North Korean Defector-Turned-Filmmaker on 'The Interview': "It's Fully a Threat to the Regime"
Gim Gyu Min recalls life in the communist nation, how he escaped and what he thinks of the Seth Rogen-James Franco film.
SEOUL, South Korea — While some are smuggling The Interview and other media into North Korea, Gim Gyu Min is doing what almost no other defector has tried: making movies himself.
After working on South Korean films in a variety of capacities, Gim made his directorial debut with 2011's Winter Butterfly, which tells the horrific true story of a family living through North Korea's 1990s famine that killed an estimated 3.5 million people.
In the film, the mother, famished and delirious, eats dirt thinking it's rice and eventually kills her young son and cooks him for food.
The $200,000 feature film was seen only by about 10,000 people during its limited theatrical release in South Korea, but it has developed a following online. Earlier this year he screened it for UN delegates in Geneva, and he's bringing it to Washington, D.C., for North Korea Freedom Week, an event that runs April 26-May 2.
Gim's goal is to make four more movies telling true stories about life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom. He also has a treatment for a fictional film, a thriller about a North Korean spy.
In 1999, when Gim was 25, he dropped out of college, something akin to a crime in North Korea. Before long, his loyalty to Kim Jong Il, the leader at the time, and the Workers' Party was in question, so he was sentenced to hard labor.
Between sentencing and incarceration, he managed to escape by walking and stealing train rides toward China. "I climbed a mountain and headed toward the lights," he recalls, emphasizing how dark North Korea is for lack of electricity.
After settling in South Korea, he hired a broker to help his parents escape, but they never made it. He fears they were sent to one of the notorious prison camps for disloyal families, or simply executed due to their son's defection.
While a young man in North Korea, Gim took apart his radio and jimmied it so that he could pick up signals from South Korea. It was a crime that could have landed him in a prison camp, but he was so starved for outside media that he figured it was worth the risk.
In North Korea, films are basically propaganda, but the citizens enjoy them, some because they buy into the messaging and others because they simply like seeing movies in a theater once in while.
Popular films he recalls include The Nation and Destiny, an anthology that actually consists of 56 (so far) two-hour installments. "Always for the glorification of the Communist government," he says.
He also remembers seeing The Star of Chosun, a 10-part movie series about the mythology of North Korea's "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung. "We believed it all. We'd clap, we'd cry and we'd rise in standing ovation at the end," he says.
Like many of the 27,000 defectors now living in South Korea, he has seen The Interview, the controversial Sony comedy about the assassination of dictator Kim Jong Un, and he's supportive of those who are smuggling the film into North Korea.
"It's hard to compliment the film artistically, but it's fully a threat to the regime," he says. "In North Korea, Kim Jong Un is supposed to be like Jesus or Buddha, so it will make a profound impact because he is made fun of."
A primary problem he has with the movie, though, are scenes where he says the actors butcher the Korean language. "They should have hired me as a consultant," he says.