South Korea came to modernity and prosperity during its precarious “developmental dictatorship,” a regime which, expectedly, violated the rights of the working class and suppressed democratic freedoms.
The 1970s and 80s saw a mass of South Koreans, with radical students and labor unions at the forefront, oppose the authoritarian governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. The struggle reached its pinnacle with the Gwangju democratization movement of May 1980, when protests against Chun’s seizure of power after Park Chung-hee’s death were suppressed with military force and ended in the killing, by some estimates, of over 600 people.
The tragedy of Gwangju paved the way for the further struggle for democratization of the country, and the eventual end of military dictatorship in South Korea. But it also had a significant impact on North Korean culture as well.
LENDING MORAL CAPITAL
For all his radical anti-Communism, Chun Doo-hwan paid an invaluable service to the North Koreans. His brutal suppression of a democratic movement provided the regime with profound moral credit, enabling it to write off the achievements of the “miracle on the Han River” and righteously denounce the real, not imagined, faults of the South.
In their search for substantiated anti-South arguments, North Korean propagandists could safely rely on the South Korean leftist minjung intellectuals. The North even went as far as introducing some cultural works by South Koreans to the North Korean audience.
Famous North Korean singers performed “Morning dew”(아침이슬) written by South Korean activist Kim Min-ki, and the leading literary journal Choson Munhak published short stories by South Korean intellectuals which were banned in the South.
For all his radical anti-Communism, Chun Doo-hwan paid an invaluable service to the North Koreans
YOUNG AND FREE
The motif of the restless fight of South Koreans against the dictatorship invigorated North Korean culture. North Korean “soldiers on the cultural front” eagerly seized the themes of the Gwangju Uprising and June Democracy Movement of the 1987, which allowed them to abandon their conventional depiction of Southerners as wretched beggars searching for food scraps in the garbage.
These flat and passive images, meant to epitomize pitiful victims of the “American colony” were dominant in North Korean works about the South during the “golden decade” of developed Kim Il Sungism in the late 1960s – 1970s.
But such cliches grew tired eventually. Hungry for more aesthetically pleasing narratives, North Korean audiences in the 1980s embraced the new South Koreans: young, dignified and beautiful enthusiasts for unification and democracy, who would fight for the sake of the nation with all vitality and bravery of youth.
BACK TO ITS ROOTS
For the people of the older generation and with better memory, however, this change was hardly a radical novelty. They remembered the better days of North Korean culture when South Korean characters were not schematic “victims,” but well-rounded, attractive, and logical people.
A good example of this tendency was 1965’s “On the Way of Growth” (선장의 길에서), starring Om Kil Son (엄길선), then a growing star of North Korean cinema.
Om’s character, a South Korean student named Jik-myong (직명) is a modest young man with a shy smile and big heart, eager to help his friends and relatives. He has no interest in politics, let alone communist revolution: his life goal is to become a good pediatrician and improve the lot of the children of Korea. However, poverty forces him to earn his tuition fees through manual labor at a construction site, and Jik-myong is astonished to find out that labor rights are violated there on regular basis.
The motif of the restless fight of South Koreans against the dictatorship invigorated North Korean culture
Not so much for his own interests but rather driven by sympathy for his poor coworkers, he joins their non-violent struggle, participating in a strike and signing a petition containing demands for wage increases.
Stories of bourgeois South Koreans joining the revolution also appeared in the 1960s
The owner of the construction site is quick to response. Jik-myong is thrown in prison and subjected to torture. There he becomes acquainted with the other inmates – mature communists. The result is predictable: a grudge against the government, as well as exposure to communist propaganda, make the character forget his humanitarian ideals. He rejects the attempts of the administration to bribe him with a free scholarship and chooses the path of underground struggle.
Sadly enough, the scenario of this realistic and dynamic film was written by the same Paek In Jun who, ten years after “On the Way of Growth,“ would produce one of the stalest cinematic examples of anti-South Korean propaganda, “Fate of Kum Hui and Un Hui” (1975).
This melodramatic story of separated twin sisters, one of whom enjoys a heavenly life in the North while the other never stops crying in the South, follows all the conventions of anti-South discourse in the 1970s. Even sadder, this shame of North Korean cinematography was directed by the same Om Kil Song.
North Korean “soldiers on the cultural front” eagerly seized the themes of the Gwangju Uprising
In the 1980s-1990s, however, the clock seemed to turn back, and North Korean artists were again able to indulge in more realistic, if over-romanticized images, of the South Korean fight for democracy.
These new works added some significantly novel features to North Korean cultural discourse of the South. A typical film of the new epoch which combined these old and new features was “A Poem for the Beloved One” (님을 위한 교향시) made in 1991.
“A POEM FOR THE BELOVED ONE”: FRUITS OF THE NEW EPOCH
The plot of this film was written by Ri Chun Gu (리춘구), a distinguished North Korean screenwriter with a very distinct style. Ri preferred slow, contemplative narratives, widely employing symbolism, flashbacks, and romantic elements. “A Poem for the Beloved One”, which tells the story of the heroic life and death of activist Pak Hyon-jun (박현중), epitomizes this style.
The plot of the film has many formal similarities with Paek In Jun’s “On the Way of Growth” being, too, a story of the personal political development of an initially apolitical student.
Similar to Om Ki Song’s student hero, Hyong-jun dreams about becoming a good professional (in his case, a lawyer), yet closer acquaintance with the problems of the working class inspires him to abandon his studies and concentrate instead on the anti-government struggle. He participates in Gwanju uprising, is imprisoned and subject to torture. His public trial turns into a spontaneous anti-government demonstration.
