Donald Trump shocked the world on March 8, 2018 by announcing that he would visit North Korea to meet with its dictator Kim Jong-un, making him the first president to visit the “hermit kingdom.” It’s a move that many, including members of the State Department, couldn’t have predicted.
But the North Korean population has already seen a version of this: in a five-part propaganda series with this exact same triumphant ending.
“North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years … Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, after Trump’s announcement. He believes the aim of the meeting is to elevate North Korea on the world stage, rather than to discuss disarmament, as Trump hopes.
“This is literally how the North Korean film The Country I Saw ends,” Lewis wrote. “An American President visits Pyongyang, compelled by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs to treat a Kim as an equal.”
The Country I Saw is a five-part propaganda film series that aired its first episode in 1988 and the rest around 2012. The first film focused on a Japanese journalist who travels to North Korea to investigate whether it was really as bad as everyone said. Unsurprisingly, he discovers that everything in the country is great. He meets an artist who rose out of poverty, a bunch of people donating blood, and a group of siblings whom Kim Jong-il supposedly became a father to after they were orphaned by World War II. The journalist leaves North Korea with a positive impression of the country, and writes about his experiences in an article.
Like the first part, the other films in the series focus on outsiders who become overwhelmed by the evidence of North Korea’s success and might. The major foreign players are the U.S. and Japan, two countries that constantly underestimate North Korea only to be awed by its capabilities. In the film, two North Korean nuclear tests force the U.S. to re-enter talks with the country about nuclear weapons; and when a Japanese politician hears about this, he’s so surprised that he has a stroke.
“North Korea’s place in the world, at least in The Country I Saw, is entirely a function of missile and nuclear capabilities,” Lewis writes in a blog post for 38 North. “The United States may be able to achieve a temporary reduction in tensions and even freeze certain programs, but it seems equally clear that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] has concluded that its survival as a functioning state in the international system is entirely a product of its military capabilities.”
Indeed, the threat of a nuclear attack in the film is how North Korea convinces a U.S. president to visit the country. In one scene, a Japanese diplomat explains that after North Korea’s recent tests, “President Obama started to get scared of Kim Jong-il’s courage, boldness, and his autonomous and independent spirit.” Obama becomes so scared that, in the movie’s big reveal, he sends former president Bill Clinton to talk to the North Korean dictator. Triumphant music plays.
This film doesn’t give us a perfect representation of what Kim Jong-il expects and wants from his upcoming meeting with Trump. But as a government propaganda piece, it does provide a window into how North Korea views itself in relation to the rest of the world.
Since the mid-1970s, North Korea has had a specific set of international goals, according to James Person, research director for the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS and a contributor to 38 North. Person says these are “to be recognized as a normal state”; “to secure a peace agreement by replacing the armistice agreement from the Korean War” and to “establish trade relations” with countries around the world.
But in the film, the only way North Korea can make this happen is with military prowess.
“Many in the United States have not fully grasped how central the role of nuclear and missile programs have become to the core goal of regime survival,” Lewis writes. “The Country I Saw contains scene after heavy-handed scene reinforcing the notion that [North Korea] is exceptional as the one country able to survive the unrelenting hostility of a predatory United States through its hard power.”
Person agrees that North Korea sees nuclear weapons as an integral part of its state. Before the country began its nuclear program in the late ‘80s, North Korea thought the weapons could be a good bargaining chip for normalizing relations with the U.S. In the past 20 years, North Korea has instead come to see them as non-negotiable.
This doesn’t mean that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons—but it will likely take a lot more than a visit from President Trump.