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November 29, 2004

Is North Korea about to crack?

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This past June the Goethe Institute opened in Pyongyang.

Significant?

I'd say so: it's the very first foreign cultural center in North Korea.

It offers over 8,000 books, CDs, videos, and German newspapers and magazines - all freely available to any North Korean.

Sure, you could argue that there are probably about seven North Koreans not connected with the government who understand German, but that's not the point.

It's that the Institute exists.

Combine that bit of news with the recent reports filtering out of the locked-down country that pictures of

012702jongilkim

Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, have been coming down from walls all over the country, for no apparent reason, without being returned to their places, and one doesn't have to be under deep cover to realize something is indeed afoot.

You can bet the South is cautiously optimistic: that's because, having watched the fall of the Berlin Wall lead to West Germany's still-struggling efforts to incorporate the East, South Korea wants no part of a sudden collapse of the barriers, both economic and political, between the two countries.

Seoul would much prefer that the North Korean army slowly take the country back from its near-war footing to a more conciliatory, gradual thaw.

But then, I said the CIA and the Pentagon would throw the election to Kerry, so what do I know?

Here's the story, from the October 16th Economist.

    To Pyongyang With Love

    North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, is sometimes said to have preferred his earlier career, as a film director, to his present one of dictator.

    And an enthusiam for celluloid is a refreshing feature of the dour people over whom he presides.

    It was much in evidence last month, during the Ninth Pyongyang Film Festival.

    Perhaps that was because the festival has abandoned its traditional concentration on films from friendly and non-aligned countries - which in practice meant days full of film-makers from Iran, Syria and Vietnam all chatting about their latest revolutionary guerrilla videos.

    This year, the festival billed itself as "international", and even without glamorous cocktail parties or starlets - in Pyongyang, the last screening is at 6 pm, and official banquets end at 9 pm - it provided a rare chance for North Koreans to get a glimpse of the outside world.

    North Korea used to produce dozens of films of its own, for release in fraternal communist states.

    Nowadays, though Kim Jong Il's famous book "The Art of Cinema" is still a bestseller, television seems to be taking over.

    But the North Koreans seemingly remain as keen on film as ever.

    The festival screenings were all packed out, with some workers even getting a day off to attend.

    The selection at this year's festival was surprisingly open as well.

    Topics such as homosexuality and the loneliness of the elderly were featured, not swept under the carpet.

    A retrospective of a German film-maker, Margarethe von Trotta, Indonesian sitcoms, Austrian documentaries, Hong Kong action movies and "Bend It Like Beckham", a multi-racial British comedy, were all on show.

    True, the final prize list sounded like a roll call of the axis of evil and its associates (first China, then Iran and Syria) but the five members of the international jury said they had made their choices without duress, and were impressed by the quality of this year's selection.

    Another special guest at the festival was the head of the German delegation, Uwe Schmelter.

    Usually in charge of the Goethe Institute in Seoul, he was responsible for an impressive showing of German films and documentaries, and even brought along a famous German actress.

    He is well known in the north for having presided over the opening in June of Pyongyang's own Goethe Institute, the first foreign cultural centre in North Korea.

    It offers some 8,000 books, CDs, videos and German newspapers and magazines - all freely available to any North Korean.

    It is a small indication that things are slowly starting to change.


November 29, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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