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Permission Denied (Kim Jong-il Gave Me a Break, Part 3)

February 1, 2012

I made an official attempt to obtain permission to enter North Korea and spend time in my hometown through an informal lunch.  A friend arranged lunch with the Ambassador to the United Nations from North Korea.  We met at an Italian restaurant on New York City’s East Side.

I bumped into the friend as I was looking for the restaurant. A conscientious person, my friend was early. Together we entered the place and sat down at a quiet corner table. Shortly afterward, two Korean men arrived, looking somewhat formal. The ambassador was accompanied by his cultural attaché. Introductions were made. It was a bit awkward at first, but it didn’t take long for all of us to relax, especially after I was able to speak in the North Korean dialect of my hometown. Miraculously, some typical expressions of my hometown came back after all these years. The two men seemed favorably impressed, and we had a jolly good time. I am sure it also helped that I wasn’t a young chicken, but an old woman with gray hair, who could easily be their mother. In any case, during the entire two hours, we had much laughter and loud conversation, intermittently mixed with the sound of vigorous chewing. Of course, a glass of wine also helped. The lunch was the first proof that North Koreans are regular human beings!

All through our lunch, I stressed that I would welcome NK officials to accompany me wherever I might go. The film I had in mind was not a political one but designed to show the rich humanity of ordinary NK citizens.

The parting word came from the aide: “As you might know, the final decision is not up to us. We will send papers to Pyongyang for their decision.”

I waited for five months to hear from them. As each day passed, my hope diminished but still I hung onto the positive lunch I had with two NK officials.  When I finally heard, it was not directly from them. It was via my friend.

Permission to go to my hometown was denied!

I tried to convince myself that the denial was a blessing disguised, that I should stay put and concentrate on writing, not take up this enormous task of making a film, loaded with extra problems, at this stage of my life–grief stricken and old. I paced my apartment all day, deep into the night. Then, I stood in front of a portrait of Don which I had painted. I heard him: “Dai Sil, don’t give up. You can think of a way to use this denial. You might not be able to make the same film you had initially conceived but you can still make a good film!”

Well, I did think of a way. Permission Denied will be my film.

The film will be the story about why the wish of a woman to go back to her place of birth at the end of her life should be denied. It will be about NK without actually stepping inside the country. I will travel around to locations from which I can look at the places I wish to visit– if not actually, then in my mind’s eye–and tell the world why I have to stand there instead of stepping on the soil of my hometown, easily reached by car. If I am lucky, my camera person might be able to capture some images of NK citizens from a distance. Just as life has surprises in store, so does filmmaking.

Clearly, the depiction of ordinary citizens the way I had envisioned could not be done without meeting them, but I can certainly shed much needed historical light on the current NK mess. Attention to history will  show that the present NK is not a simple monstrosity created by two tyrants. If it is a component of an “axis of evil,” it is not a simple evil but a complexity created over time by a lot more forces than just the two recent leaders. Hopefully, the film will shed a new light on American policy, past and present, in relation to South and North Korea and, by extension, to current American policy around the world.

My lifetime spans all the major events of the twentieth century history that involve North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the USA, and other Allied Forces: the end of World War II, division of Korea, the Korean War, and the continuing relationship among all the parties mentioned. Using my personal experience as a narrative arc, I could discuss, for example: the state of Korea in 1945, dictated by occupying forces; how Korea was divided and remains to be divided; how the Korean War started.

Generally speaking, I do not like to appear in my films. The focus has always been on interviewees and events. Even when I had to narrate pieces of stories that couldn’t be linked without brief explanation, I resisted. Hence appearing in the film is not, ideally, what I would choose to do. But for this one, I will appear and tell the story I uncover. The film will convey my personal experiences and observations, guided by carefully researched knowledge.

This is how my plans were laid out.  Now, with the death of Kim Jong-il . . . who knows what changes may occur? I might be able to obtain permission to enter NK and do what I originally conceived.  If that proves to be the case, Kim Jong-il will have given me a huge break.


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  1. frank permalink

    hi sorry your request was denied. i’m your senior by about 10 years. proceed by thinking as i have countless times ” worse things have happened to better people ” and as sad as the denial makes you, your film will happen. 6-7 years ago i spoke with family members about writing a family history.there was what i thought serious interest and willingness to participate. i could go back to early 13 century. ( info. from 1st hand research not some genealogy scammers ) all the parts were there. so much it was just amazing. then when the scope of the project became known by the others their interest cooled. they really were only interested in a family tree. i wanted to dig and dig and enjoy what ever we’d find. so few folks are interested in history when it gets personal, when it gets human. anyway: i was denied like you but by my own family to give them what i believed would be a wonderful story. by the way who paid for lunch ?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You must be a person of a clear mind and kind heart. And older than I am! These days everywhere I go, I am the oldest, especially because many of them are related to filmmaking. I give you three bows for your age and wisdom. Is there any way that you can still do something about your research on your family history? As my late husband and soul mate Don used to say, I am nothing if I am not persistent. I am persistent and resilient. I will make that film!!

      I paid for lunch. Thanks to my friend who chose the place carefully, it was not outrageously expensive! Of course, I had to starve for a couple days after that (a joke).

      Again, thanks and keep sending me your positive energy.

      Dai Sil

  2. Jon K. Oh permalink

    From one “meek” Korean to one strong Korean – you. I hope you never
    shut up. Great blogging and thanks.

    Jon K. Oh

    • I won’t shut up as long as I am alive but one thing–you are not a meek Korean. You are strong and stubborn as hell, not to mention your crativity as a sound man!

      Thanks for reading my blog. It means so much to me.

      Dai Sil

  3. Jenny permalink

    I can’t wait to see your film. Regardless of the actual geographical places that will end up in the film, I already believe in it because I know it will be anchored in your voice.

    • You are so kind. With a loving comment like this, how can I not make this film? I will! Have your fingers crossed.

      Thanks and best, Dai Sil

  4. Marie permalink

    So sorry your permission was denied, but who knows with the regime change. There used to be these boat tours that went in N. Korean territory, did they stop those? Would you be able to speak to some N. Korean immigrants? I can’t wait to see your film.

    • Dear Marie,

      Thanks for your concern and support.
      One way or another, I will make the film.

      Dai Sil

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