Here's What I Learned About Canada From Watching North Korea Propaganda
I’m not sure they have a huge commitment to authenticity.
This screenshot from the film, while not being about Canada, is still pretty funny. All photos via screenshot.
Hi, rest of the world! Canadian here to tell you that my homeland is a very, very thirsty country—something that we here at VICE have written about many times.
We are so oft forgotten that whenever we see somebody who is not-Canadian talking about us we lose our goddamn minds. That’s why when I heard that Canada acts as a plot point in some North Korean propaganda I knew that I, a thirsty Canadian, had to watch it. Yes, even if it was a 62-part film.
The film we’re going to be taking a look at is called Nation and Destiny. It’s 62 parts (originally planned for 100) and with each part running over an hour, the project was a massive undertaking by the North Korean regime under the guidance of Kim Jong-il who was a notorious film buff. The films follows a number of characters, including a South Korean military official who defected to North Korea, a composer who travels to North Korea, and, at one point, a taekwondo master exiled to Canada.
The CBC’s Matt Kwong wrote a great article around Canada’s depiction in Nation and Destiny which you can read here. In the story, Kwong spoke to some defectors of the nation who said that this film pretty much built their entire understanding of Canada—an understanding that is intensely limited. This actually offers us a rather rare opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a North Korean and to analyze how they view Canada because—unless you are Dennis Rodman—you most likely aren’t going to make it into the Hermit Kingdom.
First things first, Canada sadly isn’t the central location of the film only really shows up to set up flashbacks. The hero of our story is Choi Hong Hi, a taekwondo master (which is what this section is truly about) and military man, and several portions of the film tell the sweeping epic story of his time in North and South Korea and eventual exile to Canada.
Now, Choi is a real figure and considered the “father of modern Taekwondo.” While being born in 1918 in what would eventually become North Korea, Choi eventually ended up fighting for the South Korean army and raised up the ranks there. After his military career came to an end Choi worked to spread Taekwondo around the world and was eventually exiled from South Korea after introducing the sport in North Korea. Choi eventually returned to North Korea in the 2000s where he died.
OK, now that the mandatory history lesson is over, let’s get into some propaganda. Let’s start with the broad, why don’t we? From the portions of the film that are on YouTube—albeit I don’t know how much I trust the subtitles—you can see that the North Koreans actually kind of like Canada. They talk about it rather nicely but admit it is crawling with South Korean spies.
Tonally, the films are all over the place, they break out into song all the goddamn time, the death scenes are incredibly odd freeze frames, there are some pretty sweet taekwondo fight scenes, and The Bridge of the River Kwai whistle song just starts randomly playing. But we’re not here to talk about tone, we’re here to talk about Canada, and one of the films actually opens with some assuredly stock shots of Canada.
We don’t get to see too much of the country in this film other than the interior of the home Choi and his wife live in before he is whisked away to South Korea where he then tells how he eventually ended up in Canada. The rest of the movie is pretty much entirely a flashback and we don’t see Canada again but the film does end with a song about geese—it’s not exactly about Canadian geese but, hell, we’ll take what we can get.
In the next film we don’t see pretty much anything about Canada so we’re just going to skip talking about that one. But in the one after that, hot damn, we get us to the coup’d grace of North Korean Propagandized Canada and it’s set to a road trip scene. In our protagonist and his wife reminisce traveling from “Canada to New York.” It’s hokey, romantic and they of course break into song. (I had a whole conspiracy about how West Life ripped “You Raise Me Up” off this song but then I realized it's also the chord progression from “Wind Beneath My Wings” so.)
This scene is by far the most Canadiana we get in this entire 62-part series. It’s a glorious minute or so. Also, while we do know that the filmmakers did travel to film this flick but I couldn’t track down if they made their way to the Great White North, but goddamn if they didn’t they nailed it with their setting selection. It straight up looks like Canada. From the view of the car ripping down a good ol’ Canadian highway—maybe the 401, just outside of Kingston—and we get some nice wheat fields, power lines and at one point there are cows!
Eventually, the duo arrives in New York and this leads to a pretty sweet standoff with another defector on a beach that is clearly not in New York but maybe is in Newfoundland.
And, honestly, this one big sweeping scene about Canada is the last we really see of our nation because, you know, these movies aren’t about that. The next two films in the Choi saga deal with him forming and growing his taekwondo foundation and dealing with the cartoonishly evil South Koreans and there isn’t much notable other than a sweet frontflip Choi hucks over a car.
So, at the end of the day, we know that in North Korea, they know pretty much nothing about Canada based on this movie. We’re practically just a concept to them—just a brief road trip. Nowhere in the film do they state where Canada is other than the fact you can drive from “Canada to New York”—not even a simple “Ontario.” It isn’t too surprising when you think about it, due to the tight state control on media and education most North Koreans just simply don’t have the chance to learn about Canada. And, if they did have the opportunity, they would probably just be like the rest of the world and ignore us.
Anyhoo, thanks for coming on that journey with me through North Korean propagandized Canadiana, gang, I hope that at least you learned something!
I know I sure didn’t.
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