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The origins of North Korean cinema: Art and propaganda in the democratic people's Republic

VOL. 5, NO. 1, JANUARY 2002: 1-20
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), like Stalin’s Soviet
Union from under whose shadow the regime emerged in the late 1940s, has long been a
“spectacle state,” in which public propaganda in the form of posters, parades, performances,
and the electronic media have been crucial instruments of political power.1 Of all the arts,
cinema has arguably been the most valued for its propaganda potential in regimes of the
Marxist-Leninist tradition. In North Korea in particular, cinema has played a central
propaganda role.2 Kim Jong Il has taken a personal interest in the production of film for
decades, and wrote the “definitive” book on DPRK film theory in the early 1970s.3 The
DPRK was formed at a time when the use of cinema for political propaganda was at its peak
1 Richard Stites uses the term “Stalinist spectacle state” to describe the USSR in Russian
Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
2 Films, like other works of art in the DPRK, are supposed to “express the lessons of the
Party” in every case. Ch’oe Chŏk-ho, Puk Han Yesul Yŏnghwa [North Korean Art Films] (Seoul:
Sinwŏn munhwasa, 1989), p. 15.
3 Kim Jong Il, The Art of the Cinema (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1973).
2 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
around the world, and these two aspects of film—art and its political message—have never
been far apart in North Korean cinema.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century the propaganda value of film was widely
exploited in countries of all political persuasions, not least in the United States, where Frank
Capra’s “Know Your Enemy” documentary series for American soldiers in World War II
were masterful fusions of art and propaganda. But it was in the single-party dictatorships of
Left and Right—from Nazi Germany to fascist Italy to the USSR—that the political role of
cinema reached a peak. In practice, it is likely that films did not have anywhere near the
power to sway the masses that governments and filmmakers in these states seem to have
believed.4 But the alleged propaganda value of film was enthusiastically embraced in these
twentieth-century dictatorships, beginning in Russia almost immediately after the 1917
revolution. The Bolsheviks were attracted to the propaganda potential of film for several
reasons. In a vast, diverse, predominantly agricultural and largely illiterate society such as the
Soviet Union, cinema could reach far more people than, for example, literature. Furthermore,
the novelty of film and the immediate power of its imagery made film, or so the Soviet
leadership believed, particularly effective. Film-viewing itself was a public, collective act and
therefore even the mode of viewing could be a means of instilling collective consciousness.
Finally, the great expense of making films allowed the state to control cinematic production
more easily than other arts.5 In the early years of the USSR, Lenin had said that, “For us,
cinema is the most important of all the arts.”6 Stalin later elaborated, “The cinema is the
greatest means of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our own hands.”7
In the three years of Red Army occupation between 1945 and 1948, Koreans in the
North were to learn both the technical and political aspects of filmmaking from Soviet
advisors and apply this knowledge to the creation of a new North Korean film industry. But
by examining the origins of the North Korean film industry in the late 1940s, we can see that
even at its very beginning, DPRK cinema was diverging from its Soviet sponsors’ aims by
creating a distinctive cinema rooted in melodramatic emotionalism, a sentimental attachment
to the Korean countryside and the alleged values of peasant life, and a nationalist politics
centered around the person of Kim Il Sung. The form of propaganda in North Korean film
might have been initially borrowed from the Soviet Union, but the content was nationalist
(and peasant-populist) rather than internationalist and “socialist” in the Soviet-Stalinist
4 Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (New York: Cassell, 1999).
Reeves argues that film propaganda can be effective, however, when it channels or “canalizes”
beliefs already prevalent in the society (p. 239).
5 Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 1992), pp. 29-30.
6 Cited in Geoffrey Nowell Smith, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1996), p. 334.
7 Cited in Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (London: I.B. Tauris,
1998), p. 49.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 3
sense—that is, centered on reverence for the USSR, class struggle, and the march toward
communism. This is especially evident in the very first North Korean feature film, Nae
kohyang (My Hometown), released in 1949, which established many of the themes that would
recur in DPRK cinema over the next three decades.
According to Korean filmmaking lore, the novel art of the cinema was introduced to Korea
as early as 1898, when the British-American Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of the Shanghai-
based British-American Trust Company, began to show short films in the Ch’ungmuro area
of Seoul as a way to sell cigarettes.8 The entrance fee is said to have been initially one empty
cigarette pack per customer, going up to ten packs as the popularity of the films increased
over the next several years.9 The first documented account of a film screening in Korea dates
from June 1903, when the Hwangsŏng sinmun newspaper advertised public showings of
“moving pictures” (hwaltong sajin) in the Tongdaemun area of Seoul, daily (except Sundays)
from 8:00 to 10:00 pm.10 The promoter of the films was the Hansŏng [Seoul] Electric
Company, run by Americans Henry Collbran and H. R. Botswick.11 Emperor Kojong had for
some time taken a personal interest in the promotion of electric power in Korea, and had
established the Hansŏng Electric Company with substantial government financing in January
1898. The company had introduced the electric trolley, electric lights, and telephones to Seoul
by the turn of the century.12 It also built Korea’s first motion picture theater in 1906. The
following year, three more temporary theaters were built near the West Gate of Seoul, and
the first permanent movie theater was built in 1909.13
8 Lee Young-il and Choe Young-chol, The History of Korean Cinema, trans. Richard Lynn
Greener (Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company, 1998); Yi Chunggŏ, “The History of Korean
Film,” in idem., Han’guk yŏnghwa-ŭi ihae [Understanding Korean Film] (Seoul: Yeni, 1992), p. 20.
There is apparently no written record of this event, although film circles in Korea have passed this
down in their oral tradition.
9 Chŏng Chong-hwa, Han’guk yŏnghwasa [History of Korean Film] (Seoul: Yŏlhwadang, 1997),
p. 11.
10 Hwangsŏng sinmun, June 24, 1903 (Kwangmu year seven), p. 3. See also Lee and Choe, Korean
Cinema, p. 19; Yi Kyu-tae, Modern Transformation of Korea, trans. Sung Tong-mahn (Seoul: Sejong
Publishing Co., 1970), p. 222.
11 Cho Hŭi-mun, “An Examination of the Films Screenings of the British-American Tobacco
Company and the Seoul Electric Company,” in Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 212.
12 Cho, “British-American Tobacco Company,” p. 212.
13 Lee and Choe, Korean Cinema, p. 22; Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, Japanese Film:
Art and Industry (Rutland, Vermont: Chales E. Tuttle, 1959), p. 149.
4 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
While the British and Americans were bringing Western films to Korea, cinema had also
arrived in Japan by the late 1890s, and the Japanese began to make films themselves in the
first half-decade of the twentieth century. Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was introduced to
Japan in 1896, and the Lumière brothers’ Cinematographe the following year.14 Kino-drama,
a mixture of filmed backgrounds and live stage acting, came to Japan from Russia and
became popular in Korea during the 1910-1945 colonial period.15 The Japanese Imperial
government recognized the propaganda potential of film very early on. In 1904 a Japanese-
made documentary on the Russo-Japanese War was shown in Korea—apparently in part to
impress the Korean royal family with Japanese military might—and the colonial Government
General commissioned films to promote Korean-Japanese ties after Korea’s annexation to
the Japanese empire in 1910.16
After Korea’s colonization, all new theaters established in Korea were owned by the
Japanese, and Japanese interests dominated the financing of film production. By the 1930s,
Japanese production of feature films as well as documentaries was thriving in the colony.
