Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 3, 2009

North Korean movies

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

This is a clip from a 1991 North Korean movie titled “The Girls in my Home Town”. It is not included in the four films discussed below, but it is the only North Korean movie that can be seen on the Internet—or more accurately, an excerpt of that movie. It will give you a flavor of the combination of sentimentality and overheated rhetoric that can be found, however,  in practically all North Korean movies. A review of the movie can be read at http://www.socialistfilms.org/2007/12/girls-in-my-hometown-dprk-1991.html


When I received an invitation from the Korea Society in New York to attend a 4-part screening of North Korean films, I jumped at the opportunity for multiple reasons. To begin with, I am a huge fan of Korean movies, admittedly those that come from the south exclusively. As a relic of the cold war, North Korean movies–like Cuban cigars–are hard to come by. I assumed that they would be much different than the deeply ironic, sophisticated and urbane South Korean movies that I had become devoted to, but was curious to see whether the national culture that had been developing for millennia could still be detected in the dogmatically Marxist north.

While many of the finest South Korean movies are unavailable on home video, you can rent “Save the Green Planet” from Netflix, which summarizes the movie thusly:

Believing that aliens in human form are systematically destroying the planet and all humankind, Byung-gu sets out to capture an alien leader and force him to confess. Because all the aliens look like humans, Byung-gu makes an educated guess and kidnaps the head of a chemical company.

Now, how can you resist such a movie!

I also wondered if North Korean movies would give me insights into one of the two remaining socialist countries in the world, giving the word socialist its broadest interpretation of course. As a long time supporter of the Cuban revolution, my attitude toward North Korea was probably like most leftists. We did not want to see North Korea victimized by economic sanctions or military attack, but there was little to identify with in a society that was bound together by an odd combination of 1930s style Stalinism and centuries old Confucian beliefs.

To understand North Korea would be more imperative than ever given current events. Just as the film series began, an underground nuclear device was detonated in the north and once again the threat level escalated, including the possibility that freighters would be intercepted on the high seas if they were deemed to be carrying nuclear material.

In a move that seemed calculated to deepen the perception of North Korea as a family dynasty, it was reported today that Kim Jong-il had designated Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, as his successor. Although comparisons with Raul Castro taking over from his brother Fidel might be raised by pundits hostile to socialism across the board, one can at least acknowledge that Raul Castro was a central leader of the armed struggle that toppled Batista. But why would the 23 year old grandson of North Korea’s version of Fidel Castro become head of state unless, of course, North Korea was governed as a kind of immense extended family in which blood ties mattered more than talent?

Events in South Korea also reflected the impact of the north. On May 26, former president Roh Moo-Hyun committed suicide Saturday by leaping to his death from a hill behind his house. Roh was the first South Korean leader to cross the demilitarized zone and meet with Kim Jong-il and believed in the tension-easing “sunshine policy” of his predecessor, Kim Dae-Jung. He killed himself after being implicated in a bribery scandal. Street protests by his supporters blame the ruling conservative party for hounding him to the point of no return.

For a summary of the four North Korean movies, go to the Korea Society website. Unfortunately, my own brief takes on the films below cannot be accompanied by a Youtube clip for obvious reasons. But after seeing these four most interesting movies, it did occur to me that North Korea could do itself a big favor by simply making them available on the Internet. Despite their obvious propaganda purpose, they are all distinguished by a charm that would go a long way in breaking down stereotypes about the “rogue state”.

1. Traces of Life (1989)

This is the story of Ji Jun, the widow of a sailor who swims out to an American warship with a mine in his hands and destroys it Kamikaze fashion during the Korean War. The sailor is a true believer in the revolution, while his wife cares more about what goes on in the household. In a change of heart, she decides to return to his farming village and work with the other beneficiaries of land reform to produce food for the revolution. The movie climaxes with her being awarded for presiding over a bumper crop.

