The recent staging of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests has once again brought the secret kingdom into international spotlight. Facing strong international castigation, the state’s top leaders remain adamant at its rights to nuclear weapons, in the name of safeguarding sovereignty. And for this putatively socialist enclave in a capitalist world, sovereignty means everything. In this political climate of heightened tensions and mutual distrust, it is perhaps timely to examine the ideological underpinnings of this secret kingdom that has created a political leadership that seem to base its decisions on paranoia and xenophobia.
Daniel Gordon’s 2004 documentary, A State of Mind, filmed over eight months by a British crew in the capital city of Pyongyang does not provide any answers to the present crisis. In fact, Gordon’s film is decidedly apolitical. We hardly see the key political figures for most parts of the film, and when Kim Jong-il does appear, he appears in the way as we already know him, as the inaccessible, elusive, mystical apparition seen from a distanced vantage point. The film reinforces the secrecy of Kim’s identity more than it demystifies it.
What we see instead are the everyday people who inhabit the streets of Pyongyang. We follow two schoolgirls, Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yon through their everyday routines, which are for most of the time, ritualistically devoted towards preparation for their involvement in the year’s Mass Games.
The Mass Games in North Korea are the largest choreographed human spectacle in the world, a visual extravaganza of gymnastics and other performing arts, and a perfect example of the state’s ideology of the subordination of the individual to the needs of the collective. They have been performed regularly since 1946, particularly in the event of nationwide celebrations, such as on the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
The footage of the Mass Games at the 2002 Arirang Festival particularly was spectacular to the extent of incredulity. The riveting, extraordinary coordinated feat takes place before a gargantuan mosaic backdrop that occupies an entire side of the stadium. The backdrop changes periodically and details the achievements and revolutionary history of the state. The jaw-dropping moment came when it is revealed that the backdrop was formed by 12,000 school children mobilised as card turners. In all honesty, the seamlessness of the backdrop changes seemed only achievable digitally. 200 million man hours were spent for 90 performances staged over a four month period. Four million people in all viewed the performances live.
Both Hyon Sun and Song Yon follow a regime observed by thousands of students across the capital, practising almost everyday to perfect their craft. And the motivation for their endurance is literally the image of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, idealised and deified as an all-loving, all-benevolent figure for worship. Song Yon herself studies with a picture of the Great Leader and the General.
There is something neo-luddite about this obsession with laborious human effort. And the same can perhaps be said about the state’s rejection of economic liberalism and of any form of progressive change. Astonishingly, this dogmatism extends to all fields of society. Everywhere across Pyongyang, the ideological alignments of the people seemed identical. The patriotism of the girls can be similarly observed in the rest of their family. The deep hatred and demonisation of America and American culture is also a cultural phenomenon.
The deliberate neutrality and indifference of the narrator ironically reinforces the absurdity that underlies the citizens’ dogged commitment towards the state’s ideology. As the film factually introduces the different facets of the everyday lives of Pyongyang’s citizens, we are astonished by how the state’s devices for political propaganda and indoctrination have become integrated into the “normalcy” of everyday life. These exist in the form of a radio installed by the state in the kitchen of every household (which can never be turned off), a television that broadcasts propaganda repackaged as entertaining children programmes and an entire education that sanitises the state history and that is supported by teachers of “Revolutionary History” who ensure that the “Three Greatness of our Leader” is committed to memory.
The people, however, appear far from oppressed. In this intimate glimpse into the familial and social lives of the two schoolgirls, there is hardly a moment when any genuine sadness is expressed by the characters. But neither are the people simpletons who have been emotionally configured by the state to be in a state of perpetual happiness. Within the familial circle, they are as common as civilians from any democratic country. The children have their moments of childish petulance as much as the parents have the tendency to give in to them and pamper them.
In fact, the ambivalence experienced while viewing the film comes from our recognition of the fact that the people do not appear to find anything deeply morally amiss about their circumstances, because they have been conditioned to feel contented. The concept of social conditioning or propaganda may even be entirely foreign to them. And even when the going does get tough, blame is never ever attributed to the state. Interestingly, in whichever aspects in which the state does fail, the officials deftly disclaims responsibility by dishing out its rhetoric on the Juche ideology of “self-reliance”, encouraging the individual to achieve self-sufficiency. This is the message that is often sent out to the agrarian communities of North Korea, which we get a very short glimpse of in the film.
The climax of the film saw the girls finally taking the stage at the Mass Games during the celebrations for the 55 years of the founding of the republic. The celebrations also included a Military Parade, a People’s Parade and a Youth Torchlight Parade which were, as expected, lavish and elaborate visual spectacles achieved by a total of one million people (that is one third of Pyongyang’s population). The Mass Games that year were of a smaller scale than that during the Arirang Festival, which was perhaps why the footage did appear significantly less extravagant than those shown earlier in the film. The English pop song used as the soundtrack for that segment also did appear slightly incongruous. Nevertheless, the image of thousands of young children and adolescents performing challenging acrobatic feats in perfect unison is breathtaking in its own right.
The value of Gordon’s film, however, does not lie in the visual feast provided by the choreographed spectacle. It is the cultural background against which the Mass Games are staged that is truly illuminating and astonishing for the unfamiliar viewer.
The particular scene in which the girls take a trip up to the mist-shrouded Mount Paekdu with their Revolutionary History teacher defined the film for me. It was akin to a pilgrimage for the young girls to visit what is regarded as the sacred birthplace of their state and of Kim Jong-il.
The expression of spiritual epiphany on the girls was unforgettable. It emanated with an innocent charm as much as it revealed an implicit danger – the religiosity of their patriotism. This is a community of individuals who have formed their entire worldview based on the doctrines of the intellectual slaveholders they address as their leaders. And they would literally do anything to support them in the name of “safeguarding sovereignty”.
Postscript: It must be noted that Gordon’s documentary is more representative of the capital city of Pyongyang than of the entire country of North Korea. As the narrator cautions, Pyongyang is really the “showroom” of a country where millions living outside the capital are suffering from poverty and malnutrition.
A State of Mind is now playing at Sinema Old School, an independent cinema dedicated to Singapore films.