Stephen Kokx
Have we forgotten about North Korea?
By Stephen Kokx
May 12, 2012

The transition of power from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il to his twentysomething son Kim Jong-un serves as a reminder of the questions political philosophy seeks to answer: how do those in power retain it? what is the relationship of the individual to the state? and what is the best way to govern a nation?

Many of these questions can be answered somewhat definitely by pointing to the success of Western style liberal democracy. However, mankind as a whole is far from solving its most vexing problems. Nearly a billion people lack clean drinking water and the world's most populous nation frequently denies its own citizen's basic human rights.

Geopolitics hamstrings the United States' ability to intervene in all matters of injustice, but the promises made after World War II to prevent another Holocaust have largely been upheld. When it comes to North Korea, however, the United States, especially in recent years, has turned somewhat of a blind eye to the atrocities being committed there. Granted, an attempt to ouster Kim Jong-un could have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign relations, especially with China, but there are other steps that can be taken to reduce the DPRK's crimes against humanity.

It is fairly well documented that if North Korean dissenters are caught in China, they are repatriated and subsequently shot or sent to a concentration camp. If they are lucky, missionaries will help them find a way into South Korea. But even then, the desire to return to their homeland remains strong. In the 2009 documentary Kimjongilia, an escaped pianist living in the South expressed his desire to go back after the fall of Kim Jong-il in order to "make that land prosperous" as "fast as possible." Other Koreans, like the Danish-Korean comedy duo of Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul Jorgensen, stars of the 2009 documentary The Red Chapel, never want to go back.

The Red Chapel, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a foreign documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is a highly entertaining yet emotionally moving film that summarizes the injustice taking place in North Korea better than most. Part satire, part political statement, it follows Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger in his absurd attempt to convince North Korea to let Jacob and Simon perform a live comedy routine under the guise of a cultural exchange program. The Koreans agree but there's one small problem. Jacob is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair.

In North Korea handicapped people are killed at birth. Because of this stigma, the group's handlers seek to minimize Jacob's role in the production. At one point they ask him to act "normal" so the audience doesn't get the impression that he is actually handicapped. Predictably, Jacob loses his cool and demands to go home.

Throughout the film, the 18 year-old Jacob experiences anguish and suffering. As a self described "spastic" he speaks with a slur that is impossible for his handlers to understand. So when his minder, Mrs. Pak, oddly asserts that she cares for him as much as she does for her own son, Jacob lashes out at Mads for bringing him to such a sad place. He simply cannot understand how a person like Mrs. Pak could be so brainwashed.

Near the end of the film, right after Jacob and Mads are forced to march in an anti-American demonstration in Kim Il-sung Square, Jacob confesses to Mads that the entire experience has taught him that no matter what he does he can never undo the injustice committed by the Kim family. He is right. As a solitary individual he can't do anything. But as a nation, we can.

The Red Chapel is a powerful film. It reminds us that a holocaust is still going on. It's just not taking place in Europe.

© Stephen Kokx


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