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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A new two-and-a-half-hour-long film airing daily on North Korean television since last Friday tells the official story of leader Kim Jong Un’s 2019 summits with foreign leaders as well as numerous economic and military inspections, emphasizing the country’s “new path” in rejecting talks with the U.S.
U.S. President Donald Trump is featured in back-to-back segments early in the film on his meetings with Kim in Hanoi in February and at the inter-Korean border in late June, with the narrator and editing depicting scenes where Kim stood up to Trump, rejected U.S. offers, and was ultimately “convinced” of the country’s shift to its “new strategic line.”
But the bulk of the film focused on Kim’s economic goals, major construction projects, military development, and readiness against the “hostile forces” — wrapping up with the Mt. Paektu propaganda theme that has been stepped up since the end of last year.
While meandering between subjects and most heavily emphasizing the North’s slogans of “self-reliance” in the face of obstacles posed by “enemies” — a stance solidified in Kim Jong Un’s new year plenum speech — it also elevated Kim’s cult of personality, as in past year-in-review films of the leader’s activities.
It paints a stark picture of how the North Korean state is seeking to portray the events of last year to its people — and how the country may be seeking to steel the domestic audience for tough times ahead.
The film’s title is: “A victorious year advancing the banner of independence and the path to self-reliant wealth and power — conveying part of the great heroic history of struggle embracing the legendary miracle year of 2019” (자주의 기치, 자력부강의 진로따라 전진해온 승리의 해 — 2019년의 전설적기적을 안아온 위대한 영웅적투쟁사의 일부를 전하다)
TELLING THE STORY OF KIM-TRUMP
Trump and Kim’s two meetings in 2019 featured early in the long film, about 11 minutes in.
This section explaining North Korea’s U.S. policy came after only a few introductory segments on Kim’s New Year Address, a Pyongyang mass rally, and his summits in January with the Chinese President and in early March with the Vietnamese leader (actually held after the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit).
It was also preceded by footage of Kim sitting in a chair in the halls of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) headquarters telling, according to the narrator, the top officials standing to the side about the “changing situation” and the country’s “revolutionary” and “self-reliant” path in response.
After transitioning from the summit with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong by pointing to world news attention on the Kim-Trump summit, foreboding orchestral music plays and an image of two leaders shaking hands is shown for the only time in the film.
Only still images were used for Trump and Kim’s meetings, showing Kim smiling at first and then looking over at Trump or speaking authoritatively, while the U.S. President is shown either watching Kim or looking away.
Kim’s defense of North Korean interests were introduced over the images of the Hanoi summit, followed by the narrator paraphrasing Kim as having said that “the U.S., who did not fulfill their promise in front of the world, miscalculated our patience and unilaterally imposed sanctions and pressure on our country.”
“We could not help but seek a new path,” narrator Ri Chun Hee said, “in the greatest interest of our nation and the country’s sovereignty … to achieve peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”
At the June 30 Panmunjom meeting, too, Kim Jong Un “was convinced that the path we chose is right and that it is a path we must take until the end,” the narrator said, suggesting the brief summit was the impetus for a changed stance towards the U.S.
“We emphasize discussions and negotiations to find solutions and we hope to build a real peace as soon as possible,” she said, but added Kim could not give in to “the U.S.’s style of only considering its own unilateral demands.”
The narrator said that the U.S. went on about offers to help improve North Korea’s economy, but that “we have no thought of developing in the way you (the U.S.) have suggested.”
“I am completely in charge of our safety, peace, and future, and I am in charge of our Party, and as for our tomorrow, it will of course be our own choice — not what you’re presenting and suggesting,” Kim told Trump, according to the film’s narration.
“What is obvious is that if we continue with the political calculation method of the U.S., the prospects for a solution will be dark and extremely dangerous.”
Kim Jong Un then reportedly said to Trump that “the pain of our people, that has come as a result of the sanctions you all imposed, is now nothing but fury.”
“Even if sanctions are lifted, we have no interest, and now we will not focus on this any longer.”
Rounding out the segment showing the June 30 meeting, Kim was said to have “solemnly clarified” to Trump that the country would develop on its own, ending on an image of President Trump staring blankly at the floor.
North Korean state media, however, initially characterized the Hanoi summit as an “important occasion to deepen mutual respect,” and the June 30 Panmumjom meeting as “historic” and where Kim Jong Un “expressed great satisfaction over the results of the talks.”
But the country’s retelling of the summits became more negative as the year went on, with the new film’s depiction of Kim’s strong stance against Trump likely taking creative license to reframe the North’s complaints after another round of failed working-level talks in early October.
THE “NEW PATH” IN APRIL
After cutting from Trump-Kim to the DPRK leader’s site inspections of the major state-led construction projects in Samjiyon and the Wonsan-Kalma beach resort, the film turns back to the subject of Kim’s “new path” as deliberated in a series of political meetings in April.
