Dramatic music swells up as the camera zooms in on a dying South Korean soldier, a plump and friendly character who wins immediate sympathy because he’s the loving father of an adorable baby. His head droops to the side in a moment of finality; the camera slowly shifts from his bloody face to the picture of his wife and daughter. The family photograph is burning slowly like the rest of the ship, bombarded by North Korean cannons.
On the thirteenth anniversary of a naval incident in South Korea’s Yellow Sea, which killed six South Korean soldiers and an estimated 30 North Korean soldiers on June 29, 2002, a blockbuster about the battle is sweeping the nation, having sold more than 1.4 million tickets in a nation of 50 million since its opening less than a week ago, with no sign of losing its momentum.
The movie, titled Northern Limit Line (NLL) after the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, attempts to highlight the human stories behind the 2002 battle, while suffering from the misconception that a “human story” is a de-politicized one. By omitting the very political reality that led to the deaths of soldiers — on both sides — the movie blurs out the various causes and consequences surrounding the tragedy in the Yellow Sea.
The event portrayed in NLL was eclipsed at the time by the euphoric frenzy of the World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, and downplayed by a progressive government trying to foster peace and dialogue with North Korea. The attack took place on the morning of June 29, 2002, the day many South Koreans still remember fondly for the football match against Turkey, not for the military encounter.
It is that obscurity of the event that convinced director Kim Hak-soon to tackle the subject matter over the course of seven years. He thought he would honor the forgotten victims with his cinematic tribute.
“I want to tell the stories of people, separate from politics,” said director Kim Hak-soon in a YTN interview.
In Kim’s retelling, two North Korean patrol boats attack a South Korean patrol boat without warning, near the western NLL. True to his words, Kim Hak-soon omits much of the political context and leaves the viewer none the wiser about recent history. His film overflows with sentimentality and action scenes but stays silent on the then-government’s stance toward North Korea, or the larger history of turbulent inter-Korean relations for that matter.
The naval incident happened during the “Sunshine Policy” era of President Kim Dae-jung, who emphasized engagement and reconciliation over hostility and criticism. Tensions seemed to ease on the Korean peninsula, at least outwardly, as the policy led to more business cooperation, humanitarian aid and the first-ever summit between leaders of the two states. South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who spearheaded the initiative, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
Victims’ families have long denounced the government response to the NLL conflict, including president Kim Dae-jung’s absence from the joint funeral in 2002 and his attendance of the World Cup closing ceremony in Japan just a day after the incident.
“It took ten years for our boys to be accepted as sons of the nation,” pointed out Yoon Doo-ho, the father of Yoon Young-ha, one of the six victims and the lieutenant commander of the battleship attacked by North Koreans. “It took ten years for this battle to be recognized by a president, and thirteen years for the battle to finally be told to the Korean people.”
Yesterday, a South Korean defense minister gave a speech at the event’s commemoration ceremony, for the first time in thirteen years. Meanwhile, key government officials from the time of the conflict were unavailable for comment, including the former ministers of unification and defense from the Kim Dae-jung administration.
The movie is creating a buzz in the South Korean media because of that elephant in the room the director ignores: politics. Kim’s decision to de-politicize the event and make a conventional war film populated by one-dimensional South Korean heroes and North Korean villains raises the question of whether he is merely peddling propaganda.
For a movie that claims to be de-politicized, the “human stories” in NLL are limited to simplistic, unintentionally politicized images of Us vs. Them. Humanity is reserved only for the South Korean soldiers, who are vulnerable individuals behind the uniforms, full of love and commitment for their families and the nation. The North Koreans, on the other hand, are just “those sons of bitches.”
A journalist from former East Germany asked the director at a press conference, “I’m reminded of German movies before the Berlin Wall came down. One side is represented as the bad guys and we don’t know anything about them. The other side is warm and friendly, and we see all their families and other human aspects. How do you see this movie contributing to reunification?”
“I didn’t want to portray North Korea demonically,” the director unconvincingly replied. “I tried to be as factual as possible…. Reunification is about overcoming ideological differences.”
If anything, the film is exacerbating ideological differences. Predictably, the conservatives are using the movie’s popularity to criticize the progressives’ policies on North Korea and heighten patriotism. Former president Lee Myung-bak, who was the first head of state to attend the victims’ memorial service in 2012, made headlines last week for watching the movie with aides in tow.
North Korea, which claims the South attacked first, also isn’t feeling the peaceful gesture. “The only types that gathered in theaters were disgusting conservative dregs, stained with traitorous subservience [to the U.S],” Pyongyang said through its online mouthpiece Uriminzokkiri on June 24. “We cannot tolerate this and will punish the puppet regime with a firm hand.”
Even if one does not buy the North’s characteristically bellicose rhetoric, the film, for all its allegedly humanistic approach to storytelling, is bogged down by a heavy-handed us-versus-them, good-versus-evil narrative, prompting a film critic for Newstapa, an online South Korean news site, to remark, “The “patriotism” forced upon us still depends not on loving the people of this land, but on hating strangers.”
It’s then little wonder that to drum up love for the South Korean state, the filmmaker deliberately juxtaposes the battle in the Yellow Sea to the World Cup matches where South Korea faced off foes: Whether it’s Spain in the quarterfinals or North Korea out in the sea, they are both enemies that arouse a momentary sense of solidarity among strangers who have only the nation in common.
What is sacrificed by entertaining action and heartwarming human drama is historical complexity that underlies the politics of the present. Ignoring the political context doesn’t mean it’s truly absent. The ideological division from the Cold War still persists on the Korean Peninsula, and avoiding that reality while narrating a controversial event in contemporary inter-Korean relations opens the risk of propaganda and political partisanship, and victimizes the very human beings it purports to humanize.