Propaganda, Protest, and Poisonous Vipers: The Cinema War in Korea

American intervention in Korea has frequently sparked protests, especially over film. An examination of the complicated history of America and its movies in the Republic of Korea.

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty

On the northern side of the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, there is a village called Kijong-dong (기정동). To the Republic of Korea and United States military personnel stationed in the JSA, it is known as Propaganda Village.

On the southern side of the JSA, there is a village called Daeseong-dong (대성동). To the ROK and U.S. soldiers stationed in the JSA, it is unironically referred to as Freedom Village.

It is not known how Kijang-dong’s residents refer to Daesong-dong.


Like Sony Entertainment's The Interview, political pressure delayed the arrivale of foreign films in Korea. The first public screening of Pathé film shorts took place sometime around 1903.

The Japanese Empire already had a major foothold in the country at the time, but the country would not officially become a Japanese colony until 1910.

The Korea Times reports the first Korean movie was the 1919 film Fight for Justice (Uilijeogguto), and the first feature length film 1923’s The Vow Made Before the Moon. The oldest surviving Korean film was discovered in the mid-2000s, and exhibited for the first time in three-quarters of a century in 2008.

The films made and exhibited prior to World War 2 were strictly censored by the occupying Japanese colonial government. From 1910-1945, Korea existed as part of the Japanese Empire and censorship designed to suppress political dissent was severe, especially film. Police were required to be present at movie screenings. When the U.S. went to war with Japan, American movies disappeared. In 1942, Korean language films were banned.

Between World War 2 and the Korean War, the Korean film industry was significantly disrupted. According to the Korean Film Archive, 40 percent of the films made in Korea prior to World War 2 have been lost. When the World War ended, the film industries in war torn countries were unable to match U.S. production untouched by Asiatic or European bombing and foreign films flooded their box offices.

Finally free of Japanese interference, Korea elected its first autonomous government in almost half a century. One of the first actions of arriving U.S. military personnel was to outlaw it and reinstate many of the Japanese colonial administrators.

Korea didn’t have another opportunity at self-governance until after the Korean War, eight years later.

Only, the Korean War never ended.

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If the tension seems odd, it is only because very few Americans take into account that if the Soviet Union had not developed an atomic bomb in 1949, the United States would have dropped one (or more) on Korea during the war. And not just the North, Samuel Cohen, whose work would later be instrumental to neutron bomb development, was sent to Korea during the war to determine how nuclear weapons could be employed in the battle to retake Seoul without destroying too much of the city.

Bolstered by American support, the first president of Korea following Japanese occupation, and through the Korean War, was Rhee Syngman (이승만) an autocrat who jailed, tortured, and killed suspected dissidents. Supported by United States, Rhee murdered an estimated 100,000 political prisoners, including at least 23 children under the age of ten, dumping their bodies in mass graves. Known as the Bodo League Massacre, it was only one in a long line of U.S. approved terror perpetrated against the Korean people by ROK and U.S. forces including the Jeju Uprising and the No Gun Ri Massacre, the latter of which saw American troops open fire on unarmed refugees, killing approximately 60 children under the age of 15, as well as women and elderly men.

For many years after, Rhee’s government blamed North Korean guerrillas and made it a crime for survivors to speak of the killings.

Following the Korean War, President Rhee exempted film companies from taxation, courted foreign investment, and Korean cinema experienced a renaissance. According to KoreanFilm.org, by the end of Rhee’s presidency, domestic production of Korean movies went from “[eight] in 1954 to 108 in 1959.”

Rhee also amended Korea’s constitution to allow himself an unlimited amount of presidential terms. In response, the April Revolution protests erupted in much of the country. President Rhee resigned soon thereafter and was secreted out of the country to Hawaii by the American CIA. Rhee died in exile five years later.

When Rhee fell, a two year parliamentary system was established which non-violently purged many thousands of government officials and police who were responsible for the repression of Rhee’s government. However, their activities attracted the condemnation of the Western international community, particularly the United States, and the government, known as the Second Republic, was overthrown in a military coup by the next president , former ROK general Park Chunghee (박정희), a decorated veteran who fought for the Japanese in World War 2.

The Second Republic was also considered the another golden age for Korean Cinema.

Relaxation of political censorship between the First and Third republic led to the creation of what are considered Korea’s greatest films including The Housemaid (하녀), and The Aimless Bullet (오발탄)—although the latter was eventually censored for suspected North Korean propaganda.

