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A North Korean Feelgood Lecture

Nick BonnerBy Peter Corbishley

Filming A State of MindThe first of the Spring Term SOAS Lectures heard Nicolas Bonner (right) talking to extracts from his and Daniel Gordon’s three films on North Korea: The Game of their Lives (2002), A State of Mind (2004), Crossing the Line / 푸른 눈의 평양시민 / A Blue-Eyed Pyongyang Citizen (2006). The often almost empty G52 was standing room only with a queue in the corridor, and the questions afterwards were largely of the non anti North Korea variety. A definite feelgood event with the film clips giving human and humane glimpses of life in one of the nastier regimes of the world.

Interviews with the Director Daniel Gordon on The Game of Their Lives and Sate of Mind can be found on the BBC web-site here: Game of their Lives / State of Mind

As these reviews indicate, ‘The Game of their Lives’ (above) tells of the other side of the 1966 World Cup. Told through the eyes of those players who could still be found in 2001, we learn how the North Korean team beat the Italians. In so doing they became the first Asian team to reach the quarter finals, a feat achieved against all the off-pitch plays of the Foreign Office but with the whole-hearted support of the people of Middlesborough.

‘A State of Mind’ (above) tells of the 2003 Mass Participation Games in North Korea through the lives and families of 2 of the girl gymnasts, Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yon. A director’s interview about the third film ‘Crossing the Line’ about the American soldier James Joseph Dresnok (below) who ‘defected’ to North Korea has not yet made it to the BBC.


Nicolas Bonner reported a North Korean’s comments when comparing ‘A State of Mind’ to ‘The Game of their Lives : “it’s vey boring, it’s just like real life.” And Nocolas’s general line in support of his film-making was that the films show North Koreans “have a form of social life”. “Within that society life goes on”, “tourism breaks down barriers”, “cultural exchanges make a difference.” 892Cultural ties lead to cultural dialogue, cultural dialogue leads to change. Although Nicolas personally sees no real difference over the 16 years since he first visited North Korea : women can’t ride bicycles in Pyongyang, for example. The argument over short term versus long term dynamics, the political over the cultural visibilities of power, will doubtless go on, with reference to North Korea or elsewhere.

Geo-politically, the Knesset and Hamas are perhaps a more pressing case for at least some form of dialogue. However, what most caught my mind during the seminar was that, according to Bonner (and there seems no reason to doubt him on a cultural level), the North Koreans, “neither interfered nor sought to control the materials” of the films. Cultural dialogue or not, I can more easily understand such openness as an expression of that 정 that makes Koreans, both South, and now it seems North as well, such an attractive people (as well as living ordinary and boring lives, of course!).

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