AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 426

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Session 426: Everyday life in North Korea: Bodies, Markets, Symbols, and Time.

Organizer: Byung-Ho Chung, Hanyang University, South Korea

Chair: Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Australian National University, Australia

Discussant: W. Courtland Robinson, Johns Hopkins University, USA

North Korea is clearly one of the most repressive regimes in the contemporary world. Public execution, political gulag, and forced labor are the usual images projected not only by international media but also by politicized research since the Cold-War. However, the quality of life of ordinary North Koreans are less well understood than they should be. This session will examine the everyday life in North Korea through the investigation of its core elements, including bodies, markets, symbols, and time. The papers will analyze, 1) the body size characteristics as a living standard indicator of the long-term nutritional welfare, 2) the emerging markets and the role of shadow economy in the central planning system, 3) the time concepts in practice and the difference in organizing time between men and women, and 4) the cultural reproduction processes through daily rituals, symbolic performances, and the rites of passage. These are also the domains of intense contention among the state, various social forces, and individuals. The papers presented in this session utilize the ethnographic materials from the repeated visits to Pyongyang and the extensive interviews with the refugees from the North. Through analysis and discussion, we hope to provoke serious attention to the properties of everyday life in North Korea from the perspective of resilience and change.

Bottom-up Marketization in Communism : North Korea and the Soviet Union
Hyung-min Joo, Korea University, South Korea

First invented by the Soviet Union, the central planning system was adopted by other communist countries such as Eastern European countries, Maoist China, North Korea and so on. From the viewpoint of consumers, one of the main characteristics of the central planning system was a chronic shortage of virtually everything. As a result, a communist command economy was often described as “the economy of shortage.” In response, there soon developed various social practices outside the parameters of the central planning system as individuals tried to pursue their unsatisfied economic necessities in every possible way. As a result, there was a continuous, widespread and illicit marketization of society “from below” in communist countries. The main goal of this paper is to analyze various aspects of the shadow economy in communism. In particular, we will compare the booming shadow economy in contemporary North Korean society with similar experiences of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. By analyzing similarities and differences between these cases, we can gain a better understanding of many aspects of the shadow economy, such as who the main actors are (the agency question), how they get their necessary items (the supply mechanism), how they move items from one place to another (the distribution mechanism), who consumes these items (the consumer question), and so on.

How North Koreans Spend Their Time: Everyday Life of Women and Men in Their 30th and 40th.
Soo-Jung Lee, University of North Korean Studies, South Korea

Time is one of the basic elements that constitute everyday life. It is also inescapable fact of social life and cultural existence. This paper explores how North Korean Women and Men in their 30the and 40th organize their time. Through interviews with North Korean defectors on how they organized their daily lives in the North, it examines culturally specific characteristics of North Korean everyday life. It also unveils gaps between women and men correlated to existing differences in their position on the labor market, their participation in domestic work, political and cultural activities and other spheres of life.

Cultural Reproduction in North Korea: Daily Rituals, Symbolic Performances, and Rites of Passage.
Byung-Ho Chung, Hanyang University, South Korea

Harsh labor camps and spectacular public executions of political prisoners are the most common images of today's North Korean regime known to the outside world. However, these coercive means make up only a small part of the country's social control mechanism. The authoritarian rule in North Korea is more crucially based on a myriad of disciplinary measures and practices diffused in the population's everyday lives. Notable among them are the daily ritualized performances at school and periodic mass spectacles held in public arenas. As Geertz argues, the symbolic and theatrical dimension of the state power is constitutive and paradigmatic, not merely reflective, of the political order. In this light, this presentation will provide an ethnographic account of North Korean children's routine encounter at school with the state's disciplinary measures. It will also consider selected public festivals and mass parades, focusing on how in these mass performances the participants and the spectators alike come to learn their places in the wider political society and experience their shared identity as vital post-colonial subjects.

North Korean Body Size and Living Standards: A Meta-Analysis
Sunyoung Pak, , South Korea

This paper employs North Korean body size characteristics as a living standard indicator of North Korea. Since the 1995 North Korean food crisis, international agencies along with North Korean government agencies have conducted a series of nationwide surveys of bodily growth of young North Korean children under 7 years of age. About the same time, a flux of North Korean refugees escaping from economic hardships in North Korea began to arrive in South Korea providing information on body size of North Koreans including adults as well as children and adolescents over 7 years of age. A number of papers dealing with these refugees’ body size have been published. Here, all these surveys and papers are compiled to draw a more complete picture of North Korean body size characteristics for all age groups and implications of these findings in relation to North Korean living standards since Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Generational, regional, gender, age, occupational, and class differences are examined. The effects of the North Korean food crisis on the current growth status of North Korean children and the future North Korean adult body size are also examined.