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This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Jung Gwang Il is sitting in a comfortable hotel room in Seoul, South Korea, recalling the hell he endured as a North Korean. He describes something that resembles waterboarding and being shocked repeatedly with live wires. Worse, he says, was “pigeon torture,” where his hands were bound behind his back and fastened to a wall at a height that made squatting or standing impossible. He was forced to lean forward, twisting in agony for days, his chest puffed like a pigeon’s breast. “It was so awful because they could just leave me there for a week, and I’d be tortured without them having to do anything,” he says. “That’s how evil they are.”
Jung ended 10 months of torture by confessing to spying — a crime he hadn’t committed — and was sent to a prison camp where he slept in barracks with 600 other men. The slave labor and lack of food took a toll: He arrived weighing 167 pounds and left three years later at 79 pounds, his teeth bashed into stubs.
Now a defector living in South Korea — with a new set of teeth — Jung, 51, is determined to inflict maximum damage on the regime of supreme leader Kim Jong Un to the north. His primary weapon is not military arms but rather the Western media he smuggles into his former country, designed to embarrass the regime and expose the lies told by its propagandists and believed by its subjects. Educational material and entertainment both are popular within North Korea’s black market, but the latter is more effective because it is more difficult to demonize as propaganda.
On Dec. 26, a day after Sony’s The Interview opened in independent theaters in the U.S. amid the hacking scandal, Jung likely became the first person to send the incendiary comedy about the assassination of Kim into the so-called Hermit Kingdom, a nickname reflecting its closed-off status. He says he used a secret method to smuggle 500 bootleg copies of the film North Korea tried desperately to keep from moviegoers. Those efforts, according to the Obama administration, included the extraordinary hacking of computers at Sony Pictures and threats to blow up U.S. theaters that dared to play the Seth Rogen comedy. The fallout continued April 16 when WikiLeaks published many of the hacked documents in a searchable database.
Jung, though, is only one of many defectors smuggling Interview into North Korea as part of a growing campaign to embarrass the Kim regime and show his subjects that the country is an object of ridicule in the outside world. To understand the largely secretive effort, THR sent this reporter to several areas near the Korean border for a week. There, I found the controversy surrounding the film, which largely has subsided in the U.S., still rages on the Korean Peninsula — where the North threatens air strikes over distribution of the movie and other media, acts it calls a “de facto declaration of war” against the country. At the same time, the South, in an effort to keep the peace, is taking extraordinary steps to discourage smugglers. On the ground, it is clear the film has become a lightning rod, attracting legions of local press — even as much of what is being reported about its distribution in Korea simply is untrue.
The last point is underscored the day after I touch down at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on April 7. CNN is reporting that unmanned balloons carried 80,000 copies of Interview into North Korea in one day. The actual number, according to the balloonist himself, is merely 200. U.S. resident Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuela native who is the founder and head of the Human Rights Foundation, which finances many drops, is furious and for days demands a correction. CNN eventually scrubs the number from its story, but media outlets worldwide already have picked it up.
Complicating matters, Park Sang Hak, a rival balloonist (yes, there are feuds among defectors who smuggle media into North Korea), suspects the 200 copies sent that day by Lee Min Bok, a pioneer of the ballooning method, ended up back in South Korea because of shifting winds. Lee, who is obsessed with weather patterns and lives in a trailer outfitted with security cameras and walls lined with giant maps of the Korean Peninsula, counters that some balloonists simply are launching when media is around, regardless of wind conditions.
The practice hardly is restricted to The Interview. Through the years, balloonists and other smugglers have delivered thousands of copies of Titanic as well as Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone movies to North Koreans. Lee has air-dropped Zero Dark Thirty and Pearl Harbor. The Hunger Games series has proved particularly interesting to North Koreans allowed to see only state propaganda, given its themes of wealthy bureaucrats lording over oppressed masses. Some defectors say the best parts of U.S. movies simply are people sitting around and discussing issues freely. In North Korea, a slip of the tongue can land a person in a labor camp.
The high-profile defectors who smuggle media into North Korea play a dangerous game — they travel with security details provided by the South Korean government because of retaliation threats from the North. In 2011, an agent working for the North was arrested for attempting to assassinate Park using a poisoned needle disguised as a pen and a gun that looked like a flashlight. The Kim regime refers to Park as “enemy zero,” meaning he sits atop an 11-man “elimination list.”
Park lived in Pyongyang, North Korea, among the privileged, working in the government’s propaganda office before defecting with his family via a combination of bribes and a swim across the Amnok River into China (his sister and mother floated on inner tubes). North Korea responded by beating his uncle to death. Now, Park uses the helium-filled balloons to distribute DVDs and USB drives that begin with five minutes of typical North Korean propaganda before switching abruptly to a 12-minute subtitled edit of Interview — a bit from the beginning, middle and end, with the more vulgar parts removed. For those who risk prison and death to view the video, the revelation is seeing Kim portrayed as a source of ridicule and not, as propagandists insist, a deity sent from heaven to rule North Korea like his father and grandfather before him.
This is why Park is determined to float the film into North Korea. During my visit, though, South Korean authorities twice prevented him from doing so, citing the danger of retaliatory strikes and the government’s desire to avoid an international incident. The first night, with myself and two reporters from the BBC in tow — along with two Americans from the Wikimedia Foundation, Halvorssen and a half-dozen employees and guests of his HRF — about 30 police descend upon us in Paju, a few miles from the border and the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone. Park’s trucks are surrounded, preventing him from accessing his balloons and their payload.
