A new film made by Sung-Hyung Cho attempts to give outsiders an insight into life in North Korea. The director, who even had to give up her South Korean nationality to shoot the film, spoke to DW about the project.
DW: How and when did you get the idea of making "My Brothers and Sisters in the North"?
Sung-Hyung Cho: I alone would never have come up with the idea of shooting a film in North Korea. Not because I wasn't interested in this enigmatic country, but because I thought being born and brought up in South Korea it wouldn't be possible for me to even step foot on North Korean soil, let alone getting permission to make a film. Moreover, I was afraid of this country.
But we faced financial and production-related difficulties while making my previous film "Loved, Engaged, Lost" [A documentary that tells the love story between women from former East Germany and North Korean men sent to the former communist nation for studying].
And then the editor in charge at the German broadcaster "Hessischen Rundfunk" (HR) suggested that we shoot a part of the film in the North - scenes involving the meeting of families from former East Germany with their North Korean relatives. Should this be possible the editor assured that HR would step in as a production partner.
In the end, however, the shooting didn't take place. But we were able to get in touch with the officials in Pyongyang in charge of giving permission to make films in the country. The authorities refused to allow that shoot as they didn't want any more stories on German-North Korean family ties.
Sung-Hyung: 'I had to give up my Korean nationality and obtain German citizenship, just to be able to enter North Korea'
Still, it gave us hope that they would grant us permission for a different story. That's how the idea to make this film was born.
What's the film about?
With this film, I wanted to show people's daily lives in North Korea, going beyond the stereotypical negative images that immediately come to our mind when talking about this isolated country - pictures of military parades, missiles, soldiers, famines and the ruling Kim family being treated to rapturous reception from masses of crowds. I wanted to see with my own eyes and find out what the situation in the country looks like, how people lead their lives and why they all seem so strange to us.
Did you manage to shoot it the way you had originally planned to do?
The most difficult thing was to see what the situation on the ground really was - the difference between the images that we have in our minds about life in the country, which are often very biased, and what North Koreans actually say about their lives. But I wanted to know how people lead their daily lives under a totalitarian regime and how the state's ideology affects everyday routine.
That is, however, extremely difficult as North Koreans are so accustomed to masking their real views. One can never be sure how authentic one's experience is with the people there.
It was also really difficult for me to see that, apart from the time we were shooting, we weren't allowed to walk unaccompanied through the city or to even just go shopping. Our local partners were always there, accompanying us like our shadows. After four weeks, we have had enough and it was high time to leave.
How long and complicated was the planning for this film and the process to get permission from authorities?
First of all, I had to give up my Korean nationality and obtain German citizenship, just to be able to enter North Korea. I had to do it not only because of Pyongyang, but also because of South Korea.
If a South Korean citizen travels to North Korea without the permission from South Korean authorities, the person could be arrested whenever they arrive in the South. A trip to North Korea is regarded as treason in the South and is punished accordingly. On the Korean Peninsula, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War are still omnipresent.
How difficult was this move for you?
At first, it felt very strange and I was also very sad. But I had to do it to save the film. I had been working on the project "Loved, Engaged, Lost" since 2006 and I wanted to bring it to an end. I also owed it to the film's protagonists, who wanted their family tales to be told.
Meanwhile, I find it fantastic to have a German passport. Since I became a German citizen, both South Korea and North Korea have become part of my home collection.
Despite the German citizenship, North Korean officials knew about your South Korean connection. So were you under increased scrutiny during your stay there?
The initial communication always took place through my German and North Korean producers. Although my South Korean heritage was never a secret, it wasn't a constant topic of discussion.
After we got the permission to shoot our film, we adhered to the rules. On top of that, North Koreans may not behave rudely with foreign guests, but are told to be welcoming toward them. Still I was worried how the protagonists would react to my being a South Korean by birth.
But I felt relieved and delighted to find out that North Koreans welcomed me and really enjoyed meeting me.
How did it feel being in North Korea and making such a film there?
It was personally very important for me that I didn't film anything in secret. I thought that, as a South Korean by birth, I would be under increased watch and that North Koreans would be much more attentive and sensitive to what I was doing and how I behaved.
And I didn't want to give the North any reason to accuse me of spying for the South - claims that are not unheard of. Had I been overambitious and disregarded the rules, I would have quickly triggered a diplomatic crisis between North Korea, South Korea and Germany.
What were your most memorable experiences during your stay in the country?
When I was there, I was able to recall my childhood days. It was for me like a journey back in time - today's North Koreans are comparable to the South Koreans of the 1970s. During that time, South Korean society was not as extremely capitalistic as it is now, and people were also much more naïve and humane.
Born in South Korea, Sung Hyung Cho is a Germany-based editor and director, known for Full Metal Village (2006), Endstation der Sehnsüchte (2009), 11 Freundinnen (2013) and Verliebt, Verlobt, Verloren (2015).Her new film Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden is currently being screened across Germany.