Pathology and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula

My introduction to Korean films and the changing political landscape in the south was Lee Chang-dong’s 2000 masterpiece “Peppermint Candy”.  Not only was it a fearless assault on South Korean repression of strikes and student protests in the 1980s, it was my pick for best narrative film that year leaving Academy Award winner “Gladiator” in the dust. If Hong Kong cinema had become increasingly formulaic by then, South Korea picked up the slack and turned into by far the most fertile ground for new cinema in the world.

Chang-dong Lee went on to write and direct other masterpieces, including “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry”, but even more importantly to serve as a symbol of progress in the south and reconciliation with the north in his capacity as Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003-2004 under reformer President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh continued the policies of Kim Dae-jung who ruled from 1998 to 2003. Widely regarded as the Nelson Mandela of South Korea, Kim instituted the “Sunshine Policy” that sought to bring the two halves of the country closer together.

Roh’s presidency was marred by personal corruption and a willingness to make concessions to neoliberalism, especially the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. in 2007. Despite this, Roh remained committed to rapprochement with the north.  In 2011 Wikileaks released an American diplomatic cable to South Korea calling attention to Roh’s concerns over the mistreatment of North Korea.

Economic stagnation under Roh led to him being ousted in 2007 by Lee Myung-bak, the CEO of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s top chaebols. One year into his presidency, Lee trashed the Sunshine Policy and warned the north that he would end economic cooperation unless it abandoned its nuclear weapons program. Elected in 2012, South Korea’s first female president Park Geun-hye has been following Lee’s policies to the letter–hence the current crisis.

When I first got the idea of surveying South Korean films about the Korean War about two years ago, I had no idea that the review would coincide with the current stand-off although a Las Vegas bookie would have probably given me 50-50 odds given the bellicose posture of the last two presidents, egged on by the Obama administration.

Inspired by the Sunshine Policy, Korean filmmakers made an eye-opening series of films about the Korean War that shared Lee Chang-dong’s revisionist outlook. All rejected the hardline anti-Communism that prevailed from the 1950s through the 1980s, with some achieving the mastery of “Peppermint Candy”. For cinephiles and those wanting to gain an understanding of how Korean artists view their daunting situation, these films are essential.

Two of the films predate the Sunshine Policy but were fruits of a liberalization that actually began in the 1980s under President Roh Tae-woo. He may have not been willing to open up the system to workers and students but he did end film censorship. Those screenwriters and directors who decided to take advantage of the openings constituted a New Wave. Not only would it be easier for South Korean filmmakers to absorb Western culture; the film industry could now export its films to markets that had already been eager for the next John Woo flick. This, of course, is globalization at its best.

It is worth noting that Korean filmmakers continue to lament the Korean War and its aftermath even though the Sunshine Policy has ended. The 2011 “The Front Line”, the final film in my survey, is about as bitter a commentary as can be imagined. That being said, it must be understood that none dare to go as far as to make North Korea’s case. All of them express a liberal belief in the need for peace and reconciliation, which given the current impasse would be a big improvement.

The other revelation is that some of the films recognize that the south was not some kind of bastion of free market ideology when the Korean War broke out. As Bruce Cumings pointed out in his indispensible and recently published “The Korea War: a History”, the war was rooted in a decades long struggle against landlordism and Japanese occupation. (Cumings’s book is dedicated to Kim Dae Jung.)

Except where noted, all of these films are available from Netflix or Amazon.

1. Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990)

Jeong Ji-yeong, a fierce opponent of censorship in his country and the Free Trade Agreement, was the director. Based on the memoir of a revolutionary journalist from the north named Tae Lee, it describes the bloody confrontations between radical-minded irregulars from the south and far more powerful imperialist forces on the battle fields of Mount Jiri. Jeong sparked controversy for making his communist characters so sympathetic. Among all the films under survey here, you will find no portrayal as fair-minded even though the characters are often given stilted “revolutionary” dialog to work with.