Nevertheless, a Korean film industry also emerged in the months after the March 1st 1919
independence protests, and continued to develop throughout the 1920s and 1930s, before
becoming subsumed into the Japanese wartime propaganda machine after the invasion of
China in 1937. The year 1919 also saw the publication of the first Korean film journal,
Noksŏng, founded by Pang Chŏnghwan.17 As in the mass media, literature, and the arts in
general, the relatively liberal period of “cultural policy” (bunka seiji) between the March 1st
Movement and the Second Sino-Japanese War was a uniquely creative time for Korean
filmmaking under Japanese colonial rule.18
The first Korean-made films came out in the fall of 1919, beginning with Ŭirijŏk kut’a
(“Righteous Struggle”) and Kyŏngsŏng chŏnsi-ŭi kyŏng (“Scenery of Seoul in War”), two short
films released on October 27. Although written and directed by Koreans, cinematography
and editing was by a Japanese named Miyazawa.19 The first Korean cinematographer was Yi
P’iru, who shot the film Chigi (“The Acquaintance”) in 1920.20 Yi also directed Korea’s first
14 Jeffrey A. Dym, “Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan,” Monumenta
Nipponica vol. 55, no. 4 (Winter 2000), p. 511.
15 Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 26.
16 Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 25.
17 Yu Hyŏn-mok, Hanguk yŏnghwa paltalsa [History of the Development of Korean Cinema]
(Seoul: Hanjin, 1980), p. 57.
18 Michael Robinson, Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea (Seattle: University of Washington
Press, 1988).
19 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Hanguk yŏnghwa ch’ongsŏ [Anthology of Korean Films]
(Seoul: Korean Motion Picture Promotion Association, 1970), p. 104.
20 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Anthology of Korean Films, p. 111.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 5
sound film, Ch’unhyang chŏn (“The Story of Ch’unhyang)” in 1935.21 The star of the latter film
was Mun Ye-bong, who moved to North Korea after the Liberation and became a “People’s
Actress” in the DPRK. As it turned out, Mun would star in the very first DPRK feature film,
Nae kohyang, about which much more will be said below.
As the 1920s progressed, more Koreans took to directing feature films, among the most
prolific of whom was Yun Paengnam, whose silent film Wŏlhwa-ŭi maengse (“The Pledge in the
Moonlight”) (1923) launched the career of Korea’s first bona fide movie star, Yi Wŏl-hwa.22
Perhaps the most original and subsequently famous of the Korean silent film directors was
Na Un-kyu, who also starred in many of his own films. His 1926 film Arirang, seen by many
at the time and since as a veiled criticism of Japanese colonial rule, has become one of the
most highly acclaimed films of the pre-1945 era—even though no copies of the film are
known to exist at this time.23
The relatively small circle of Korean film makers—writers, producers, cinematographers,
sound engineers, actors, and so on—was intimately connected to other spheres of the
creative arts, including literature, theater and music. Inevitably, the political trends and
divisions that permeated intellectual and artistic communities in the 1920s and 1930s,
including the growth of Socialist and other left-wing influences, affected the Korean film
world. It is here that we begin to see, albeit often indirectly through returned Korean students
from Japan, the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on Korean culture. Inspired in part by
RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), Korean writers formed a pro-socialist
organization called KAPF (“Korea Artista Proletaria Federatio,” Esperanto for “Korean
Proletarian Artist Federation”; also known by its Korean name, Chosŏn p’ŭro yesul tongmaeng) in
1925. Two years later, KAPF formed an associated filmmaking organization called the
Korean Film Arts Club (Chosŏn yŏnghwa yesul hyŏphoe), led by the film director An Chong-
hwa.24 Members of KAPF wrote screenplays and acted in productions made by the Korean
Film Arts Club; like literature, film was seen as a “weapon” to help liberate the proletariat and
peasant masses of Korea from their class oppressors and colonial rulers. In 1928, the club
produced its first film, Yurang (“Wandering”). The film was directed by Kim Yu-kyŏng and
starred the writer Im Hwa, who would go on to be one of the leading literary figures of post-
liberation North Korea.25 Yurang tells the story of tenant farmers who rise up against the
21 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 74. The 1935 Ch’unhyang chŏn was the second film based on
this famous Korean folk tale, the first being a silent film version made in Korea by a Japanese
director in 1923.
22 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 22.
23 Cho Hŭi-mun, Na Un-kyu (Seoul: Han’gilsa, 1997). For that matter, no Korean films from
the silent era of the 1920s have survived intact to the present, as far as we know.
24 Yu, Development of Korean Cinema, p. 102.
25 Anthology of Korean Films, p. 151.
6 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
oppressive landlords who are exploiting them. Whatever its political merits, the film appears
to have been technically lacking and, worse yet, failed to attract much of a popular audience.26
The Korean Film Arts Club changed its name to the rather Russian-sounding Seoul Kino
(also known as the Seoul Film Factory), and Kim Yu-kyŏng tried his hand at a second feature,
called Hongga (“Dark Street”), a movie about urban class struggle which was released in
January 1929. Other KAPF-affiliated film groups made “proletarian” films as well, including
Amno (“Dark Road,” 1929) and Chiha ch’on (“Underground Village,” 1930), both produced by
Namhyang Kino in Chinju, South Kyŏngsang Province. Seoul Kino and director Kim Yu-
kyŏng’s final film was Hwaryun (“Fire Wheel,” 1931). Whether because of commercial failure,
personal differences, or the worsening political climate after the September 1931 Manchurian
Incident, Korea’s first experiment with Socialist cinema came to an abrupt end in 1931.
KAPF itself was dissolved in 1935, after just ten years of existence. But the KAPF-affiliated
filmmakers, like their counterparts in the literary world, would re-emerge after the Liberation;
some would make their way to North Korea, where the Soviet occupation and communist-
dominated government allowed for—indeed demanded—precisely the kind of “proletarian”
films these artists had struggled to produce in the colonial period.
The Manchurian Incident and the subsequent Japanese advance into Manchuria led to a
more restrictive artistic environment in the Korean colony and the diversion of resources into
militarization. Film production in the colonial period peaked in 1927 and 1928, when
fourteen and thirteen films were produced, respectively. Between 1931 and 1932, film
production fell from ten features to four, and in 1933 to only three.27 Production picked up
again in the mid-1930s, but the war against China beginning in 1937, and against the United
States after December 1941, led to an even more severe tightening of Government-General
control over film production and other arts. In 1941 a new Japanese motion picture law
closed down numerous small Korean film companies and created a single Chosŏn Motion
Picture Company under colonial government control.28 From the time of the Governor-
General’s Korean Movie Ordinance until the Japanese surrender in 1945, some twenty-five
films were made in Korea, most explicitly designed to promote the war effort.29 These ranged
in subject matter from encouraging Korean youth to join the Japanese Imperial Army (Young
Form, 1944) to portraying the values of cultural assimilation (You and I, 1945). Like the rest of
colonial economy and society, the filmmaking industry was completely subordinate to the war
Thus, by the time Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945, Korea had a
developing if not very large film industry, and a significant number of people trained in
26 Yu, Development of Korean Cinema, p. 102.
27 Anthology of Korean Films, p. 69-71.
28 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 104.
29 Pro-war films began to appear shortly after the invasion of China. In 1938 Japan’s Toho
film company and the Korean newspaper Chosŏn Ilbo jointly produced a militarist film called
“Army Train” (Kunyong yŏlch’a), starring the future North Korean film star Mun Ye-pong.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 7
film—mostly actors, assistant directors, and technicians, but few trained directors and
producers.30 The industry was heavily dependent on Japanese financing, equipment, and
training; cut off from all of these things, Korean filmmaking was faced with a severe crisis.
The crisis was compounded by the political turmoil and the division of the peninsula into
Soviet and American zones of occupation. Although most of what remained of Korea’s
filmmaking talent and equipment ended up in the American zone, especially in the capital
Seoul, by the time of the Korean War (1950-1953) a substantial portion of the Korean
filmmaking community had migrated to North Korea. In the space of five years after
Liberation, Korean cinema, like the country as a whole, was divided into two different
political and artistic worlds.
