They are handsome, daring, patriotic and multi-lingual elite fighters who dodge bullets while remaining loyal to their women and families. Meet the new heroes of South Korean cinema — North Korean spies.
Portrayed by Hollywood as merciless terrorists in films such as White House Down, South Korean film is increasingly depicting North Korean agents as conflicted action heroes whose personal struggles embody a divided Korean peninsula.
Such films, unimaginable a few decades ago, have been embraced by young South Koreans who have no memory of the horrors of the Korean War and harbor less hostility towards their communist neighbor than older generations.
Both sides remain technically at war after the Korean conflict ended with an armistice six decades ago. Tension along the heavily-fortified border erupts sporadically into deadly clashes, while both sides have sent spies tasked with assassinating key figures or collecting state secrets.
For South Korean filmmakers, the North is a “perfect inspiration” allowing them to mix fantasy with the realities of a neighbor that often threatens to turn Seoul into a “sea of flame.”
“The North is such a mysterious, little-known nation that there’s ample room to use one’s imagination on top of the actual reality,” said film critic Kim Sun-yub.
The death of longtime ruler Kim Jong-il in 2011 further inspired moviemakers, said Jang Cheol-soo, director of the recent hit Secretly, Greatly.
The tragicomic action film, seen by 6.9 million since its release in June, is the third highest-selling South Korean film so far this year.
“No other characters can epitomize such turbulent and uncertain times like this than a North Korean spy,” Jang told AFP.
The story of an elite spy sent to live in a Seoul shantytown with a mission to kill key figures, Jang’s film sees the young assassin pose as a village idiot to mingle with neighbors without drawing suspicion. But he is soon enamored with his caring, good-hearted neighbors — before unexpected tragedy unfolds.
The second-highest grossing South Korean film this year is another star-studded spy thriller, seen by 7.1 million people. The Berlin File features a North Korean secret agent trying to defect to the South with his wife, an embassy translator.
Both films are fictions that brush with real life events such as the deadly inter-Korea naval clash in 2002, or the rise to power of the North’s new ruler Kim Jong-un.
Citizens in the South are still urged to report spies for hefty cash rewards, although not as strongly as in the past when children were taught at school how to recognize spies by their behavior or accent.
As recently as 2011, a North Korean agent was arrested in Seoul and charged with attempting to murder an outspoken anti-Pyongyang activist with a poison-tipped weapon.
A human face
The last remaining legacy of the Cold War has inspired hordes of North Korea-themed films in the South for decades.
One high-profile case saw a group of 30 elite North Korean commandos gunned down in downtown Seoul in 1968 after they secretly crossed the border with a mission to kill then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Cross-border reconciliation in the late 1990s under the engagement policy of the late South Korean ex-presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun encouraged filmmakers to put a human face on North Koreans, who were previously portrayed as soulless villains under Seoul’s anti-communist army regimes that had ruled until the 1980s.