social interaction through social activities including seminars and film screenings.

“We not only wish to show films but also have some sort of activity,” Ki-Sung explains. “We would like to have performances by Korean musicians and artists living in Sydney and other Australian cities, and we plan to invite people from the local community to talk about issues, such as the relationship between the North and South.”

Less active in recent times, the club held a film festival event in both 2006 and 2007, which received generous support from the Korean consulate. Ki-sung admits it is a challenge to refresh club membership amongst the student base.

“I really want the club to be very active but when our members graduate we have to encourage new members to join the club,” he says. “What I actually plan to do is ask some student representatives to actually run the club.”

Aside from students moving on, the proliferation of Korean product available on DVD presents a further challenge to the club.

“When we first showed a Korean film here, it was back in 1999,” Ki-sung says. “DVD was not so popular, and we attracted about 300 people from the community.

“Also, with the internet, people can now easily download movies. The Korean government is planning to develop technology to download a two-hour film in less than 10 seconds, so that’s quite attractive.”

The Korean Media and Culture Club screenings are held at the University of Sydney. For information visit