As Helier Cheung of the BBC reports, “in Hollywood, North Korea is a favourite movie villain. But few know that the communist country has its own film industry, which serves as both a propaganda machine for the state and a passion project for late leader Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il was a massive movie buff who ensured the film industry had ample funding during the 1970s and 1980s. However, he was reportedly unhappy with the quality of films produced by his countrymen. He ordered the abduction of South Korean Shin Sang-ok in 1978, and forced the director to make films for his regime. Shin’s ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, was also kidnapped.
Shin’s expertise as a director enabled him to make films with better entertainment and production values.’Shin was able to use old fashioned formulas of North Korean propaganda, and turn them into great movies,’ Johannes Schonherr, author of North Korean Cinema: A History, says. ‘He changed the quality of North Korean cinema… other North Korean films also became better under his influence.’
Popular movies by Shin included Runaway, an action film that ends in a train exploding, and Pulgasari, a North Korean monster movie inspired by Japan’s Godzilla. Shin and Choi escaped during a business trip in Vienna in 1986. Pulgasari had just been completed at that time, and Kim Jong-il did not want to admit that it had been directed by Shin, so all the credit was given to Shin’s co-director, Mr Schonherr says. Shin continued his filmmaking career in the US and South Korea until his death in 2006.
Many North Korean actors are said to be schooled at the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts.But as propaganda tools, many North Korean films also required foreign characters, especially Americans, to play the villains. ‘If [North Korea] needed foreigners to appear in a film, they would ask [foreigners] already living there,’ says Mr Schonherr. ‘Pretty much everyone – foreign students, professors and sports trainers – could be asked. And people didn’t usually say no.’
Some of the most well-known Americans were Charles Jenkins, Larry Abshier, Jerry Parish and James Dresnok, who all defected during the Korean war. All four starred as evil capitalists in a propaganda film series called Nameless Heroes in 1978. Charles Jenkins later said that he had been forced to act in the films, and going to North Korea was ‘the stupidest thing’ he had ever done.”