One of the most famous directors of this era was Shin Sang-ok (신상옥). His films were hugely successful in the 1960s, but after a string of commercial and critical misses in the 70s, President Park closed his studio. There is some controversy over what happened next, Shin and Choi Eun-hee (최은희), to whom the director had been married, went to Hong Kong, were kidnapped by North Korea, and pressed into service. Shin went on to create what he considers some of his finest work (the film Runaway), the introduction of the first on-screen kiss (in both North and South Korea), and a widely panned North Korean monster movie called Pulgasari.

Shin eventually escaped North Korean captivity while in Vienna. Afraid the Korean secret police would not believe his kidnapping story, Shin settled in Hollywood. The director made few films in Hollywood as he found the cultural divide in L.A. more difficult to overcome than the one in Pyongyang. Shin’s last movie was 3 Ninjas Kick Back, the 1995 sequel to 3 Ninjas.

A planned 2001 retrospective of Shin Sang-ok’s films in the South Korean port city of Busan was canceled by authorities who claimed honoring the director violated the national security law forbidding aid to the North. Shin died in 2006.

The Third Republic returned Korea to military rule. Under Park, the new Korean Republic aggressively courted foreign investment, establishing and expanding the chaebol, large corporations that dominate Korean, and international, industry including Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. In exchange for the participation of 300,000 South Korean troops in the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies gave Korea billions in foreign aid to build their domestic industries.

President Park understood the power of cinema as propaganda. His administration supported but heavily censored films. The number of film companies was reduced to little more than a dozen, and any film for general release had to be carefully reviewed for Communist sympathy by the country’s KCIA, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Park also imposed strict respectability standards on films, censoring the kind of eroticism for which filmmakers like Shin Sang-ok were famous.

Park also re-instituted “screen quotas” limiting the number of foreign films available in Korea by setting minimums for the exhibition of domestically produced films. At the time, screen quotas were far more common among film producing industries. A variety of systems were in place across countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. Starting in 1966, Korean movie theaters were obligated to show at least six domestic films for more than 90 days. In addition, foreign films were limited by a system of licensure to a third of the number of domestic films. Audiences reacted disfavorably, attendance fell by a third.

Starting in the 1970s, then MPAA president Jack Valenti began what was to become a decades-long fight against the quota system. Supported by Washington, the domestic quota was cut from 90 days to 30. However, just a few years later, the decision swung back around with the quota being raised to 121 days. Imports were slashed in half.

When the quota system came under review again in the mid-80s, Valenti led the charge, filing a complaint with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. When negotiations reopened in the 2000s, Valenti, who at one point said he wanted to hit the Korean government across the head with a 2 x 4, remarked at a conference on movies in the digital age: “The quota demands South Korean cinemas show local films at least 146 days a year. I am fighting that quota because I am an advocate of competition. We have the right to enter their market as much as they can enter the U.S. market.”


But Korean movies, and foreign movies in general, have a much harder time entering the American market than the other way around. Despite having one of the strongest domestic film industries in the world, none the top ten highest grossing Korean films of all time have ever had a wide release in America. “While Hollywood studio executives no longer consider South Korea a pushover market... a Korean film has yet to storm the American box office,” the LA Times wrote in 2010.

Park Chunghee served as president of Korea for 18 years. His rule over the country came to an end in 1979 when the director of the KCIA shot Park and his bodyguard to death at dinner.

Following Park’s assassination, restrictions began to ease on film censorship as Korea attempted to reform its international image before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When the U.S. stepped up to help finance the infrastructure reforms necessary, their demands included a loosening of the screen quotas.

But South Koreans have a troubled history with American intervention in Korean markets. Support for repressive and at times murderous dictators, and lack of support for the fledgling pro-democracy movement, have frequently made Korea's political protesters target American cultural institutions. With U.S. support, another civilian massacre in the town of Gwangju by ROK troops who had fought with America in Vietnam, set off a wave of national protests. The U.S. embassy was briefly taken, the American Cultural Center at Gwangju was burned several times, and some students self-immolated. For his role in the massacre, then president Roh Taewoo (노태우) was eventually sentenced to death by a Korean court only to be pardoned by a later president.

Valenti has publicly discussed his response to the quotas’ continuation by petitioning the government under section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 for unfair treatment of U.S. intellectual property, but a report on 301 exemptions at the Office of the United States Trade Representative said the complaint was “self-initiated.” From there, the White House got involved and consulted with Korea to put together an agreement that would “dramatically improve protection of intellectual property rights in Korea.” Ronald Reagan approved the agreement and the USTR reviewed Korean practices through the end of his term. A study of the effect at the University of Wollongong reports that the number of foreign films in Korea went from 30 in 1985 to 178 in 1988.

