Conflict with North Korea in South Korean Cinema
Relations between North and South Korea have been strained on several occasions. Back in the early 2010s, for example, there was lots of uncertainty about the intentions of North Korea. At that time, Kim Jung Un had just taken over leadership of the country and tests of nuclear weapons suggested the chances of conflict in the Korean Peninsula were high. The possibility of a conflict between North and South Korea and what that might look like has been explored in South Korean cinema.
The most recent depiction, Steel Rain (2017), paints a picture of North Korea caught in a civil war between leadership holding onto the status quo and those bent on retaliation against South Korea and its allies. The plot involves the leader from the north finding a haven in South Korea. There, the injured and unconscious leader from the north is treated and kept alive. South Korean soldiers protect the unconscious leader from North Korean soldiers who advance into the south to kill their former leader.
If there is a connection between what people think about a country and how it is portrayed in film, then what do films like these tell us about how South Koreans view North Korea? Do they suggest that unification between North and South Korea remains a possibility for the Korean Peninsula or that future relations between north and south are likely to involve war? What does South Korean cinema tell us about the perceived future for South and North Korea?
Conflict and South Korean Cinema
Back in 2010, relations between North and South Korea changed. A South Korean warship, the Cheonan, was fired upon and sank. The South Korean government accused North Korea of firing a torpedo at the ship. North Korea went on to deny that claim according to a New York Times articles at the time.
Before that in 2008, a South Korean tourist visiting Mount Kumgang in the north, was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers. Up until that point, the South Korean government had a “sunshine policy” towards the North, with a focus on engagement. This included humanitarian assistance from the south and an increased number of economic exchanges.
However, following 2010, the South Korean president decided to take a hardline policy towards the north and suspended all inter-Korean cooperation with the “24 May Measures”. This was a turning point for inter-Korean relations that we can see reflected in the cinema of that time.
The South Korean film Joint Security Area (2000) starts with a conflict between soldiers at the D.M.Z. A high-ranking officer of the North Korean army questions why a South Korean soldier has come to visit a North Korean security post on the border.
North Korean soldiers open fire. Both South and North Korea claim to be the victims of the shooting, and as a result, a joint investigation is created to cooperate while determining what happened. The film moves quickly from focusing on the hostility to cooperation and suggests that the situation can be improved if both sides work together. This is in stark contrast to movies that come out much later around 2010 and following.
The films Secret Reunion (2010) and The Berlin File (2013) are both set back in the 1990s and early 2000s. They portray inter-Korean relations moving from hostility to reconciliation only to move back to hostility, although characters within the movies spent time working together at points. Lee Woo-Young is an academic at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Kim Myoung-Shin works at the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Discussing this change they argue that:
Despite worsening inter-Korean relations, it shows the conflicting emotions of the people of South Korea to live peacefully with those in the North. At the same time, it can also be interpreted that there is a tendency for people to accept the current national division…revealing a somewhat regressive attitude toward inter-Korean relations. (North Korean Review, 13(2), p. 41).
This is also shown by the Unification Perception Survey in 2012 conducted by Seoul National University. Back in the 1990s, 92 percent of South Koreans favored unification with the north. That changed to 47 percent in 2012. Reconciliation and unification are viewed less favorably.
This alludes to the idea that South Korean cinema has an important connection to how South Koreans acceptably view North Korea. Increased conflict between both countries makes a film concluding with cooperation and reconciliation between north and south less believe-able and watchable.
Perceptions of Conflict with the North
South Koreans don’t just view unification as increasingly unlikely, they also view conflict as increasingly unlikely also. Even back in 2012. Joel Brinkley, an American columnist who wrote for The New York Times, suggested that South Korean youth cared little about the threat posed by the north.
Interviewing the Senior Minister of Unification, it became apparent to Brinkley that the South Korean government believed there is a need to educate these youth to acknowledge that the status quo won’t work (World Affairs, 175 (4), p. 8). Brinkley also notes that South Korean youths view the Unification Ministry as an irrelevant artifact.
Even now, I have South Korean friends who believe that the north will never begin a conflict and use nuclear weapons. Part of this reasoning comes from the idea that the north only requires nuclear weapons because of their backward economy and the inability to feed their soldiers. North Korea could not defend itself other than by using nuclear weapons.
