“Whether she accepts my ideas or not, I’m glad because she’s all grown up” the father of documentarian Yang Yong-hi insists implying perhaps that he has more respect for his daughter’s questioning nature than she had assumed he might. Deeply personal, Dear Pyongyang is Yang attempting to parse the disconnect between her loving parents’ lifelong faith in the Great Leader and her own upbringing in a much more open society which has encouraged her that she should be free to live her own life and make her own decisions rather than as her father would have it devote herself to a “fatherland” which remains unfamiliar to her. 

As the opening titles explain, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and fell under colonial rule until its independence was returned with the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of the war only to be partitioned in 1948. During the colonial era, many Koreans had settled in Japan, divisions also emerging between them as those who supported the North chose to take North Korean nationality even if in reality from the south. Yang’s father was one such person, having grown up around ardent Marxists on Jeju Island. A member of pro-North organisation Chongryon, he devoted his life to activism campaigning for the rights of other Zainichi Koreans while proselytising for Kim Il-Sung thought. He even sent his three sons “back” to North Korea as part of a repatriation program in 1971 incorrectly believing that the North’s economy was improving, the nation would soon be reunified, and relations with Japan would become normalised. Had he known it would mean an almost permanent separation, he may have made a different choice. 

Six years old at the time and kept behind as the only daughter, Yang attended North Korean schools and was in a sense indoctrinated with North Korean propaganda yet she was also coming of age in Japan where she was free to listen to the Beatles and watch movies while it gradually became obvious to her that the place her brothers had been sent to was far from the paradise they’d been promised. She herself was able to meet with them in 1983 as part of a school trip but even then she was only permitted to see them for short periods of time agreed with North Korean authorities. Permitted to travel back and forth with some regularity she finds herself noting more each time how the images in her mind don’t line up, fixing her gaze on a incomplete tower construction long since abandoned as an ironic symbol of the North’s false prosperity. 

In actuality Yang cannot show much of this in her film for obvious reasons and in the time she spends with her brothers and their families, their lives seem comfortable enough save the odd power cut. Her young nephew has even benefitted from the CDs she used to send his father and is an accomplished piano player. Nevertheless, her mother Yon has been sending heat packs en masse to each of the brothers as well as other friends and relatives after receiving a letter telling her that one of the grandchildren had been suffering frostbite because of the extreme cold. Yon had always sent care packages to her children, so shocked on receiving the first photo of them from the North and noticing how much weight they’d lost that she tore it up rather than let their father see it, but boxes have increased significantly in size as the families grew and she became more aware of the reality of the situation in Pyongyang. Still she and her husband remain loyal to the Great Leader, unable to discern the level of cognitive dissonance in the evidence of their eyes and their faith in North Korean communism. 

It’s the disconnect that Yang can’t understand or forgive, finding it particularly galling that her parents have been supporting whole communities with their care packages but everyone attributes the largesse to the goodness of the Great Leader even though the packages wouldn’t be necessary if the system itself had not failed. Her ideological opposition to her father manifests itself in her desire to change her nationality though opting not for a Japanese passport but a South Korean one that would allow her to travel more easily if also ironically preventing her from visiting her brothers and extended family in the North. Finally he seems to relent, admitting that the “circumstances have changed” and he wants her to have more opportunities in her working life. In any case, even if she lived in the South she would be free to visit him in Japan in a way his sons are not, his exclusion of her from his instructions that his sons and grandchildren should devote their lives to the “fatherland” perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she need not follow his path but should seek her own. Then again perhaps it’s also an acceptance that his life’s work has not turned out as he’d hoped and has in fact robbed him of the company of his children through literal and ideological divide. Even so this moment of compromise allows Yang to begin to bridge a division she thought unbreachable, able for the first time to see her father as just that, longing to hear his thoughts and have him listen to hers only to be immediately robbed of the opportunity. At times raw and filled with a sense of melancholy regret, Yang’s incredibly personal documentary is partly a treatise on the destructive effects of cognitive dissonance and blind faith, but also on the freedom to be found in mutual acceptance. 


Dear Pyongyang streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

US Trailer (Japanese & Korean with English subtitles)

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