Obviously, this movie owes a lot to the Stalinist “people’s hero” movies of the 30s and 40s but it is redeemed by surprising admissions that a collective farm is no paradise. When a disabled sailor is rejected as a member, he reacts bitterly and drowns his sorrow in alcohol. The ties between Ji Jun and her two children are also fairly complex, given the propaganda parameters. They feel that she has not given proper respect to her dead husband, but in the end family and nation are reconciled.

2. The Tale of Chun Hyang (1980)

This is a socialist retelling of a Korean folktale set in the feudal era about a woman from the lower classes who marries a member of the gentry despite her mother’s warning that aristocrats will always betray the poor. At the end of part one of this 148 minute epic, the mother appears to have been vindicated since the husband moves with his parents to Seoul leaving her behind.

Part two of the movie finds the heroine in the clutches of the local magistrate who is bent on turning her into his concubine. Meanwhile, he is oppressing the local peasants by stealing their grain and acting for just like the landowners who made life miserable for the Korean peasant in real life before the revolution. The husband, now a secret royal commissioner, returns in the nick of time to lead a peasant revolt and rescue his wife.

The movie makes liberal use of song, even to the point of approximating an opera. In its synthesis of ancient themes about love and faith and modern ones about the class struggle, it is essentially North Korean.

3. Wolmi Island(1982)

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there seemed to be a Korean War movie about once a month. I still remember “Bridges at Toko-Ri” that resulted in a nomination for best director by the Director’s Guild in 1956. (The director, Mark Robson, was also involved with the liberal McCarthyite “Trial” made two years later.)

Given the flag-waving character of these productions, the perfect antidote is “Wolmi Island”, based on a battle that took place in 1950 which the movie represents as a heroic effort by a small garrison of sailors near Inchon to hold off an American fleet as the bulk of the North Korean army organized an orderly retreat to the North.

I found the battle scenes far less interesting than the interaction between the various characters, including a young female recruit who sacrifices her life in order to restore a communications line that will allow the North Korean guns to resume counter-attack. In all the scenes she appears in, she manages to upstage the male actors.

4. The Flower Girl (1972)

This was my favorite. Set during the Japanese occupation during the 1930s, it tells the story of an impoverished family consisting of a widow and her two daughters that relies on the meager income of the older daughter’s flower sales on the street. The other daughter was blinded by a vicious landlord when she was a tot. There is also an older brother languishing in a Japanese prison. The Japanese rely heavily on the wealthy landowners and their cops to keep the peasants and poor urban dwellers in line.

The most moving part of “The Flower Girl” is her trek to visit her brother in prison. Upon arriving there, she is told that he has died. As it turns out, he has actually escaped from prison and joined the guerrillas. The film ends with a rousing attack on the landlords and the reunion of brother and sisters. All in all, the movie reminded me very much of “Sansho the Bailiff”, a Japanese movie from the 1950s about the cruelty of landlords and the separation of a brother and sister.


Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online at http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4103. (But not in Firefox. You have to use IE or Safari). Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.

Whatever one thinks about North Korean society, surely it makes sense to reduce the tensions between the U.S. and the beleaguered state. In going through Bruce Cumings’s essay “Decoupled from History: North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’” that appeared in the 2004 “Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria”, you are struck by how the potential for war has always been heightened by U.S. refusal to accept a non-capitalist system on its own terms. Given the hostilities that have existed since 1945, the defensiveness of the North Koreans begins to seem normal. As someone once put it, even the paranoid have enemies.

Most leftists probably have the same impression that I do, namely that the U.S. intervened on behalf of the south after war with the north began. Cumings makes a convincing case that the conflict dates back much earlier, when the U.S. decided to back the landlords and corrupt officials who had collaborated with the Japanese during the 30s and 40s–in other words, the same villains who made life miserable for the poor in “The Flower Girl”. Considering the brazen disrespect shown for Korean independence, it is no wonder that the propaganda movies of the 1980s exhibited such passion. Despite being propaganda, they were rooted in the lived experience of the nation.

