“Without watching ‘Nation and Fate,’ you cannot understand North Korean cinema and the North Korean soul!”
I heard this admonition from several distinguished North Korean actors when, in 2014, I interviewed them on the subject of North Korean films.
We discussed many films and actors, yet they all agreed that in order to understand the spirit of the DPRK, I must watch one of the core classics of North Korean cinema: “Nation and Fate.”
This serial, produced between 1991 and 2002, consists of more than 100 episodes, and my interviewees recommended that I watch them all thoroughly.
I soon found out that “Nation and Fate,” indeed, permeated the lives of regular North Koreans in complex ways. Thematic songs from the serial and TV broadcasts of its episodes followed me during my visit to Pyongyang.
A TV set which hung in the hall of our hotel aired the 61st chapter of the serial, named “Working class.” The screen flashed with the sparkling eyes of the Methuselah of North Korean cinema, the people’s actor Yu Won Jun, solemnly operating a jackhammer.
This serial, produced between 1991 and 2002, consists of more than 100 episodes
When the serial was filmed, Yu was in his late 70s and looked it, and my impression was that the role of an energetic miner did not suit him very well.
As I learned later, the serial’s filmmakers had the same idea, which was why they did not even cast him for this role. However, Yu had a reputation for being as persistent as his jackhammer. He complained to Kim Jong Il about feeling pushed aside, and the role was granted to the offended veteran immediately.
In the eyes of North Korean audiences, the serial has its irresistible attractions
With hindsight, the Dear Leader was probably right, and the aged Yu did not spoil “Nation and Fate.” He was certainly not the worst actor in the serial, yielding this award to Choe Chang Su – the people’s artist who played the pivotal role of Choe Hyon Dok in the first four chapters.
Like Yu, Choe was a veteran of North Korean cinematography and, overall, a skilled and gifted actor. For some reason, however, his performance in “Nation and Fate” is truly terrible, as if he aimed to demonstrate a full collection of bad acting tropes: over the top melodrama, wooden face expressions, fake gestures and unnatural howling at dramatic moments.
Yet, even this hilariously bad acting could not spoil the popularity of “Nation and Fate.” In the eyes of North Korean audiences, the serial has its irresistible attractions. Well-written, dynamic scenarios, which feature actual historical personalities, attractive scenes of unknown foreign life, and most of all, the appealingly fresh messages of “Nation and Fate,” moved the people. One such message is the theme of Korea’s unification.
The intro to the serial – complete with the famous Korean song “Arirang”
MY COUNTRY IS THE BEST – BECAUSE I LOVE IT
One of the thematic songs of the serial is “My country is the best.” The song is something of an unofficial anthem of Kim Jong Il’s epoch, and in many senses, it is special.
The song differs from previous pride songs like “We envy nobody in the world,” or “Socialism is our paradise,” which glorify Juche Korea for its alleged political and economic supremacy.
“My country is the best” does not make any bold claims. Rather, this song translates a message of unconditional patriotism: love to the motherland with no references to its ideological virtues or political system.
The message is plainly humanistic: no matter how wide the world is, or how sweet the water from the other countries’ wells may be, or how beautiful the exotic flowers of other lands are, Koreans will always love their own land.
This message speaks volumes about the early 1990s – when the collapse of international Communism brought North Korean socialism to the edge of survival.
This was a dangerous time for the legitimacy of the North Korean regime. The major problem was not even the food crisis, which was no novelty in the DPRK. The problem was that the North Korean people were not as docile and ignorant as their predecessors had been, say, in the 1950s, when the country experienced another large-scale famine caused by collectivization.
The message is plainly humanistic
During the 1980s, the iron curtain between the DPRK and the rest of the world was lifted slightly, exposing the population to new information about life abroad. Many North Koreans began to acknowledge that while they were supposed to “envy nobody in the world,” the developed world had some things which they were jealous of.
Most importantly, people were aware that the world socialist system had recently collapsed, and that their ex-Communist brethren were marching away from socialism and towards capitalism.