Kim is first shown in a still image writing on a piece of paper in his office at the WPK HQ, with the narrator saying North Korea’s “stance became stronger” in the face of the sanctions of the “hostile powers.”
Economic themes then dominated descriptions of the enlarged politburo meeting on April 9, the WPK Central Committee 4th Plenary Meeting on April 10, and the First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on April 11.
This is followed by footage of Kim in on-site inspections of a range of locations in all months of the year.
Amid these were tangents on the SPA election in March, Kim’s conversation on education with President of Kim Chaek University of Technology Hong So Hon (whom Kim voted for) at the polling site, and Kim greeting participants of the 14th National Conference of Teachers in September.
Also shown in this section of the film was an emergency enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in September ahead of an approaching typhoon, presented in relation to agricultural matters.
FOCUS ON MILITARY DEVELOPMENT
For around 28 minutes starting from an hour into the film, the focus shifted to military developments, weapons tests, and more descriptions of Kim Jong Un’s resolve to stand up to the “hostile forces” mainly represented by the U.S-South Korean alliance.
As Kim is shown saluting military members lining the streets on his way to an early February speech delivered at the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces as the narrator calls “2019 the year that the unbeatable splendor of the best and brightest military of the revolutionary party — … with invincible military capabilities — was shown off entirely!”
This is followed by footage of Kim’s guidance of the 5th Meeting of Company Leaders and Political Instructors of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in March, and Kim observing KPA jet fighter flight drills in April.
Quoting Kim, the narrator said over the jet drills that “the climate of peace, that began settling in the Korean peninsula today, is not a durable one.”
“The hostile forces’ attempt at invading the DPRK has not gone. We have to always keep in mind that peace can be ensured only through powerful military capabilities, by firmly maintaining the principle of self-defense, and continuing to increase the defense capabilities of the country.”
Speaking over footage of Kim’s inspection of the country’s first public weapons test of the year in early May — short-range ballistic missiles which the U.S. brushed off — the narrator again quoted Kim as saying “our fighter pilots should think of fighting the enemies, who are armed from head to toe, with thoroughly great ideas and tactics.”
“It is always emphasized: whether or not a fight is won does not depend on the combat technological resources of the armed equipment, but rather on what idea the soldiers have and what they fight for,” narrator Ri added, as Kim watched the 2019 combat flight contest and “airborne landing training of sharpshooter sub-units” at the Wonsan Kalma Airport in November.
Following footage of late November visits to men’s and women’s military units stationed on small islands on the western front, and a June group photo of Kim with military wives — focused heavily on his father-like interactions with two young boys — the film’s attention shifted again to the DPRK’s “enemies” and weapons development in 2019.
Party daily Rodong Sinmun front-page spreads were then shown of nine of Kim’s missile test guidance visits between July and late November, ending out of order on the October test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), where state media at the time appeared to cover up his presence.
The narrator said 2019 was “the year … when new Juche weapons were born, [developed] in our style and which the world has never seen before,” calling all of the tests “great victories.”
Three other Rodong articles then splash on screen over dark clouds, U.S. aircraft carriers, and jet formations: one from May criticizing the U.S. and South Korea for further installation work of the THAAD missile defense system, one from July complaining about recent U.S.-South Korea military drills, and one from August condemning ROK purchases of U.S. F-35 stealth fighter jets.
At this point the narrator said “the hostile forces’ scheme to isolate and crush us to death is at its height.”
Kim Jong Un, she said, “has determined to more relentlessly consolidate eternal power to guarantee peace for firmly crushing the black violence of all sorts of hostile forces,” who are matched “with the red violence of revolution!”
The North’s enemies, the narrator added, “speak of reconciliation and cooperation up front while secretly trying to adamantly annihilate our idea, institution, and sovereignty, not abandoning their invasive ambitions and hostile policy towards our DPRK.”
Footage is then shown of Kim in front of his train, possibly during one of his trips to view a weapons test, providing orders on the country’s military policy to his top officials.
“We can’t say that we have arranged authentic power to guarantee security for our next generations if the vicious cycle of tension and ease, confrontation and dialogue, repeat themselves again going forward,” the narrator described Kim as having said.
“We cannot be at ease or rest even for a moment if we are conscious of that heavy responsibility that we are taking responsibility for the security of our people and the safety of our next generations.”
“Before I arrange the power for guaranteeing security — that will be secure for thousands of years — for our people and the next generations, I will not stop walking the way I have set for even a moment, and will not be broken nor knocked down on that road!” Kim was quoted as saying, still shown in front of the train.
Shown back inside his train — a theme throughout the film that is touched on more explicitly at the end — the narrator refers to “the rugged new road of developing new Juche weapons: the road that our leader forged once again, with his do-or-die devotion, consolidating his obstinate and indomitable will that he will not trade for anything the dignity of the country and the people, and the bright future of the next generations!”
