Where is the line between the free speech of a progressive society and the fighting words that could lead to political destabilization? Kim Sang-kyu’s documentary To Kill Alice chronicles the fallout that occurs when South Korean-born singer Shin Eunmi, an American citizen living in Los Angeles, travels to North Korea and then returns to South Korea to share her positive impressions of life above the 38th parallel.
On the Korean peninsula, two countries still technically at war are situated mere miles from one another. North Korea is the “Hermit Kingdom” ruled by a single-party hereditary dictatorship where freedom of speech is nonexistent and dissent is quashed in brutal labor camps. South Korea, having emerged from a military junta (which lasted from 1963 to 1979) as a fully modernized country, is now an economic powerhouse—home to huge tech companies like Samsung, as well as cultural exports like the phenomenally popular K-pop music.
When Eunmi sings, she has a beautiful, resoundingly deep voice, which is fully on display when she sings a North Korean song, “Person in my Heart,” at a Seoul charity event for the South Korean NGO for Unification in 2014. Against a slideshow of photos from one of her trips to Pyongyang, Eunmi sings, “Life is full of separations and reunions.” Taken out of context, this line seems innocent enough. Set against the backdrop of the painful division of the Korean peninsula, however, it feels like a particularly callous—or oblivious—line.
“It was very different from the North Korea I had imagined,” she tells the audience at this talk. “I used to think when kids fell down in North Korea they cried out ‘Dear Leader!’ instead of ‘Mommy!’” She goes on to say, “North Korean beer is so delicious.” Her assertion that even the European tourists were impressed feels like something a North Korean minder might say in an attempt to prove that North Korea is worthy of recognition and can hold its own on the world stage.
When asked about Kim Jong-un, Eunmi asserts that the North Korean people “have high hopes for their young leader. They are energetic, eager, and hopeful for change.” On stage with Eunmi is Hwang Sun, who went to North Korea in 1998 without her government’s permission, and then crossed over the DMZ into the South and was sent to prison. Says Hwang Sun, “Just because the US government calls him a dictator doesn’t mean that everyone agrees that he is one. Listening to this, Eunmi presses her lips together, seeming to be a bit uncomfortable. “Just look at Che Guevera, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao Zedong, ” Hwang Sun continues. Eunmi gives a small nod. But when Hwang Sun asserts that “we are too harsh when it comes to North Korea,” Eunmi turns her head away from the woman.
When South Korean media gets word that this talk has occurred, the backlash is swift and a media frenzy ensues. “They ceaselessly praised North Korea, calling it heaven on Earth,” says one newscaster, although this cannot be proven.
Eunmi’s attorney, Kim Jongkwi, says, “Labelling someone a ‘pro-North Korean’ is a scarlet letter that socially condemns a person. It turn, it prevents rational discourse on North Korea.” This social condemnation is swift; shunned by her mother and sister, who fear she has lost her mind, Eunmi decides not to leave South Korea right away, but instead to stay and make her voice heard.
As she enters a lecture in the city of Iksan, she becomes aware that a criminal complaint has been filed against her. Anti-Communist protestors swarm outside. Still, she sees hers as a noble mission, telling the press, “Being a Korean holding another country’s passport, I have the rather sad privilege of being able to travel back and forth between the two Koreas. But until the day that everyone can travel between the two Koreas, I want to act as a bridge between the two and deliver a message of love while exchanging news about how each side is doing.” What she doesn’t seem to realize is that, according to North Korean defectors, the North Korea that she has seen on her trips does not reflect reality. She asserts that she never said that her personal experience reflects the entire truth about North Korea, and respects defectors.
A violent event raises the stakes. After hearing about the lecture in Iksan on TV Chosun, a conservative network, a young man sets off a bomb. Dedicated to “channeling the independence fighter Yun Bonggil,” his naïveté and misguided anger is heartbreaking and a tragedy for all involved. The unpolished editing style becomes especially visceral in these violent, tense, and dark moments. The editing may not be slick, but its unpolished look enhances the fast-paced realism. The audience is truly embedded in a situation in which tensions run high on all sides.
After this, Eunmi becomes embroiled in a legal battle with the South Korean government when she is accused of violating a national security law, and the heated debate surrounding this forms the focus of much of the movie. In the end, nothing is black and white.
While North Korea has been the focus of much international scrutiny, less attention has been paid to South Korean attitudes towards North Korea and the idea of reunification. While older adults, who can better remember the pain of separation from their relatives, tend to support reunification, younger adults, who have reaped the fruits of South Korean economic prosperity and are calculating the economic cost of reunification, tend not to support reunification. To Kill Alice puts all of these concerns in sharp relief by focusing on the story of one woman who dared to speak against the status quo and share her honest perceptions, accurate or not, of North Korea. Is she a traitor to the South? Or a passionate citizen speaking her mind? Kim Sang-kyu leaves it up to the viewer to decide. Just like matters of foreign policy and sharp divisions, there are no easy answers here.
To Kill Alice was shown on November 16 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.