“The Interview” vs. The Real North Korea

A North Korea soldier in reality (left) and one depicted in the movie.


After a lot of back and forth and even after President Obama weighed in, Sony decided to release, as scheduled, the movie The Interview. Over the long holiday break, I was able to watch it from the comfort of my own living room! As I mentioned in a previous post, having traveled to North Korea in the summer of 2012, I was curious to see how closely the movie portrayed the reality of the country. I will not comment here about the artistic or the cinematic value of the film. I’m not a movie critic. Plenty others have done it, and I’ll agree with most that it was indeed hilarious. I’ll therefore limit my observations to a comparison of the North Korea I’ve seen on the ground with the one shown in the movie.

As a general observation, I’ll say (no spoilers here) that the movie shows, surprisingly, very little of North Korea. In the first half of the movie, the action takes place mostly in the United States. In the second half, when the story shifts to North Korea, most of the action unfolds indoors. However, the little that is shown is a rather accurate portrayal of Pyongyang and of the DMZ and it seems that great care and attention was paid to the uniforms worn by the various characters.

The Monument to the Korean Workers Party in reality (top) and in the movie.
The Monument to the Korean Workers Party in reality (top) and in the movie.

The only scene from North Korea in the first part of the movie is the very first one which takes place in front of the Monument to the Korean Workers Party. It is a very accurate portrayal of the monument, as it clearly can be seen. The background, however, was “enhanced” to show other famous buildings from Pyongyang’s skyline, including the famous Ryugyong Hotel (the pyramid-shaped building) and the new downtown complex completed in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung (left side). Both of these are in fact located on the other side of the Taedong River from the Korean Workers Party Monument.

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There is little shopping space visible on the streets of Pyongyang. I’ve actually not seen any shops who looked anything close to what was shown in this scene. Shown here is the entrance to a Metro stop.

The second part of the movie shows a bit of Pyongyang and of the DMZ but mostly takes place at Kim’s Palace which, as shown, is a Hollywood creation. The few shots of the store in Pyongyang are not a reflection of the reality I’ve seen in North Korea. In fact, there is very little shopping space visible on the streets. However, we too were taken to a “special” department store which catered, from what I understood, to the small ex-pat and diplomatic community and to the local elite. The only “real” footage of North Korea was the one from the DMZ and in this instance, the scene was shot from the South Korean side.

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The scene in the movie was shot in the winter, my photo was taken in the summer – note the differences in uniform.


I should also note here that all the split images in this article were created using screen shots from the movie (time in the bottom right corner) and actual photos from my trip to North Korea. You can see the full set here.

I did not see any portraits of Kim Jong Un while in North Korea. The “original” Kims, however, were omnipresent.
At the DMZ inside the main building of the Joint Security Area.
At the Chinese border getting an overview of the area. In the movie, also at the border telling the main characters how to escape North Korea.
Kim’s Palace from the movie is a Hollywood creation. The building shown here is the Grand People’s Study House, the central library, located on Kim Il-sung Square, the site of most of North Korea’s famous military parades.
The reality and the movie.