U.S. protests raged in South Korea throughout the 1980s. Director Yoo Dong-hun and screenwriter Lee Jung-u were arrested for firebombing theaters. At screenings of Universal International Pictures’ Fatal Attraction and Rain Man, protesters released poisonous vipers and left bottles of corrosive chemicals in the theater’s aisles, hoping confused patrons would spill the acid and burn themselves in the rush to exit. When Yoo and Lee were arrested for the bombing and the snakes, Korean film employees staged protests demanding their release.

Like the Japanese police who once appeared in every South Korean cinema to monitor for signs of dissent, private security were assigned to all theaters screening UIP films. An LA Times article about the incident said the guards would “check moviegoers' bags and sit in the audience to watch out for acts of sabotage.”

A number of films saw their releases delayed during the 1988-89 protests against UIP, among them the James Bond film The Living Daylights. The international rights to distribute James Bond films belonged to UIP until 2006’s Casino Royale, at which point it became a joint venture between MGM and Columbia Pictures. MGM and Columbia are both subsidiaries of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

According to a 2005 article in the LA Times, when the topic of screen quotas came up again in the late ‘90s, protest groups “threatened to blow up movie theaters.” Theater owners threatened the South Korean press with the removal of all ads unless ads for American films were on completely separate pages.

The U.S. has pushed for easing restrictions on the amount of cinematic imports, and the quotas have relaxed since they were first introduced in the 1960s. As recently as 2007, the screen quotas were discussed as part of U.S.-Korean bilateral talks resulting in a reduction of the quota for domestic film exhibitors from having to show domestic films 40 percent of the time to 20 percent.

Dissolution of screen quota market protections have been cited as the source of dramatic declines in the film production of several countries, including Mexico, Thailand, and Taiwan. When Mexico repealed its screen quota laws in the 1994 run up to NAFTA, domestic film production dropped from approximately 100 movies per year to 25.

In 2006, when the quotas for Korean films were cut from 146 days to only 70, directors, actors, and other industry personnel protested. Marching through the street to onlooker applause, the protesters assembled before the Myeongdong Cathedral, where the Catholic Church had protected anti-government protesters throughout Korean history. Actor Choi Min-Sik (최민식), who had won the Og-Gwan Order of Cultural Merit for his work in Oldboy, renounced the medal in a one-man protest in front of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism building.

In response to the screen quota cut, South Korea established a “cinema tax” on the box office. Called the Film Development Fund, it assesses an extra 3 percent to ticket prices to finance the domestic film industry, (with additional government subsidies) and has been in place since 2007. A revised version of the law goes into effect on January 1st, 2015.

Last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment, along with Disney, launched a pilot program to allow customers to rent American produced films at home while they were still being shown in the theater. Sony and Disney did not disclose the results of the tests, but according to the Wall Street Journal, “South Korean cable operator HomeChoice said buy rates for premium still-in-theaters titles was 30 percent higher than other movies.” Although it received little mention in the U.S. press at the time, none of the outlets covering the story mentioned how the move might affect the country’s screen quotas.

Despite the financial remedy, partial repeal of the screen quota has imperiled the domestic market. Box office receipts in South Korea declined by $2 million for the first half of 2014, while domestic film share of the total market dropped to 43 percent from 56.6 percent in 2013. In total, the Republic of Korea's film industry took in $1.76 billion in revenue in 2013, making Korea the third or fourth largest in the world. Ahead of India, and about even with the UK and France.

This past September, The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량), the highest grossing Korean film of all time, became the highest grossing Korean language film released in North America. It earned $2.5 million dollars after five weeks. In Korea, it earned $135 million. Compare that to Guardians of the Galaxy which opened in Korea on July 31. By August 17 GotG had earned $10 million. How to Train Your Dragon 2, the tenth highest grossing movie in 2014 America, made $22 million at the Korean box office.

The Interview, which caused so much controversy, was never intended for release in South Korean cinemas. Now that it is streaming online, any citizen in the Republic of Korea, which has the world's highest internet connection speeds, will be able to watch it at their leisure.


Today, public tours are available from the U.S. military and ROK forces stationed at Panmunjon, the central meeting point for diplomatic relations between North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area.

Before taking guests out to areas visible by the North Koreans, tourists are given a host of instructions, including what they can (and cannot) photograph. Pointing, waving, or acting in any manner that could be used for propaganda purposes (or considered a threat) is strictly forbidden.

Visitors to the JSA are also advised to mind their step as there are still land mines left over from the war strewn about the landscape. On the other side of the country, by the Busan coast, signs along the highway warn travelers of land mines and advise them to not to get out of their cars, or wander far from the road if they do.

The Korean War never ended.