What do North Koreans know about Canada? A 62-part propaganda film offers clues

In secretive North Korea, Canada is but a vague geographical concept that could be anywhere in the world, writes Matt Kwong.

'I never expected Canada is near the United States,' North Korean defector says

This is a screengrab from a North Korean propaganda film called Nation and Destiny, in which the protagonist takes a road trip from Canada to New York. (YouTube)

In ultra-secretive North Korea, where many people have never laid eyes on South Korea's Taegukgi flag, Canada is little more than a vague geographical concept, according to defectors from the Asian country.

Outside of North Korea's elite schooling circles, the various impressions are that Canada might be a Slavic-speaking nation in Europe; that it might be sympathetic to the regime; or that its political system mirrors what they view as Pyongyang's Stalinist utopia.

For most North Koreans, perceptions of Canada are shaped largely by a popular 62-part film series that left a strange, curiously favourable impression of Canada as a land of sports cars, taekwondo and mild weather — but also a place compromised by South Korean spies.

The propaganda epic is called Nation and Destiny, and was commissioned in the 1990s by the late "Dear Leader" and movie-mad dictator Kim Jong-il.

Ken Eom, 37, defected from North Korea in 2008, and says Nation and Destiny gave him his first glimpse of what life in Canada might be like. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Merely hearing that title jolted Ken Eom's memory.

"Ah yes, Nation and Destiny!" he exclaimed in a recent interview at an English school for North Korean refugees in Seoul. "Yeah, it was really popular in North Korea. I watched all of them."

What Eom recalled best from the series — reportedly the country's most expensive film production ever, at the time — are a handful of scenes from early episodes shot in what's presented as cosmopolitan "Canada, Ottawa." Eom believes it was his first-ever glimpse of the Western world.

Watch the start of this clip to see how 'Ottawa' is introduced in Nation and Destiny

"Yes. Canada! Ottawa!" Eom recalled. "It was first time to try to take shots [footage] outside... North Korea."

The protagonist is Choi Hong Hi, who was born in modern-day North Korea and is regarded as the founder of taekwondo. Eom remembers a flashback of Choi taking a road trip through a pastoral landscape — "a long journey from Canada to New York," as Choi declares while reminiscing in one scene.

"He drives sports car with his wife, through the highway, Ottawa," Eom said. "This one scene, that's really, really popular scene in North Korea. Many people thinking, 'Oh! One day I like to become something like him!' Because in North Korea, there is no exist life like that."

The film Nation and Destiny is actually broken up into 62 parts and remains popular with North Koreans. (YouTube)

Many North Koreans may have never seen the U.S. flag and fewer still will recognize Canada's emblematic Maple Leaf. Experts say it's likely most North Koreans have no knowledge that Canada, seldom referenced by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, shares such a close bond and even a border with the regime's "Yankee" foe.

It didn't occur to Eom that Canada was friendly neighbours with the Americans he once learned to despise while in the military. "I never expected Canada is near the United States," he said.

Not only that, he was led to believe Canada might have shared North Korea's values.

"I was thinking Canada is almost the same as North Korea's social system."

'Not one of the bad countries'

The film was popular because it gives "a glimpse of foreign life, exotic life," said Andrei Lankov, a renowned expert on North Korea who lived in Pyongyang during the 1980s as an exchange student from the Soviet Union.

The film "wasn't about hardworking farm workers and milkmaids," said Lankov. "This is very interesting to North Koreans."

Lankov said the "distorted" version of Canada depicted in the series is that "it is not one of the bad countries."

The DPRK's Korean Central Broadcasting Committee describes Nation and Destiny as a film that "declares the truth that the people can live a glorious life only in the bosom of the Great Leader and socialist fatherland."

Watch the clip from 37:30 to see the popular Canada road trip scene from Nation and Destiny:

Early episodes chronicle how Choi came to be exiled to Canada from South Korea in the 1970s for teaching the martial art to North Koreans. Choi ended up moving the headquarters for the International Taekwon-Do Federation to Toronto. (Choi lived in Mississauga, Ont., just outside Toronto, and died in 2002 in Pyongyang.)

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Nation and Destiny is still shown about 10,000 times a month in cinemas and on pre-tuned state TV channels in North Korea.

Nation and Destiny was a prestige project, said Johannes Schoenherr, a film historian who in early 2000 helped the North Korean diplomatic mission in Berlin procure films, "most likely for the viewing pleasure of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il."

A screengrab from part nine of Nation and Destiny that shows an establishing shot of 'Ottawa.' Film historian Johannes Schoenherr believes these scenes were actually made using stock footage. (YouTube)

Nation and Destiny was unique for introducing foreign locales to audiences that were indoctrinated to believe "Pyongyang was the grandest place on earth," said Schoenherr, who interviewed defectors for his 2012 book North Korean Cinema: A History. (Schoenherr said it's likely that many of the foreign shots were stock footage or filmed on sets in North Korea.)

"North Koreans learned from the film that Canada is a prospering, developed country and that it is rather neutral in the conflict between North and South Korea. Nothing bad is said about Canada as such in the movie," Schoenherr said. With one exception — an insinuation that Canada "is a country with evil South Korean agents roaming about freely."

A view into the outside world

Foreign films are sometimes shown in North Korea — although one defector said in a viral video that he assumed, for example, that the 1988 U.S. action film Die Hard was Russian.

Tto-Hyang, a 28-year-old North Korean defector and YouTube host now in Seoul, said she grew up watching Nation and Destiny. (Submitted by Tto-Hyang)

Asked what North Koreans likely knew about Canada, Schoenherr said it was seen only as vaguely foreign. "Maybe they think Canada is part of Europe," he said.

Growing up in Hasong-dong, some 30 kilometres northeast of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Eom watched Nation and Destiny many times over. So did a 28-year-old North Korean defector who gave her name as Tto-Hyang.

While she said she remembered that the film was about Choi Hong Hi, Tto-Hyang didn't recall a central plot element involving his life in Canada.

A scan of the identification card from the 2000 Pyongyang Film Festival showing Johannes Schoenherr, a film historian and expert on North Korean cinema. (Submitted by Johannes Schoenherr)

"I had heard about Canada, but I had no concept of what Canada was, what the people looked like, what language they spoke," Tto-Hyang said from her home in Seoul, where she hosts a popular YouTube series explaining life in North Korea.

She said scenes revealing everyday Western life didn't interest her at first, because she was "brainwashed" into thinking North Korea was the most desirable country to live in.

"I didn't care about the outside world," she said, and never saw the Canadian flag until after escaping with her family to China and then Seoul nine years ago.

'A very good image for Canada'

Rocky Kim, a North Korean defector and advocate for North Korean refugees now living in Toronto, said Nation and Destiny inspired him to look for Canada's "capstone tower," a landmark he realized was the CN Tower.

Ken Eom spent three years learning English in Toronto, and also saw other parts of Canada, including the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. (Submitted by Ken Eom)

"It's a very good image for Canada in North Korea," he said. "Because from that movie, we understand that Canada is a very freedom country and very nice persons living there and a developed country, and it's amazing place."

Eom travelled to Canada eventually, touring Quebec and finally seeing the Maple Leaf flag, something that baffled him at first.

"I thought this is stupid," he said, referring to the flag. "I didn't realize there are so many maple trees in Canada."

He lived in Toronto for three years, learning English and working as a construction contractor. While there, he felt exposed to a swirl of vibrant cultures and flavours and eventually gained an appreciation for Canada's sweetest export.

"I could tour the world in one day in Toronto," he said. "And actually, it's good tasting, maple syrup."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong