Hello again, friends! As you may or may not be aware, I have a variety of interests and areas of expertise. In addition to sparkly boy (and some girl) bands from East Asia, I specialize in comparative colonialism between Korea and Ireland, and tourism in North Korea. And it’s the latter that I come to talk to you about today — North Korea itself, not tourism (though I could go on about that for hours (or 15 minutes if I’m at a conference and speak at lightning speed)). This is part of a larger series I want to do here where I watch a show or movie and talk about its portrayal of North Korea (DPRK). Let’s start with one that actually does a really good and decidedly human portrayal of the North: “The King 2 Hearts.” Really, I just wanna talk to y’all about the DPRK and about the things media portrayals do and don’t get right. We’ll proceed through each episode and discuss major themes: scenery and symbolism, ideology, portrayals of people, and relationships.
OK! So basic story is that we’re in an alternate universe where most everything is the same except that South Korea has a constitutional monarchy and there’s some World Officer Championship and the North and South are going to compete as one team for the first time. “The King 2 Hearts” is a story of people from two very different countries learning to work together *opens hands, reveals rainbow* :Db (OH MAN, DID I JUST MENTION NORTH KOREA AND A RAINBOW? TIME FOR MY FAVOURITE SONG: “통일 무지개 (Reunification Rainbow)”! This isn’t really about reunification, though; more about international cooperation.
Scenery and Symbolism
What we see here is the representatives from the DPRK and Korea (we’ll get to that in a second) signing the papers to compete as one team. I like this cos it shows the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party: the hammer, the sickle, and the writing brush. If we know anything about communism, we know all about the hammer and sickle (the industrialist and the peasant), but the neat thing about the DPRK’s is that it includes the writing brush to bring in the intellectual class and symbolize the “working intellectual.” So you keep the intellectual class in the Party because the goal is for everyone to join the Party (and, as we know, ain’t no party like a Pyongyang party cos a Pyongyang party is ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY) (These videos are exactly the kind of shit that’s going to get me in trouble one day. I’m going to be first against the wall and we all know it).
AWWW YEAHHHH SOCIALIST REALISM Ahab loves her some socialist realism. There’s a good bit of propaganda, in posters and slogans, in the show. This is not just to make NoKo seem more ~weird~ or anything — there really are propaganda posters, murals, and slogans everywhere. Giant neon signs on top of buildings, too.
One thing I really appreciate about this show is that they do a really good job of recreating places in the DPRK. This, for example. This is exactly what 승리 (Victory) Station (on the 철리마 (Ch’ŏllima/Thousand Li Horse) Line!) in Pyongyang looks like. I’ve been there!
You can tell how legit and how high up in the Korean Worker’s Party someone is by the pin they have. I wish I could find where in my notes I had delineated the types and levels of pins. That aside, everyone in the KWP wears a certain pin on their left breast above the heart.
Our heroine in the story’s favourite hobby is rollin down the street smokin indo sippin on chuch’e juice (here’s the reference if you’re too young or lived under a rock in the 90s). That’s not true, I was just excited to see an actual mention of chuch’e1. See, a big part of why this drama is a big deal is because South Korea still has really strict laws on what can and can’t be said about North Korea. They’ve loosened over time, but they’re still there (Like, for serious, Ahab and Friends are still kind of shocked that SNL North Korea was a thing on SNL Korea. I’ll do a whole series on the North Korea-related SNL skits, but just keep in mind that this would have absolutely been unthinkable years ago. Satire hasn’t exactly been encouraged in South Korea).
Kind of wish I had Korean subtitles for this just to prove my point. Anyway, our heroine is being interrogated by the South Korean side. She’s a soldier and has done some training of battalions that made the South Korean side … wary of her (people learned how to assassinate people with explosives. Fun stuff!). So the South Korean soldier (not pictured) is asking her about her actions in the military and she’s explaining herself and her past. He asks her if she’s met the South Korean team and she says she has met some of them. What you can’t hear is the words they’re using. If you didn’t know, North and South Korea use different words to refer to themselves and to the other. South Korea, which you’re probably most familiar with, uses “한국” (its formal name being 대한민국, Dae Han Min Guk, or “The Republic of Great Han”). Korean language is 한국어 (han’gukŏ) or 한국말 (han’gugkmal), Korean characters are 한글 (han’gŭl), Korean people are 한국 사람 (han’guk saram) (unless you’re part of the diaspora, but then that gets complicated and ventures further into identity and claims to nationality that are better handled by one of my cohort). It’s complicated, but both nations appeal to a previous era/dynasty in Korean history to legitimate themselves (and make itself more legitimate than the other). So South Korea uses the Three Hans Period and North Korea uses the Chosŏn dynasty. North Korea is 조선 and, more formally, 조선민주주의인민공화국 (Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”). Its people are 조선 사람 (chosŏn saram), its language is 조선말 (chosŏnmal), and the characters are 조선글 (chosŏngŭl). Make sense?
