Documentaries About Life in North Korea

On December 18, 2011, Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, died of a heart attack. While the country is well known for its military aggression, nuclear testing, and reclusiveness, many people aren’t fully aware of the situation of the people living in this dictatorship.

Initially, the footage of citizens crying over Kim Jong Il’s death may seem surprising, but one must understand the mindset. While it is a country with one of the lowest ranking human rights records, there is an intricate cult-of-personality based around the Kim family (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and current successor Kim Jong Un.) To better understand the situation in North Korea, including their attitude toward their leaders, here are some documentaries:

“A State of Mind” (2004)

This documentary follows the story of two young gymnasts training for the North Korean mass games, a propaganda show that is intended to display the greatness of the country. You see the girls’ level of devotion to the “Great Leader” as they train painstakingly to impress him, although Kim never attends their performance. Watching everyone involved in the show strive for perfection and synchronization is both amazing and quite chilling.

“The Red Chapel” (2010)

Journalist Mads Brügger and Danish-Korean comedians Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell go to North Korea under the guise of performing a comedy sketch. They learn firsthand about North Korean censorship and propaganda when their act is rewritten by a North Korean director of arts. Particularly disturbing is the fact that Nossel, a handicapped man, is asked not to have a speaking role and instead do his best to look “normal.”

“North Korea: A Day in the Life” (2004)

While the footage had to be edited and approved by officials in the North Korean government, this documentary still gives viewers a rare glimpse into life in the country. When watching this one, remember to read between the lines. What is presented here subtly reveals the true state of affairs in the dictatorship. It follows the story of a textile worker living a happy life within this nation.

“National Geographic: Inside North Korea” (2006)

Journalist Lisa Ling travels to North Korea pretending to be a medical assistant helping a charitable eye doctor who was assigned with the task of performing 1,000 eye surgeries in 10 days because the rate of blindness in the country is incredibly high due to malnutrition. Although the documentary is short and only a limited amount of footage was attained, it says a lot about the North Korean way of life.

“Seoul Train” (2005)

This PBS documentary follows the lives of North Korean refugees fleeing to China, and how China deals with these people. Although it is well known that defectors from North Korea will be placed in concentration camps or executed upon return to the country, the Chinese policy is to export them back to their country regardless. In this film, you’ll learn about an “underground railroad” of activists who risk everything to get North Korean refugees out of China and eventually into South Korea.

More from this contributor:

Great Foreign Films for Christmas
Dreams in Film: Manipulating the Mind
Critique: North Korean Mass Games Children’s Dance

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