The plot of the film has many formal similarities with Paek In Jun’s “On the Way of Growth”
But unlike “On the Way of Growth,” however, has a tragic ending. While Paek In Jin’s film ends with the hero confidently leaving prison to some far away place, Ri’s protagonist dies painfully in prison, poisoned by slow-acting venom because his interrogator considers him to be politically dangerous.
Apart from the central line of Pak Hyong Jun, both films also employ important side plots. In Paek In Jun’s work, two people close to Jik-myong, his girlfriend, a talented pianist, and his close friend, a medical student, at first keep away from politics, yet eventually side with the protagonist.
In Ri Chung Gu’s film, the side plot also includes a girlfriend and a childhood friend, but these are developed in much more melodramatic ways.
Like the heroine of “On the Way of Growth,” the protagonist’s girlfriend Chin Hye-ra (진혜라) is a talented pianist (the actresses who played the roles, Choe Pu Sil and Pak Kum Dil, with their pretty round faces and big eyes, even physically resemble each other).
Chin Hye-ra is utterly devoted to Pak and risks her life hiding him from the police. However, she does not share his passion for revolution, being concerned only with his safety and well-being, and this leads to their estrangement. Even on his deathbed, Hyong-jun refuses to communicate with his pregnant girlfriend.
Even more tragic is the fate of Hyong-jun’s childhood friend Ko-hwang (고황). A fervent patriot, he chooses a military career, eager to serve his country.
“A Poem for the Beloved One” employs many South Korean cultural motifs
But during the Gwangju uprising, he is forced to turn his gun against his compatriots. Participation in the massacre of innocent civilians drives him insane, and he is put in the same prison as the protagonist.
From the neighboring cell, he witnesses the forced feeding of Hyong-jun with poisoned food. For a while sanity returns to Ko-hwang: he recognizes his friend, manages to break out of the cell and kills his torturer. As punishment, he receives a death sentence via hanging.
THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH
“A Poem for the Beloved One” employs many South Korean cultural motifs. The plot is linked to the real story of South Korean activist Pak Chong-chol (1964-1987) whose death under torture in prison triggered the May Democratization Movement.
The title of the film paraphrases the famous song “A March for the Beloved One” (임을 위한 행진곡 by Baek Gi-wan (백기완), an unofficial anthem of Gwangju Uprising.
The film employs imposing music, in which classic melodies are combined with the soft motifs of popular South Korean songs, including the famous “Our desire is unification” (우리의 소원은 통일) with lyrics by An Sok-ju.
Unlike Paek In Jun’s film of 1965, which portrays police violence in a vague and schematic way, Ri Chung Gu’s work contains many graphic scenes, including rape, infanticide, and the slaughter of a pregnant woman by the South Korean military.
This was surely due to the influence of Shin Sang-ok, a kidnapped South Korean filmmaker, who for several years worked in Pyongyang but by that time had already left the DPRK. Shin’s legacy did not last for long, however – by the 2000s, graphic violence had practically disappeared from North Korean screens.
The film’s portrayal of the South is, of course, negative. The ugly, gloomy houses of Gwangju, decorated only with flashy ads, show South Korea of the 1980s as underdeveloped. In one episode, the squeamish Hye-ra finds worms in the city’s running water, a hint that sewage treatments do not work properly in South Korea.
Behind this exterior criticism, however, the film-makers can barely hide their fascination with the South Koreans. The camera savors extravagant clothes of the characters and their fashionable haircuts, which were prohibited in the North as too liberal.
The manners of lovers are refreshingly free. The hero cohabits with his girlfriend out of wedlock and impregnates her, and this is presented as perfectly normal. For the typically purist and conservative North Korean cinema, the implications are unusual.
Not accidentally, while in the 1965 film the leading role is played by Om Kil Song, a bear-like big young man with a kind face and clumsy manners, the role of Hyong-jun is played by Ri Yong Ho, an intellectual with a toned body, better known for his leading role as the eponymous character in 1986’s “Hong Kil Dong” (홍길동).
The film-makers can barely hide their fascination with the South Koreans
THE SOUTH DIVIDED
The most important novel feature of Ri’s film is the unusual presentation of anti-heroes. While “On the Way of Growth” conventionally points to the “American beasts” as the major source of South Korea’s problems, with the local capitalists merely American puppets, “A Poem for the Beloved One” mentions Americans only in passing.
The main villain who directs the Gwangju slaughter and kills Hyong-jun is a monstrous South Korean general, played by another famous actor, Pak Ki Su.
And this baddie is not an isolated incarnation of evil. “A Poem for the Beloved One” presents the Gwangju uprising as a juxtaposition of two camps of approximately equal sizes: that of the pro-government forces (the military, reactionary professors, etc) versus the freedom-loving civilians. These camps have no room for discussion.
For all its schematization, this presentation was a resolute step forward toward embracing reality. “A Poem for the Beloved One” manages to turn away from the conventional nationalistic illusions of the South as a manipulated American colony, in which all citizens live with the dream of one day falling into the loving embrace of the Dear Leader. The film makes it clear that South Korean reality is complex, and not every South Korean is a loving brother of the North.
Ri Chung Gu does not elaborate how and why some South Koreans join the wrong political camp. This task was accomplished by his followers – the North Korean writers of the 2000s.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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