It is perhaps remarkable that films continued to be produced at all in the chaotic years
immediately after Korea’s liberation. But by 1947 the number of films produced in Korea was
equal to the peak colonial film production period of the late 1920s, and in 1948 and 1949
twenty or more films were produced in South Korea each year. The revival of film
production began with newsreels shortly after Liberation in August 1945. After the U.S.
occupation of southern Korea began in September, the director Yun Paek-nam gathered
together a number of Korean filmmakers into a Korean Film Production Headquarters
(Chosŏn yŏnghwa kŏnsŏl ponbu) to work with the United States Army Military Government in
Korea (USAMGIK) on the local production of newsreels. The first feature film produced in
Korea after Liberation was An Chung-kŭn sagi, directed by Yi Ku-yŏng and produced by
Kyemong Film Club, which was released in March 1946. The film dramatized the life of the
nationalist hero An Chung-kŭn, who assassinated Ito Hirobumi in 1909. Another film with a
patriotic theme released in 1946 was Chayu manse (“Long Live Freedom”), directed by Ch’oe
Yŏng-kyu. Chayu manse was the first of several “Liberation films” made between the end of
colonial rule and the outbreak of the Korean War, films on patriotic themes centered on anti-
Japanese—and later, anti-Communist—activities and heroes. Chinese nationalist leader
Chiang Kai-shek was said to have been particularly fond of Chayu manse.31 Altogether four
feature films were made in Korea in 1946, the first full year after Liberation, by four different
production companies.32
30 Anderson and Richie, Japanese Film, p. 151.
31 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 124.
32 These production companies were Kyemong Film Club (An Chung-kŭn sagi), Chosŏn Film
Company (Chejudo p’ungt’ogi), Namyang Film Company (Ttolttoli-ŭi changmyŏn) and Koryŏ Film
Company (Chayu Manse).
8 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
As a result of the shortage of financing and equipment they faced, filmmakers returned
to producing cheap, 16-millimeter silent films, and took them on the road to make a quick
profit. Thus, in 1948, twenty years after the silent era ended in the West, Yun Dae-Ryong
directed Kŏmsa-wa yŏsŏnsaeng (“The Inspector and the Woman Teacher”), a silent film designed
to be narrated live by a type of movie storyteller called a byŏnsa, also known as benshi in Japan,
where this practice originated.33 Kŏmsa-wa yŏsŏnsaeng is the oldest Korean silent film still in
existence. Kino-drama, which had been introduced to Korea from Japan in 1919, also made a
brief comeback.34
Perhaps the most artistically successful South Korean film of the liberation years was
Yun Yong-kyu’s Maŭm-ŭi kohyang (“Home in the Heart”), a tender, lyrical drama about an
orphan boy living in a Buddhist monastery. Besides establishing the sub-genre of Buddhist
films that would continue throughout the post-war history of South Korean cinema, Maŭm-ŭi
kohyang is probably best known as the debut vehicle of Ch’oe Ŭn-hŭi, perhaps the most
popular actress in post-war South Korean film. As it turns out, however, most of the crew of
Maŭm-ŭi kohyang defected to North Korea during the Korean War.35
As mentioned earlier, the US Military Government (via the Army Press Department)
worked with Koreans to make newsreels shortly after the beginning of the U.S. occupation.
Many Koreans were also employed in the US Army’s Civil Information documentary
program in Seoul, and after the creation of the Republic of Korea in August 1948, the US
Army moved its film operation to Chinhae on the southern coast, where it continued to
produce “Liberty Newsreels.”36 The Republic of Korea (ROK), founded in August 1948
under Syngman Rhee, had its own Office of Public Information producing government
newsreels, called “Korea News.” The ROK Ministry of Defense set up a film studio in Pusan,
and both the Air Force and Navy had film units. Sin Sang-ok, who went on to fame and
notoriety as one of South Korea’s (and later North Korea’s) top directors, began his film
work in the Air Force film unit.37
Like many other aspects of public life in post-liberation Korea, the film world soon split
into left and right. Working outside of the US Military Government-sponsored system, the
leftwing “Chosŏn Film Unit” produced its own newsreels and held film events in the months
following Liberation. While more conservative members of the film community complained
33 Dym, “Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Picture to Japan,” p. 509.
34 Lee and Choe History of Korean Film, p. 25
35 Ch’oe Ŭn-hŭi herself ended up in North Korea many years later, allegedly having been
abducted under orders of North Korean leader and film aficionado Kim Jong Il, along with her
former husband, the director Shin Sang-ok. After making several films for Kim Jong Il, both
Ch’oe and Shin escaped from North Korea in 1986. I am grateful to Kyung Hyun Kim of the
University of California-Irvine for bringing the film Maŭm-ŭi kohyang to my attention.
36 Lee and Choe, History of Korean Film, p. 96.
37 Lee and Choe, History of Korean Film, p. 100-101.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 9
of domination by “left-wing sympathizers and underground North Korean agents,”38 left-
wing filmmakers and fans faced harassment by the Right. The right-wing government
emerging by 1947 strictly censored film for both political and social content, and Rhee’s
Office of Public Information produced documentaries denouncing the Communist govern-
ment in the North. The first explicitly anti-communist feature film was Han Hyŏng-mo’s
“Break Down the Castle Wall” (Sŏngbyŏk-ŭl Ttulkko), based on the suppression of the Yŏsu
Mutiny in 1948.39
Indeed, conflict over film and politics went up to the highest levels of the occupation.
The US Military Government under General Hodge was extremely critical of the Soviet
consulate’s use of film for propaganda and profit—especially profit. In January 1946, the MG
learned that the Soviet consulate was renting films to Korean theaters “on a commercial
basis” and showing them throughout South Korea. General Hodge informed the head of the
Seoul consulate, Alexandr Sergeivich Polianski, that “commercial ventures of such a nature
are not deemed to be in keeping with the status of your office.”40 On 22 February, the
Motion Picture Section of the Department of Public Information in the US Military
Government gave permission for the Soviet consulate to show three documentary films, all
dealing with the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II; four others films, including
Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible,” were nixed.41 Still convinced that the Soviets were abusing
their films for propaganda and commercial purposes, the US Military Government banned all
Soviet film screenings in the American zone on March 9. Finally, on April 27 Hodge gave
Polianski his ultimatum: the Soviet consular presence in a zone of American military
occupation was itself “highly irregular,” Hodge said, and the functions of the consulate,
beginning with its film program, were to cease immediately—unless the Soviets agreed to a
reciprocal American consular presence in P’yŏngyang, where the U.S. had “important
manufacturing, missionary, cultural, and residential property.”42 This American demand was
deemed unacceptable, Moscow ordered the consulate closed in June, and Polianski, his family,
and his staff left by train for P’yŏng’yang on July 2.
38 O Yŏng-chin, “Report on North Korean Film,” Asia Foundation, p. 2. Private papers of
Theodore Conant, Hanover, New Hampshire. O was a playwright active in filmmaking circles in
Pyongyang until he migrated South before the Korean War.
39 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 130; Lee and Choe, History of Korean Film, p. 87.
40 United States National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 338 (hereafter
RG 338). Records of the United States Army Command, “Classified Organizational History
Files,” United States Forces, Korea: “History of the United States Army Forces in Korea, 1945-
1948,” p. 296.
41 RG 338, p. 298. The three Soviet films permitted were “Moscow Victory Parade,” “March
Toward Vienna,” and “Surrender Ceremony on the Missouri.”
