A 5‑Hour Journey Through North Korean Entertainment: Propaganda Films, Kids’ Cartoons, Sketch Comedy & More

Over the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, South Korea became rich, and in the first decades of the twen­ty-first, it’s become a glob­al cul­tur­al super­pow­er. The same can’t be said for North Korea: after a rel­a­tive­ly strong start in the nine­teen-fifties and six­ties, its econ­o­my foundered, and in the famine-strick­en mid-nineties it prac­ti­cal­ly col­lapsed. For that and oth­er rea­sons, the coun­try has nev­er been in a posi­tion to send forth its own BTS, Squid Game, Par­a­siteor “Gang­nam Style.” But what­ev­er the dif­fi­cul­ties at home, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea has always man­aged to pro­duce enter­tain­ment for con­sump­tion by its own peo­ple: movies, ani­ma­tion, tele­vi­sion shows, music, and more besides.

Then again, “enter­tain­ment” may be too strong a word. A few years ago, attend­ing a North-South cul­tur­al exchange group in Seoul, where I live, I had the chance to watch a recent movie called 우리집 이야기, or The Sto­ry of Our Home. It told its sim­ple tale of a fam­i­ly of orphans try­ing to sur­vive on their own with sur­pris­ing tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence — at least com­pared to what I’d expect­ed — albeit with what I remem­ber as occa­sion­al jar­ring laps­es into flat pro­pa­gan­da shots, stern nation­al anthem, flap­ping red-starred flag and all. Accord­ing to “Enter­tain­ment Made By North Korea,” the new five-and-a-half-hour analy­sis from Youtu­ber Paper Willthat sort of thing is par for the course.

In order to put North Kore­an enter­tain­ment in its prop­er con­text, the video begins before there was a North Korea, describ­ing the films made on the Japan­ese-occu­pied Kore­an penin­su­la between 1910 and the end of the Sec­ond World War. Though the expul­sion of the defeat­ed Japan end­ed colo­nial rule in Korea, many more hard­ships would vis­it both sides of the new­ly divid­ed coun­try. But even dur­ing their strug­gles to devel­op, the rulers of both the devel­op­ing North and South Korea under­stood the poten­tial of cin­e­ma to influ­ence their peo­ples’ atti­tudes and per­cep­tions. Watched today, these pic­tures reveal a great deal about the coun­tries’ pri­or­i­ties. For the DPRK, those pri­or­i­ties includ­ed the encour­age­ment of unstint­ing hard work and alle­giance to the state, embod­ied by its founder Kim Il Sung.

Lat­er, in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies, came some diver­si­fi­ca­tion of both media and mes­sage, as ser­i­al dra­mas and chil­dren’s car­toons, some of them craft­ed with gen­uine skill and charm, dis­cour­aged indi­vid­u­al­is­tic atti­tudes, sym­pa­thy for for­eign­ers, and thoughts of defec­tion. Under Kim Il Sung’s movie-lov­ing Kim Jong Il, North Kore­an films became more watch­able, thanks in large part to his kid­nap­ping and forcibly employ­ing South Kore­an direc­tor Shin Sang-ok. Under his son Kim Jong Un, the coun­try’s pop­u­lar cul­ture has flirt­ed with the very out­er reach­es of cool, assem­bling the likes of instru­ment-play­ing girl-group Moran­bong. Nev­er­the­less, in North Korea, enter­tain­ment con­tin­ues first and fore­most to enforce the pre­ferred ide­ol­o­gy of the rul­ing class, some­thing that — per­ish the thought — could sure­ly nev­er hap­pen in the West.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Read Dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-il’s Writ­ings on Cin­e­ma, Art & Opera: Cour­tesy of North Korea’s Free E‑Library

A‑ha’s “Take On Me” Per­formed by North Kore­an Kids with Accor­dions

How to Defeat the US with Math: An Ani­mat­ed North Kore­an Pro­pa­gan­da Film for Kids

North Korea’s Cin­e­ma of Dreams

Watch More Than 400 Clas­sic Kore­an Films Free Online Thanks to the Kore­an Film Archive

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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