Provocative documentary on North Korea opens in Seoul

A film about North Korean defectors that could stir up tensions on the Korean Peninsula has opened in Seoul theaters.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

American filmmaker N.C. Heikin recognized the parallel at once. When she heard Kang Chol-hwan talk about his imprisonment in North Korea at age 9 along with the rest of his family, she says, “as a Jewish woman, I felt [strongly] about a child [being] sent to a concentration camp.”

Ms. Heikin, who now lives in Paris with her coproducer husband, Robert Pepin, thought of a film based on Mr. Kang’s experiences as recounted in his book, “Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

The result was a documentary in which Kang’s story is one of a dozen told by defectors from North Korea.

The 74-minute film, “Kimjongilia” (“The Flower of Kim Jong Il”), whose title is an ironic reference to a bright red begonia developed especially for Kim Jong-il, has opened in South Korea two years after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. That’s a major step for a film that’s bound to inspire concerns about the North Korean response and the potential impact on North-South reconciliation.

“I think it’s historic the film is released here. I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Heikin.

It’s “important,” says Mr. Pepin, that China, which routinely sends defectors back if captured, see the cruel existence of North Koreans. Defectors “run the risk of being shot to death” when returned to North Korea, he says.

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