This line echoes a key point in the new year plenum speech being promoted since January 1 this year, that despite admittedly “urgently” needing sanctions relief, the DPRK “can never sell our dignity which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life, in hope for brilliant transformation.”
More footage is then shown of Kim out in the field getting his feet wet (a point often stressed in state media as proof of his devotion) in the process of guiding missile tests, followed by artificially animated still images of the missiles in the air after launch.
The narrator said that in 2019 “each Juche missile that was born served as the unyielding lever lifting high Korea’s powerful force and status to the world — in the historic hour pointing to the time of undying peace on this land, where the path of the destruction of nuclear war, that the global community had not been able to avoid, was prevented.”
Speaking over images of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM launch, she said the newly-developed missiles served “to tame the thunder and lightning of invasion, and as the glorious treasured sword of independence and justice, the lightning rod of the planet protecting the peace of [our] powerful socialist country.”
The half-hour section on the year in military development ends with Kim hugging top military officials at missile test sites and the narrator praising his guidance and the work of the country’s defense scientists.
RESORTS FOR PLAY, BUT NOT WHEN I’M AWAY
Back on the road and on to the topic of “improving the lives of the people,” the next 20 minutes of the film were dedicated to the rapid construction of the Yangdok Hot Springs resort in 2019 and the progress on the remodeling of northern township of Samjiyon.
Presented within the section recounting Kim’s two late-2018 visits to Yangdok and four more visits throughout 2019, including at the December grand opening, is the juxtaposition to what Kim criticized as “shabby” and “unpleasant-looking facilities” built by South Korean companies at Mt. Kumgang, which he inspected in October and ordered to be destroyed.
“Comrades, look here, at just how much the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Area contrasts with” the Yangdok resort, the narrator said.
Kim’s three inspections of Samjiyon are given less attention than Yangdok, however, perhaps due to its status being only partially completed as of its December opening ceremony and due to its longer construction process kicking off in late 2017.
After focusing at length on Kim’s work on resorts and new models of small-town construction to improve livelihoods, the next section jumps back in time to lavish praise on his April summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — reprising a propaganda campaign depicting ordinary North Koreans working hard while he was abroad.
Next were scenes of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s late-June visit to Pyongyang, with the narrator emphasizing the close DPRK-China relations forged between the two countries in 2019.
Footage of Kim shaking hands with Xi as well as similar shots with the Russian and Vietnamese leaders — excluding Trump as the focus was on relations with friendly nations — were shown again as Kim’s guidance of foreign relations was praised.
But Trump made an appearance again moments later in clips from world news broadcasts on Kim’s summits, with narration saying Kim “clearly determined” the country’s independent foreign relations in “turbulent 2019.”
PAEKTU AND THE PLENUM TO SET UP 2020
The final section of the film is dedicated to Kim Jong Un’s October and December equestrian propaganda displays at Mt. Paektu, likening Kim, as the narrator said, to his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s supposed anti-Japanese activities in the area and his father Kim Jong Il’s supposed birth there.
Much of it was reused footage of Kim and other top officials riding horses at the mountain that was featured in another new year documentary, with both emphasizing propaganda messages appearing to focus on Kim’s legitimacy drawing from the previous leaders and the correct “revolutionary” path in the current “turbulent” times.
Also included was footage and a recounting of Kim’s speech at the WPK CC 5th Plenary Meeting held in the final days of December, where the North officially announced its determination to forget wishes of sanctions relief from the U.S., develop its economy on its own, and strengthen weapons development to deter the U.S.
The official openings of Samjiyon, the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery, the Yangdok Hot Springs and ski resort, and the Phalhyang Dam of the Orangchon Power Station were then presented as Kim’s key achievements of 2019 — all packed into December seemingly for propaganda purposes, regardless of some of the projects admittedly being unfinished.
Amid more scenes of Kim’s luxurious train throughout the country in all seasons, the narrator harped once again on the theme of the country’s leader sacrificing his comfort for the benefit of the people.
“For our leader, who rode the train endlessly throughout 2019, the train has now, like a habit, become better and more comfortable than his home.”
“When he smiles and says, ‘Somehow, I’m uncomfortable when I enter my home,’ just how much passion burns in the hearts of the North Korean workers?” the narrator asked.
“He says the train’s hard bed is better than a comfy bed, recalling thoughts of the father General riding the people’s train to the end down the revolutionary path until the last moment,” she added, as an image of Kim Jong Il splashed on screen.
Identical to the Mt. Paektu film released earlier this month, the 2019-in-review film also ended on an orange-filtered shot of Kim and the dozen-plus other officials riding horses into the sunset, as the narrator referred to the latest political slogans and urged North Koreans to “advance, advance, advance.”
Additional assistance provided by Jeongmin Kim
Edited by Oliver Hotham