David Yun, “Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in South Korea” (2018)
Made by then UCLA undergraduate student David Yun, this short terse documentary challenges the Western narrative on North Korean defectors living in South Korea as reliable first-hand witnesses to the supposed brutality of the North Korean government and reveals the insidious role of South Korean intelligence, known as the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in kidnapping, coercing or tricking North Korean citizens into living in South Korea against their will, and then manipulating, even brainwashing them and paying them to denounce North Korea publicly. Yun also exposes the role of the United States, its agencies and private organisations like the Atlas Network in propping up an elaborate disinformation scheme that demonises North Korea and generates public support around the world to support the overthrow of the North Korean government.
In its first ten minutes Yun’s documentary relies on interviews with South Korean human rights lawyer Jang Kyong-ook who tells him of how North Korean individuals are initially incarcerated in special defector detention centres where they are subjected to solitary confinement for as long as three or even six months, after which time they are desperate to leave and will say or sign anything – even accept South Korean citizenship – to get out. They are then sent to a special school to learn how to live in South Korea and cope with day-to-day life in a capitalist society; during this period of re-education, they are bombarded with propaganda and falsified histories of North Korea. Defectors may also be used as spies by the NIS.
In much of the rest of the documentary Yun meets with two defectors, Mr Choi and Mrs Kim, who arrived in South Korea separately at different times. Mrs Kim’s story is especially tragic: wishing to travel to China as a tourist, she was tricked by human traffickers into going into South Korea and fell into the grip of the NIS who then tricked her into signing an agreement. After discovering the NIS’ deception, Mrs Kim tried various options to return to North Korea, all of which were blocked. This unwilling defector despaired and attempted to take her life twice before becoming a representative for the defector community in South Korea. Mr Choi initially left North Korea due to his rebellious, non-conformist nature which ironically was to stand him in good stead when he ended up in South Korea and was subjected to the heavy psychological manipulation and disinformation that among other things denigrates past Korean resistance against Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century.
Yun provides some necessary background information to explain why starvation was widespread in North Korea during the mid to late 1990s: as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, many of North Korea’s markets dried up. Sanctioned by the US since the 1950s, North Korea could not find new buyers or sellers and the country endured starvation and poverty for many years. (The sanctions also mean North Korea cannot mechanise its agriculture and must rely on a large labour force to grow most of its food. These labourers are also the nation’s army reservists – hence the joint US / South Korean military drills known as Operation Foal Eagle that take place during sowing and harvesting seasons each year.) Many young people born during that time in North Korea who later defected to South Korea have now become eager participants in a reality TV show that screens monthly in South Korea that repeats and reinforces the lies and misinformation about North Korea. Some of these young people have now become celebrity “activists” who go on jaunts around the world decrying the North Korean government and are supported by right-wing thinktanks and organisations and government agencies in the US. Some of these think-tanks and organisations are also active in demonising the Maduro government in Venezuela.
The theme that arises during this powerful if very dry documentary is that North Korean defectors are a tool and a weapon used by South Korea and its puppet masters in Washington DC and elsewhere to destabilise the North Korean government with propaganda and lies. The defectors themselves are valuable only as long as they continue to cooperate with the authorities and any information they have is valuable. One has the impression that the South Korean and US governments do not really care about them. How defectors like Mr Choi and Mrs Kim survive in a society brainwashed with lies about the country they are still loyal to, remains unknown. Perhaps the surprising part of the documentary is Mr Choi’s continuing loyalty to Pyongyang and his admiration for former leader Kim Il Sung as a wartime resistance fighter against Japan even after he admits to being a maverick.