In new movie, the South started the Korean War, as Pyongyang has always claimed

Higher quality of propaganda film ‘72 Hours’ is making it a blockbuster in North Korea.
By Kim Ji Eun for RFA Korean
2024.04.09
In new movie, the South started the Korean War, as Pyongyang has always claimed A woman walks past a propaganda movie shown on a large screen Aug. 21, 2015  in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Dita Alangkara/AP

Early on June 25, 1950, 75,000 Korean People’s Army troops attacked, catching the South Korean Army by surprise and starting the Korean War. Three days later, Seoul fell to the Communist North.

But the new hit North Korean movie, “72 Hours,” tells a different story of how the three-year-long conflict started.

Produced by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the country’s Central Committee, the film has the South attacking first, and the North’s advance to Seoul is part of a counter offensive, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.  

This account falls in line with Pyongyang’s official version of events – that it was the South that provoked the war under the orders of the United States, and that Washington wanted the war as an excuse to send troops to Korea to “conquer” the entire peninsula.

The movie is proving popular, largely because its production quality is higher than most made in North Korea, the resident said. 

“People know it is ideological, but it is very entertaining,” the resident said.

Viewers seem enthused about the film even though they know it is propaganda, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA.

Rare homegrown hit

It was in production for more than two years, and it was made specifically to paint the South Koreans as the enemy, he said.

RFA was not able to confirm the plot or other details about the film, which was released in February.

The movie is proving a rare homegrown hit for North Koreans, many of whom secretly watch South Korean TV shows and movies.

“There are not many North Korean movies worth watching, so residents usually prefer South Korean and foreign movies,” the first resident said. 

South Korean and foreign media are smuggled into the country on SD cards and USB flash drives, but distributing or viewing the media is illegal, and citizens have been punished, or even executed, for getting caught watching or selling it. 

An estimated 2-3 million Koreans died in the war, and the North ended up with slightly less territory than it had at the start, but North Korea claims it was victorious in what it now refers to as the “Great Fatherland Liberation War.”

At the beginning, though, the rapid advance of the Korean People’s Army suggested that the Communist forces would swiftly defeat the South. 

As depicted in the film, Seoul’s first fall – the capital changed hands four times –  is an inspiring story of brave men fighting a fierce three-day battle to “liberate” the city, the first resident said. 

Pricey tickets

But not everyone can afford to see the movie, he said.

Authorities originally set ticket prices at 18,000 won (US$2.12) when the film was released, he said, an enormous sum that equals about half a month’s salary for the lowest paid government-assigned jobs. The price was later cut to 5,000 won (59 U.S. cents).

 The exact production costs are not known, but rumors are spreading among residents that the film’s long run in theaters is because it hasn’t yet recouped those costs, the second resident said. 

Those who can’t afford to watch are eagerly awaiting the film’s TV release, as that’s what usually happens to all North Korean propaganda films, the sources said. But rumors are circulating that “72 Hours” will be sold on VCD before that, yet another way to generate revenue.

“Even though the ticket price was lowered to 5,000 won … it is more important for residents to buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice for 6,000 won (70 U.S. cents) than to spend 5,000 on a movie ticket,” the North Pyongan resident said.

Authorities are also taking measures to prevent people from taking videos or pictures of the movie on their cell phones, saying that the ban is to prevent people from taking videos of national founder Kim Il Sung, even though the role is portrayed by an actor, he said. 

“Residents who watched the movie left the theater wondering, ‘If we had won the war and occupied South Korea back then, what would Korea be like now?’” 

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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