[Herald Interview] Documentary reopens nearly forgotten history

By Korea Herald

“I hope my work would trigger people’s consciousness for a united nation, as many citizens have become accustomed to the idea of living separately and pretending the other side doesn’t exist.”

  • Published : Apr 21, 2017 - 18:09
  • Updated : Apr 22, 2017 - 16:16
When filmmaker Jolanta Krysowata arrived in Korea in early April, she didn’t expect people here to be zealous about communism or humanitarianism, the subtexts of her documentary about North Korean orphans who settled in Poland in the 1950s.

“I heard in Poland and here that South Koreans weren’t much interested in North Korea or unification. But after watching audiences break down in tears during the film screening, I realized that’s not true,” the director told The Korea Herald at the Polish Embassy in Seoul on April 8.

“I hope my work would trigger people’s consciousness for a united nation, as many citizens have become accustomed to the idea of living separately and pretending the other side doesn’t exist.”

Polish filmmaker and journalist Jolanta Krysowata (Polish Embassy)

Documentary “Kim Ki Dok” by Krysowata and Patrick Yoka sheds light on the 1,500 North Korean orphans who left their war-torn country and found a second home in Poland between 1951 and 1959. They settled in the leafy pastoral village of Plakowice in the southwest, where they learned the Polish language and were tended to by some 200 teachers, doctors, nurses, janitors and other staff.

The 1950-53 Korean War produced more than 100,000 North Korean orphans, many of whom were apportioned across the Eastern bloc allies of Poland, Romania, Hungary and erstwhile Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The program was strictly cloaked from the public’s eyes, as Poland was rebuilding itself on the ruins of World War II and strenuously making efforts to move out of poverty.

The 2006 film’s title comes from the name of a 13-year-old girl who had leukemia and died in a surgery. Her tombstone near the orphanage -- now a rehabilitative center for children suffering from epilepsy, mental disorders and physical disabilities -- bears her name and became a source of inspiration for Krysowata.

In the documentary, Kim Ki-dok’s doctor defies his superiors’ orders against giving continuous blood transfusions to the dying child, and is eventually relieved of his duties. In another case, a North Korean supervisor falls in love with a Polish woman, fathering a child, but when their affair is revealed he is hauled back to North Korea, leaving behind his lover and the newborn. 

From left: Polish Embassy First Secretary and Consul Maksymilian Zych, Korean actress and filmmaker Chu Sang-mi, former Polish Ambassador to Korea Krzysztof Ignacy Majka and his spouse Zofia Majka and late Polish Embassy Secretary Kim Soon-hyung (1969-2017) pose at a screening of Polish documentary “Kim Ki Dok” in October last year at the Seoul Museum of History. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

The orphans, having eaten mice and other fouled food during the war, suffered parasitic infections. They had to be weeded out using gasoline as there was no proper medicine.

The North Korean supervisors who accompanied the orphans instructed Polish teachers not to give them love or candy, fearing they might soften the children’s still-forming dispositions, but the teachers hugged and kissed the students like their own sons and daughters.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung instructed the foundlings to “study well, work hard and learn a lot” in Poland, so that they could one day come back to rebuild their homeland, one teacher recalls in the film.

Eventually, an order came from Pyongyang to repatriate the children, and they left in 1959, never to be seen again. The orphans and teachers maintained correspondence through letters for two years through 1961, but news stopped coming afterwards, for reasons unknown.

The staff, half of whom were alive when she interviewed them in the early 2000s, kept the letters through all the years. Flowers have been laid regularly by unknown persons in front of the tombstone since the film’s release, she said. 

Pictures of North Korean orphans from the film (Chu Sang-mi)

With a documentary, a novel and two radio programs already out on the story, Krysowata’s novel is currently being translated into Korean for publication.

In Poland, people felt touched and uplifted by the film, she said, adding Poles “realized something truly humane happened in that particular chapter of history.”

“The story brought Korea into Polish people’s consciousness, whereas before the country was in the backwater of their minds,” the director said. “Poles in general conceive of Korea through big companies, technologies and innovations, but those who watched the film realized how connected we are historically. The documentary helped them cultivate affection for Korea.”

Noting that older generations of Poles have thought of Korea through the prism of the Cold War -- with the related images of the Korean War, communist propaganda and nuclear weapons -- and the younger generations through Korean investments in Poland, food and popular culture, Krysowata said her work helped bridge the different generations.

She added that Korea’s culture has not been adequately promoted in Poland, unlike the growing investments, and urged for more partnerships and exchanges. On the question of North Korea, she said Poles have recognized the country as “a harsher version of communist Poland” -- a coerced nation under a consecrated dictatorship. 

Pictures of North Korean orphans from the film (Chu Sang-mi)

Poland, previously invaded by regional heavyweights, used culture as a tool for capturing national identity, said Korean actress and filmmaker Chu Sang-mi in an interview (http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20161031000679). Chu is preparing both a similar documentary and a movie inspired by the events with North Korean defectors in both films.

Regarding the role of film, literature and art in preserving national identity, Krysowata highlighted that cinemas have played a critical part from the communist era through the post-communist period. Filmmakers, most notably Andrzej Wajda, produced works that stirred the national consciousness under the Iron Curtain, when Poland was a Soviet satellite state from 1946 through 1989.

Instead of directly criticizing communism, filmmakers deployed a variety of euphemistic narratives and symbols to arouse native values, lofty ideals and desires for human freedom, the filmmaker explained. “Politics and ideology determined what movies were to be screened in the 1970s and ‘80s, but now it’s become the economy and money.”

“In the 1990s, people admired and longed for everything ‘Western’ or ‘American’ -- the freewheeling capitalism, consumerism, money, luxury and all their vice and folly. They were glamorously displayed on television and movies,” the writer said.

“But as our society has gotten richer and those lifestyles became part of everyday life, materialism per se was seen as mundane. We are now interested in ourselves, our past, our history, our identity, as well as everyone who crossed paths on our journey.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com) 

The orphanage for North Korean children in the village of Plakowice is now a rehabilitative center for Polish children suffering from epilepsy, mental disorders and physical disabilities. (Chu Sang-mi)