After halting its anti-North propaganda, South Korea's Unification Ministry has agreed to begin showing some North Korean news programs on its own Web site for local audiences. In recent weeks, the two Koreas have established a new telephone hotline linking their militaries.
North and South Korean athletes will march together under one flag next month at the Athens Olympics. And South Korean economic investment in the North, once mostly limited to a tourism resort near the border region of Mount Kumgang, is now expanding into industry.
–Washington Post, "As Tensions Subside Between Two Koreas, U.S. Strives to Adjust; Thaw Strains South's Alliance with Washington", July 25, 2004
Given these new realities, it should not come as a big surprise that South Korean movies have begun to look at the North in a new way. Evidence of that was on display in "Welcome to Dongmakgol," a film set during the Korean War and shown as part of this year's excellent Asian Film Festival in New York.
Like this year's "Joyeux Noël", "Welcome to Dongmakgol" is a pacifist film about fraternization. What makes it unusual is that it reconciles the opposing sides of the Korean War, a plot that would have been inconceivable in decades past. It also depicts the U.S, as an intrusive bully bent on causing civilian casualties to achieve its geopolitical ends. Obviously, the audience might make the connection with a more recent war as first-time director Park Kwang-hyun does:
It was through the Iraq war that I saw the cruelest violence of war. In this film, I don't favor one side over another and do not hate anyone. I just want people who create war and violence to know the most important thing. Even in the smallest villages, which can easily be ignored, people live there who have hot blood running through their hearts.
–The Desert Sun (Palm Springs), January 11, 2006
Park's film is focused less on individuals than it is on the dynamics between three separate groups: a band of four North Korean soldiers trying to return home, two South Korean soldiers who have become detached from their units (one is a deserter traumatized by his role in blowing up a bridge filled with war refugees), and the bumpkins in a remote mountain village that they stumble across. In addition, there is an American flyer whose plane has crashed nearby and is being nursed by the innocent villagers, who have no idea that a war is going on.
When the soldiers discover each other in Dongmakgol, they face each other off in the village square like gangsters in a John Woo movie. Since they have run out of bullets, there is not much damage that can be done. Unfortunately, they are still armed with hand grenades, one of which–assumed to be a dud–is tossed in the direction of a small corn silo. When it blows up, the corn is transformed into popcorn which falls into the mouths of the always cheerful villagers, who always see the good side of things and of people. It must be mentioned at this point, if it is not glaringly obvious already, that Park is heavily influenced by magical realism. This is a film in which butterflies make frequent appearances and where the village madwoman serves as a kind of one-person Greek chorus commenting on the insanity of war (yes, the film also evokes Philippe de Broca's "King of Hearts".)
Acknowledging their role in destroying the village's corn, the soldiers volunteer to dig potatoes and pitch in with other chores. Early on they exchange their uniforms for peasant togs, an act that prepares them psychologically for dumping their war-induced xenophobia. Eventually they begin to see other without prejudice and even band together in an ultimately self-sacrificing act on the village's behalf.
To the surprise of the film industry, "Welcome to Dongmakgol" became the fourth-highest grossing movie in Korean history and was their Oscar submission last year.
Although it is a failure in cinematic terms, another South Korean release echoes reconciliation themes. When I saw a critic's screening of "Typhoon," the most expensive film in South Korean history, a couple of months ago, I was disappointed by this plodding sea-going espionage thriller. It is the tale of a North Korean who has become a pirate bent on taking revenge against both the North and the South for their role in denying his family refuge and sending them back to the North. Only he and his sister, children at the time, escape a deadly ambush by North Korean soldiers. He becomes a pirate and she becomes a prostitute and drug addict in Russia. The film centers on his plotting and attempts to reunite with his sister.
After the brother buys radioactive material from the Russian mob that he plans to strew across the South from helium balloons controlled by radio transmitters, the only thing that stands in his way is a band of hardy commandos led by a South Korean version of James Bond that storms the pirate's ship during the typhoon of the century. If this all sounds rather cartoonish, it is because it is. Of note is the final hand-to-hand combat between the pirate and the commando on the sinking ship. When the hero has finally killed the bad guy, he says that in another life the two would have been good friends–in other words, the same exact message of "Welcome to Dongmakgol". Like this film, it depicts the U.S. as little more than a malevolent intruder into Korean affairs.
A February 12, 2006 South China Morning Post article titled "Koreans embrace reelpolitik" sums up the cultural and political sea change now taking place:
Basically, North Koreans were evil. With Korea's democratisation, things changed. A screenplay censorship body, part of the powerful Public Ethics Committee, was phased out in the 1980s, granting filmmakers greater freedoms.
The breakthrough film was 1990's The Southern Guerillas. Although they meet a nasty fate, the film featured partisans in Korean war-era South Korea. The main characters with whom the audience identified were all North Korean. The second landmark was Shiri. Unlike The Southern Guerillas, it portrayed modern-day North Koreans. They were shown with not just humanity, but sympathy – even glamour.
The film received the co-operation of the South's National Intelligence Agency. Noted film buff Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, reportedly acquired a pirate copy.
The changing portrayal of North Koreans on screen reflects changing perceptions of their brother nation among South Koreans.
As late as the 1970s, North Koreans were depicted in school textbooks as horned devils. Propaganda was eased after democratisation; further major changes took place after long-time opposition leader Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in 1997.
Seoul toned down its confrontational policies against North Korea, opting instead for engagement.
"Since Korea democratised, the true facts about North Korea have become known. We know that their economy is on the verge of collapse, and we have overcome the haunting fear of the Korean war," said Kim Geun-tae, a parliamentarian with the ruling Uri Party.
"I cannot emphasise too much the importance of transparency in South Korea," Mr Kim, a contender for the party's leadership and a future presidential hopeful, continued. "North Korea is no longer our competitor. We have out-competed them, and now it is time to move forward."