In 1945 the U.S. occupied southern Korea and set up a three-year military government that was directed from the Yongsan military base in Seoul that the Japanese built in 1894. James R. Hodge, the American commander, took over the executive mansion known as “the blue house” that the Japanese governor-general had occupied.

Hodge then decided to build up a bureaucracy using the same discredited civil servants who had been trained for military government in Japan, a complete slap in the face to Koreans who had fought on the side of the allies in helping to liberate East Asia from Japanese rule.

During Japanese occupation, a powerful leftwing movement had developed in the south that was completely independent of Kim Il-Sung. This mattered little to the U.S. which considered all grass roots movements together as pawns of the Kremlin. Merrell Benninghoff, chief political advisor to Hodge, reported:

Southern Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark.

There is great disappointment that immediate independence and sweeping out of the Japanese did not eventuate.

[Those] Koreans as have achieved high rank under the Japanese are considered pro-Japanese and are hated almost as much as their masters.

All groups seem to have the common ideas of seizing Japanese property, ejecting the Japanese from Korea, and achieving immediate independence.

Korea is completely ripe for agitators.

The most encouraging single factor in the political situation is the presence in Seoul of several hundred conservatives among the older and better educated Koreans. Although many of them have served with the Japanese, that stigma ought eventually to disappear.

William Langdon, another State Department hack, appeared to agree with the North Korean propaganda film’s assessment of the old regime but put a plus where the Communists put a minus:

The old native regime internally was feudal and corrupt but the record shows that it was the best disposed toward foreign interests of the three Far Eastern nations, protecting foreign lives and property and franchises. I am sure that we may count on at least as much a native government evolved as above…

South Koreans rose up against the quisling government without any assistance from the North and were brutally repressed throughout 1946 to 1948.

Eventually, an anti-Communist government stabilized in the south and the two parts of the country found themselves on a collision course. The George W. Bush’s of the day who advocated preemptive war saw the Korean War as an opportunity to roll back the revolution in both the north and in China, Korea’s main ally. Carpet bombing of the north, as well as other punishing measures, left two million dead half of whom were civilians. With a population in the north of just under 10 million at the time, this was the equivalent of 60 million dead Americans. Considering the response of the U.S. to the loss of just 3000 of its citizens on 9/11, the North Koreans appear almost Gandhian by comparison.

In 2000, during the final days of the Clinton administration, it appeared that a thaw between the U.S. and North Korea was developing as reported by the NY Times on October 20:.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said tonight that “important progress” had been made in her talks here with North Korea’s leader toward persuading North Korea to “restrain missile development and testing, as well as missile exports,” though any final agreement will have to await further talks.

Missile specialists from the United States and North Korea will meet next week to explore further the specific ways in which North Korea will limit its missile program, she said.

In particular, a quid pro quo of shutting down the missile program in exchange for launchings of North Korean satellites by foreign governments will be discussed further, a senior official said.

The idea was first raised in talks in July between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the North Korean leader.

The six hours of talks between Dr. Albright and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, were the first between such a high-level American official and a North Korean leader.

“Everyone leaves here rather struck by the breadth and depth of the discussions,” the senior official said. This was largely because the Americans heard firsthand from Mr. Kim, the only decision maker who counts in this country, “what he was prepared to do.”

The two-day visit ended on a cordial note. As a parting gift, Dr. Albright presented a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan to Mr. Kim, who turns out to be an ardent fan.

As they said their farewells in the lobby of a government guest house tonight, Dr. Albright encouraged Mr. Kim “to pick up the telephone any time,” an American official said. And Mr. Kim, — the leader of one of the few countries to deny its people Internet access but who is himself a keen Internet browser with three computers in his office — replied, “Please give me your e-mail address.”

One of Dr. Albright’s goals on this trip was to plan for a possible visit here by President Clinton, but she declined to be drawn out on whether Mr. Clinton would come. Instead, she said she would report to Mr. Clinton on the results and it was up to him to make the decision.

