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    Korea
     Jan 28, 2006
North Korea: Red in tooth and claw
By James Card

BUSAN - The grainy, sometimes out-of-focus film opens with a warning: "This program is something you've never seen before. It is about brutal animal fights and it is all real and intensely interesting."

The 52-minute video, which the opening describes as "made in North Korea as a documentary", goes on to show a variety of



animals, many endangered species, either tearing one another apart or posturing for an attack.

This is not your National Geographic documentary about animals in the wild kingdom battling over territorial rights, dominance or a sex partner. It's not about predators and their prey. Hanjoon Productions' animals are mostly caged, their battles initiated.

Rumors about North Korean films of savage, staged fights involving endangered animals have been around for years. Now, the films are available. The video can be found at some video rental shops in South Korea, but hunting around is required. A handful of Korean online video retailers carry copies, which can be purchased for about 5,000 won (US$5). [1]

In the late 1990s, the North's Joseon Science Film Studio videotaped animals attacking each other under the guise of the production being a nature documentary. The films were brought into South Korea and the Ministry of Unification holds them in its library of North Korean materials. Fighting Animals volumes 2-4 are available for public rental, though they are only in Korean. Virtually nothing has been written about them in English.

The June 1997 edition of the Ministry of Unification's monthly Joseon had an article about the animal-fight film and a videotape was included with the issue. Then in 1999, Hanjoon Productions released Fighting Animals for general distribution to the South Korean public. But even today, the film's existence is not widely known.

Many of the scenes, some of which are out of focus, are cut, spliced and hyper-edited as if to portray each scene as one seamless violent episode. Further scrutiny reveals this is far from the case.

In all probability, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sanctioned the filming of Fighting Animals, or at least gave it his curious approval - though there is no evidence he was directly involved despite his well-documented interest in filmmaking. The film's producers would have needed access to rare and valuable animals and the only place in the country that holds them is the Central Zoo in Pyongyang. Also, they would need the cooperation of the zookeepers to match up the different animals in shared cages and goad them enough to maul one another.

The first scene is of two caged black foxes in a highly agitated state, rubbing against a tree and pawing the earth. The narrator says they are fighting over a piece of fish. They attack each other with bites to the neck in an enclosure with vertical steel bars. Then the film is spliced and the viewer sees two foxes with wet fur in a different cage built of fine-mesh chicken wire. After a few violent seconds, the scene instantly cuts back to the cage of vertical bars and the scene ends when one fox locks into the other with a death bite.

In another scene, a lioness and a tiger are trapped in what appears to be a zoo cage. The background is of iron bars and fake rocks made of poured concrete. The animals growl. Though there is no explanation of why the two are poised to fight, it is assumed the battle is between two territorial animals being forced to share a small cage. The two tear into each other, with the lioness often fighting from her back.

From this brief scene, the narrator posits that the lioness is cowardly and the tiger is the more powerful of these alpha-predators, hinting at animistic nationalism, in the sense that "our native beast is stronger than the foreign beast". The North Korean army chose the tiger as its symbolic mascot, named Hokuk-i, the "nation-defending tiger". Similarly, the tiger is used in numerous symbols in South Korea. Yet in the past neither country has protected the cherished icon.

Korea's Siberian tiger is is one of the most endangered large animals in the world. In pre-industrial Korea the tiger ranged throughout the peninsula, but the last confirmed sighting in South Korea was in 1946 in the Sorak mountain range. A few are thought to exist in the Baekdu Mountain region, but the lack of field evidence puts this in doubt.

South Korea banned trade in tiger bones for use in Han-yak medicine in 1994 because of international condemnation and signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. However, 1993 was a record year for importing tiger bones into South Korea, possibly because pharmacists wanted to stock up on the goods before they became inaccessible. Import records from customs reveal that between 1975 and 1992 more than 6 tons of tiger bone was brought into the country. Ironically, in 1988 there was a large boost in tiger imports and that year South Korea hosted the Olympic Games - the symbol a tiger cub named Hodori.

But the tigers are not the only endangered species from the peninsula featured in the film. A lioness is matched with an Asiatic black bear, called by Koreans a half-moon bear because of the white crescent on its chest. The destruction of the native population of half-moon bears is a dark chapter in Korea.

Traditional medicine believes the bear's gall-bladder bile imbues vitality and good health. The bears have been hunted for centuries to the point of near extinction, with only 10-20 left in South Korea. The number of bears in North Korea is unknown but considered low. Currently, South Korea ranks as the world's largest market for imported bear parts.

Another scene shows a clash that ends with a cinereous vulture's talon slashing through the eye of a red fox. The current world population of cinereous vultures is thought to be about 4,000, and they are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) "red list of threatened species". The Korean red fox is thought to survive in small numbers in North Korea but were extinct in the South by the 1960s from poisoning and poaching. However, a South Korean hiker found one dead in a poacher's snare in the Gangwon province in March 2004, and the Ministry of Environment estimates there might be about 100 in existence.

Increasing numbers of cinereous vultures have been wintering on the Southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, Cheorwon, Yanggu and Hwacheon counties.

Other animals in the film include yellow-throated martins, shown in a cage with a house cat, though it appears feral. The yellow-throated martin is rare, found in high-forested mountain elevations, and also endangered.

There are also confrontations between a brown bear, apparently in a zoo, and a wild boar; a Eurasian eagle owl and an Amur rat snake (a staged scene and completely fake); two German shepherds, referred to by the narrator as seoyang-gye, or "western dog"; a poongsan (one of North Korea's national treasures and an excellent hunting dog) and a German shepherd; and four mongrel hunting dogs and a Eurasian badger.

Other scenes involve eagles, weasels, marmots, rams and ewes, and domestic farm animals. As well, there is a cockfight.

North Korea is a black hole of news and events and leaves much of the world speculating on what happens in the isolationist country. Very few foreign wildlife researchers have gained access and little is known about the status of native wildlife, though zoos in the North and South have recently exchanged animals.

With chronic shortages of all supplies and the country on the edge of famine, questions about the care of animals in a North Korean zoo would be natural. This film does little to provide assurances that Pyongyang Central Zoo animals are being properly looked after.

Note
[1] See for example this site

James Card is a freelance writer in South Korea. He can be contacted at www.jamescard.net.

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