The South Korean officer asks her if she’s met the South Korean team, and he uses “남한” (namhan, literally “South Korea” (as opposed to 북한, bukhan, “North Korea”)) when he questions her. When she responds that she has met the South Korean team, she uses “남조선” (namchosŏn, literally “South Korea”). What we need to understand is that these are both correct from the point of view of the other. South Korea and North Korea, in their respective constitutions, claim jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. This is why North Korean refugees immediately have citizenship the second they set foot on South Korean soil and claim asylum. This is one of those things that’s really important but that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on if you didn’t speak Korean and/or understand the peninsula’s histories.
The officer explains that the spoiled little shit she met was the King’s little brother. When he does this, though, he uses “대한민국,” “Republic of Korea,” when earlier in the episode, when the representatives were signing the WOC paperwork, South Korea was just “Korea” while the DPRK was still the DPRK. This is weird to me and I want us to think about it. What does this say about the way South Korea thinks about itself in relation to North Korea? Also, is South Korea still a republic even with the monarchy? And what about people in the colonial era losing complete faith in the monarchy, feeling like they sold the country out to the Japanese? Are we just gonna forget how the Japanese made the last Korean prince a prince in their imperial line? (What up, naisen ittai (内鮮一体), the ideology that Japan and Korea were one, wherein Korea was a more primitive version of Japan and needed Japan’s help to modernize and join the rest of the world and it was just oh so complicated and problematic we could spend an entire semester talking about just how fucked up and unfathomably insidious it was).
OH, speaking of the Japanese monarchy! This is one of those things that’s what I like to call “Bruce Cumings correct” (it’s not entirely wrong but it sure as shit isn’t 100% right). So uh, dear reader, here’s the thing: Emperor Hirohito, in surrendering in World War II, renounced his divinity. So uh, this isn’t really right. Also, no one in Japan really gives a shit about the Emperor anymore (unless it’s time for a new heir, and then it’s time to get up in arms about primogeniture and drive Princess Masako insane because it’s obviously her fault she can’t produce a son and not Naruhito’s!). But really, this just raises more questions than it answers. What’s the history of this alternate universe? If there’s still a monarchy, does that mean Yi Un never abdicated? This is getting to be some weird shit (though not as weird as “Lost Memories 2009,” wherein Ito Hirobumi was never assassinated and then Seoul became Japan’s third-largest city and Japan never surrendered in World War II and so never lost its empire and then some other shit went down and one of the main characters is an investigator named Sakamoto Masayuki hahahahaAHAHAHAHA
I am trash). This may seem like a tangent, but it will be relevant later, I promise.
Portrayals of People and Relationships
Our heroine here, Kim Hang Ah, after kicking a dude’s ass in a competition, is going on a date. Like a real person. With a real life. You might be looking at me skeptically like “well of fucking course” but the way the media across the globe portrays NoKo, you’d think it was populated by brainwashed automatons. And I know this a drama, but there’s still regular people (people who are very high up in the Party and thereby very privileged (the closer you are to Pyongyang, the more privileged you are, bee tee dubs)) in the DPRK and they have real lives and they go on dates! My guide told us they go to cafes and things ~just like us!~. No but really. Her friends give her shit for not taking good care of her skin and tell her to be bolder with the guy she’s seeing cos she may not find another guy and she’s getting too old. WOW JUST LIKE A PERSON IN SOKO. Hello, my name is Ahab and I’m tiring of having to explain to people that North Koreans are actual people (and not just starving people)2.
What’s most interesting about our protagonist here is that she’s a military officer. She kicks a lot of ass (in fact, in the first scene where we meet her, she’s about to go kick some ass). More than just that, though, she’s fully cognizant of the way she’s seen as intimidating, both domestically and internationally. But she doesn’t want to be seen as just an ass-kicking woman, she wants to be seen as the complex woman with feelings and dreams that she is. Aside from international cooperation, a major plot point is her superior finding her a spouse.
So our team has arrived by bus in the South (probably coming down through Kaesong and Dorasan into Seoul, if the road signs are to be believed). Kim Hang Ah is marvelling at the idols who also happen to be in the military (militarized modernity~) and this is interesting and I want us to talk about it. South Korean pop culture has been making its way through North Korea for many years, first on illegal CDs or DVDs, now on USB drives. As we find out later, our heroine is a spy and watches South Korean TV and reports on what’s going on and what’s being said and all that. As an elite, she has more access to a lot of things, and because of her job, she knows a lot of what’s going on in the South.
