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What is North Korea saying?

By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 1980


When it comes to signs of the times, North Korea has produced some of the most puzzling. What does it mean, for example, when the son of one of the world's most doctrinaire Communist leaders produces a popular new film with so unrevolutionary a plot as a folk parable, the story of Chun Hyang?

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Everyone in Korea -- North and South -- knows the old tale.

While her fiance is away on the king's business, the beautiful young country woman Chun Hyang (Fragrance of Spring) rejects the propositioning of a corrupt official and is thrown in jail. Her fiance returns disguised as a beggar, throws off his disguise, and reveals the king's seal. The corrupt officials fall to their knees and Chun Hyang is freed.

"We were just not expecting to find this story romanticized on film in a country long seen as one of the most isolated, regimented, and doctrinaire on earth," reflects Maud Easter, recently back with her husband from a rare tour through communist North Korea.

The husband-and-wife team has lived in Japan for the past three years, watching Korea for the Quaker peace organization, the American Friends Service Committee. They have been taking their controversial conclusions to audiences in 26 cities across the US.

"Here you have a story that is popular with the people but apparently not with leader Kim II Sung, and yet was made into a film by his son and promoted with great success," Mrs. Easter says.

"It indicated to us a peaceful and romantic dimension about North Korean culture that had not been part of the war-mongering stereotypes we had known in the West. In fact, more generally we found the North Koreans quite interested in reducing tension with South Korea and improving cultural relations with the US."

But the Easters' explanation is itself something of a puzzle to Korea experts in the US. In fact, nothing could make some of them more skeptical, given the current political climate.

Since May -- when South Korean leader Park Chung Hee was replaced by Gen. Chon Deo Hwan, who has crushed popular movements for reforms and sentenced dissident leader Kim Dae Jung to death -- the (pre-November) Congress has grown more and more disenchanted over US-South Korean relations. But the government is adamant about not letting North Korea exploit the situation.

For a long time, the North has wanted to unify the country by holding talks with the US that would exclude Washington's ally in the South. Some analysts think the North is now trying to make an end run around the South (perhaps because it feels side-lined now that China and the US are growing more friendly). For that reason, they say, images of North Korean life offered to visitors like the Easters are exceedingly hard to interpret.

"Contrary to the Easters' impression, for example, the film of Chun Hyang could be a political design to reinforce the personality cult surrounding the North's President Kim II Sung," William Shaw, a Korea specialist at Harvard University, argues. "It props up the whole idea that the way to deal with problems is for a benevolent paternalistic ruler to come in and right all the people's wrongs."

Nevertheless, despite the controversy, firsthand looks at North Korean life are so rare that the experts do not discount the Easters' views entirely.

"Reducing tension on the Korean Peninsula has long been the goal of North Korea, South Korea, and the US alike," Mr. Shaw adds. "And the Easters are at least asking new questions about longstanding obstacles to achieving that goal."

Pointing to the astonishingly successful increase in cultural exchanges between the US and Communist China, the Easters ask, why not North Korea, too?

They are determined to bring a nongovernmental delegation of North Koreans to tour the US in the near future. They hope it will lead to more invitations for Americans to visit North Korea. Without such cultural exchange, they argue, prevailing Western stereotypes of North Korea will stick and conflict never be ended.