It is sometimes said that citizens of a divided nation suffer more from the manipulation of the division than from the division itself. Kim Dong-won’s landmark 2004 documentary Repatriation (송환, Songhwan) tackles this issue from the side in examining the lives of “unconverted” political prisoners – spies from the North who endured years of torture yet never abandoned their core ideology. Kim tells their stories with warmth and empathy, but cannot avoid the various ways they have been used and misused as proxies in a long dormant war, sometimes willingly but sometimes not. Personal friendships aside, Kim’s view of the ex-prisoners is coloured by the political attitudes of his times in which the left, deeply wounded following the subversion of the hard won fight for democracy, longs to see the right’s claims of the North as mere propaganda and perhaps idealises the positive qualities of life North of the border only to have their illusions shattered and their hopes once again dashed
Back in 1992, a priest asked director Kim Dong-won for the use of his car. He was bringing a pair of “unconverted” long term prisoners to the village and needed help. Despite his reservations Kim agreed and against the odds, Choi and Kim were warmly welcomed into the small community who came together to look after the two old men regardless of their controversial beliefs and pasts as spies sent down from the North more than 30 years previously.
“Unconverted” is, strictly speaking, the preferred language of the North. The South refers to the same prisoners as “converts-to-be”, which is to say that the normal practice for captured spies is a period of lengthy torture designed to force the captives to “convert” from North Korean communism to regularised South Korean anti-communism. The language in itself is telling, and Kim frames his tale as one of faith and martyrdom with the Unconverted painted as true believers who never wavered even in the face of extreme suffering and persecution. Indeed, the suffering itself only strengthened their resolve and legitimised their struggle – if they are prepared to go this far to obliterate your ideas, then your ideas must after all have power.
This idea of an almost religious belief in the righteousness of North Korean “socialism” seems to have caught Kim’s attention, but he is not blind to the darker sides of their continued indoctrination. Kim and Choi have frequent get togethers with others in the same position, singing North Korean folksongs and communist anthems while they extol the virtues of a land they’ve not set foot in since they were young men, pining for a homeland that might not exist anymore. The Unconverted want to go home, but those of a more practical mindset might wonder what would happen to them if they could – will they be welcomed with open arms as they seem to think, or be treated with suspicion as returnees who’ve lived freely in the South which has, after all, released them willingly?
Meanwhile, belief in the “goodness” of the North begins to crumble with increasing improvement in relations which gradually lays bare the truth of the Communist state, suffering heavily thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and ongoing economic reforms in China. Pervasive governmental corruption had encouraged many to feel that any and all information regarding the evils of North Korea must be lies created to spread fear as part of a vast propaganda machine and so when much of it turned out to be the truth it was a double blow to an already wounded left whose revolution had been betrayed when a newly democratic Korea went ahead and elected the dictator’s chosen successor. The Unconverted become a political pinball – if the South lets them go home some will praise their compassion, but many more will read it as a defeat while the North may well make full capital out of their returned heroes’ unbreakable resolve while also using them to attack the “cruel” South for treating them so badly and refusing to allow those still imprisoned to return.
Yet Kim’s concerns are human before they’re ideological – these are men who want to go home and someone is telling them that they can’t. The Uncoverted are mere pawns in an ongoing ideological game being played by two sides of a never-ending civil war. The division itself remains weaponised by both sides, each seeking to use it to demonise the other and no matter your personal ideology the inhumanity of making political capital of ordinary people ought to be disturbing. What Kim proves, however, is that a kind of “reunification” is possible – that friendships can be formed across ideological lines and that a peaceful coexistence can be won over common ground so long as there is the will to find it.
Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.