I RECENTLY VISITED North Korea four times. I witnessed the servility of the people of that oppressed nation to their dictator Kim Jong-Il, and I followed their abandoned tourist trails. I listened to the stories of the refugees who made it out, people who have spent many years in concentration camps before managing to escape the prison camps and then the country, to China, Mongolia and South Korea.
There are 200,000 people in prison camps in North Korea. Kang tells us that he and his family came to the Yodok Prison Camp when he was nine years old. He recalls his surprise at how thin all the other children were. There followed ten years of hard labour in the mines, exhausting years amid the grey landscape of North Korea, the cold and the constant hunger. The only bright spot was to be found in the books that were smuggled in, among them Anna Karenina and the Count of Monte Cristo. The latter inspired him and a friend to start planning their escape – his friend died when his body short- circuited the electric barbed-wire fence, allowing Kang to climb over it.
Another refugee tells me she was a good friend of Kim Jong-Il’s new girlfriend. Her whole family ended up in a prison camp. One of her brothers drowned on the way to the camp’s school, another was shot as he tried to escape, a third brother’s lungs lled with blood during torture – he was released, but disabled for the rest of his life. While the woman tells her story – in South Korea now – I reflect that her brother was lucky: under Kim Jong-Il’s dictatorship the disabled are usually completely eradicated.
THE NORTH-KOREAN dictatorship has existed for sixty years. Remarkably, a man in the street proudly states that this is the first time in 5000 years the country has managed to oppose other empires. This is the country that calls April the 15. “the Day of the Sun”, in honour of their leader’s birthday. On this day, people do not thank God for the food on their tables; they salute the images of Kim Jong-Il on their walls. But the man is sick, and the international community is wondering if the torpedo attack could indicate an internal power conflict between the military and the Government.
The country’s economy is dependent on the prisoners in the labour camps, where they struggle with forest logging, agriculture and coal mining. These slave-labourers do learn to read and write but anything more than addition and subtraction is unheard of, says Shin Dobg-Hiuk, who was born in one of the camps. They also learn other things: if you hide or steal food, you get executed. If you do not work hard enough, you get less food or no food at all. If you try to escape, you will be immediately executed. If you fail to report an escape attempt, you will also die.
His friend died when his body short-circuited the electric barbed-wire fence, allowing Kang to climb over it
In this game of chance, even if you manage to avoid growing up behind barbed wire, as a normal citizen you are still continually forced to witness public executions of “disobedient” people; and it could be your mother or your brother.
In this perverse regime, prisoners’ destines are wide-ranging: the woman Lee Shin had a singing voice that was deemed too beautiful or “capitalist” and was duly punished. Another man tells how as an adult he thought that Korean music was the only music in the world before discovering otherwise when he went to Russia to study. Those who listen to foreign music are arrested. If you have an artistic talent, it has to be put at the disposal of the “Communist Party”.
In this tyranny, crowds of people are forced to march in different colors to form symbols in sports arenas for the amusement of the elite. ese are elite groups who have never suffered the famine their politics caused in the eighties and nineties, a plight greatly exacerbated by the floods of 1995. Today’s little Kim-Hitler, with his platform shoes and loyal companions, have of course never been up the mountainside and eaten rats like the others. Neither did they have to let their children die first, or sell everything they owned for just one meal.
Not even the dictator’s own camp guards can manage: they thin out their rice rations by planting food crops here and there on free patches of earth. In this nightmarish country – in which the global community should have intervened or launched major protests against long ago – the population often voice their dissatisfaction. For North Korea is a country where every shop and business is undersupplied. The result is that the unemployment rate has risen substantially over the last twenty years. But the protesters end up in the camps. The question is: how long you can tyrannies and murder so many of your own citizens?
THE REFUGEES TELL me what happens after you escape. If you’re a woman and manage to get to China, you often end up in the clutches of criminals who will sell you as a sex-slave. Le Shin got away from her second hell – after ten years as a Chinese plaything. The alternative is to be discovered by Chinese agents who will send you back to the honourable Kim’s hell – where you will probably end up in one of the huge electric chairs or hanging from a pole somewhere.
As you have probably guessed, I am describing a documentary film. Kimjongilia by Nancy Heikin was shown at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Hellas this spring. Interestingly, four new documentaries, from and about North Korea, were shown at this festival.