The 2018 movie The Spy Gone North supports this conclusion, as North Korea is portrayed as a slum. At one point, a town full of North Korean people is portrayed on-screen starving. All this takes place under the backdrop of the main character, a spy from South Korea, looking for nuclear weapons sites in the north. It also happens with North Korean soldiers having no clue exactly what is going on until much later in the film.
I think it is also worth asking what place films like these have in the current moment? An increased number of films concerned with North Korea might suggest that there is mounting interest in keeping the conflict between north and south in the minds of South Koreans. Do movies like this exist to portray public opinion of the north or raise concern and patriotism?
Young South Koreans live through a peaceful time where a peninsula wide conflict seems unfathomable. Movies like these might have a role in keeping concern about the north alive within South Korea and justify the need for conscription which all South Korean males between 18 and 35 are still required to do at some point.
Jeffery Robertson reporting for The Interpreter discusses how conscription is not viewed favorably by some South Korean youths and is seen as “outdated and inefficient” by some South Koreans. Jeffery Robertson is a senior fellow at Australian National University and an assistant professor at Yonsei University in South Korea.
Over the border, there has also been an interest in spying. North Korea produced a drama series about a spy in Seoul during the Korean War called Unsung Heroes. It was filmed from 1978 through to 1981 and shows that North Korea also has an interest in bolstering patriotism and conflict with South Korea, not to anyones surprise.
The series included American defectors in the cast and ends with the north resuming attacks on South Korea and the North Korean agents committing suicide. The intelligence collected by North Korean agents is depicted as very useful to North Korea. The allies are forced to negotiate a peace with North Korea as a result at the end of the series. It did not make its way to South Korea but was broadcast on Chinese television in 1982. The series was watched widely in North Korea.
Exploring a Possible Conflict in Film
Back in 2002, a U.S. military vehicle killed two South Koreans girls walking at the roadside. The South Korean media also followed rape cases involving American soldiers years later. One where an American soldier had raped a seventeen-year-old Korean girl in Seoul and was later sentenced to ten years in prison in 2011. In the past, the United States military has been viewed in a negative light in South Korea.
Scott A. Snyder writing for Forbes reported that, at the present moment in time, there is widespread support for the United States military in South Korea. Snyder is a senior fellow in U.S.-Korean relations at the Council of Foreign Relations. However, in the Spring 2018 Global Attitude Survey, only 24 percent of South Koreans asked thought that the United States would take into account their interests. This is down from 34 percent in 2015. The survey was conducted by a think tank in Washington D.C. called the Pew Research Centre.
We can see this concern represented in film, in particular, the recent 2017 film Steel Rain. In this case, a Donald-Trump-like secretary of state discusses with the South Korean president bombing North Korea pre-emptively to avoid an all-out war. The reasoning for this kind of action is that if nuclear sites in North Korea are taken out before a conflict then the ability for North Korea to damage South Korea will be influenced. However, this reasoning is viewed negatively within the film. The United States secretary of state is instead portrayed as a meddler.
While the film does explore a coup within North Korea and the possible ramifications, it doesn’t end with a return to conflict. South Korea rescuing and looking after the leader of North Korea, as happened in the film, would likely change how North Korea viewed the south and raise the prospect of continued cooperation in the future. This also has interesting ramifications for how South Koreans view the north.
Kiyoung Chang and Choongkoo Lee (2018) discuss, in a recent paper for The Pacific Review, the soft line option of having the North Korean regime undergo changes which would improve the economic situation of the north and reduce the costs of unification. Kiyoung Chang and Choongkoo Lee are both senior academics at South Korean universities.
I think it is also interesting to consider how South Korea might provide access for the north to produce for the international community and improve the economic situation of the north should cooperation and unification happen. Following a nuclear test in 2016, the jointly run inter-Korean industrial park was closed only to have South Koreans wage a campaign to have the park re-opened according to an article in the South China Morning Post at the time. There is still some support for cooperation between north and south amongst South Koreans.
Although Steel Rain is just a movie, it does envision a possible situation where South Korea can win the trust of the north. This happening under the backdrop of the South Korean President meeting the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, raises the question of how a film might influence the future. Should South Koreans be able to take seriously a film where the south wins the trust of the north, and where continued conflict is not presumed, then perhaps unification remains an open possibility the South Korean public might grow to be comfortable with and let eventuate in the future.
Brinkley, J. (2012). NO FEAR OR JUST SMUG? South Korea’s Youth Dismiss the Northern Threat. World Affairs, 175(4), 7-14.
Chang, K. & Lee, C. (2018). North Korea and the East Asian Security Order: competing views on what South Korea ought to do. The Pacific Review, 31(2), 245-255.
Myoung-Kyu Park, et al. (2013). Unification Perception Survey 2012. Retrieved from: http://tongil.snu.ac.kr/xe/esub910/16185
Pew Research Centre (December 6, 2018). Spring 2018 Global Attitude Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/10/01/trumps-international-ratings-remain-low-especially-among-key-allies/pg_2018-10-1_u-s-image_updated_0-07/
Robertson, J. (September 7, 2018). Debating South Koreans mandatory military service. The Interpreter. Retrieved from: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/debating-south-korea-s-mandatory-military-service
Sang-hun, C. (May 23, 2010). Korean Tensions Grow as South Curbs Trade to North. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/world/asia/24korea.html
Snyder, S. & Kim, J. J. (2019). Korean Support For U.S. Troops Remains High Despite Upcoming Trump-Kim Summit. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottasnyder/2019/02/24/korean-support-for-u-s-troops-remains-high-despite-upcoming-trump-kim-summit/#5fd93c8ad025
South China Morning Post (July 12, 2016). South Korean businessmen remain bitter about government’s ‘empty promises’ after Kaesong complex shut down. Retrieved from: https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/1988548/south-korean-businessmen-remain-bitter-about-governments-empty
Woo-Young, L. & Myoung-Shin, K. (2017). Inter-Korean Integration Mirrored in Division Films: Changing Collective Emotion in South Korea Towards Inter-Korean Integration. North Korean Review, 13(2), 24-47.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Joint Security Area is much less about the solving of a crime than it is about the difficulty of one people living apart by an absurd accident of history.
JSA is a masterpiece, no doubt about it.
The story is simple but never simplistic.
Koreans know how to cut great war epics.
This has to be one of the most fascinating contemporary topics. I wish more movies would explore it.
In the political realm re: N vs S Korea, there are deeply entangled relationships that cannot be easily managed, particularly by “outsiders”. Just as in any tightly bonded people with a long history, there are many complicated viewpoints. I hope one day to watch a North Korean film where we see their perspective.
I feel Steel Rain is an exciting film which tries to encapsulate the political landscape of Korea and the military and economic interests of China, Japan and the United States as well.
Nicely done and I was happy to help with the editing process. One point I’d like to raise with reference to ‘The Spy Gone North’ was the way in which Park Suk-young (the South Korean spy cum entrepreneur) was treated by his own side after returning to the South. He was arrested, tried and imprisoned for leaking confidential files to the North – files that he had been ordered to leak, by his own side! Talk about being two-faced.
For anyone interested, I’d also recommend the excellent ‘1987. When The Day Comes’, which looks at the June Uprising, following the brutal killing of a student. President Chun Doo-hwan’s regime was every bit as corrupt and evil as the pseudo-Communist regime of the North.
We all know Koreans are on top when it’s about Asian cinema.
Korean is not the most attractive language to listen to. =) I wonder if they think the same about English or French.
In Steel Rain, there are way too many roles in the northern part of the pamphlet, and the situation in the north is not clear when we see the end of the pamphlet.
Your article convinced me to watch Joint Security Area again after 5 years or so of when I initially watched it. I must say the film hit me even harder the second time. The acting from the main cast was exceptional and I’m going far as to say the acting of Song Kang Ho haunted me. The only criticism I’m dishing out is to the acting of the Swedish officers and Lee Young-Ae in parts – this is mainly due to the awkward English (why didn’t they speak Swedish amongst themselves?) but I don’t blame the actors at all as it’s obviously their second language.
History is written by the victor. When there is no victor, there are two different versions of history.
The Spy Gone North is actually a good film. One must applaud the fact that the movie avoids spreading propaganda. The South Koreans are depicted as negatively and at times even worse than North Koreans.
Politicians are supposed to serve people, to do things for people, but it seems most of them forgot what they were here for after few years, and are afraid of losing power and money.
In recent years South Korea has produced some of the best cinema in the world.
This is really a nice article
Steel Rain is pure propaganda. Totally unrealistic.
Gangcheolbi is awesome and gives a window into what it must be like to be Korean.
Joint Security Area is so underrated. It’s not to often in Top Lists and there are not that much reviews talking about it.
But for me it’s his best film and it touched me way more than Oldboy. I thought about it a lot. Don’t get me wrong Oldboy is a wonderful film but this movie got more deepth for me.
JSA is an extremely depressing film at the end of the day. A lot of us take borders and our border patrols for granted.
Chan-Wook Park is always honest with his creations.
Steel Rain is a good film. I liked how it did seem to be biased towards one side or the other, but rather showed how the two main characters thought of each other by their interactions.
Do the South Koreans ever make thrillers which aren’t fantastic?
I hope one day we shall see the unification of the two Koreas as it happened to Germany
JSA is a remarkable story.
Hello, I think you did a wonderful job writing this article. As a Korean person, I was pleasantly surprised to see this kind of topic discussed here, and you bring up many insightful points about South Korea-North Korea relations, which have even been researched, quoted, and sourced! If it’s alright, I would like to share some of my opinions on the points you wrote about:
1. I actually don’t think movies like Steel Rain are possibly made so North Korea remains a relevant issue among the South Korean populace. For as long as North Korea exists, it will always be relevant to South Korean people. No young Korean man will think military conscription is “outdated and inefficient” because he thinks North Korea is no longer a viable threat. That’s the only reason why a young man will begrudgingly serve in the military. Young Korean men are disgruntled about military conscription because it takes away two years of the most important time of their lives, such as university, jobs, and marriage. There’s also the valid argument against why young Korean women of the same age are not conscripted, too, and troubling issues of bullying, abuse, and suicide within the army.
2. I also think maybe I interpreted this film very differently from you. I did not see this film as one hoping that North Korea can begin to trust South Korea, and reconciliation and possible reunification can grow from that point. The film’s conclusion is definitely giving the opinion that South Korea has to stand equally against North Korea, not with it. When South Korea makes the demand that North Korea must give us half of their nuclear weapons in an act of mutually assured destruction (MAD), I interpreted this as more South Korea, hopefully, standing up on its own two feet against North Korea. As a Korean person, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the film portrays South Korea trying to win the trust of the North. That implies North Korea is worthy of trust in the first place, which it is clearly not. Saving the North Korean leader was just the better option between two awful choices since the alternative was outright war.
I apologize for the long response, and I hope I did not misunderstand what you have written. I just wanted to share a Korean perspective and different interpretation of the film. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between South Korea and North Korea, I suggest these selection of videos from Youtube that covers this issue:
“What North Koreans Think Of South Korea” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhmzpMP3bEE&t=331s
“Escaping from North Korea Three Times: Kim Pil-ju’s Story” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW97CjpmrXw
“Do South Koreans Want Reunification with North Korea?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZchtQ9-PWY
I hope these videos (and others from the channel) can give you more insight into the current political and social climate between South Korea and North Korea. Thank you for tackling such a difficult and complicated subject!
It’s so exciting story.
Great, timely article; I especially like that you have personal experience through Korean friends. The US needs more education about North and South Korea, and the rest of the world, for sure.
Some interesting points and observations here, however I really do think that the current threat level (arguably non-existent) is not significant enough for young South Koreans to use films such as these as food for thought. Conscription aside, life is pretty good. North Korea is considered a nuisance at best, and a nuisance best kept at a distance. A lot of fluff and nonsense has come from the North – a lot of empty threats and taunting. The political climate may change periodically but it will take far more for there to be an overall shift in mentality.
Really great article. Not many people are aware of the strained relationship between North and South Korea
It is kinda like the two parts of Germany during througthe cold war
Well well researched. I’m
Cleared the cloud regarding the peninsular predicament. The film treatment along with the press reaction is impressive here. The Brinkley article about youth indifference and the latter remark about an international community initiative urges pause for reflection. In that, I wonder how the K-pop phenomenon would have contributed to the discussion; using the Korean Wave as psychological warfare between conflict zones.
Wow! Ever since I saw Dae Jang Geum, I was a huge fan of Korean content. This article has served to reinforce my belief that Koreans know how to make good content about important pertinent topics.