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Kim Jong-il Gave Me a Break

January 21, 2012

Right after we all learned that Kim Jong-il died, my phone started ringing. Friends and even some strangers wanted me to tell them what was happening and what will happen in North Korea. They must think that, because I am a North-Korea-born American, I would have magical eyes to penetrate into that dark country. I was annoyed and distressed. Sitting in America, I knew as much or as little as they knew. Though I have radically different views from most Americans about North Korea, especially from historical points of view, the current state of that country and its future direction are largely unknown to me, as well.


Still, Kim Jong-il’s death brought me a break! I had started a huge venture, to make a film about North Korea. In June 2011, I traveled to South Korea and met with a number of crucial scholars, journalists, writers and North Korean defectors. I brought back rich but complex materials. In recent months, I struggled with them to shape the focus and direction of the film. For the next step, ideally, I need to go back to South Korea this month, January 2012. Alas, there is no way that I could do that, because my book, Looking for Don, is about to come out. That event and other pressing matters require my presence here. I felt conflicted, then Kim Jong-il’s death made it wise and even necessary for me to wait before I take the next step. Depending on what impact his death has, I might redirect my focus and direction.

Kim Jong-il’s death did not come as a surprise. We knew that it was coming, but he gave me a break by dying when he did. There is no denying that he and his father, Kim Il-sung, were two leaders gone completely mad, laughing at or (maybe more to the point) scared shitless of the world outside. But imagine his giving me a break. My grandmother was right to tell me that one should always look for something positive, no matter how negative a situation might feel.

I was born in North Korea in 1938.  With my family I crossed the 38th parallel in the winter of 1945 in search of “democracy” (so I was told by my grandmother), away from  the “evil” Russians into the arms of “good” Americans. In 1962, I traveled to America, still in search of democracy and to pursue graduate studies in religion.

After living in America almost for half a century as a naturalized citizen, married to an Iowa farm boy turned German historian and political activist, I decided it was time for me to make a film about North Korea. I expressed this wish to Don. When he said nothing but looked into my eyes intensely, I went on, “Don’t you think I should try to bring to the general public in America and elsewhere a better understanding of the much-hated, but little-known country, North Korea?” Still with not much verbal response from Don, I would add, raising my voice a little, “I will put the film in a historical context, from 1945 to the present,” as if the idea would increase the chances of eliciting approval from historian Don. I knew what went through his mind–he might not live that long. I didn’t really believe that Don’s health would become robust enough for us to travel together, but I went on making myself believe that Don and I would go on living and doing things together. I was in denial in a big way.

After losing Don, I largely blocked my ears and eyes about the affairs of the world. Don had been in such despair about America under Bush but with Obama’s victory, he was hopeful to witness America becoming America again. Alas, he died three days before Obama’s inauguration. The year 2008 had been such an intense time for us. We watched news and read together, following every movement of American politics despite Don’s failing health. That’s why I could not bear to follow the news after his death.

Under the circumstances, I had all but given up any idea of making a film. About a year and half after his passing, however, I came to have the perspective that Don was with me in spirit.  I found myself reviving the idea of making one last documentary about North Korea. I raised questions such as: How would I feel if I were back in my hometown?  Do Americans know anything about North Korea beyond being “Stalinist gulag,” “hell on earth,” “crazy” and “evil”? Why do Americans think North Korea is a threat to U.S. security or to world peace or both? Do Americans know that there are human beings in North Korea other than “two evils personified,” Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il?

For the next few posts, I want to write about my initial objectives for the film, about its direction, focus and content and how they have changed somewhat due to external factors.  My hope is to inform a few readers who might have no idea about that country, designated by our former President as one of three countries constituting an “axis of evil.”


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  1. Sharyn permalink

    OMG, so good to read something decent and real and true. The world is made up mostly of good hearted people and I can’t understand why a minority can tell anyone what to do and how to live. Everyone should be free to live and love without persecution.

    • Hi, Sharyn,
      Thanks for writing. First, let me be sure that I understand what you wrote. Do you mean by “minority”–tyrants like Kim Jong-Il?

      I totally agree with you that people should not be ordering others how to live their lives. Everyone should be free to choose to live their lives in the way that is most meaningful for them. That said, freedom is not easy–that’s why so many want to be led, to be told what to do. There is a delicate balance between leading and ordering. Clearly, what the Kims in north Korea have done so many decades are wrong, tyrinical.What I want to show in my film was to show that despite this, people’s spirit can be alive and resilient. Well, please read my follow up writings. Then we can talk again.

      Thanks. Dai Sil

  2. frank permalink

    just found you via dr. kims e-mail. happy to have found you. my best wish to you and stay the course. i’m hoping that you will be kind to your roots and people. i’m usa-ian/italian. tough sometime to even start to understand my people with all their wee & wows. just happy that i can visit anytime ( lots of extended family there ) but glad to be able to escape when the confusion sets in.

    • Hi, Frank,

      Thanks for writing. Of course, I am and will be kind to my root and people. However, being kind does not mean that one should not be critical.
      Stay with me and see if I am fair. Dai Sil

      • frank permalink

        i’ll be here. great, be critical in a kind understanding way. i’m sure it’s your creed.

  3. Rose permalink

    Dear Dai Sil,

    Yes, please write and share the truth.

    My parents have not shared much about Korea from their past. They only told me their dream is to see and have the two united once again. I have read books about Korea’s history and present. Most importantly, I want to have deeper understanding and deeper connection.

    It would be beneficial for everyone to have a chance to understand and know.

    Best regards,
    Rose Pae

    • Dear Rose,

      If you read books about Korea, perhaps your knowledge might be as much as mine/ But in addition to book knowledge is my experience, which I will try to share. Thanks for writing. Dai Sil

  4. Marie permalink

    I really enjoy your documentaries. I got a chance to see ‘A Forgotten People’ and ‘Motherland’ and I’m currently reading your book ‘Silence Broken’. I would love to see what you do on your documentary about North Korea. I like your human story within the context of history. North Korea is a big mystery and somewhat conflicting, when I see the propaganda films with the military women and the women in hanbook I think it looks a lot like other communist nations minus the capitalism, but when you hear the defectors stories from North Korea; it’s a whole different picture. My mother is from the very southern tip of Korea (my father is Black American) and the most she’s said is unification would be nice, but not having any family from the north and living here I think she distance herself from the topic. My cousins look at unification as a possible economic burdan and lean more towards open boarders. Can’t wait to keep reading.

    • Hi, Marie,

      Thanks for your kind comments about my films.

      I intend to make a film about North Korea. The next post (I plan to post two of them together) will give you some idea about what I have in mind.
      Please read and tell me what you think.

      With thanks and best. Dai Sil

  5. Kim Jong-il Gave Me a Break – great stuff!

    when is LOOKING FOR DON coming out?

    and the 4/29 event inserted into your post – is that this year, or past?

    looking forward to your next two posts, as mentioned just above!!



    • Hi, Glenn,

      Glad to hear from you. Looking for Don, I was told, will be available for you to order via Amazon and other places in the beginning of March.
      I will email your with exact info. I am going to post two at the same time, perhaps, tomorrow.

      The poster was in the past. I just put it there to show an aspect of me as a filmmaker.

      Hope you and your family are thriving.
      Dai Sil

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