42 RG 338, p. 303.
10 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
The Soviet occupation authorities in North Korea, as in Eastern Europe, paid a great deal of
attention to cultural institutions as vehicles for mobilizing the masses and for demonstrating
the superiority of Soviet socialism. American cultural officers often envied the resources and
skill their Soviet counterparts put into winning the “hearts and minds” of the local people.43
The Soviet approach to culture fit well with the ideas of many Korean writers and artists who
had been on the Left during the colonial period, although, unlike in postwar Eastern Europe,
there were no major North Korean cultural figures who had spent long periods of time in the
USSR before 1945. In North Korea, as in the Soviet Union itself, cultural education was a
mirror image of economic organization, and both were pursued on a grand scale.44 Culture
was a physical, material thing to be consciously constructed, as the title of one North Korean
journal, Munhwa kŏnsŏl [Cultural Construction], made clear. Culture was approached exactly
like industry, with great stress on productive output and bureaucratic control. As a State
Department study of the DPRK observed in 1951,
Movie and theater attendance, the number of lecture meetings, the distribu-
tion of newspapers and books, and even estimated radio audiences were set
forth in advance in the economic plans as production quotas that the
responsible officials and organizations were required to meet.45
Cultural production in North Korea, like in the USSR, was “supply-driven” rather than
“demand-driven”; the Socialist Realist novel—then at its peak of dominance in Soviet
literature—was produced according to standard formulae with extensive bureaucratic input,
making it more or less the literary equivalent of a tractor (a not-uncommon character in the
novels themselves).
Korean intellectuals sympathetic to the Soviet Union welcomed the Red Army on its
arrival. According to “Lim Un,” the pseudonym for a Soviet-North Korean who later went
into exile in the USSR, several of the prominent left-wing literary activists, including Cho
Kibu, Chŏn Tong-hyŏk, and Im Hwa, “set up a ‘Soviet Army Press Company’ in front of the
Pyongyang railway station and published a Korean-language paper” in September 1945,
43 Norman M. Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-
1949 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 398. See also Wolfgang Schivelbusch, In a
Cold Crater: Cultural and Intellectual Life in Berlin, 1945-1948, trans. Kelly Barry (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1998).
44 Rudolf Bahro, The Alternative in Eastern Europe (London: Verso, 1981), p. 39.
45 United States Department of State, North Korea: A Case Study in the Techniques of Takeover
(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961 [1951]), p. 92.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 11
signaling the beginning of Soviet-Korean cultural production.46 The Chosŏn sinbo, renamed the
Soviet sinbo, was the responsibility of an ethnic Korean Red Army officer named Mikhail
Kang.47 In the Soviet Civil Administration (SCA), occupation policies regarding education
and culture, along with justice, health, and the press, were under the jurisdiction of Colonel
A.M. Ignatiev, Deputy Chief of the SCA. Major General A.A. Romanenko, the SCA chief,
oversaw communications, finance, transportation, agriculture and industry.48 The top Korean
in the SCA cultural department was Kim P’a, a second-generation Korean from the USSR.49
But the Russians and the “Soviet-Koreans” who came with them did not monopolize
cultural production. Many of the writers, artists, and cultural workers in North Korea were
originally from the South, and were aligned politically with the Southern Workers’ Party and
the “domestic” Communists led by Pak Hŏn-yŏng.50 Others, such as the Korean Worker’s
Party propaganda chief Kim Ch’ang-man, had been participants in the Chinese Communist
revolution in Yanan; their inclinations were more populist and nationalist than pro-Soviet and
internationalist. Kim Il Sung’s comrades from the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle in Manchu-
ria compromised the least educated of the Communist “factions” and the least involved in
cultural affairs—quite ironic, given the degree of control Kim and his cohorts would exert
over cultural production as the DPRK evolved.
The Soviet cultural presence in North Korea was manifold, and included the Soviet
Information Bureau, the international book agency Mezhdunarodnaya kniga which distributed
Soviet books and journals in Korean translations, the Soviet news agency TASS, and
Sovexportfilm, a branch of the Ministry of the Cinema Industry.51 Soviet theater, dance, music,
film, literature, and art were widely promoted in North Korea. After the DPRK and the
USSR signed an agreement on cultural exchange in early 1949, North Korean dance troupes,
literature, and arts were also taken to the Soviet Union. Between 1945 and 1950 some 70
Russian and Soviet literary works were translated into Korean, along with hundreds of
technical works, histories, scientific texts, and journals.52 Russian was made the main second
language of North Korea. The Russian language became compulsory in senior middle school
in 1947 and lower middle school in 1948. English was discontinued and replaced by Russian
46 Lim Un, The Founding of a Dynasty in North Korea (Tokyo: Jiyu-sha, 1982), p. 143.
47 Andrei Lankov, Soryŏn-ŭi charyo-ro pon Pukhan hyŏndae chŏngch’isa [North Korean Contem-
porary Political History through Soviet Sources], trans. Kim Kwang-nyŏn (Seoul: Orŭm, 1995),
pp. 313-314.
48 Eric Van Ree, Socialism in One Zone: Stalin’s Policy in Korea (Oxford: Berg, 1989), p. 103.
49 Kim Sŭng-hwan, Haebang konggan-ŭi hyŏnsilchuŭi munhak yŏn’gu [Realist Literature in the Space
of Liberation] (Seoul: Ilchisa, 1991), p. 68.
50 A purge in the 1950s eliminated many of the “Southern” writers. See Kim Chae-yong,
“The Purge of Southern Worker’s Party Writers in North Korea,” Yŏksa pip’yŏng number 27
(Winter 1994).
51 “North Korea Today,” p. 18.
52 Lankov, Pukhan hyŏndae chŏngch’isa, p. 314.
12 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
for entrance to Kim Il Sung University in 1949.53 Although in theory North Korea was part
of a broad cultural exchange among all “Fraternal Socialist” countries, in practice the only
other Socialist regime with a cultural presence in North Korea was the People’s Republic of
China after 1949, through its New China News Agency. There was also an informal cultural
exchange between China and North Korea through the returning “Yanan” Communist group
whose members began entering North Korea in late 1945, as well as the ethnic Korean
minority who moved back and forth relatively freely between Northeast China and North
Korea. Works of Mao Zedong and other prominent Chinese Communists were translated
into Korean and circulated in the North, and the literary journal of ethnic Koreans in China,
Yŏnbyŏn munhwa was also available in the DPRK.54 But the Chinese cultural presence was
quite minor compared to the dominance of the USSR. In the area of film, for example, Soviet
films seem to have almost completely dominated the North Korean cinema market, which
served both propaganda and financial purposes for the Soviet occupation.
The main channel for cultural exchange between the USSR and North Korea was the
Korean-Soviet Culture Society (Cho-Sso munhwa hyŏphoe), a branch of the Soviet All-Union
Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS), established in North Korea in
November 1945. Its flagship journal was Cho-Sso munhwa (Korean-Soviet Culture). Cho-Sso
munhwa hyŏphoe claimed a membership of 1.3 million in late 1949, making it one of the largest
social organizations in North Korea, with branches throughout the country down to village
and street-level pan.55 A sister organization was established in Moscow, and in 1956 the name
of the organization was changed to Cho-sso ch’insŏn hyŏphoe (Korean-Soviet Friendship
Society).56 Rather like the United States Information Service (USIS) in Seoul, Cho-Sso munhwa
hyŏphoe was designed to promote cultural exchange and propagate positive images of the
occupying country. Cho-Sso munhwa ran articles praising Soviet socialism and Soviet culture, as
well as translations of Soviet works.57 But the bulk of Cho-Sso munhwa was devoted to Korean
writers and articles on North Korean political affairs, with Soviet-related articles relegated to
the back sections. One early issue, for example, begins with a lead article by Kim Il Sung
addressing Korean scientists, writers, and artists, followed by an article by Ch’oe Ch’ang-ik on
the “historical development of democracy” (minjujuŭi-ŭi satchŏk palchŏn). 58 This was quite
unlike the USIS journal Amerik’a, which was entirely about the U.S. Soviet cultural policies in
53 State Department, North Korea, p. 111.
54 United States National Archives, Record Group 242, “Records Seized by US Military
Forces in Korea,” 2008, item 9/12. Yŏnbyŏn Munhwa (inaugural issue, 1948).