Back to the story: there’s a radio broadcast on in the background in which the UN is said to have congratulated the North and South on competing together as one team in the WOC. There have been a few times when they’ve tried before in real life, the first of which that comes to mind is the Seoul Olympics of 88. When Seoul got the Olympics, the North was like “bro” and asked to co-host it with SoKo. The IOC agreed to give the DPRK a few events like cycling, but NoKo was like “no, we go halfsies or we don’t go at all” so the IOC was like “have it your way” and they didn’t go at all. And then the North decided to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in response (retaliation?) but it … didn’t go well. Also, fun fact: the Ryugyong Hotel? You know, that giant concrete (now glass (thanks, Orascom!)) monolith in the middle of Pyongyang? It was set to open and host people for the sporting event but it wasn’t structurally sound3. It still isn’t suitable for habitation now, either. Orascom joined with the North to improve their cell phone infrastructure (yes, they have mobile phones in NoKo) and try to get the whole thing ready to host tourists like it’s supposed to for Juche 100 (2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth (the DPRK has something of an imperial numbering system beginning with Juche 1 in 1912)) but could only complete the facade.
First, yes, North Koreans use “Comrade” to address people. There are actually two ways to do so: the word Kim Hang Ah uses to address Lee Jae Ha (our spoiled prince character, whose character we’ll return to later): 동지 (tongji), usually for people on your same social level or below you, and 동무 (tongmu) for people above you. Manners of address are important.
So, Lee Jae Ha. He’s our playboy prince character who, if we were to read into it really hard (and what else do we do on here other than overanalyze?) could be said to represent the decadence of the youth. Dude is 30 in the drama, so we’re of the same generation. I’ll leave the hardcore discussions of portrayals and denigration and fear of the youth to Ishmael, but suffice it to say that the youth of the post IMF Crisis generation are seen as lazier and more concerned with consumption for consumption’s sake. He’s not a total scumbag, but that’s like saying it’s only a small tapeworm eating its way through your insides; at the end of the day, you’ve still got a tapeworm and he’s still a douchebag.
I am cautiously optimistic but have high hopes for this drama. The episodes I’ve watched so far are painting, as I said, a decidedly human portrait of North Korea and the people who live there. Yes, they’re elites in the military (who have been more important in the DPRK since the advent of 선근 (sŏn’gun), military first (rather than Equal Emphasis, which put, funnily enough, equal emphasis on domestic growth and arms production beginning in December 1962, leading to a 7-fold increase in military spending. “Arms in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other!”))4 but they’re still people (!) and they still have lives and feelings and are complicated people just like everyone else (!).
Citations and Notes
Note for all these posts: I’m the last person who’d call herself an expert on North Korea (and it still weirds me out that I got cited as a source one time in a news article about NoKo (really, how did they find me? Did my adviser tell them to talk to me? Does he secretly have more faith in me than I thought? The world may never know)). I’m still learning, and I will have a lot to learn as I move into my chosen career. That said, I have been studying about North Korea for years, both in and out of grad school. I know a (not insignificant) number of people who do work related to North Korea (academics, consultants (security, engagement, etc.), refugee resettlement, etc.). The North Korean government comes to the people I know for advice. I’ve spent some time there where I met and spoke with a few people. In all likelihood, I’ll be spending more time there in the future. I was all set to write for NKNews but decided not to since I didn’t want to jeopardize my career path by being branded a journalist. Long story short: I don’t know near as much as some people, but the odds are really good that I know more than you. You’re free to critique my conclusions, but unless you’re a better source, don’t critique my credentials.
01. Oh, for the record, the show and I use very different romanization systems. I use McCune-Reischauer because I’ve had it beaten into my head over a number of years in grad school and the subbers use the Ministry of Education’s system. I like mine better, so I will continue to use it.
02. That’s not to say the ration system has recovered or that there isn’t a food shortage but SERIOUSLY the way people talk about the DPRK it’s like they think everyone is those tiny children during the famine in the mid-90s searching for grains of rice on the ground in the beginning of the documentary, “Children of the Secret State.” Seriously, I’ll be the first to tell you the DPRK is complicated (just look at how many tangents I’m going on here) and that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and I could easily detail for you a great many of the No Good, Very Bad Things that happen there, but what I’m trying to say here is that we need to be aware that it’s not just lack of food, gulags, nuclear weapons, and furious political thought. I’m really doing my best to not be all Bruce Cumings here (I’m not doing a very good job, am I?).
03. Bradley K. Martin writes about this as one of his experiences in North Korea in Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader
04. Buzo, Adrian. Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea