From smiling children firing Kalashnikovs to women in traditional Korean garb hugging wheat, North Korea’s propaganda is famous for portraying the communist nation as a flourishing utopia. Whether it is bogus news reports or fantastical histories, nothing is as it seems. In the case of North Korea’s most famous film, however, the deception may go both ways: Pulgasari, a North Korean Godzilla knockoff from the 1980s, may have a secret anti-communist message.
By the early 1970s, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-ee had been heavyweights in South Korea’s film industry for nearly 15 years, as well as being Korean cinema’s most famous couple. With Shin directing and Choi starring, South Korea’s first couple of film established their country on the international scene with films like A Flower in Hell and The Memorial Gate for Virtuous Women.
Meanwhile in North Korea, a very different film industry was growing. Kim Jong-il, the film-obsessed son and future successor of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, had just taken control of the North’s official film studio. In his new position, the younger Kim set out to establish a world-class film industry in North Korea. But while popular propaganda pieces like Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl helped disseminate the official party line, they failed to attract international attention of the kind garnered by the works of Shin and Choi.
The growth of Kim Jong-il’s unimpressive film industry in North Korea coincided with the emergence of a terrifying new tactic among North Korean officials: kidnapping. In the mid-70s, a solution occurred to Kim Jong-il: If North Korea couldn’t produce its own great filmmakers, it would have to find them somewhere else.
In 1978, undercover North Korean agents in Hong Kong kidnapped Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-ee.
Shin and Choi, who had recently been divorced, were separated and spent the next few years without seeing each other. Shin spent four years in Prison No. 6 undergoing severe mental and physical abuse. Choi was kept in relative isolation, occasionally encountering other victims and occasionally being carted out and displayed at Kim Jong-il’s elaborate parties. Both Shin and Choi were expected to study and accept the North Korean state ideology.
By 1983, Kim must have thought Shin and Choi had been broken down and rebuilt as true communist believers. After approximately five years apart, the two were reunited and tasked personally by Kim with an enormous job: to revive the North Korean film industry.
After proving their acquiescence to Kim’s aims by producing a few successful smaller movies, Shin and Choi were granted a measure of freedom—insofar as the term can be used in relation to North Korea. Budgets were increased, international film shoots were permitted, and Kim expected an international blockbuster from the two—it was time for Pulgasari.
In keeping with Kim’s ambition to create a profitable international franchise, Pulgasari emerged as a knock-off, communist Godzilla. The plot is loosely as follows: In a feudal Korean village, homes are ransacked and capital goods are taken by imperial forces after a local blacksmith refuses to make weapons out of the peasants’ farm and cooking equipment. Before dying in prison, the blacksmith creates a small figurine of a creature known as Pulgasari, which comes to life when it touches the blood of the blacksmith’s daughter. The creature slowly grows larger and larger by eating iron, eventually becoming a fighting force capable of leading peasant forces to victory over the imperial military. But even after the victory, Pulgasari continues to consume the peasant’s iron, forcing the blacksmith’s daughter to sacrifice herself in order to put an end to Pulgasari’s destruction.
Pulgasari became one of the most popular films in North Korea. On the surface, the film is a ham-handed piece of communist propaganda. It is easy to spot the intended parallel between the monster Pulgasari and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) leading the peasants to victory against the forces of imperial Japan. Given North Korea’s cult of personality, one might also see Pulgasari as representing Kim Il-sung himself.
But the identification of Pulgasari as Kim Il-sung is actually less than flattering to the communist regime. While Pulgasari is indeed initially the savior of the peasant forces, things rapidly change following the end of the conflict with the imperial government.
Early in the film, imperial soldiers expropriate the wealth of the peasants, inspiring Pulgasari’s creation. Yet after the peasant victory over the imperial government, Pulgasari destroys the people’s wealth just as rapaciously as the imperial soldiers, this time accompanied by the cheering of the victims.
The parallels with Kim Il-sung are indeed striking. Like the fictional Pulgasari, Kim Il-sung is depicted as the savior of the Korean people—an individual who in effect single-handedly destroyed the oppressive Japanese forces. But also like Pulgasari, Kim ultimately came to resemble the oppressive force he purportedly replaced. Kim and the WPK ultimately established a regime with one of the world’s worst human rights records.
The meager capital owned by North Koreans was expropriated by the state, to be dedicated to the glorification of the new regime. The wealth of the citizens was destroyed, leaving in its place decades of famine and economic stagnation. Yet unlike the Japanese occupation, Kim’s oppression was hailed by cheering crowds and idealistic partisans.
Did Shin Sang-ok intend to include this subtle anti-communist message? As Paul Fischer details in his book A Kim Jong-Il Production, Shin officially denies the deliberate inclusion of ideological messages. Even so, there is historical precedent for inserting a subversive subtext into films. Under the Japanese occupation, a powerful tradition of Korean protest films developed, secretly inserting anti-Japanese messages into films overtly presented as pro-Japanese. Shin’s denials are worrisome, but the tradition he comes from and the clear parallels between Pulgasari and Kim Il-sung leave one skeptical that the implications were merely accidental.
Whether Pulgasari was indeed a cleverly disguised protest film or not, the film ultimately allowed Shin and Choi to escape North Korea. Sent to promote the film at a film festival in Vienna, the two were able to escape to the United States embassy. Once in America, they eventually settled in Los Angeles.
Neither Shin’s nor Choi’s career ever truly recovered. Treated with suspicion in their homeland and as foreigners in their adopted country, it’s not hard to see why. Regardless, they leave behind an incredible legacy. Whether accidentally or intentionally, the two may have committed the greatest act of subversion in North Korean history: communicating an anti-communist message to millions of North Koreans, and all with funding from the Kim regime. We can only hope the nation’s oppressed viewers caught the subtext.