55 Department of State, North Korea, pp. 110-111.
56 Kim Sŭng-hwan, Haebang konggan, p. 71.
57 Cho-Sso munhwa was not the only journal in North Korea publishing Soviet literary works
alongside Korean, although it was probably the most widely distributed. The P’yŏng’yang
Academy’s literary journal Sae sam ch’ŏlli [“New Three-Thousand Li,” i.e., New Korea], which bore
on its cover the Russian title Novaya Koreya [New Korea] was quite similar in format to Cho-Sso
munhwa. See RG 242, SA 2010 5/137. Novaya Koreya/Sae sam ch’ŏlli, no. 11 (February-March 1947).
58RG 242, SA 2005 1/18. Cho-Sso munhwa number 2 (July 1946), pp. 8-75.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 13
North Korea, as the US Military Government in the South grudgingly acknowledged, gave
much more space and encouragement to Korean cultural expression—so long as it was not
critical of Soviet occupation policies—than similar U.S. occupation organs.
Assisting North Korea in developing its own film industry was among the various cultural
aspects of the Red Army occupation. According to Hyŏn Su, a member of North Korea’s
literary circle who later migrated to the South, a People’s Film Society (Inmin yŏnghwa sahoe)
was established in December 1945 to show Soviet films. The People’s Film Society was
closely linked to the Cho-Sso munwha hyŏphoe. In December 1946 it was renamed the North
Korean Theater and Film Committee (Puk Chosŏn Kugyŏng wiwŏnhoe), under the direction of
Chu Ingyu.59 The DPRK journal Yŏnghwa yesul (Film Arts) records that the National Film
Production Center (Kungnip yŏnghwa ch’walyŏngso, also under director Chu In-kyu) was
established in February 1947 with the guidance of Premier Kim Il Sung and the help of the
USSR, and began to produce Korean-made films.60 The Propaganda Bureau of the Korean
Workers’ Party Central Committee also established a film unit in January 1946.61
At the time, virtually all film-producing equipment was in the South. Therefore, the
Soviets and the North Koreans had to create a film industry from the ground up. According
to playwright O Yŏng-chin, active in filmmaking circles in P’yŏng’yang at the time, the Red
Army signed a film production agreement with the People’s Political Committee of South
P’yŏng’an Province in 1946, and brought in film equipment and trained technicians from the
Soviet Union.62 O claims that during the Soviet occupation the showing of non-Soviet films
was forbidden, and that the Red Army made a handsome profit by taking fifty percent of the
proceeds from all Soviet films shown in North Korean movie houses. This would be
consistent with Soviet practice even in South Korea, where as we have seen Soviet film-
screening for profit was constrained by the U.S. occupation government.
While the free market and a less than generous U.S. military government made film-
making in the South a precarious occupation at best, offers of training and good wages drew
many aspiring film makers up to the North, some (according to O Yŏng-chin) with stolen
U.S. Army film equipment. In 1948 the DPRK established a film studio, eliminated the tax on
59 Hyŏn Su, Chŏkchi yungnyŏn, p. 19.
60 RG 242, SA 2008 9/2. Yŏnghwa yesul [Film Arts] number 2, February 1949. Kim U-sŏng,
“Unification and independence of the fatherland and the mission of film artists,” p. 9.
61 Ch’oe Ch’ŏk-ho, Pukhan yŏnghwasa [History of North Korean Film] (Seoul: Chimmundang,
2000), p. 35.
62 O Yŏng-chin, “Report on Film Production in Korea,” p. 1.
14 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
movie theaters (something the South Korean government was not to do until the late 1950s),
set up a system of subsidized food and housing for Koreans involved in filmmaking, and sent
many film artists to the Soviet Union for training. Evaluating cinema in North Korea in 1949,
O Yŏng-chin acknowledged that, “All production, of course, must always faithfully mirror
the party line. … But within that BIG limitation, the quality of the product was and is good,
and the output is steadily increasing.”63 Certainly the quantity of filmmaking in the North,
where only two feature films were produced before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950,
was miniscule compared to the dozens of films made in the South in the same period. But
North Korean film production was much more centralized, with far more resources going
into each individual film. And as O suggests, filmmaking in North Korea was inseparable
from propaganda, even for feature films. As Lenin once said about Bolshevik party member-
ship, “Better fewer, but better.” The DPRK government and ruling Korean Workers’ Party
had much the same attitude toward filmmaking.
Films screened in movie theaters would have reached only a small urban audience; O
estimates there were only sixty-two permanent cinemas in all of North Korea in the late
1940s (although this was about the same number, proportionate to population, as in South
Korea). In order to bring cinema to the masses, “Mobile Film Groups” (idong yŏngsaban) were
sent throughout the countryside. These were like the old “agit-trains” of the early USSR,
which took newsreels and features on the road to show films in remote areas.64 In the late
1940s, films were still a novelty in the Korean countryside, and peasants gathered around film
screenings with great excitement and anticipation. Kim Tong-un of the Peasant League
Central Committee reported in 1949 that mobile film groups had been sent to every
provincial branch of the Peasant League, and regularly had been showing Soviet films, as well
as more recent Korean productions. The peasants everywhere welcomed these films with
great praise, Kim reported, and “because the peasants’ hearts are pure and innocent
[tansunhago sobakhagi ttaemune] they are more impressed and can get more education from
movies that can urbanites.”65 As an example, a certain Farmer Kim Su-hwan saw several
Soviet films in his village, and was deeply moved by the sight of large, abundant Soviet farms
and happy Soviet farmers. “Soviet farmers are always smiling and singing while cultivating
their crops,” Farmer Kim is reported to have said. “I think that’s great. We will learn a lot
from this.”66
In a 1949 issue of Yŏnghwa yesul, Kim Usŏng, vice-chairman of the Ministry of Culture
and Propaganda, wrote at length about the political importance of film in North Korea.67
63 O Yŏng-chin, “Report on Film Production in Korea,” p. 2.
64 Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society, p. 34. The US Military Government in the South had its
own “propaganda trains” showing films about America, democracy, and so on touring the
countryside in the late 1940s.
65 RG 242, SA 2008 9/2. Yŏnghwa yesul (special issue on Nae kohyang, 1949), p. 61.
66 Yŏnghwa yesul special issue, p. 62.
67 Kim Usŏng, “Unification and independence,” pp. 5-12.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 15
While much of his statement on the nature of cinema reiterates the standard Stalinist
approach to film, the content of Kim’s piece—beginning with the title, “Unification and
Independence of the Fatherland and the Mission of Film Artists”—stresses nationalist
themes above all. All films, Kim says, have a political content, implicitly or explicitly, and
Hollywood movies merely express the interests of American monopoly capitalists. American
films also glorify violence and crime, corrupting our impressionable youth. Furthermore,
American progressive filmmakers were oppressed by the anti-communist forces in
Hollywood, while such filmmakers were honored and revered in the USSR, even receiving
Lenin and Stalin prizes. Like the other arts, cinema in the Soviet Union was the “pinnacle” of
creative achievement, and Soviet cinema was raising the level of cinematic art throughout the
USSR and the “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and
militarist Japan had all made cinema an instrument of state oppression; the mission of cinema
in Korea was not to free cinema from the state, but to make it an instrument of positive state
policy under the “revolutionary guidance” of the Soviet cinematic model.
Engaging in considerable hyperbole, Kim claimed that since liberation in August 1945,
South Korean “national traitors” (minjok pallanja) and “Japan-lovers” (Ch’in Il p’a) had directly
taken over the Japanese colonial state film industry in Seoul. If by “Japan-lover,” Kim meant
anyone trained under the Japanese or who had worked for the colonial government’s Chosŏn
Motion Picture Company, then virtually anyone who had worked in film before 1945 could
be considered a “traitor.” Further, Kim glosses over the considerable artistic and political
divisions within the South Korean film industry, which we have seen. Many filmmakers who
remained in the South refused to follow Rhee’s political line, and suffered the consequences.
