A School Girl’s Diary at NKIDP

I just returned home from a screening of the North Korean film, A School Girl’s Diary (ASGD), hosted by James Person at  the  North Korean International Documentation Project (NKIDP) and  Suk-Young Kim from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Although times have changed significantly in North Korea since the famed Sea of Blood was released, the purpose of the cinematic arts within the North Korean system has not.  In short, film in the DPRK is meant to be regime enhancing—reinforcing official social and political norms.  What is interesting about ASGD compared with previous North Korean films, however, is the muted use of propaganda and tacit admission that things are not perfect in the Workers Paradise.  Is it possible the change in communications tactics is the result of changing attitudes within North Korean society?

Sea of Blood is as subtle as a pulp comic.  It offers action, intense feelings, flat characters (clear protagonist/antagonist), and a simple “us vs. them” plot line.  In the film, Koreans are the victims of brutal Japanese imperialism and Kim il Sung is the savior who delivers them from oppression.  At the time Sea of Blood was released, however, the first generation of revolutionaries was in control of the country, memories of Japanese colonialism were fresh, and people were more enthusiastic about their country’s future.

Today, the North Korean government is struggling to indoctrinate its “third generation (3G).”  The 3Gs have no memories of Japanese colonialism or of the Korean War.  Children, who have likely never met an American, do not hate the “American Imperialists” like their parents and grandparents.  3Gs have seen many state institutions collapse; they have seen the social contract broken; they have seen economic decline; and they have survived a famine.  Additionally, they have grown up buying and selling in markets and are more familiar with South Korean and Chinese culture than their parents could have imagined at their age. 

Given these huge demographic changes, it seems probable that the style of ASGD represents the regime’s most recent efforts to socialize this new generation of comrades.  A School Girl’s Diary makes only one explicit reference to the leader and portrays life as less than ideal.  After sixty years of revolutionary struggle, people fight with each other, express their egos, and feel jealousy. In short, the film portrays characters, locations, and motivations that many contemporary North Koreans could probably identify with.  As was noted in the discussion following the film, Mickey Mouse made a cameo on a backpack (likely imported from China and bought at a market), there was a veiled reference to sex, or lack thereof, and the star of the film complained about her absentee father (the metaphorical Kim Jong il).

You can read a professional review of the film in Variety here.

You can read academic discussion of the film here. (h/t Werner Koidl)

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