Cumings points to the war reporting of Walter Sullivan, a NY Timesman who defied the cold war consensus to explain what led the partisans to risk their lives in what amounted to an unwinnable battle. (Sullivan would become famous for his science reporting but started out as a war correspondent.) He described a “great divergence of wealth” that condemned middle and poor peasants to live a “marginal existence”. Cumings writes:

He [Sullivan] interviewed ten peasant families; none owned all their own land, and most were tenants. The landlord took 30 percent of tenant produce, but additional exactions—government taxes, and various “contributions”—ranged from 48 to 70 percent of the annual crop.” The primary cause of the South Korean insurgency was the ancient curse of average Koreans—the social inequity of land relations and the huge gap between a tiny elite of the rich and the vast majority of the poor.

Nambugun is available from Han Books for $19.75 and is well worth it. Be forewarned, however, that it is only available as a Region 3 DVD.

2. The Taebaek Mountains (1994)

Director Im Kwon-taek was an important member of Korea’s New Wave. The film is a dramatization of an uprising against landlords in the southernmost region of South Korea in 1948. While by no means sympathetic to the rebels, its portrait of the anti-Communist gangs and military is scathing. Im generally regards the peasants as innocent victims of rival forces bent on imposing rigid ideologies.

In David E. James and Kyung-Hyun Kim’s collection of essays titled “Im Kwon-taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema”, film professor Kyung Hyun Kim of U.C. Irvine who I had the good fortune to hear lecture on North Korean film a few years ago, makes some interesting points about “The Taebaek Mountains”. Unlike the conventional anti-Communist movies of the Cold War, the film emphasizes the tensions among the local populace in the south: “As Kim Pom-u, the protagonist of ‘The Taebaek Mountains’, asserts, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few landlords who had collaborated with the Japanese was one of the principle causes of he war”.

Bruce Cumings explains why the Japanese and then the American connection remains a sore point after all these years:

Kim II Sung began fighting the Japanese in Manchuria in the spring of 1932, and his heirs trace everything back to this distant beginning. After every other characteristic attached to this regime—Communist, nationalist, rogue state, evil enemy—it was first of all, and above all else, an anti-Japanese entity. A state narrative runs from the early days of anti-Japanese insurgency down to the present, and it is drummed into the brains of everyone in the country by an elderly elite that believes anyone younger than they cannot possibly know what it meant to fight Japan in the 1930s or the United States in the 1950s (allied with Japan and utilizing bases all over Japan)—and, more or less, ever since. When you combine deeply ingrained Confucian patriarchy and filial piety with people who have been sentient adults more or less since the Korean War began in 1950, you have some sense of why North Korea has changed so little at top levels in recent decades, and why it is highly unlikely to change radically before this elite—and its relentlessly nationalist ideology—leaves the scene.

“The Taebaek Mountains is also available from Han Books for $19.93 as an “all regions” DVD.

3. Joint Security Area (2000)

Director Park Chan-Wook is best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy” that includes the 2003 “Oldboy”. While the trilogy is exciting grand guignol cinema, it seems strikingly distinct from the concerns of “Joint Security Area”, a film about the fraternization of southern and northern troops near the DMZ. But upon deeper reflection, isn’t the blind fury directed at the north a symptom of the same irrationality?

Although nominally a war movie, “Joint Security Area” might be more accurately described as a peace movie. When southern soldiers accidentally stray across the DMZ, their “enemies” rescue them from a land mine studded field. This leads to a male bonding that culminates in friendly card games, boozing, and practical jokes at the barracks in the south. Without giving away too much, the contradictions of two opposing social systems leads to a tragic conclusion.

A year after its release, “Joint Security Area” became the highest-grossing film in Korean history. Wikipedia reports that director Quentin Tarantino named the film as one of his twenty favorite films and that Roh Moo-hyun presented a DVD of the movie to Kim Jong-Il at a summit meeting in October 2007.

Park Chan-Wook made a Hollywood movie this year called “Stoker” that has been described as Hitchcockian. One hopes that tinseltown will not erode his creativity as it has with other immigrant directors including John Woo who has wisely made the decision to return to Asia.

“Joint Security Area” is available as a Netflix DVD.

4. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

This is my personal favorite. Director Kang Je-gyu is best known for “Shiri”, a blockbuster about a female spy from the north married to a South Korean CIA agent unaware of her true identity.

The brotherhood in the title refers to two brothers who end up on opposing sides during the Korean War. In keeping with the liberal and pacifist character of all the films, the war is seen as the tragic and necessary outcome of clashing fanaticisms. Kang is a superb director of battle scenes and was clearly influenced by Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

However, what makes this film stand out is its no-holds-barred portrayal of the anti-Communist militias of the south that functioned as death squads. If both sides in the Korean War are considered as inimical to the broader interests of the Korean people, the fascist-like killers in the south are in a class by themselves. Needless to say, 20 years earlier in Korean history it would have been impossible to target one of the bastions of capitalist rule in the south.

Bruce Cumings describes the activities of the Northwest Youth Corps, a model for the group that figures in “Tae Guk Gi”:

As I was getting to know the furious and unremittingly vicious conflicts that have wracked divided Korea, I sat in the Hoover Institution library reading through a magazine issued by the Northwest Youth Corps in the late 1940s. On its cover were cartoons of Communists disemboweling pregnant women, running bayonets through little kids, burning down people’s homes, smashing open the brains of opponents. As it happened, this was their political practice. In Hagui village, for example, right-wing youths captured a pregnant twenty-one-year-old woman named Mun, whose husband was allegedly an insurgent, dragged her from her home, and stabbed her thirteen times with spears, causing her to abort. She was left to die with her baby half-delivered. Other women were serially raped, often in front of villagers, and then blown up with a grenade in the vagina.’ This pathology, perhaps, has something to do with the self-hatred of individuals who did Japanese bidding, now operating on behalf of another foreign power, and with extremes of misogyny in Korea’s patriarchal society.

“Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” is available as a Netflix DVD.

5. Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)

Unlike all the other films being surveyed, this is a comedy in the spirit of Philippe De Broca’s “King of Hearts”. Dongmakgol is a tiny and remote farming village in the south that not only has no idea that a war is taking place, but also has never seen a gun before.

When soldiers from the opposed sides end up in the village, they have a standoff that would likely lead to the kind of carnage happening everywhere else in the nation. When a grenade is tossed accidentally into their communal grain house, the explosion produces a surreal downpour of popcorn—just one of the comical touches in the film.

Feeling remorse for leaving the villagers without food, the soldiers decide to lay down their arms and help them make it through the winter. Obviously the film is a plea for Koreans to overcome their differences and work together for the greater good.

“Welcome to Dongmakgol” can be seen on Netflix streaming.

6. The Front Line (2012)

This is similar in spirit to “Joint Security Area”. Set during the final months of the war, soldiers from either side have not only grown war-weary; they have gotten into the habit of dropping off gifts to each other-like wine and cigarettes-at a designated secret store-box at the bottom of a bunker near the front lines.

Despite their desire to fraternize and to eventually live in peace, orders from on high force them to die in a senseless battle that takes place after a truce has been declared.

This is the second reconciliation film directed by Jang Hoon. His “Secret Reunion”, a 2010 film I have not seen, is about former north and south Korean spies bonding together out of a shared interest.

“The Front Line” is available in Netflix streaming.

It is difficult to get a sense of the feelings of ordinary South Koreans about the current crisis since the bourgeois media is so focused on the statements of various government officials. It is not hard to imagine that the pacifist feelings expressed in these six films continues to be felt by those Koreans who are tired of conflict and disunity—the likely overwhelming majority of its citizens.

Let’s allow Bruce Cumings have the parting words on this:

Thus we arrive at our absurd predicament, where the party of memory remains concentrated on its main task, perfecting a world-historical garrison state that will do its bidding and hold off the enemy, and the party of forgetting and never-knowing pays sporadic attention only when it must, when the North seizes a spy ship or cuts down a poplar tree or blows off an A-bomb or sends a rocket into the heavens. Then the media waters part, we behold the evil enemy in Pyongyang—drums beat, sabers rattle—but nothing really happens, and the waters close over until the next time. We don’t approve of them but pay little attention and pat ourselves on the back, while they mimic Plato’s Republic or monolithic Catholicism or Stalin’s cadres: they engineer the souls of their people from on high, starting at the beginning just as their neo-Confucian forebears did, when a human being is all innocence and wonder, and continuing until they have at least the image if not the reality of perfect agreement and coherence, a “monolithicism” (their term) seeking a one-for-all great integral that will smite the enemy. They think they know good and evil in their bones, but we aren’t so sure.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.