In these conditions, to find arguments which would persuade the population that the DPRK should stay where it was not an easy task.
The statements that North Korea was good because it was rich and prosperous would not work anymore – if anything, they would be counterproductive. Thus, the propagandists appealed to patriotism and love for the homeland for love’s sake. Korea is better, not because it is richer or more progressive, but because it is wholesome, unique and “ours.”
PRODIGAL SONS OF THE GREAT LEADER
The best candidates to deliver this message, it was decided, would be Koreans who had experienced the outside world and still chosen North Korea. “Nation and Fate” presents a collection of personal narratives of those overseas Koreans, who after long years of prosperous living in alien lands choose to come back, driven by sheer love for the motherland.
The serial opens with the true story of Choe Dok Sin (in the serial he is named Choe Hyon Dok) (1914- 1989). The son of Korean nationalist Choe Tong O (in the serial, Choe Jong Ro), Choe Dok Sin serves as a colonel in the Chinese Guomindang Army.
After the liberation of Korea, he enters the United States Army Academy and, during the Korean War, serves as the commanding general of the 11th division under the United States IX corps.
The propagandists appealed to patriotism and love for the homeland for love’s sake
Choe’s career after that is eclectic. He occupies the positions of leader of the Chondogyo religious sect, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador for South Korea in West Germany, an adviser to the Minister of Unification, chief editor of the newspaper Hanjung Ilbo, a diplomat in Vietnam and a refugee from the South Korean regime in the U.S. In 1986 Choe, together with his wife Ryu Mi Yong, defect to the DPRK.
Overall, Choe Dok Sin could serve as a perfect model of a vagabond who preferred the bosom of the Great Leader to the luxuries of the world – if it were not for one obstacle. Among his rich life experiences was an involvement in two massacres aimed at Communists during the Korean War.
The first of these, in February 1951, in Sanchon-Hamyang in South Kyongsang province, 705 civilians were killed, most of whom were women, children, and elderly men. Another massacre in Kochang, also in South Kyongsang, was conducted two days earlier and 719 were killed.
An idea of an acceptance of the war criminal into the motherland’s embrace does not correlate with the concept of eternal vengeance to enemies, which is at the center of North Korean discourse on the Korean War.
A CRIMINAL BY MISTAKE
The filmmakers solve this ethical dilemma by claiming that Choe, not unlike Shakespeare’s “Othello”, had been tricked into his crimes by sly foreigners and their acolytes.
The first Iagos are a group of Russians, communication with which has averted Choe from Communism. The Russians make Choe believe that Communists stand against nations, family and even rules of decency (a Russian Communist played by a Korean actor with a false bushy mustache makes a pass on the future wife of Choe, a modest Korean girl).
Choe’s friend, the Kimilsungist Kang Hun, tries to explain that Kim Il Sung’s guerilla army is driven by truly nationalist interests, yet this discussion leads to a heated argument during which Choe shoots, and almost kills, his friend.
In “Nation and Fate” the attractions of the DPRK are almost stripped of political content.
Another of Choe’s manipulators are officials of the Syngman Rhee government, who falsely inform him before a decisive battle that North Korean Communists had kidnapped and killed his father. The enraged hero rushes to the battlefield and inspires a discouraged South Korean army into a successful advance.
Killing two birds with one stone, this narrative of a “misguidedly enthusiastic” South Korean colonel allows North Korean propaganda to explain away what they call their “tactical retreat” during the Korean War and justify the lingering separation of the country.
Eventually, the character comes to know the real fate of his father: far from being prosecuted and killed in North Korea, Choe Jong Ro lived the prosperous life of a distinguished intellectual in Pyongyang and died at a very ripe old age. Choe decides to undertake a visit to the North in order to pay tributes to the father’s grave.
This is a common plotline in North Korean films, including in “The Country which I Saw” or “A Story of One Flower”: a doubter visits the North and instantly trusts it.
