Posted : 2013-06-11 17:07
Updated : 2013-06-11 17:07

How inter-Korean relationship shapes N. Korean movie spies

By Kwon Mee-yoo

A scene from "Swiri"
It seems like filmmakers these days overuse North Korean spies like a bad chef does ketchup. But unlike the blockbusters from Hollywood, where agents from Pyongyang continue to be one-dimensional sources of disruption and nuclear terror, the movies of Chungmuro tend to portray North Koreans with a more delicate touch that often reflects real-life relations between the two Koreas.

Currently, the South Korean box office is occupied by three baby-faced North Korean spies appearing in the action-comedy ''Secretly Greatly.'' The movie passed the 3 million audience record in its first five days, a record-breaking pace for a local movie.

The movie is popular because it stars Kim Soo-hyun, the teenage heartthrob who ubiquitously appears in television commercials and print advertisements. The other two stars, Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo, have young girls screaming too.

Older moviegoers dragged into the theaters by their daughters to watch ''Secretly'' might notice the changes in how North Korean agents and their Stalinist government are portrayed if compared to similar movies in previous years.

Plenty of North Korean spies were seen in movies released under the liberal governments of late presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. They were frequently portrayed in sympathetic lenses, described as people destined for an unfortunate fate predisposed by the political conditions between the two Koreas.

This was when inter-Korean relations were warmer than they are now, so filmmakers obviously felt more comfortable about offering commentary on the peninsula's painful modern history.

Now with the South-North relations taking a turn for the worse, filmmakers seem to be limiting the scope of their stories to the internal problems within North Korea as it goes through a generational power transition. The source of conflict between the North Korean spies is the uncertainty in Pyongyang, not the hostile environment in the South.

Sensitive issues regarding the South-North relationship are mostly avoided.

In ''Secretly,'' the agents are not fighting their South Korean counterparts, but their former colleagues dispatched from Pyongyang to kill them.

In Ryoo Seung-wan's action film, ''The Berlin File,'' released earlier this year, North Korean spies Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) and Dong Myeong-su (Ryoo Seung-bum) are out to take out the other in an internal power struggle and Pyo ends up seeking the help of South Korean agent Jeong Jin-su. In the 2012 movie, ''The Spy,'' North Korean spies living in Seoul are driven into conflict when they are ordered to kill a North Korean defector.

These movies differ with ''Swiri,'' the 1999 blockbuster based on a tragic love story between a South Korean agent and a North Korean spy, later compelled to aim their guns against each other. The 2004 movie ''Spy Girl'' was also a love story between a North Korean agent and a South Korean student.

''The Suspect,'' one of the two North Korean spy movies slated to be released later this year, centers around a former North Korean spy played by heartthrob Gong Yoo, while ''Dong Chang Saeng'' features T.O.P from K-pop group Big Bang to play a North Korean spy.

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