But Kim’s polemical point is that in the North, by contrast, Japanese influence and models
had been rejected and cinema had become a state product “under the guidance of our
nation’s heroic leader Premier Kim Il Sung.” 68 Film had a clear propaganda purpose,
according to Kim, but it was not—as one might expect—the support of “Fraternal
Socialism” under the guidance of the USSR. For Kim, the ultimate goal of cinema was to
inspire the Korean masses with patriotic fervor. The Soviet form was intended to make
manifest a nationalist spirit.69
Between February 1947 and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the National
Film Production Center produced two feature films and 17 documentaries. During the same
period the DPRK imported 123 films and 78 documentaries, mostly from the USSR.70 As
they were doing in other areas of Soviet occupation, the Soviet authorities in North Korea
saw film as an important means of propagating the official Soviet political line, including after
1947 the Soviet perspective on the Cold War. A film prominently advertised in North Korea
in 1949, for example, was Alksandrov’s Meeting on the Elbe, which blamed American capitalists
68 Kim U-sŏng, “Unification and independence,” p. 9.
69 Kim U-sŏng, “Unification and independence,” p. 12.
70 Ch’oe, History of North Korean Film, p. 36.
16 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
for the division of Germany, a theme with clear lessons for Korea.71 It seems that new Soviet
films came to North Korea almost as soon as they appeared in the mother country;
Chiaureli’s epic The Fall of Berlin opened in Moscow in 1950 and arrived in North Korea in
time to be captured by U.S. forces during the Korean War.
North Korean newsreels may have been indebted to the Soviet Union for their relatively
high production values, but most of them made little or no reference to the Soviet occupation.
Only one of the early DPRK newsreels, “Eternal Friendship” (Yŏngwŏnhan ch’insŏn), heaped
lavish praise on the USSR and showed the role of Soviet advisors in rebuilding North Korea
after World War II. The film ended by saying, “All industries and education were made
possible by the help of Russia.”72 Several documentaries attacked the Syngman Rhee regime
in the South as a puppet of the U.S., such as the film 38th Parallel, which portrayed South
Korea as a brutal police state and the North as a rapidly industrializing paradise. The Russians
are barely mentioned.73 Yet another documentary showed the unveiling of the Kim Il Sung
monument on Christmas Day, 1946—probably the first filmic demonstration of what would
become one of the world’s largest and most long-lasting “cults of personality.”74 Most of the
early DPRK documentaries dealt with the construction of the North Korean political system
and economy: “People’s Committees” (Inmin wiwŏnhoe), “Democratic National Construction”
(Minju kŏn’guk), “Bright Success” (Pitnanŭn sŭngni), “Sup’ung Dam,” and others.75
Shortly after the establishment of the DPRK in 1948, to much fanfare and promotion,
North Korea produced its first feature film, Nae kohyang (“My Hometown”). One might
expect a film made in North Korea during the Soviet occupation, at a time when Soviet
cinema was the object of so much lavish praise, to be a faithful imitation of a Soviet film,
focused on class struggle and saturated with fulsome gratitude for the Red Army’s liberation
of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. But the USSR is not even mentioned in Nae kohyang,
and class struggle is far less important than the national struggle against Japanese oppression.
Nae kohyang is a propaganda film, to be sure, but its propaganda message is one of Kim Il
Sung leading the Korean nation, not the Soviet Army liberating Korea.
Technically Nae kohyang is clearly influenced by Soviet cinema. There is frequent use of
montage, for example, a classic technique of Soviet film from the 1920s onward. Some of the
scenes of the bountiful Korean countryside are reminiscent of Dovzhenko’s 1930 hymn to
Soviet peasant life, Earth. The mother of the protagonist behaves, and even looks like, the
title character of Pudovkin’s 1926 film The Mother, based on the famous Maxim Gorky novel
71 See the back cover of Yŏnghwa yesul special issue.
72 This and several other DPRK newsreels were captured by U.S. forces during the Korean
War and can be viewed at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. For Eternal Friendship,
see National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 242 (RG 242), Series MID,
item 5010.
73 RG 242, series MID, item 5156.
74 RG 242, series MID, item 5238, “Korean Newsreel #21.”
75 Yŏnghwa yesul number 2, February 1949, pp. 52-56.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 17
of the same name. But the melodramatic narrative is much more distinctively “Korean.” To a
certain extent Nae kohyang adopts the structure of Socialist Realism, with its Bildungsroman
story of a simple man who grows up under the tutelage of a senior Party leader, confronts the
enemy, and comes to a greater understanding of himself and the task of building
Communism.76 But the drama of Nae Kohyang is curiously flat, with the heroes incorruptible
and the enemies—the Japanese and their collaborators—unremittingly evil. Unlike in classic
Socialist Realist tales, the hero of Nae Kohyang is a committed nationalist from the beginning,
although he comes under the guidance of a more seasoned nationalist leader—and more
importantly, joins the guerilla struggle in Manchuria led by Kim Il Sung.
Furthermore, the element of class struggle is secondary in Nae kohyang. Its message of
revolutionary transformation is less impressive than its emotional evocation of the Korean
landscape, village life, and the pure, uncorrupted spirit of the peasants, especially women. Nae
kohyang expresses a sentimental attachment to the innocence and simplicity (sobakham) of the
Korean peasantry, a kind of Socialist pastoralism, alongside the Socialist realism adopted from
the USSR. Such themes had become common in North Korean literature of the 1950s and
1960s and were even more pronounced in cinema.77 The propaganda core of Nae kohyang is
not so much Socialist Realist, therefore, as populist-nationalist.
The nationalist content of Nae kohyang suffuses the film from beginning to end. It opens
with a panoramic model of Mount Paektu on the Sino-Korean border and moves on to shots
of pristine forests, spring fields, running streams, and finally to the streets and houses of a
village in South Hamgyŏng province, the “hometown” of the title. We are back in the dark
days of Japanese colonial rule, circa 1937. The local villagers are everywhere oppressed by the
colonial occupiers and their upper-class Korean collaborators, the latter represented by
“landlord Ch’oe” (Ch’oe chiju) and his family. The protagonist, Kwanp’il, is the son of a tenant
farmer on Ch’oe’s estate who has been killed by the Japanese. Kwan-p’il and his younger
brother Kwan-sik are raised in dire poverty by their selfless and incorruptible mother, who
must beg for work from landlord Ch’oe.78 Kwan-p’il has also secretly been educated by a
nationalist teacher, Kim Hak-chun, and after a scuffle with the landlord’s son he is
imprisoned, where he meets Kim Hak-chun and other captured nationalists.
Eventually Kwan-p’il escapes from prison with Kim Hak-chun, after killing a Japanese
guard with his bare hands. With the Japanese police in hot pursuit, the two attempt to flee to
the Manchurian border regions where—they have been told—the legendary General Kim Il
76 See Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
77 Brian Myers, Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
78 Unlike the title character in Pudovkin’s Mother, Kwan-p’il’s mother does not have to be
converted to her son’s political cause—she has been a nationalist all along. No one is “converted”
in Nae kohyang, everyone is always already what he or she will be—nationalist, imperialist, or traitor.
Here again is the seeming lack of tension, the melodramatic character that makes this film
different from most Soviet films of the socialist realist era.
18 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
Sung and his partisans are holding out. Just as they reach the guerrilla base camp, the police
find them and a gunfight ensues. The police are picked off by the guerrillas like Indians in an
old Western, but in the mêlée Kim Hak-chun is shot and dies in Kwan-p’il’s arms. Kwan-p’il,
now angrier than ever at the Japs (waenom), is taken in by the guerrillas, who train him in
insurgency tactics. After two years in the mountains Kwan-p’il returns to Korea to agitate
urban workers and spread word of the “Korean Revolutionary Army” (Chosŏn Hyŏngmyŏng
Kun), preparing in Manchuria to liberate the fatherland. But Kwan-p’il’s thoughts are always
on his hometown, his fellow villagers groaning under the yoke of Japanese oppression, and
his long-suffering mother.
