AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 352

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Session 352: North Korea Re-examined: Literature, Film and the Everyday

Organizer: Theodore Hughes, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Jin Kyung Lee, University of California, San Diego, USA

This panel proposes to contribute to the ongoing scholarly efforts to complicate our understanding of North Korea by focusing on its cultural and social dimensions from the late 1940s to the 2000s. The panel as a whole, first, attempts to unpack the multiple historicities, ideologies and cultural sources that integrally constitute North Korea as a system. Second, it examines fissures and resistance from within the system in relation to/despite the system’s long-standing effectiveness. Steven Chung traces the complexity of an influential North Korean film, My Hometown (1949), linking it not only to its contemporary relation with Soviet cinema but also back to the colonial legacies resulting from Marxists’ shift to imperialization policies during the Asia-Pacific War era. In his discussion of “vinalon,” a synthetic fiber that became a symbol of North Korea’s socialist industrialization and economic autonomy in the 1960s, Cheehyung Kim inquires into the effectiveness of the state’s ideologies in subsuming the people’s lives to labor through its engagement with the everyday. Jae-Yong Kim explores the complex nature of autonomy and resistance vis-a-vis the state-controlled culture industry in his consideration of a contemporary writer, Hong Sŏk-jung, who manipulates different genres to produce two ideologically disparate works, one adhering more closely to the party line and another veering away from it. Sang-kyung Lee looks at the ways in which the food crises of the 1990s placed intensified pressures on women that, in turn, became an opening for North Korean women writers to critically question the state’s gender policies that have doubly burdened women with the traditional gender role of mother and the socialist public role of worker.

The North Korean State and the Autonomy of Writers: The Case of Hong Sŏk-jung
Jae-yong Kim, Wonkwang University, South Korea

Censorship and the assigning of topics by the party are often given as the two factors infringing on the ability of writers to work independently in North Korea. Indeed, this assertion has its merits, given the fact that all North Korean works must pass through a strict censorship regime and writers are required to attend party-organized study sessions. However, a closer look at writers and their works reveals the limited understanding such a view gives us of the North Korean scene. In fact, censorship as actually carried out by party officials is much less unilateral than selective, allowing those views deemed appropriate to remain in texts. Writers can take advantage of this leeway to take their work in creative directions. While writers are on occasion asked to compose works on narrowly defined topics, in most cases they are requested to address broader issues, and this gives them further room to offer their own views, even if this occurs in the name of party policy. Hong Sŏk-jung’s novels Hwangjini (2002) and The Storm Fills the Sails (2005) provide examples of the kind of autonomy experienced by North Korean writers. While the former, which portrays a kisaeng working outside the system, has achieved considerable popularity outside North Korea as an “anti-statist” work, the latter, which addresses an assigned topic (unrecanted long-term political prisoners in South Korea), offers a standard portrayal of narrowly defined party views. That these two works, completely different in their trajectories, were published at almost the same time by the same writer demonstrates the complex nature of the autonomy wielded by North Korean writers: we see that the conflicts internal to the system possess a multidimensionality overlooked by blanket assertions frequently made by outside observers.

Vinalon City: An Industrial Myth for the Everyday Life
Cheehyung H Kim, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

In the early 1960s, the synthetic fiber vinalon became North Korea’s national fabric, a product that symbolized the independence and ingenuity of its state-led socialism, from the raw materials needed to make it (the abundant coal and limestone) and the person who invented it (the colonial Korean chemist Ri Sŭng-gi, scouted by North Korea in 1950). The Vinalon Factory near Hamhŭng City—a factory originally built by a Japanese chemical company and a city rebuilt with the assistance of East Germany—also became a national emblem of its own, as a factory that arose solely from the toil of the North Korean people. The history of vinalon is a confluence of the colonial industrial system, the postliberation nationalist ideology of state-building, the dynamics of multinational postwar reconstruction, and the monopoly of economy and politics by the regime of Kim Il Sung. Vinalon City, as the massive factory was called, is a transnational object par excellence, but at the same time, it is immutably localized as a myth for the ordinary North Korean people, replete with its labor heroes who achieve superhuman levels of productivity. The myth has a dimension of concrete, everyday reality, as vinalon is worn as clothing and produced by the workers. The everyday dimension of the myth is precisely where the ideological workings of state power are hidden. Furthermore, the history of vinalon reveals a characteristic of ideology of work—the subsumption of life by labor—a characteristic that is certainly not limited to North Korea.

Continuity in Early North Korean Cinema
Steven Chung, Princeton University, USA

The apparent ease with which political control and authority in North Korean history are tracked slips away in a consideration of the nation’s cultural forms, especially its cinema. On the one hand, filmmakers indeed fell silent or converted in accord with the large-scale revolutions and purges that marked the formative moments of North Korean socialism in the 1930s and 1940s. On the other, it is possible to trace continuities in form and discourse in film and theory across thresholds of apparently radical change. This paper will attempt to think about the specificities of aesthetics and political transformations in North Korea through a genealogical investigation of one its most spectacular films, My Hometown (1949). While its production can be most directly linked to the Soviet faction that was influential throughout the late 1940s (and expunged in the early 1960s), the film also betrays ties to critics and filmmakers like Im Hwa and So Kwang-je who in the late 1930s moved from left-wing to imperialist discourse in the face of Japanese militarism. It also left technical and thematic practices that would survive the consolidation of Kim Il-sung’s power in the coming decades. The paper therein suggests a different framing of North Korean film history, one that takes less account of factional strife in favor of greater sensitivity to continuities and co-existences of representational practices.

The Discourse of “Worker-Mother” in North Korean Women’s Literature: Its Official Promotion and Unofficial Rupture after “the Time of Arduous March”
Sang-kyung Lee, KAIST, South Korea

In the immediate postliberation period, a series of laws were enacted in North Korea based upon the principle of gender equity and officially declaring the emancipation of women. In the state’s view, this consequently obviated the necessity for “women’s literature” in North Korea. In subsequent decades, the emergence of “worker-mother” as an ideal image gave rise to state policies that supported women’s social participation through various mechanisms that protected motherhood, thus rationalizing the double burden of women’s traditional gender roles and social-economic activities. As a result, women came to sustain the perception that the conflict they experienced due to their dual roles as mothers and workers was a private and individual issue. During “the Arduous March” of the 1990s when the official rationing system collapsed with the deepening food crisis, women were forced to assume the sole responsibility of ensuring their entire family’s survival. While the government mounted a campaign that cast Kim Il Sung’s wife, Kim Chŏng-suk as an iconic “Innovative Worker-Revolutionary Mother,” the pressure and desperation North Korean women felt during this period enabled them to realize that the coercive dual role of mother and worker stemmed from the state’s ideological discrimination against women. It is at this point that North Korean women’s literature emerged in a new way in the works of women writers such as Ri Ra-sun and Ch’oe Ryŏn, who confronted directly the reality of women’s lives at home and at work, focusing on the issue of the “double burden” imposed by traditional gender roles and their public role as workers.