The World Politics of the Korean Peninsula: North Korea
The History Channel produces and broadcasts both a provocative and informative special about modern political history in North Korea. The focus is upon the leader, the dynasty, and the legacy of the leader Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il. The film focuses upon the current leader as well as the leadership of his father of the same name. Documentaries, particularly those about history, have an arduous challenge of maintaining the attention of the viewers and maintaining a cooperative balance between being educational and serving as entertainment. This short documentary by the History Channel achieves this balance successfully. As a historical documentary, a significant portion of the content consists of interviews, necessarily. A documentary full of "talking heads," (a term used in the film and media industries to indicate what is only on the screen i.e. people talking) is boring and loses the audience almost immediately. Variety keeps documentaries interesting no matter how compelling the subject matter, as is the case of the subject matter of "Kimjongilia."
The producers and research team of this documentary weave together interviews that in of themselves exceptionally compelling. The interviews vary in how they are shot (cinematography) in some cases to protect the identities of those interviewed and in other cases simply to offer aesthetic variety. Nonetheless, the interviews are compelling for several reasons. Firstly, each person interviewed comes from a very different social and class background from the others. Many times when people in the world learn of social atrocities committed in other countries, there is a presumption with support from media representations that the people who suffer in these kinds of situations are very poor, uneducated and deprived of other privileges of society. The endeavor to understand or investigate North Korean politics is no doubt arduous and ultimately doomed as Koh writes:
"Simply put, hard empirical data on the most pivotal aspects of North Korean politics -- such as its decision-making processes, recruitment and mobility patterns of its political, bureaucratic, and military elites, the cognitive, affective, and evaluative orientations of both its elites and citizens -- are nonexistent. Nor are they likely to be forthcoming in the near future…the stringent restrictions that have thus far been placed upon visitors have been very crippling and the impressions and insights that they have brought out of that hermit kingdom appear to have added very little to our cumulative wisdom -- or illusions -- about North Korea." ("Political Leadership in North Korea," Page 140)
As the onscreen text reads very early on in "Kimjongilia," Korea is the most isolated country in the world. There will be very little information generally about such a place, and even more so because there is a series of government-run concentration camps that arrest and imprison people unreasonably for minor crimes or for things that are no crime at all. There are cases shown in the documentary where people are arrested and imprisoned without having committed any crime at all, or at the very least, their crimes are not made known to them.
In this documentary, all of the people speaking out are North Korean, but they come from different backgrounds. There is a young woman who a singer from a very poor or bad family background who suffers horrible treatment from the North Korean government because her "voice sounded capitalist." There is a young man, a concert pianist, who comes from a highly privileged background of a family most loyal to the leader, who experienced and awoke to the atrocities committed by his government and military under the direct leadership, instruction, and example of leaders Kim II Sung and his son. Furthermore, there are other young men who were taken to concentration camps as young children and one man who was born in such a concentration camp who provide interview content for this documentary. Each person provides vivid detail of their experience with the government as well as the circumstances under which they came to the decision to flee North Korea and sometimes they describe the events surrounding their flight. Due to the variety of the backgrounds of the interviewees, the variety of cinematographic style of each interview, and the variety of the horrors experienced by the interviewees, when the interview footage is onscreen, it rarely feels like boring talking heads. The affect is more that these people are speaking directly to the audience -- any audience, as their primary reason for participation in this interview is to make known the crimes against humanity that exist in North Korea.
Notably, much of the explicitly stated anti-Kim Jong-il or anti-Kim II Sung sentiment is expressed directly by those interviewed. The History Channel makes a substantial effort to present facts about the topic and its history. There are several animated timelines that explain events pertinent to Kim II Sung's and Kim Jong-il's personal histories as well as events related to the modern history of Korea, included the division of North and South Korea at the 38th parallel in the Demilitarized Zone as a result of the Korean War. The events in the timeline refer to the Japanese occupation of Korea around the turn of the 20th century; the resistance to Japanese occupation; the birth and education of Kim Jong-il; as well as events that lead and followed the Korean War. Through the use of stock photography, stock footage of official North Korean ceremonies, the documentary stays in the mind of the viewer, exposing western viewers to aspects of North Korea they likely have never known to exist. A great deal of the narration or voice over is provided again, by those interviewed and not by a formal representative of the History Channel. The photos express the great range of sentiment regarding North Korean leadership. There is footage of swarms of women of all ages weeping with great emotion at the news of the leader and god's death. There are photos of children who are severely malnourished as a result of their severe treatment in the concentration camps. Some of the most shocking footage includes footage of the both beloved and hated leader hard at work for the people, yet presumably just for the cameras and for the propaganda. The use of North Korean propaganda, including images, moving images, posters, and more add a captivating aspect to this documentary. Again, for many viewers in the west, the great majority of the information about North Korea outside of the main topic, the excessive brutality of the leadership upon the North Korean people, is wholly unknown to them. The documentary draws on multiple forms of media and from the palpable experiences of North Koreans to tell this story of great tragedy that must be brought to light in order for the mass suffering in North Korea to stop.
North Korean politics dictates very little contact to and from the outside world, especially outside of government, political, or military business. Both leaders retain great distaste for America and affinity for Russia, as they are communist. Kim Jong-il is more a military leader than his father as Jeon notes:
"…Kim Jong 11 strongly pursued a military-first politics, fully capitalising on the quasi-emergency situation caused by the sudden death of Kim 11 Sung. His military-first politics was embodied in exclusive favouritism to the army. A variety of political favours, privileges, honours and economic benefits were given to the army which no party cadres and state officials have ever received since Kim Jong Il assumed power.' ("North Korean Leadership," Page 768)
Between the more militarized-oriented strategy and North Korea's already present air of isolation, there is not much to North Korea's international relations. There is evident relations with Russia because of ties to Communism, and even in those cases, there are restrictions. Only the upper class of North Korea and those most loyal to the leader may travel and/or represent North Korea abroad. Those who survive to escape from North Korea spend their lives sharing their stories, fighting for their people, and adjusting to life without constant fear, forced labor, and other horrific living conditions.
The film has several primary messages to communicate with audiences. The first message to communicate the existent of the power the leader of North Korea has over the people, whomever it is, but specifically the last two leaders, Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il. These men have psychological power, physical power, and more over the North Korean people. Another message of the film is that there are many actions taken by the leaders of North Korea that are considered by most to be crimes against humanity and the world is grossly unaware of such occurrences. The documentary intends to put faces, names, and histories to the masses of people who have suffered over the decades in North Korea with use of compelling interviews, photography, stock footage, and voiceover.
The film more subversively communicates to audiences to review the process of communication between the government and the people of any and every country. Often…