Two Documentaries About North Korea That You Should See

A State of Mind (2004)

This BBC documentary follows two children who perform in the North Korean Mass Games, through training, school, and home life. The Mass Games are a giant choreographed spectacle of acrobatics, rhythmic gymnastics, and card-turning; a visual manifestation of individual sacrifice for the unity of the group. The children live in Pyongyang, which we are told is not indicative of the entire country. Pyongyang is the showcase capital, and it’s considered a privilege to live there.

However, director Daniel Gordon is much more sympathetic toward the country and its people than any other I’ve seen. Other documentaries have very strong “North Korea bad, South Korea good” undertones. I think its a little more complex than that.

We meet 14-year-old Hyon Sun Pak first. She giggles, talking about how her mother used to pack her a lunch for gymnastics practice every day, but she would skip practice and play with her friends instead. Her mother eventually found out and now she never skips. Later, she grins as she says she still gets away with avoiding homework to play. At this moment, you realize that this child is very much like most other children.

However, there are differences. Many children practice gymnastics, but usually not for five hours a day on concrete. Many children like to sing karaoke, but not with the chorus, “Our Party is the best, Communism is the best.” Many children like to eat dinner with a stuffed animal, but not during a nearly-nightly electrical blackout.

When asked about the U.S., Hyon Sun responds, “They are maneuvering to suppress the sounds of happy laughter here. We’re always doing things like air-raid drills and blackouts… as I’m taught at school, we have to endlessly hate the U.S., and fight them to the end.”

Hyon Sun’s home life is highly documented. There are three classes in North Korea: workers, peasants, and intellectuals. They are to be seen as equal in society. Her family is of the working class; her father is a construction worker. At one point she is dancing while her mother plays the accordion, and at another she is visibly annoyed at her mother’s questions and is very short with her. Her mother explains that Hyon Sun’s grandmother and father are strict, while she is guilty of “pampering” her. It’s all very endearing, and a seemingly honest look into Hyon Sun’s complex family dynamic.

We meet 11-year-old Song Yon Kim next, who is younger and less experienced in gymnastics than her friend Hyon Sun. Her family is of the intellectual class. “Since I am a scientist, I like it to be quiet. But since our children are girls, they talk a lot,” Song Yon’s father laughs. She has two older sisters, one who is joining the army with her tae-kwon-do skills, and the other who “is quiet and knows nothing but study,” and will be trained as a scientist.

Song Yon goes with her family to visit her father’s old army friend. The two men joke about sex, about military memories, and about how they had to share a bed. The friend explains the Juche ideology, that man is responsible for his own destiny. “Self-reliance is, no matter whether or not we are provided with assistance, by ourselves, with our own strength, even if the state can’t provide something, we make what we don’t have… make it work at all costs. We’ll find a way.”

Because of their good grades, the girls are chosen from their school to take a field trip to Mount Paekdu, the holy mountain that is believed to have created the country through a volcanic eruption. It is considered the sacred mountain of the revolution, and every North Korean is supposed to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life.

The footage of the Mass Games at the end of the film is incredible. The event is so choreographically organized, visually astounding, and physically difficult. It’s to be seen as the embodiment of the Juche concept of self-reliance. It tells a theatric story of the Korean Revolution using over 120,000 people. When the narrator says “Kim Jong Il was unable to attend,” I want to cry. These poor children spent a year training for this giant event, and their guest stood them up.

The documentary ends with the text, “Hyon Sun and Song Yon performed their routine twice a day for twenty days. Kim Jong Il was unable to attend any of the performances.”

I think if someone were to watch only one documentary about North Korea, it should be this one. It truly humanizes the Koreans living in Pyongyang. North Koreans are not all evil, maniacal, robotic creatures. They are shown as capable, disciplined, emotional humans living the best they can in a strange and terrifying environment.

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