It is major news in South Korea, repeated several times during the next few days — usually with exaggeration. Park was trying to deliver 100,000 complete copies of The Interview, according to local media reports, but in truth he had 2,000 copies of his 12-minute excerpt. Many international outlets pick up the story, further irritating Halvorssen, who constantly is concerned that false information will be used by far-left supporters of the Kim regime in South Korea (about 3 percent to 5 percent of the South’s population) to discredit the defectors’ work. “The truth is compelling on its own. It doesn’t need embellishment,” he laments.
More disturbing: The raid makes Halvorssen suspect the cops and media who appeared seemingly from nowhere that night were tipped off by the security detail employed to protect Park. A few days later, he meets with government officials who validate his theory. “You cannot use security details, who are supposed to be guardians, as spies,” he tells two top representatives from the Ministry of Unification, a South Korean agency responsible for issues surrounding the possible reunification of North and South, neither of whom deny Halvorssen’s claim. The representatives ask me to stow my tape recorder, and I comply while still taking notes. One official calls the balloon drops “needless provocation,” and the other says of Interview, “Common sense dictates this movie is a problem, and rightly so.” I repeat the quote back to her and inform her it will be included in my story. She nods.
Left: U.S. resident Thor Halvorssen filled bags with The Interview,leaflets and American music to be ballooned into North Korea but was stopped April 9 by South Korean police. Right: Lee Min Bok prepared a balloon with Interview,Zero Dark Thirtyand U.S. dollars but was prevented from launching it by two guards.
The officials acknowledge the balloon drops are a constitutionally protected activity, but authorities prevent all three I am set to attend, asserting North Korea has threatened artillery strikes on the balloons. The North has issued statements calling Halvorssen “human scum” and saying Park will “pay for his crimes in blood” if he sends Interview there. The North even sent a balloon south recently, dropping leaflets threatening the activists: “We will destroy them in one shot.” Such threats are not empty rhetoric: In October, soldiers from the North reportedly used machine guns to fire at unmanned balloons carrying U.S. and South Korean media.
To verify stories about attacks on balloons, I speak with two U.S. soldiers stationed at the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. Tourists are allowed there but must follow strict rules: no hand gestures, no bending over to tie shoelaces, no behavior that ridicules the North (our guide describes a joker who was arrested after breaking into the “Gangnam Style” dance). Also, no taking notes, so after interviewing the soldiers, I hide in the bathroom to transcribe what they have told me.
One soldier says he and his buddies saw Interview online (it wasn’t released theatrically in South Korea): American soldiers think it’s funny; South Korean soldiers do not. He says it is a “big deal” when the North takes shots at balloons, and that when a bullet landed in a populated area in South Korea late last year, the incident triggered a United Nations investigation. He adds that his superiors are tipped off to balloon drops before they happen (he declines to say how), and that his base goes on “high alert” those nights. “They make our jobs much harder,” he says of the balloonists.
After his first two tries were thwarted, Park eludes police and makes his first successful balloon drop of Interview on April 15. It includes 10,000 copies of the movie excerpt, the largest drop of the film thus far.
Earlier this year, 800 copies of this version of The Interview had been smuggled into North Korea through more traditional means by the North Korean People’s Liberation Front, run by Choi Jung Hoon. Arguably the most militant defector group, it comprises former North Korean soldiers. “We train with the mentality that one day the bullet will land in Kim Jong Un’s forehead,” Choi tells me.
South Korean authorities lined up to block access for balloon launches, for fear of prompting retaliatory military strikes from the North.
Defectors engaged by Choi chose which scenes of Interview to include in the 12-minute version. Unlike many of those interviewed, Choi is certain that some copies of the film have been viewed in North Korea based on feedback he has received from a source inside the country. “Why the hell didn’t you include the whole movie?” he says the source told him. “They’re thirsting for more!” Another defector, Kim Heung Kwang, has smuggled in a few USBs containing a North Korean propaganda film with scenes of Interview spliced in. His group, North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, also confirms that some who live in the North have seen parts of the film. He calls the reactions “explosive.”
By some estimates, 74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV set, 46 percent to a DVD player, and there are about 8 million PCs and tablets among a population of about 25 million. These devices are not illegal as long as they are used for viewing government-approved material.
Kim Heung Kwang’s background includes a stint in a North Korean military unit responsible for confiscating outside media, and he divulges a favored technique for catching offenders: Authorities shut down power before searching residences in order to disable the eject button on DVD players. Those caught with illicit movies or TV shows are shipped to concentration camps for several years. In 2013, 80 people were executed publicly during a single day, many for watching illegal media as benign as South Korean soap operas.
On my last night in Korea, Halvorssen and his team are brainstorming their next move — and it’s a doozy. On or around April 22, depending on the winds, they plan to launch 14 balloons and fasten a GPS tracker to some, so they’ll know if the cargo drops in a populated area. The move will be the most brazen effort not only to deliver U.S. media but also to see if people actually receive it. The balloons will be packed with copies of Interview as well as clips from Team America: World Police, the 2004 movie by Trey Parker and Matt Stone that includes a puppet of Kim Jong Il singing a song titled “I’m So Ronery.”
To trick North Korean authorities, Interview begins with state propaganda clips before switching abruptly to a 12-minute subtitled edit of Interview — a bit from the beginning, middle and end, with the more vulgar parts removed.
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