Unlike the above-mentioned films, however, in “Nation and Fate” the attractions of the DPRK are almost stripped of political content. This is a paradise in the eyes of a Korea’s patriot, a paradise of simplicity and humanism rather than of sophistication and progress.
Sure, the film depicts Pyongyang as having modernized since the war. Yet, this modernization is devoid of luxury and, instead, relates to the basic comfort and happiness provided equally to all North Koreans.
The North Korean part of Choe Hyong Dok’s story is mostly situated in a rural area. The character is able to enjoy the tranquil beauty of Korean countryside, with the flow of its springs and chirping birds, and the stones of the old house where he had been grown up.
“THE PATH TO PARADISE BEGINS IN HELL”
When Choe Dok Sin understands his life-long mistake regarding the true nature of communism, he feels a deep repentance over his ill-advised anti-Communist activity. “Nation and Fate” depicts these pangs of guilt using biblical allusions.
The awakening of the “prodigal son of the Dear Leader” is visualized through the image of Rembrandt’s “The return of the prodigal son” which constantly emerges on the screen.
Modernization is devoid of luxury and, instead, relates to the basic comfort and happiness provided equally to all North Koreans
Another Christianity-driven reference is “Dante’s Inferno,” a classic work of Western literature about the journey of a sinner in hell. Choe Hyong Dok reads this timeless verse to the accompaniment of howls of thunderstorms and images of a stormy sea.
REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS
Yet, before being accepted in the motherland, Choe’s needs to earn forgiveness from his people. His sins to the true Korea are personified in one particular victim: the sister of his old friend Kwak Tae Sik. A Red Cross nurse, she died protecting civilians at the hands of his soldiers who had been driven by his order to “kill all the Reds.”
The angel which melts the ice between Choe and the village is his naïve and pretty niece. The girl expresses her sorrow for an old man who must have “suffered so much living in hell-like South Korea,” and the old man cries on her shoulder.
Kang Hun, now a local party secretary, intervenes in the conflict, summoning Kwak to forgive the killer of his sister. Once Choe almost killed Kang Hun, yet Kim finds enough love in his heart to forgive his misguided friend.
Blood of the innocents indeed separates us, Kang claims. But can we just forgive and forget?
Kang Hun substantiates his idea with reference to the Leader, the Savior of Nation.
“Kim Il Sung, too, has lost many comrades, even his brother, for the sake of great national unity. He taught us that we should transcend ideology, political views, and religious beliefs to achieve the course of national unification. If three of us fail to be friends again, how can the great national unity of the entire Korean people be achieved?”
After this reminder, they come to their senses, and peace is restored.
PEACE OVER A BOWL OF SOY BEAN SOUP
Choe Hyong Dok spends a night drinking with his old friends, and the next morning Kwak’s wife serves them, as a hangover remedy, a bowl of soy bean paste soup which in North Korean dialect sounds like “tojang kuk.” The woman expresses her doubts about whether her overseas-educated guest would enjoy such a simple dish.
Choe, however, gobbles the soup with gusto and claims excitedly: “Yes, I used to be an anti-communist. But I would not be a Korean if I could forget the delicious aroma of tojang!”
The image of plain country-style soup, again, substantiates the concept of wholesomeness and authenticity, which unifies Korean patriots around “true” Korea.
FORGIVE AND FORGET
“Nation and Fate” would hardly move a detached viewer. But people traumatized by the separation of their country watch the film with different eyes. Among the numerous tales of grand military exploits, filled with the images of punitive blasts of the enemy, the serial strikes North Koreans with its humanistic message of repentance and forgiveness as the only way for the unification of Korea’s people.
The message has its political limitations. In the serial, only Southerners are depicted as criminals, and the authorship of the idea of forgiveness is ascribed to Kim Il Sung, the man who started the Korean War.
Still, the film touches hearts, and not only those of North Koreans. During showings of “Nation and Fate” during my classes, I sometimes notice hidden tears in the eyes of the students: both South Koreans and Westerners.
All photos: “Nation and Fate”
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