What is North Korea Thinking?

March 23rd, 2011

“The General allows us to live in the springtime all year long. His affection is like the sunlight, lighting up every living thing on earth.” – North Korean patriotic song

If you haven’t seen the documentary North Korea: Calling the Tune, do yourself a favour and check out tonight’s encore broadcast at 9 pm ET/PT. It’s a fascinating glimpse inside the world’s last remaining Stalinist dictatorship — and a place more surreal than any sci-fi writer could envision.

When Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, died in 1994, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, declared him “Eternal President,” making this nation of 24 million the only country on the planet with a dead man as head of state. And that’s just where the strangeness begins.

Among his many distinctions, Kim Jong-il (sometimes called “the General”) is a self-styled patron of the arts. In a country where one-third of the population goes hungry – and nearly a million starved to death during the great famine of the 1990s – the regime spends vast sums on cultural spectacles that promote the wonders of North Korea’s socialist paradise and extol the greatness of its supreme leaders, both father and son.

This 2009 production follows a French documentary team in the capital city of Pyongyang as they observe the preparations for the country’s “April Spring Friendship Art Festival,” celebrating the birthday of Kim Il-sung. Under the ever-watchful eyes of their official handlers, the filmmakers meet the singers, dancers, musicians and others charged with creating art that will mobilize their countrymen to labour for the greater glory of the state.

North Korea’s official ideology (“Juche”) emphasizes the importance of national self-reliance. In the arts, no foreign influence is permitted; Western pop and jazz are strictly forbidden. Music and dance exist to motivate the workers toiling in factories and fields, to glorify the country’s military might, and, above all, to shore up the totalitarian cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il and his father.

In carefully stage-managed interviews with the documentary crew, leading North Korean artists dutifully recite patriotic platitudes about their role in the struggle to build socialism, and about the pure and selfless joy that comes with performing for the mighty Kim Jong-il. “The General is our father,” opera singer Gong Ryong Mi says, with chilling sincerity. “Ever since I was born I have received the General’s love … Without him, I couldn’t conceive of my existence.”

With North Korea asserting itself as a nuclear power, and the ailing Kim Jong-il grooming son Kim Jong-un as his successor, the film offers a rare glimpse into the bizarre cultural and social life of a country whose increasingly unpredictable actions have dangerous implications for the stability of the entire Far East.

North Korea: Calling the Tune was produced by Barbara Necek, Francois Thery and Paul de Jenlis.

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