When a crowd gathered one evening in April at the grand New York store of the Italian fashion house Prada, the main event had nothing to do with catwalks or new collections. Instead, the guests sat down and watched the U.S. debut of a very unusual film, a British documentary on two North Korean gymnasts whose purpose in life is to glorify their country's leader, Kim Jong Il.
"A State of Mind," screened at the store during the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, will open in theaters in 12 American cities in August. The film will begin a showing in Washington in the fall.
As part of a major counteroffensive by secretive North Korea against its portrayal abroad as a fiendish nuclear state, officials in the capital, Pyongyang, offered rare cooperation to the film's director, Daniel Gordon. They let his cameras track the two girls from day to day for a 93-minute work that treats its subjects with a striking balance of Western and North Korean perspectives.
The normally bombastic North, which has long threatened to turn Seoul, the South Korean capital, into a "sea of fire" and to "crush the American dogs," is launching what may be its most difficult global mission yet -- a charm offensive.
"They have been called part of the axis of evil, they have been called drug traffickers and counterfeiters -- clearly, North Korea has an image problem," said Jeong Dae Yeon, a board member of the Seoul-based citizens' group Korean People's Solidarity, which advocates engagement with the North. "Now, they are actively trying to do something to counter that impression."
This week, North Korea granted rare access to an ABC News crew headed by Bob Woodruff for the first extended visit by a U.S. news organization since then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's visit in October 2000. ABC's reports have so far included a human interest piece about North Korean views on America and an interview with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, who issued assurances that his nation, while nuclear-armed, had "no intention at all of attacking the U.S."
An organization with close ties to the Pyongyang government has opened a restaurant in Cambodia to promote North Korean culture through singing waitresses and traditional meals, including a popular soup of cold vinegar noodles. The North Koreans have also launched a Web site (www.dprkorea.com), which offers Internet users the chance to download North Korean cartoons as well as helpful tips on taekwondo, the popular Korean martial art.
The Pyongyang government has been especially assiduous about trying to charm South Koreans, who are in the midst of a major detente with the North. Cho Myung Ae, a celebrated North Korean dancer, has been permitted to appear in ads for the South Korean electronics giant Samsung. And last week, North Korea agreed to make a joint bid with the South to co-host the 2014 Asian Games.
These moves have been accompanied by major diplomatic initiatives. Late last year, North Korea reopened its closed embassy in Mongolia and is now engaged in talks on resuming the practice of sending North Koreans to work there, according to a Mongolian official in Ulan Bator. Last month alone, dignitaries from Russia, Mongolia, Guinea, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Nigeria, Libya and Laos visited North Korea, according to the country's official KCNA news service.
The outreach remains a far cry from North Korea's propaganda glory days in the 1970s and 1980s. Financially backed by the Soviet Union, Pyongyang opened information centers in Latin America and Africa, most of which have since closed because of the North's dire economic problems.
So far, the new moves have done little to change North Korea's reliance primarily on two countries -- China and South Korea -- for survival. But strengthened diplomatic ties with other Asian countries have led to a crackdown on North Korean refugees attempting to use those countries as way stations to reach South Korea, according to refugee aid groups.
"The refugees have become like mice being ushered into a corner," said a South Korean-based refugee activist who asked not to be named because his efforts are considered illegal in some of the countries he works in. "Chinese authorities are clamping down on them. The routes to freedom via Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are being blocked after North Korea complained to its old-time allies. So now, many of them are fleeing to Mongolia, but that, too, may close up soon."
Few of the charm attempts, however, have been as fascinating as the film "A State of Mind."
Gordon, formerly a British television sports journalist, won backing from the BBC and New York City's PBS affiliate, WNET, to make the $600,000 documentary. It was his second about North Korea -- in 2002, he made "The Game of Their Lives," a film about North Korea's surprisingly strong 1966 World Cup soccer team. The film never had a theatrical release in the United States.
Gordon, 32, won the North Koreans' trust with the help of his associate producer, Nicholas Bonner, who since 1993 has run a Beijing-based company that takes tourists into North Korea. Rather than propaganda, Gordon said in a telephone interview from London, the new film "is a neutral take on North Korea."
The movie indeed offers a rare glimpse into an opaque world, letting North Koreans have their say while illustrating the hardships of their lives in a manner almost never permitted by the Pyongyang government.
The families of the two young gymnasts -- one 11, the other 13 -- are shown eating meals by candlelight because of electricity shortages. Not surprisingly, the United States bears the brunt of North Korean displeasure in the film. One North Korean mother coping with blackouts is quick to blame the nation's adversity on "the bloody Americans."
The film documents North Koreans' extraordinary devotion to Kim, who is viewed in the country as a semi-religious figure. He is kept at the center of national life through everything from propaganda cartoons for children to state radio broadcasts in every home. The film shows how the volume on radios in North Korea homes can be lowered but not turned off.
Gordon said that the North Koreans feel misunderstood and that their permission to make the film was, in part, a way for them to show their "human side, to get beyond the goose-stepping soldiers." They "never tried to control or censor" the film crew during the six-month shoot in 2003, he said, although there were ground rules. Ubiquitous portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, national founder Kim Il Sung, for example, could not be shown partly obscured. "But those would have been the same ground rules if we were shooting in the Vatican," Gordon said, suggesting that deep respect would have to be shown there as well.
The film does not let Kim Jong Il off lightly. After countless days of hard training by the two girls for the Mass Games -- a North Korean spectacle of gymnastics and theatrics to honor Kim -- the film shows that Kim did not even turn up to watch the performance.
Perhaps for this reason, the film was screened for the Communist Party elite in Pyongyang, but Gordon is still trying to win approval from North Korean officials to broadcast it on the nation's single network, which is run by the government.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.