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Here's how North Korean films portray Americans

A clip from the North Korean film "Nameless Heroes" or "Unknown Heroes," featuring American defector Charles Robert Jenkins.
A clip from the North Korean film "Nameless Heroes" or "Unknown Heroes," featuring American defector Charles Robert Jenkins.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

North Korea is furious over the The Interview, an American film depicting Kim Jong Un's assassination. According to the FBI, they're responsible for the hack of Sony Pictures and subsequent dump of its emails. But it's hard not to wonder about the flip side of this: if North Korea cares so much about American movies portraying North Korea, how do North Korean films portray the US?

Paul Fischer, the author of A Kim Jong Il Production, a book about North Korea's bizarre film industry, has some really interesting answers. In an interview with New York magazine's Vulture, Fischer reveals, among other things, that North Korea's state-run movie studio does produce a number of movies about the US, showing Americans launch such nefarious schemes as trying to infect North Koreans with HIV.

In these movies, the American characters — always villains, often members of the military — are sometimes played by North Koreans in whiteface, but often played by real, actual Americans who live in North Korea. Here's Fischer:

Up to the '70s and '80s, they were played by Koreans in whiteface. The actors would put on weird accents that they assumed were what Western accents sounded like. Later on, there are a bunch of American soldiers who defected to North Korea - the Dresnoks and the Jenkinses and all that. Kim Jong-il figured, "I don't know what to do with these guys, so I'll put them in movies." They always used to play the evil American or British - usually American - bad guys. One day someone would turn up at these guys' door and say, "This is what you're doing today," and put them on a film set.

Here's a clip from a film series called Nameless Heroes. It stars multiple Americans, including a defector named Charles Robert Jenkins (he's the creepy looking guy behind the desk):

Jenkins, as Graeme Wood tells it, hopped the border from South Korea one night in 1965, after guzzling ten beers. During his time in the North, he claims he was forced to star in Kim's propaganda films — typecast, naturally, as the American villain. He's since fled for Japan.

This may all seem schlocky beyond belief, but Fischer sees film as one of the Kim regime's main tools of social control. "Reading books is solitary," he says, "but film is a collective activity — and one that the state could control easily." Click over to Vulture for the whole, fascinating thing.

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