On August 15, 1945, gunfire and explosions suddenly rock the landscape to the north of
Kwan-p’il’s hometown. As the intertitle tells us, “Patriotic General Kim Il Sung overthrows
Japanese imperialism and liberates the Fatherland” (the Russians are nowhere in sight). Justice
is set aright, and the people of the village take their violent revenge on the Japanese and their
collaborators. But even after Liberation, Kwan-p’il does not return to his village, going
instead to P’yŏng’yang where he joins the new regime and becomes a cadre in the Korean
Worker’s Party, even meeting Kim Il Sung himself, who is shown in brief documentary clips
being introduced to the Korean people on October 14, 1945. Finally, dressed smartly in a
cadre’s suit, Kwan-p’il returns to his hometown as a government official. There he is greeted
by a crowd of welcoming villagers and is emotionally reunited with his ecstatic mother and
his village sweetheart, a girl named Ok-tan—played by Mun Ye-pong, the colonial-era movie
star who would soon be honored as a “People’s Actress” by the DPRK government. The last
words of the film praise the “gift” of land that Kim Il Sung has given to the peasants of
Ok-tan: Oh, General Kim Il Sung has given the land to our peasants.
Kwan-p’il: Yes. From now on, the land belongs to the peasants forever.
Panning shot of the native landscape, swelling music, fade-out.
The DPRK National Film Production Center produced one more feature film before the
Korean War broke out: Yonggwangno (“Blast Furnace”), directed by Min Chŏng-sik from a
screenplay by Kim Yŏng-kŭn. This film centered on the struggle of the Korean working class
after Liberation and was more of a classic Soviet-style “workers’ film.” It also appears to have
been less popular or successful than Nae kohyang.79 We can see in Nae kohyang a remarkable
encapsulation of the fundamental myths that would shape the DPRK’s image of itself for
decades to come. North Korea, we are told, was not founded under the auspices of the Soviet
Red Army but is the legitimate product of a revolutionary, anti-colonial armed struggle led by
Kim Il Sung in Manchuria. This collapse of class struggle into anti-colonial national struggle,
and the embodiment of that struggle in the person of Kim Il Sung in his role as an anti-
79 Ch’oe, History of North Korean Film, p. 37. So far I have not been able to locate a copy of
“Blast Furnace,” and have had to rely on second-hand accounts.
Armstrong: North Korean Cinema 19
Japanese resistance leader, anticipated by some two decades the central themes of the “juche
cinema” of the late 1960s and after, when Kim Il Sung’s full-blown cult of personality
emerged—films such as P’ibada (Sea of Blood) and Kottp’anŭn ch’ŏ’nyŏ (The Flower-selling
Maiden) which focused on the colonial period and the revolutionary anti-Japanese struggles
of Kim Il Sung.80 It is difficult to say how many people in North Korea actually saw these
films and how they responded to them. But it was clear that the DPRK authorities invested a
great deal, financially and politically, in the propaganda value of the films.
Upon seeing Nae kohyang, the prominent North Korean writer Yi T’ae-chun commented that
the film represented a milestone in the development of Korean cinema. Although technically
the film demonstrates that Korean cinema is still in the “preparatory stage,” Yi said, it told
the story of “General” Kim Il Sung’s partisan struggle and the liberation of Korea in an
effective and moving manner.81 One can debate the historical accuracy of the film, but even
for an audience today, the melodramatic narrative of the film holds a strong emotional appeal,
whatever one’s politics. But historical accuracy is somewhat beside the point. Above all, Nae
kohyang is the perfect embodiment of the foundational myths of the DPRK: the creation of
an independent Socialist state with little or no outside assistance, Kim Il Sung as the agent
and embodiment of Korean liberation, and Manchuria as the space of revolutionary genesis.
The fact that Nae kohyang was made with close Soviet assistance during the Soviet occupation
makes the absence of “proletarian internationalism” in the film all the more striking. North
Korea’s nationalist mythos, often thought to be something that emerged only after the
Korean War, is clearly apparent in the very first DPRK feature film.
If cinema is wish-fulfillment, whether in Hollywood, Moscow, or Bombay, then Nae
kohyang is also an example of a certain kind of wish-fulfillment—in this case, the attempt of
the new North Korean state to project an image of autonomy, independence, and organic
solidarity. Its image of North Korea is perhaps not what the DPRK was in 1949, but the juche
state that North Korea would become in future decades. Technically and aesthetically, early
North Korean cinema built upon the legacy of Japanese cinema and the influence and aid of
Soviet cinema specialists to create a distinctive and powerful cinematic tradition, one that
would inseparably fuse art and propaganda around a nationalist core.
80 Kyung Hyun Kim, “The Fractured Cinema of North Korea: The Discourse of the Nation
in Sea of Blood,” In Pursuit of Contemporary East Asian Culture, edited by Xiaobing Tang and
Stephen Snyder (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).
20 Acta Koreana Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002
CHARLES ARMSTRONG is an Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.
81 Yŏnghwa yesul no. 3, March 1949, p. 32.
For a long time, the world thought that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 would lead to a similar outcome in North Korea. Although the Kim regime suffered harsh economic troubles, it was able to distance itself from communism without facing an ideological crisis and losing mass support. The same core political myths are still in use today. However, after the DPRK left the ideas of socialist realism behind, it has become clearer that the ideology of the country is a political religion. Now, its propaganda is using more supernatural elements than ever before. A good example is the movie The Big-Game Hunter (Maengsu sanyangkkun) in which the Japanese are trying to desacralize Paektu Mountain, but instead experience the fury of the holy mountain in the form of thunderbolts. The movie was produced in 2011 by P’yo Kwang, one of the most successful North Korean directors. It was filmed in the same year Kim Chŏng-ŭn came to power. The aim of the paper is to show the evolution of the DPRK political myth in North Korean cinema, in which The Big-Game Hunter seems to be another step in the process of mythologization. It is crucial to understand how the propaganda works, as it is still largely the cinema that shapes the attitudes and imagination of the people of the DPRK.
Although North Korea is one of the most closed countries in the world, it has long been pursuing international cooperation with other countries in order to upgrade the quality of its film industry to international standards. Preceding studies on this topic have mainly focused on the political influences behind filmmaking in general and very few studies have exclusively dealt with North Korea’s international co-productions. In this respect, in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the internalization strategy of North Korea’s film productions, this paper uses the global value chain as a framework for analysis. This approach helps understand the internationalization pattern of each value chain activity of film co-productions in terms of the film location and the methods for collaborating with foreign partners. By dividing the evolution of North Korea’s international co-productions into three periods since the 1980s, this paper finds that although North Korea has shown mixed results with different aspects of the film value chain, it has generally improved its internationalization over the three periods. This paper further provides strategic directions for North Korea by learning some of the successful Chinese experiences in the film sector regarding collaboration with foreign partners—to foster a win-win situation for all involved parties.
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Confidential Assignment (Kongjo, Kim Sung-hoon), released on January 18, 2017 between DPRK nuclear tests, tells a story of two special agents. One is from North Korea and the other one from South Korea, and they unite to fight against a common enemy. Extraordinarily, the North Korean agent is portrayed as more formidable than his South Korean counterpart who is unable to match him in every field. Also, the North Korean agent is portrayed by a Korean super star, Hyun-Bin. In this paper, I analyze two other similarly themed movies: The Net (Kŭmul, Kim Ki-Duk) and Steel Rain (Kangch’ŏlbi, Yang Wooseok). All of them were released recently and were huge commercial successes in South Korea. The aim of the following paper is to show and analyze the evolution of the image of North Korean characters in South Korean cinema. During the analysis, the question of how the change from villain to super hero was possible is answered. The way in which the movies talk about inter-Korean relations and how they portray both countries is particularly important to understand the current political sentiments in the Peninsula and how it can affect the Moon Jae-in presidency.
