[Marxism] Silmido (Dir. Kang Woo-suk)
furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sun Feb 15 14:52:29 MST 2004
Joon Soh, "Secret Cold War Project Revealed in New Film," _Korea
Times_ December 15, 2003,
"`Silmido' and the Korean Film Industry," _Korea Times_ February 2,
***** The New York Times
February 15, 2004
South Korean Movie Unlocks Door on a Once-Secret Past
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
SILMIDO, South Korea - In the winter of 1968, at the height of the
cold war between the Koreas, 31 North Korean would-be assassins
sneaked across the world's most heavily guarded border and reached a
wooded area behind the palace of the South Korean president, Park
Chung Hee, before they were stopped.
Three months later, in a tit-for-tat effort, the South Korean
military recruited 31 men, from prisons and off the streets, for
special training on this rocky islet in the Yellow Sea. Their mission
was to sneak across the border, make their way to Pyongyang, the
North Korean capital, and assassinate the North's leader, Kim Il
Sung. But relations between the sides eased suddenly, so the mission
In 1971, with no prospect of leaving this island, the recruits
revolted, killed their guards in a military compound and managed to
reach the mainland. There they hijacked a bus to Seoul, before being
stopped by the authorities and blowing themselves up with grenades.
That small chapter of the cold war is now being revisited in
"Silmido," a South Korean movie released on Dec. 24 that the
newspapers have called the biggest drawing movie in the nation's
cinematic history and that has caused a lot of soul-searching. It has
focused attention on a piece of history that the government would
rather forget: South Korea's secret war of espionage against North
Korea and its sometimes brutal treatment of its own citizens, before
democratization began in 1987.
Until three years ago, South Korea denied that it had ever sent spies
against North Korea, unwilling to admit that it used the same tactics
that the North did. But with improving relations with North Korea and
public outcries from former spies, South Korea has acknowledged them
and begun compensating them and their relatives.
No official data exist. But according to lawmakers who have pushed
for compensation for the former spies, more than 7,700 men crossed
the border on secret missions from 1953 to 1972. About 5,300 are
believed not to have made it back.
The topic is sensitive. This month, the Ministry of Defense made its
first public statement on both the Silmido uprising and the movie,
saying that five people reported missing in 1968 were among the
Brig. Gen. Nam Dae Yeon, the ministry spokesman, said the 31 Silmido
recruits made up Unit 684, part of an air force squadron. Seven died
in training and 20 were killed in the uprising, General Nam said. The
four who survived were executed after a military trial in 1972.
Documents describing Unit 684's mission no longer exist, General Nam
said. But the government has not denied that its mission was to kill
Kim Il Sung.
"When we were growing up, we were told that we had to sacrifice for
our country," said Jonathan Kim, 43, chief executive of Hanmac Films
and a producer of the movie. "Not only physically, but also in the
area of human rights. We were told to ignore these things because of
the Communist threat. Now we can see what our government did and what
The movie, based on a magazine article and a book on the subject,
could not have been made, Mr. Kim said, until the recent
reconciliation between the North and South under the "sunshine
policy" of South Korea's former president, Kim Dae Jung. Before,
merely playing a North Korean song in the movie would have caused
trouble with the authorities.
Yang Dong Su, 54, is one of six guards who survived the Silmido
uprising. Like the other survivors who have been talking to the media
here, he confirmed that Unit 684's mission had been to infiltrate
North Korea and kill Kim Il Sung.
Now a high school teacher in Seoul, Mr. Yang was sent to Silmido in
October 1970 to serve out his military duty. Although the movie
portrays the 31 recruits as death-row convicts given one last chance
to redeem themselves, Mr. Yang said most were petty criminals.
"They were the kind who would get into street fights a lot," he said
in an interview in Seoul.
Most had been promised jobs and money if they succeeded, Mr. Yang
said. But after the mission was canceled, they were kept in limbo.
What led to the uprising on Aug. 23, 1971, is unclear. The movie
shows the government deciding that the recruits had to be killed
because they knew too much. The recruits find out and revolt. (Mr.
Kim, the producer, acknowledges that history is not clear on that
Mr. Yang has a different view. "They revolted because they felt that
they were never going to get the chance to go to North Korea and that
they would never be allowed to leave the island," he said. "They were
During the uprising, Mr. Yang was shot in the neck. He showed scars
where the bullet entered from the back and exited from the front.
Although the Silmido group never made it to North Korea, many spies
did. Jung Gil Ryong, 50, a former spy who is the secretary general of
an organization of former spies and their relatives, said about 200
of his group's 1,100 members went to North Korea on missions.
Mr. Jung said he was a jobless youth in Pusan when he was recruited
in 1976. At a mountain base, he said, he and other spy recruits
learned the North Korean dialect and songs, and to walk the way North
Korean soldiers did. During three years as a spy, his contact with
the outside world was limited to censored letters to his family.
He said he went to North Korea, but he refuses to talk about it.
Unlike many former spies who made it back and were unable to readjust
immediately to ordinary life, Mr. Jung worked for a cosmetics company
after and eventually became a lawyer.
"In North Korea, the system ensured that spies were treated as
heroes," Mr. Jung said. "But our own government's attitude was that
after we did our job, they wanted us to get lost. `They're back and
they're bothering us' - that's the way we were treated. I'm still
angry with the hypocritical government officials."
With the movie's success, though, the spies' stories have come out.
Ordinary Koreans have begun making day trips here to Silmido, an
uninhabited island near the new Inchon airport.
"This was a dark period in our history," said Han Yu Kyoung, 31, who
had come here with her colleagues. "The government should recognize
its wrongdoings and repent."
***** Hanmac Films
3rd Fl, Heung-guk Bldg., 43-1, Juja-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul 100-240,
Korea Tel : +82-2-2268-6071 / Fax : +82-2-2268-2677
e-mail : Jonathan at unitel.co.kr, jon at cinelove.com
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