Film shows hope, despair in Korean border village
PUSAN, South Korea -- Their village was developed as a South Korean propaganda tool against the North, and some residents chose to live there hoping for the day when the two Koreas would become one and they could reunite with family across the border. Those who settled in Cheorwon were trailblazers who cultivated land-mined rice fields even at the cost of losing a child or a limb to the explosives left from the Korean War.
Appearing on screen in a new, low-budget South Korean documentary, the dozen residents of the border propaganda village are a rarity in South Korean entertainment. Most South Korean films on North Korea or the Korean War are period dramas set during the 1950-1953 war itself. Some are set against the backdrop of North-South tensions, rarely depicting ordinary North Koreans or the plight of the divided families. Two box-office hits this year, "Secretly, Greatly" and "The Berlin File," featured a North Korean spy and a secret agent as main characters.
Director Kim Lyang's "Dream House by the Border" is one of 11 documentary features competing for a 10 million won ($9,300) prize at the Busan International Film Festival that ends on Saturday.
Kim, a South Korean based in France, said her first documentary feature was a chance for her to tell stories as the second generation of a divided family. Her father was born in North Korea but joined the South during the war and she grew up without knowing any extended family on his side. He is one of the millions of Koreans separated by the heavily fortified border that divides the Korean peninsula. They are barred from crossing the border as the war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, and many don't know whether their loved ones are alive.
The 41-year-old Kim struggled to reconcile her father's origins with growing up during a time of widespread fear of another communist invasion and North Korean spies.
"It did not feel natural for me to say my father's hometown was North Korea," Kim said during an interview.
At school, she attended anti-communist classes where teachers described North Korea as a "monster." At home, she saw a father yearning to revisit his North Korean home and his family separated during the Korean War.
"My father emphasized that he was in the Republic of Korea army," to play down his North Korean origin, she said referring to the official name of South Korea.
Since leaving his North Korean home to join the U.N. forces during the war, her father has been separated from his mother and two siblings.
"He felt guilty even though it was not his fault that he left his family behind," she said.
Others interviewed in the documentary left their hometowns in North Korea for various reasons, and were drawn to the village by the government's promises of land and houses. One Cheorwon resident recalls in the movie that her late father had settled in the village hoping to cross the border as soon as two Koreas were reunited so that he would see his family in the North.
The documentary shows close details of their houses, built in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Until recent years the residents could not renovate or expand their houses because they were built as a government-controlled propaganda village. Under Park Chung-hee's rule, the government planned to develop the village to show the prosperity of South Korean life to North Korea, which also constructed its own propaganda village north of the demilitarized zone.
Many houses in the movie still retain the bright orange roofs meant to be visible from afar in North Korea. A resident recalls feeling numb to the loud propaganda messages aired by two Koreas during times of heightened tension, which scared newcomers to the village and led to sleepless nights.
In the documentary, Kim's father talks about how he joined an airborne unit hoping he could parachute into his North Korean hometown of Tanchon to meet his family.
Last month, governments in Seoul and Pyongyang were on the brink of letting hundreds of divided families temporarily reunite. But North Korea called off the event a few days before the reunion, an acute disappointment for people who are mostly in their 70s or older and are eager to see their families before they die. About 22,000 Koreans from North and South Korea had brief family reunions during a period of eased tensions that ended in 2010.
Kim's father, who is in his 80s, is no longer hopeful about meeting his family. He did not apply for the reunion last month, the director said.