Some North Korean film stars have been finding it difficult to make a living under the COVID-19 pandemic, Daily NK has learned. 

“In early January, actors from the Korean Art Film Studio made an appearance at Pyongsong’s Okjon Market,” a Daily NK source in South Pyongan Province reported on Jan. 20. “They didn’t appear to have any money, and used their fame to beg for food all around the market.”

The Korean Art Film Studio, founded in 1947 under the name “National Film Studio,” is the largest film studio in North Korea. 

In short, famous actors and actresses from the country’s largest film studio seem to be experiencing such dire financial difficulties that they have to beg for food in crowded markets. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive without any help from the government,” one of the actors said, according to the source. “I can’t do business because I’m so famous.”

The actor went on, saying: “We have barely survived, and only because my wife and kids have been doing business. Because of the coronavirus, business hasn’t been going well. So, I had no choice but to come to Pyongsong Market [to beg].”

Once North Korean actors are assigned a workplace, they are ranked from levels one to six – based on their education and acting ability – and then provided government rations accordingly. Unless they are distinguished actors – such as those with the titles of “Meritorious Actor/Actress” or “People’s Actor/Actress” – it is difficult to survive on these rations alone.

Nonetheless, actors and actresses who became famous through TV or movies have generally avoided doing business to “save face,” and because they lack business experience. Family members of these actors have conducted business activities to serve as breadwinners. 

As economic strife has worsened under the COVID-19 pandemic, however, businesses have been hit hard, leaving many actors and actresses unable to make a living. Facing severe threats to their livelihoods, some performers have risked tarnishing their reputations by going out to beg in the streets. 

Moranbong Band / Image: Yonhap

North Koreans who witnessed these famous people begging expressed sadness that the performers’ are facing such difficulties. 

“Singers are doing well these days because the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un]’s wife [Ri Sol Ju] is a vocalist,” the source explained, adding that, “There are a lot of people gossiping about how film stars could possibly fall to such ruin, being as esteemed as they are.”

In its heyday, the North Korean “art film industry” experienced significant development thanks to the active support of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. In fact, Kim aimed to use the popularity and influence of art films as an instrument for political propaganda. 

Since his son came to power, however, interest in art films has diminished considerably. In fact, there have been a lot less art films produced under the younger Kim than in the past. The last art film that was produced by North Korea is 2016’s “The Story of Our Home.” 

On the other hand, there has been an increased interest in so-called “performance arts,” which include the “Moranbong Band” (also known as Moranbong Moran Hill Orchestra), “Chongbong Band,” and the “Band of the State Affairs Commission.” 

Performers in these bands have experienced a jump in pay and in their social stature.   

For example, singer-actor Kim Ok Ju, from the Band of the State Affairs Commission, received the title of “People’s Actress,” while Ri Myung Il and Bang Chul Jin (who serve as the leaders and conductors of the same group) received a first-class “Order of the National Flag.” 

This all being said, North Korea is trying new production and film techniques in its TV dramas. This appears to signal that North Korea now intends to use dramas instead of art films to spread political propaganda. Drama actors and actresses will likely receive better treatment than art film actors as a result.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.