The Dear Director

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

One of the few things known about Kim Jong-il in the West, from at least the 1980s, is that the North Korean dauphin is a movie fan, and that for a while he personally led the entire North Korean movie industry.

Indeed, movies titillated Kim Jong-il’s imagination when he was a student at the Kim Il-sung university in the early 1960s; he loved movies. Of course, his choice was not the boring North Korean films about exemplary steel workers and selfless military nurses who recited dreary monologues about their love for the party (not so for the Leader at that stage).

The young dauphin preferred Western movies, mostly imported from Europe or the U.S. via Moscow. Following the then Soviet approach, such ideologically suspicious movies were bought in very small quantities. They were not for public screening, but the private viewing of the top elite. It is well known that Stalin was a great movie fan.

Nothing like it has ever been heard about Kim Il-sung, but it seems that his eldest son spent long hours in a small viewing room of the Film Distribution Center, itself located on the second floor of an unremarkable apartment building in downtown Pyongyang.

This youthful passion for movies influenced his private life. The two major love affairs that Kim Jong-il had were with women from this theatrical-cinematographic milieu. But it also influenced his political career since the first job for the ‘rising son’ was to head the cinema production group in the Party Central Committee.

In a Communist party, the Central Committee is believed to be the center of everything, and the “ideological guidance” of the fine arts is one of its major tasks. In North Korea, following the Soviet prototype, this task was entrusted to the Agitation and Propaganda Department, which had a special arts section. Arts were seen as a part of propaganda, first and foremost. The cinema production group, headed by Kim Jong-il, belonged to this section.

Kim Jong-il assumed his leadership role in September 1967, when the cinema world was in turmoil. In September 1967, the North Korean Politburo, the party- state’s supreme council, held an urgent meeting on the premises of North Korea’s largest cinema studio. Movie industry leaders were subjected to sharp attacks because they allegedly condoned “anti-party activity” by producing a movie about Pak Kum-chol, a prominent statesman who had recently fallen from grace. Needless to say, this is the normal risk of being a movie producer or writer in a Stalinist society. You are required to worship heroes, but you never know if today’s hero will become tomorrow’s villain. The situation looked grim, praising the enemies of the people could not be taken lightly.

According to an apocryphal but perhaps true story, it was during the “studio” meeting of the Politburo that the then 25 year-old Kim Jong-il volunteered to take control of the cinema industry. Whatever his intentions, this decision saved many people in the industry from humiliation and death. Kim Jong-il staged large-scale self-criticism sessions, but more serious punishments were rare.

In fact, Kim Jong-il protected his beloved cinema world during the turbulent years of the “Kapsan purge,” which was probably the last large-scale purge of top leaders and their associates in North Korean history. After 1970, purges were largely isolated albeit frequent events, not large-scale campaigns as before.

Under Kim Jong-il’s guidance, the movie studios were refurbished. He arranged the best equipment to be imported from overseas. This sounds fine until one remembers that this meant the re-allocation of scarce hard currency reserves, which could be used for buying anything else, from medical supplies to new battle tanks. However, the crown prince loved cinema, and nobody dared question his demands. After all, new movie cameras are much cheaper than missile launchers.

Kim Jong-il’s years at the helm were marked by a serious improvement in the technical quality of North Korean cinema. The story lines remained as tedious as before, and perhaps even got worse: in general, the late 1960s was a period of increasing ideological repression in the North. But the same old boring stories of self-sacrificing workers, exemplary farm girls and, of course, selfless guerrillas were delivered with much better technical precision.

Guerrillas were particularly important since many major movies produced under Kim Jong-il’s guidance dealt with the anti-Japanese struggle of the 1930s. Sea of Blood, a guerrilla epic with a story line patterned after Gorky’s Mother, and Flower Girl were major examples of this trend. For Kim Jong-il this was important, since he reminded his father Kim Il-sung about the heroic days of anti-Japanese warfare, and by doing so he positioned himself as his father’s most trustworthy successor.

By the late 1960s, it became clear that a dynastic succession was in the offing, but there were few contenders who wanted to become heirs to the aging Great Leader. Kim Jong-il had the best chance from the very beginning, although he was not without rivals as well. But that is another story…


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