THE NET – Caught between the two Koreas

“When a fish is caught in the net, it’s over.”

These are the first words Nam, a fisherman from a village in North Korea, murmurs to a sadistic Seoul National Security agent. He’s facing the first in a long series of interrogations, in a crescendo of violence as well as verbal and physical harassment. The film starts on a morning like any other for Nam as he goes about his daily routine. Suddenly the net of his fishing boat gets stuck. The strong tides push Nam (whose character is wonderfully acted) and his boat beyond the Han River, marking the border between the two Koreas.

THE NET is a film from Kim Ki-Duk, presented at the 73rd Exhibition of the Venice Film Festival. The film is an objective and incisive essay on Korean national identity, a country that’s been sliced in two by the most dangerous demilitarized demarcation line in the world.

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is the last legacy of Yalta and its “algebraic” geopolitical formulae. After Japan’s defeat in WW2, the Soviets and Americans divided Korea (a former province of the Japanese Empire from 1910) into two areas of influence.  It was hoped that peace would be maintained in the region through an uneasy balance of power between world’s two superpowers.

This fine balancing act doesn’t last long. In 1950, Soviet and Chinese troops make an incursion into South Korean territory and head for its capital, Seoul. The military intervention of the United Nations led by the Americans (or American intervention under the UN flag) restores the border between the two Koreas to the 38th parallel. The People’s Democratic Republic in the north is supported by the Soviets and the Nationalist government in the south being shored up by the US. North and South Korea warily stare each other down along the 38th parallel, and have never stopped doing so for the last 60 years.

The plot of THE NET is relentless, bitter, and courageous. Nam is mistaken for a spy sent by the Pyongyang regime, the eternal enemy. Nam’s only wish is to return home to his family and (maybe) to his country.

Nam tentatively explores the streets of Soul. He keeps his eyes closed so as not to be tempted by the decadent capitalistic society around him and risk being tortured when he returns home. At a certain point he’s forced to open his eyes. However, he’s not seduced in the slightest by all the riches of the gleaming metropolis around him.

“You are free. You can solve any problem with freedom.”

“What good is freedom if you don’t have any money?” a young prostitute tells Nam who he’s just saved from being assaulted by two clients.

Nam wants to go back to his country at all cost. For the agents of South Korean intelligence, Nam is a guinea pig. If he’s a spy (but even if he’s not), he won’t admit to being one. The reward for Nam for admitting he’s a spy is enticing. The South Korean authorities have set up a special program for deserters to re-educate escapees from the north to live a new life in the affluent south. All at the government’s expense.

“Imagine how hard it is to live there, in the north. We must save as many as possible from this dictatorship.”

These are the words of the Head of the Agency for National Security. The National Security Intelligence, also known as the Korean Central Intelligence in the 1960’s, is a very well run system. For decades it was a real “factory of spies”.  This intelligence chief is convinced that his country should take responsibility for the North Koreans. He also believes that Nam is not a spy now nor could potentially become one in the future. Despite his belief in Nam’s innocence, he isn’t able to spare him from a brutal interrogation by a fanatical security official.

Nam is a simple man, but is strongly attached to his values, as the tense narrative uncovers. He doesn’t betray them. Not even when he starts to break down (or pretends to do so) under the weight of exhausting interrogations, beatings and isolation.

When Nam returns home, he’s cheered and celebrated. He’s hailed as “comrade” Nam who was able to resist the lures of capitalism and the false promises of freedom. However, his triumph only fleeting, just like all propaganda in North Korea. No sooner does he think his ordeal is over than the communist apparatchiks accuse Nam of having become a South Korean spy. This just goes to show that in the north as in the south, real, alleged or potential spies are all given the same harsh unrelenting treatment. Nam continues to be trapped in an endless net. Suspicion, corruption and fear weave the net’s mesh tighter and tighter around him.

North Korea is ruled by an ideology that has literally strangled its people, isolating them from the rest of the world. Today the county languishes at the bottom of the rankings of in the nations human development index. However, Seoul is no paradise either. It’s been ruled by successive corrupt regimes and nationalist fanatics. These regimes have often been overturned by frequent military coups supported by the United States.

The north only survives thanks to economic and military aid from Beijing. The nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches bolster this Orwellian regime’s wavering reputation at home. They also strengthen the regime’s negotiating position with the United Nations. The promise of a moratorium of Nuclear testing would surely be used to get a better deal as part of any agreement to reduce sanctions (recently intensified by the UN).

Kim Jong Un is a big fan of North Korea’s nuclear program. Over the past four years he’s made 33 nuclear tests and missile launches. The most recent test was carried out at the beginning of last September to mark the 68th anniversary of county’s founding by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. According to military sources in the South it was the “most powerful nuclear test so far, with a detonation that that an equivalent power to Hiroshima.”

The art of brinkmanship, in which risks are pushed to their limits, is an exercise that the two Koreas engage in on an almost daily basis. As a result, the division between the two countries has solidified.

The eternal vying for power along the 38th parallel is the classic definition of a balance of power, as the Sherpas of international diplomacy love to call it. The status quo is convenient to all the main players in the region. The United States, Japan, China, Russia, as well as the South Korean authorities relying on the impasse to keep peace.

The sad truth is that it would be mutually beneficial for all of the region’s players if Korea’s geopolitical knot was untied once and for all. China would be pleased to rid itself of the large expense of propping up the North Korean regime, even if there are concerns about an influx of refugees. Seoul, for its part, shares the same fears. It spends 2.5% of its GDP on defense. The US military presence in South Korea costs Washington over 1 billion dollars per year. This is an expense that Congress would be interested in cutting. A reunified Korea would reduce all players’ military spending and commitments in the area. 33,000 US soldiers would also leave the peninsular. Having US forces far from their borders is certainly something that both the Chinese and Russians would be happy to see. Dispensing with Kim Jong-un whose unpredictable and aggressive actions are a cause of instability in the area would be welcomed by all.

THE NET is a political film. It’s awkward for Seoul as much as Pyongyang. Kim Ki-Duk compares and contrasts the two countries without bias, showing how they are mirror images of each other yet diametrically opposed. The Korean filmmaker makes no allowances or excuses to either side. Kim Ki-Duk’s unforgiving and candid point-of-view is elegantly expressed by Nam when he makes the following accusation against both the South Korean and North Korean security officials:

 “It’s your fault that there’s no reunification.”

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