Danish Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel is, on the face of it, the story of a music group comprising Jacob and Simon; two Danish-adopted Koreans on a cultural exchange trip. What is ridiculous is that they are taken seriously, while their – or Brügger’s – message, is an ironic one. One of them – a disabled, speech-impaired young man in a wheelchair – is in fact enthusiastically applauded during their increasingly awkward musical performances.
But can Brügger’s criticism really be directed at all Kim’s “tin soldiers”? Although their performances make plain the oppression and surveillance in North Korea, ultimately my amusement still sticks in my throat. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that, for the director – omnipresent in front of the camera – this is mostly about theatre. I can of course applaud him for creating his very own little “Red Chapel” – the name originates from a communist spy-cell during the Nazi Era – perhaps because again, in true Lars von Trier style, this is a kick in the teeth for the type of morality exemplified by e Idiots. However, in Brügger’s film, it turns out that one of his “idiots” thinks that the film director is pushing him too far in this performance – we the audience witness how Brügger exploits his disability. Can you really toy with one of the world’s most gruesome regimes like that? The film won first prize at the Nordic Panorama Festival, its gleeful rawness delighted at least one jury.
In true Lars von Trier style, this is a kick in the teeth
Linda Jablonska’s Welcome to North Korea is a more traditional tale of a group of 27 Czechs who, for 600 Euros, get to go on closely supervised tourist trips to the same places visited in The Red Chapel. Once again, the foreign guests are only allowed to see a well-prepared illusion, closely accompanied by “guides”. This was the second time in twenty years that a Czech group had undertaken such a trip. Thus, they visit a regime which is somewhat reminiscent of their own in days gone by.
SINCE THE FILM Kimjongilia lays the emotive background music on heavily, I prefer the Norwegian- produced Yodok Stories (2008). It deals with the same theme; in fact the film title is taken from the prison camp mentioned in Kimjongilia. Yodok Stories also contains interviews with several people – some of the same people in fact – about their experiences in the hellish north. But interestingly enough, the Polish director Andrej Fidzyk also interviewed guards who fled to South Korea. We hear stories about women getting their both hair and breasts cut off , being routinely raped, and their new-born babies murdered. You could end up with your hands tied behind your back for six months for a careless remark about the beloved Kim. And if a group of people gather to protest, they could massacre 5000 to set an example – as happened in 1987.
Is suicide the only way out? Unfortunately, they will execute your entire family if you make an attempt. us only a very few escape the concentration camps, in one way or another.
In Yodok Stories, there is also a musical about the suffering. Here we are together – as much as we can be in a documentary – with refugees who have experienced extreme trauma in the camps. The coming musical in the documentary drives the story, which follows their production from the very first rehearsals. In the end, the victims sing about their experiences in the camps – between “the soldiers” who execute them one by one. The picturesque dance scenes and colours captivate us with their beauty and grisly content. Yodok Stories has been shown at festivals for a year and a half, so I ask Kimjongilia’s director Heikin here in Thessaloniki if she has learned anything from the film – Surprisingly, she has not seen it.
It will soon be premiered in South Korea. Like Norwegian Piraya Film, who got Yodok Stories shown to the US Congress, she tells me that Foreign Minister Clinton has been given a copy of the film. When will the 29,000 US soldiers stationed in South-Korea be mobilised amid the new tension that now threatens the area? For some, the attack on the South Korean ship may constitute a “false flag operation”, something history tells us that several times has started wars – where a state attacks itself, and then blames the enemy. Only the future will tell.
BUT SHOULD DANCE and music be a liberating or captivating device in documentary films?
Heikin tells how she intentionally plays on the audience’s emotions. At least, perhaps she communicates better with the more middle-class viewer in documentary film circles. But as Pier Paolo Pasolini once wrote in his essay The Poetic Film, these directors are perhaps not class – conscious. Neither do they resort to the kind of raw, “subjective, free, indirect speech”, North-Korean lm makers may have used. But today we
cannot assume that anyone would dare to film in
Kim’s infamous camp hell. We will only get a documentary directly from there if the impending tension gets Kim “removed”. First then will we see those scrawny prisoners with their dull and colourless eyes – just like the Russians did when their tanks in 1945 rolled into the concentration camps abandoned by the Nazis.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).