Grassroots Movements for Voices in Exile

Real lives in North Korea: Two day film festival kicks off in Australia
March 10th, 2013
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by Markus Bell and Christopher Richardson

With the world’s attention fixed on the impact of the North Korean nuclear test and heightened threats of war, the lives of ordinary North Koreans have been silenced once again. Lives silenced, on the one hand, by the thunder from Pyongyang, claiming to speak on their behalf with one official voice, and on the other, by a chorus of denunciation and analysis in Western media dividing ordinary North Koreans between brainwashed enablers and hapless victims.

In recent years, writers such as Barbara Demick and Blaine Harden, and memoirists such as Kang Chol-hwan and Felix Abt, have sought to change old habits, revealing the vast diversity of experiences in North Korea, and the common humanity of its people. From Hwang Jang-yop in the highest echelons of power, to Shin Dong-hyuk in the lowliest camp, to Felix Abt conducting business in a supposedly barren economic culture, we have seen an efflorescence of personal stories and individual perspectives. Along with news-sources such as The Daily NK, NkNews.org, and New Focus International, the horizons of analysis are shifting, if slowly. Yet on the nightly news, it is the same footage of goose-stepping soldiers and missile launches that accompanies each new story from North Korea, a constructed vision of unity that plays into the very narrative Pyongyang yearns to project.

Aiming to develop what is often referred to as a ‘grass-roots’ movement, the Korean community in Sydney, Australia, in coordination with local academics and activists has, of late, taken matters into their own hands. With Korean ethnic churches leading the way, the beginning of 2013 marked the creation of the first NPO (Non-profit Organisation) to support young North Koreans living in South Korea to come to Australia and study English. As well as giving young North Koreans the chance to improve their language skills and broaden their horizons, The North Korean Transmigration Supporting Association (NKTSA) is playing an integral role in hosting an event that will, for the first time, attempt to offer divergent understandings to the Australian public on the always illusive concept of ‘North Korea’.

Panoptic Perspectives is the title of a two-day film event, organized by scholars from institutions in Sydney and Canberra, to be held in venues at the University of Sydney, and Sydney Cheil Church (Strathfield). The event will offer different perspectives on a subject much discussed in the popular media, but rarely considered beyond the highly politicized bi-polemic story of good and evil, right and wrong: North Korea. Guest speakers include Park Jungbum, director of The Journals of Musan, and noted scholar and researcher Dr Leonid Petrov. The aim of this event – the first of its kind in Sydney, but by no means the last – is to give people a chance to find answers the 9 o’ clock news cannot offer.


Over two evenings, the following three films will be screened:

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

Based on the experiences of a North Korean friend director Park Jungbum met at university, The Journals of Musan highlights several important themes in the lives of North Korean refugees. Holding a mirror up to South Korean society, it suggests that arrival in the South is not the end of a refugee’s struggle to find safety and security, and that ignorance is at the root of much of the prejudice that exists against North Koreans living in the South. For the first time, the film offered a window into the lives of a few of the 24,000 North Koreans residing in the South, and acts as a starting point for encouraging mutual understanding between these new arrivals and the host society.

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

A rare opportunity to see a North Korean film on the big screen, A Schoolgirl’s Diary offers a more nuanced example of Pyongyang’s self-representation than stock footage of tanks in Kim Il Sung Square. This appealing tale of a rebellious (by North Korean standards) teenage girl demonstrates why even many North Koreans disaffected with their homeland retain nostalgia about its artistic traditions, and their childhoods especially, even if wracked by personal suffering. As Dr Leonid Petrov writes, this somewhat unconventional North Korean film represents, “an attempt to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years, full of peer pressure and family problems, much the same as it is everywhere in the world.”

Yodok Stories (2008). Directed by Andrzej Fidyk

A world away, Yodok Stories is a potent documentary about the North Korean gulag, its former inhabitants, and their efforts to build new lives in South Korea. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, about a musical, directed by Jung Sung San, seeking to tell the story of the gulag and its victims, employing a cast of exiled North Korean artists and performers to bring their story to the stage. Although the bombast, blood and thunder of the musical might initially seem kitsch to Western audiences, it powerfully evokes the aesthetic of North Korean arts, notably the revolutionary operas The Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. Above all, the documentary’s strength comes from the creative participation of so many North Koreans, a powerful corrective to the stereotype of defectors as passive victims, or welfare dependent castaways.

In terms of civic groups taking the initiative, the North Korean Transmigration Supporting Association is a great example of what people can do when they mobilize for a common cause. With three great films across two days, Voices In Exile: Panoptic Perspectives, seeks to introduce to a wider audience what devoted Korea-watchers have known for a while now: that there are more than 24 million North Koreans alive today, and at least as many stories.

For further information on the upcoming event, please visit: http://northkoreafilmfest.wordpress.com/

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Christopher Richardson is a PhD Candidate in Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, researching North Korean children’s arts and culture, and Markus Bell is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University, researching the experiences of North Korean defectors in the South.  

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

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