SEOUL — A North Korean propaganda film about the repatriation of a spy — Lee In-Mo — who had languished for years in a South Korean prison may have a short shelf life, according to defectors now living in the South.
"What we could not believe in the movie was that Lee and others were conducting hunger strikes in the prison," said one defector about the movie.
"Refusing to eat was a form of resistance in the South? Boy, South Korea must be a paradise. That's what we said among ourselves"
One of the first things South Korean President Kim Young-Sam did upon his inauguration in 1993 as the first popularly elected civilian president was to repatriate a long-term prisoner, Lee In-Mo, back to North Korea.
Lee, 76, was a North Korean spy dispatched during the early days of Korean War (1950-53) and became a partisan when he missed the chance to go back before the cease-fire agreement was signed. He was captured at the age of 33 and spent 42 years in South Korean prisons. When the government in Seoul released spies and partisans in exchange for letters rejecting communist ideology and pledges to become loyal South Korean citizens, Lee and 62 other communists refused and opted to remain in prison.
Lee was released for ill health and old age.
North Korea demanded his repatriation, but Seoul hesitated knowing that he would be used for propaganda against the South. After all, his was a case made to order for propaganda: faith in the socialist system, dedication for a cause (national unification), and four decades in prison and unflinching loyalty.
After much debate on the pros and cons of repatriating Lee, the Kim Young-Sam government decided to send him back in a humanitarian spirit (62 others were later sent back by President Kim Dae-Jung) and to attempt a breakthrough in the deadlocked South-North relations.
Lee received a hero's welcome and, sure enough, Pyongyang made a film on Lee's "heroic struggle for the motherland" in South Korean prisons and made sure all North Koreans saw it.
However, the movie caused many North Koreans to become curious about South Korean society.
Many North Korean defectors said their first reaction upon seeing the film was to ask how people could stay in prison for more than 10 years and remain alive? They say few people survive even three years in North Korean political prisons. Being fed three regular meals a day is utterly unimaginable.
Political prisoners die from disease and malnutrition, if not from torture, as documented by Kang Chul-Won in his best-selling book, "Aquariums of Pyongyang," which recently led him to be invited by President Bush to the White House.
The North Korean defectors said the movie had the opposite effect from what was intended. One wondered if Pyongyang is still showing the movie to the people.
"I bet they are not," he said.