The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, the transnational mobility of South Korean popular culture, has spread globally, including to communist North Korea. This study perceptively examines the South Korean media as a form of soft power and articulates media studies of the Korean Wave and transnational media flows. It focuses on the influence of South Korean media on North Korean society, especially on how it motivates North Koreans to defect and facilitates their adaptation to life in South Korea following their defection. Interviews with 127 North Korean defectors (46 males, 81 females aged 20–50 and over) were analysed. Results reveal that increasing exposure to South Korean media and its soft power continues throughout the media consumption process, which eventually motivates North Korean defection. However, the attractiveness of the media did not positively influence defectors’ adaptation as much. This work offers invaluable empirical data on North Koreans’ use of South Korean media, and timely policy implications which further aims to contribute to the literature of soft power by focusing on its relevance to transcultural consumption.
Korea’s Occupied Cinemas, 1893-1948 compares and contrasts the development of cinema in Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and US Army Military (1945-1948) periods within the larger context of cinemas in occupied territories. It differs from previous studies by drawing links between the arrival in Korea of modern technology and ideas, and the cultural, political and social environment, as it follows the development of exhibition, film policy, and filmmaking from 1893 to 1948. During this time, Korean filmmakers seized every opportunity to learn production techniques and practice their skills, contributing to the growth of a national cinema despite the conditions produced by their occupation by colonial and military powers. At the same time, Korea served as an important territory for the global expansion of the American and Japanese film industries, and, after the late 1930s, Koreans functioned as key figures in the co-production of propaganda films that were designed to glorify loyalty to the Japanese Empire. For these reasons, and as a result of the tensions created by divided loyalties, the history of cinema in Korea is a far more dynamic story than simply that of a national cinema struggling to develop its own narrative content and aesthetics under colonial conditions.
This article attempts to analyze the construction and maintenance of political legitimacy in North Korea through the lens of its state-produced films. After classifying North Korea’s regime as totalitarian, we then discuss the strategies of legitimation available given this classification, and highlight the importance of ideology therein. Next, we demonstrate the importance of film within North Korea’s ideological apparatus and thematically analyze six North Korean films dating from 1948–2006. From this analysis, we situate the social role of film in contemporary North Korea and argue that it will remain a crucial force amongst the country’s various attempts to maintain legitimacy.
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By definition, the cold war was understood on both sides of the conflict to be a global struggle that stopped short of direct military engagement between the superpowers (the U.S. and the USSR). In Europe, the putative center ofthat struggle, the geopolitical battle lines were fixed after the early 1950s, or they at least could not be altered by normal military means without provoking World War III—which would result in mutual annihilation. Therefore, each side hoped to make gains over the other by using more subtle, political, and often clandestine methods, winning the “hearts and minds” of people in the other bloc (as well as maintaining potentially wayward support in one's own bloc), hoping to subvert the other side from within. The cold war was an enormous campaign of propaganda and psychological warfare on both sides. A vast range of cultural resources, from propaganda posters and radio broadcasts to sophisticated literary magazines, jazz bands, ballet troupes, and symphony orchestras, were weapons in what has recently come to be called the “Cultural Cold War” (Saunders 1999). Studies of the cultural cold war have proliferated since the late 1990s, most of which focus on U.S. cultural policy and are concerned with the European “theater” of this conflict (Hixson 1997; Fehrenbach and Poiger 2000; Poiger 2000; Berghahn 2001).
"North Korea is not just a security or human rights problem (although it is those things) but a real society. This book gets us closer to understanding North Korea beyond the usual headlines, and does so in a richly detailed, well-researched, and theoretically contextualized way." ---Charles K. Armstrong, Director, Center for Korean Research, Columbia University "One of this book's strengths is how it deals at the same time with historical, geographical, political, artistic, and cultural materials. Film and theatre are not the only arts Kim studies---she also offers an excellent analysis of paintings, fashion, and what she calls 'everyday performance.' Her analysis is brilliant, her insights amazing, and her discoveries and conclusions always illuminating." ---Patrice Pavis, University of Kent, Canterbury No nation stages massive parades and collective performances on the scale of North Korea. Even amid a series of intense political/economic crises and international conflicts, the financially troubled country continues to invest massive amounts of resources to sponsor unflinching displays of patriotism, glorifying its leaders and revolutionary history through state rituals that can involve hundreds of thousands of performers. Author Suk-Young Kim explores how sixty years of state-sponsored propaganda performances---including public spectacles, theater, film, and other visual media such as posters---shape everyday practice such as education, the mobilization of labor, the gendering of social interactions, the organization of national space, tourism, and transnational human rights. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, Illusive Utopia shows how the country's visual culture and performing arts set the course for the illusionary formation of a distinctive national identity and state legitimacy, illuminating deep-rooted cultural explanations as to why socialism has survived in North Korea despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China's continuing march toward economic prosperity. With over fifty striking color illustrations, Illusive Utopia captures the spectacular illusion within a country where the arts are not only a means of entertainment but also a forceful institution used to regulate, educate, and mobilize the population. Suk-Young Kim is Associate Professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and coauthor with Kim Yong of Long Road Home: A Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor.
Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan 15 Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 26. 16 Yi, Understanding Korean Film
  • Jeffrey A Dym
Jeffrey A. Dym, "Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan," Monumenta Nipponica vol. 55, no. 4 (Winter 2000), p. 511. 15 Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 26. 16 Yi, Understanding Korean Film, p. 25. 17 Yu Hyŏn-mok, Hanguk yŏnghwa paltalsa [History of the Development of Korean Cinema] (Seoul: Hanjin, 1980), p. 57. 18 Michael Robinson, Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988).
History of Korean Film, p. 16; Hanguk yŏnghwa ch'ongsŏ [Anthology of Korean Films] (Seoul: Korean Motion Picture Promotion Association
19 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Hanguk yŏnghwa ch'ongsŏ [Anthology of Korean Films] (Seoul: Korean Motion Picture Promotion Association, 1970), p. 104. 20 Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Anthology of Korean Films, p. 111.
Jiyu-sha, 1982), p. 143. 47 Andrei Lankov, Soryŏn-ŭi charyo-ro pon Pukhan hyŏndae chŏngch'isa [North Korean Contemporary Political History through Soviet Sources], trans
  • Lim Un
Lim Un, The Founding of a Dynasty in North Korea (Tokyo: Jiyu-sha, 1982), p. 143. 47 Andrei Lankov, Soryŏn-ŭi charyo-ro pon Pukhan hyŏndae chŏngch'isa [North Korean Contemporary Political History through Soviet Sources], trans. Kim Kwang-nyŏn (Seoul: Orŭm, 1995), pp. 313-314.
Unification and independence
  • Kim U-Sŏng
Kim U-sŏng, "Unification and independence," p. 12.
General Kim Il Sung has given the land to our peasants. Kwan-p'il: Yes. From now on, the land belongs to the peasants forever. Panning shot of the native landscape, swelling music
  • Ok-Tan
Ok-tan: Oh, General Kim Il Sung has given the land to our peasants. Kwan-p'il: Yes. From now on, the land belongs to the peasants forever. Panning shot of the native landscape, swelling music, fade-out.
il: Yes. From now on, the land belongs to the peasants forever. Panning shot of the native landscape, swelling music
  • Kwan-P
Kwan-p'il: Yes. From now on, the land belongs to the peasants forever. Panning shot of the native landscape, swelling music, fade-out.
Hanguk yŏnghwa ch'ongsŏ
  • Chŏng
Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Hanguk yŏnghwa ch'ongsŏ [Anthology of Korean Films] (Seoul: Korean Motion Picture Promotion Association, 1970), p. 104.
History of Korean Film, p. 16; Anthology of Korean Films
  • Chŏng
Chŏng, History of Korean Film, p. 16; Anthology of Korean Films, p. 111.
History of North Korean Film
  • Ch'oe
Ch'oe, History of North Korean Film, p. 36.