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.
Director Jang said that top young actors are now vying for North Korean spy roles, as opposed to fearing the impact such parts might have on their image.
Since 2010, five high-profile spy films have been released and three more are in production, including Red Family by acclaimed director Kim Ki-duk, whose anti-capitalist tale Pieta won the best movie at the Venice Film Festival last year.
The popularity of such spy films marks a sea change from the past, when casting North Korean characters in any positive light was a grave offence against state censors and the notorious National Security Law.
Late legendary director Lee Man-hee was arrested and charged in 1965 with portraying North Korean soldiers as “humane and merciful human beings” in an anti-communist film he was making.
Even casting good-looking actors as North Korean characters was frowned upon by Seoul’s infamous intelligence agency, which often warned producers against “giving wrong impressions about communists” to youngsters.
Now the tide has turned.
The protagonist of Secretly, Greatly was played by one of Seoul’s most popular TV heartthrobs, Kim Soo-hyun, with the screams of fans rocking cinemas during initial screenings when the actor emerged on screen.
“He looked so gorgeous in the North Korean military suit ... the hottest North Korean spy ever!” one fan gushed on an Internet chat room overflowing with praise for the protagonist.
But film critic Kim cautioned that the recent batch of spy movies tend to “overly humanize” communist spies who in reality still make headlines in Seoul as menacing force.
“Most of the recent spy films are skewed too much to the opposite end of the anti-communist films we saw back in the 1970s,” Kim said, calling the trend as part of efforts to “balance things out from the past.”
Jang dismissed the criticism, saying today’s young audiences are too smart to confuse movie characters with real-world spies.
Jang Ce-yul, the North’s ex-senior military officer who defected to Seoul in 2008, called such films “a fantasy” for showing spies who hesitate to kill.
“Secret agents are thoroughly trained and waste no time killing those who notice their identity, whether you are a little girl or a nice old lady,” Jang, the head of the group of ex-North Korean soldiers in Seoul, told AFP.