Another goal was to assess the North Korean leader who, in his six years in office, has remained virtually unknown as a personality or a policy maker. His father, Kim Il Sung, founded the Communist Party here and ruled the country with an iron hand until his death in 1994.

Dr. Albright said that after negotiating with Mr. Kim and socializing with him at two dinners and at the performance in honor of the 55th anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party, she found him a “very good listener, a good interlocutor.” And she added, “He strikes me as very decisive and very practical.”

Not a year later, the WTC and the Pentagon had been attacked by Islamic terrorists and a new more aggressive foreign policy based on “preemptive” warfare was implemented. Along with Iran, North Korea became a “rogue state” whose leader was depicted as a madman rather than the “very practical” official that she was ready to exchange email addresses with.

It is difficult to predict whether Obama will ratchet up tensions with North Korea given all the other foreign policy adventures he has on his plate revolving around the need to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One only hopes that the antiwar movement in the U.S. will have the internal resources to oppose war across Asia given what is at stake. While one can have all sorts of opinions on the North Korean social system, we can all agree that another Korean War would be a disaster for its people as well as for working class Americans who will bear the brunt of the fighting.


  1. Not THAT hard to find, a quick ebay search came up with “Flower Girl”, “Traces of Life” and a few other N. Korean films from sellers based in china, for around $25.

    Comment by Antonis — June 3, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

  2. louis, i can’t believe you’re STILL using a pay service like netflix, you old geezer…

    you can get almost every korean film imaginable using emule on the ed2k network, or just the more popular/recent ones on bittorrent at an even faster download rate.

    join the 21st century, dammit!

    Comment by anon — June 3, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  3. Hey Louis,

    There was a feature on North Korean films in Sight & Sound in January, or maybe December.

    Comment by mikebeggs — June 4, 2009 @ 12:38 am

  4. John Feffer’s analysis of North Korea is quite insightful. My review of book appeared in Pressaction.


    Comment by Tanweer Akram — June 4, 2009 @ 2:31 am

  5. John Feffer’s analysis of North Korea is quite insightful. My review of his book appeared in Pressaction.


    Comment by Tanweer Akram — June 4, 2009 @ 2:31 am

  6. “North Korea’s version of Fidel Castro”

    i’m a little offended for fidel. he’s certainly no kim jong il…

    Comment by dermokrat — June 4, 2009 @ 5:00 am

  7. […] Proyect: North Korean movies To understand North Korea would be more imperative than ever given current events. Just as the film series began, an underground nuclear device was detonated in the north and once again the threat level escalated, including the possibility that freighters would be intercepted on the high seas if they were deemed to be carrying nuclear material. (tags: Proyect NorthKorea Film ideology imperialism) […]

    Pingback by links for 2009-06-05 « epoliticus — June 5, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  8. ‘the WTC and the Pentagon had been attacked by Islamic terrorists ‘

    sorry, but this is not true. The terrorists remain unidentifed.

    ‘Rex Tomb, Chief of Investigative Publicity for the FBI responded, “The reason why 9/11 is not mentioned on Osama bin Laden’s Most Wanted page is because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.” Tomb continued, “Bin Laden has not been formally charged in connection to 9/11.” Asked to explain the process, Tomb responded, “The FBI gathers evidence. Once evidence is gathered, it is turned over to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice then decides whether it has enough evidence to present to a federal grand jury. In the case of the 1998 United States Embassies being bombed, bin Laden has been formally indicted and charged by a grand jury. He has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.”

    There are many anomalies around 9-11…analysed by david ray Griffin..


    Comment by brian — June 7, 2009 @ 1:57 am

  9. north korea is not a bad nation.north korean people are so disciplined and peaceful. Capitalist always show north korea as a terrorist nation and leaders as dictator but it is totally false 100%false .capitalist always try to beat off nation like china and north korea by giving false news about them.

    Comment by communismwhy — May 24, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  10. […] favorite of the four is “The Flower Girl”, about which I had this to say in […]

    Pingback by The Lovers and the Despot | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 23, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

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