Korean Crossfire: Myths and Truths About North Korean Propaganda Films

The 1972 North Korean Propoganda Film 'The Flower Girl' has won critical praise outside the country.

As North and South Korea engage in crossfire and cross-propaganda attacks, THR looks into the stereotypes — and artistic value —of North Korean propaganda films available on YouTube.

Tensions are escalating on the Korean Peninsula this week, with both North and South Korea exchanging heavy artiillery fire on Thursday across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries. 

The violent exchange comes after a cross-border propaganda attack on Monday, during which Seoul and Pyongyang blasted audio messages over the DMZ for the first time in 11 years.

North Korea followed up by firing two rockets over the border, which landed in an isolated area around 4 p.m. on Thursday. Hundreds of South Koreans were evacuated from the region as a precaution, said a spokesperson for the South's military.

As the propaganda wars between North and South start to heat up and threaten to turn deadly, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with an expert on North Korean  propaganda movies to discuss how Pyongyang gets its message across.

"In the North, these propaganda films—called 'partisan films'—are required viewing, but they have also been largely appreciated by North Koreans for their entertainment value," said Tatiana Gabroussenko, assistant professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, at Seoul's Yeol Korean Heritage Preservation Society.

"The Korean War continues to be a central theme [in these films], as it is thought to have played a significant role in the formation of Pyongyang's identity," she said.

While the war, not surprisingly, is viewed in Pyongyang's propaganda as a victory for the North, many partisan films focus not on proud armies but on the average boys and girls that served as underground secret agents. Films such as Young Guerrillas (1951) or Women Guerillas (1952) are illustrative of this trend. 

In The Children's Guard (1984), an archetypal partisan hero is inspired to fight by witnessing the enemy's atrocities. Inspiration, however, comes not from individual motives but out of loyalty to the Father Leader, the head of the North Korean state. In one scene, a mother supports the suicide of her young son, all in the name of serving their country.

Typically, however, the villains in Pyongyang features are evil Americans. The famous propaganda feature Wolmi Island (1982) depicts Americans as the embodiment of vice. 

South Koreans, on the other hand, have traditionally been depicted as poor victims of the U.S., unaware of being led astray. In Fates of Kum Hui and Un Hui (1975), two sisters are separated during the war. One leads a prosperous life in the North, the other a dire existence in the impoverished South.

Many of these propaganda movies are, perhaps surprisingly, tender and emotional.

"North Korean films are not as blatant and aggressive as you might think," said Gabroussenko. "Some of them are even aesthetically appealing. My own mother — an elderly lady with no knowledge of, or sympathy for, North Korea — saw some of these movies by chance and said she was touched by such universal themes of heroism and patriotism."

A small number of North Korean films have won acclaim outside the country, including Young Guerrillas, Return to the Front (1952) and The Flower Girl (1972), the latter held by some critics to be the must-see classic from the Pyongyang factory.

In the more recent Nation and Fate, a 1990s film series, the Korean War and the role of South Koreans is depicted in a more complex manner. Here, the war is shown as an epic tale of brotherly conflict, with tragic heroes on both sides.

"South Koreans [are being shown as] brave, motivational fighters, but ones who need to repent their mistakes and crimes from following the U.S.," said Gabroussenko. "Unification is still seen as being to be carried out solely under North Korea's terms, with the South rushing into the bosom of Pyongyang."

"Propaganda films continue to evolve, and we will have to see how recent developments between North and South Korea will affect them," the professor said. She warns, however, that North Korean cinema is only one barometer of Pyongyang's sociopolitical climate. While on-screen relations appear to be improving, the conditions on the ground, as this week's events show, are moving in the opposite direction.

A sizable number of North Korean films are available, with English subtitles, on YouTube. You can watch them here.