Whoa, hi again! Today, I’d like to talk to you about femininity in North Korea — particularly, revolutionary femininity, how it came to be, and how it’s portrayed in “The King 2 Hearts” in Kim Hang Ah. After that, I promise we’ll have more pretty pictures and me going “LOOK AT THAT THING! AND THAT THING!”
So in this, I’m going to be taking a lot from Suk-Young Kim’s “Illusive Utopia,” and specifically chapter 5, wherein she looks at femininity and its shifts over time by analyzing films, revolutionary operas, revolutionary operas that were turned into films, and fashion. First, let’s go back and look at how the feminine and how women’s labour has evolved since the founding of the DPRK. I promise we’re going somewhere with this (this is why you never ask an anthropologist to tell a story — when they start at the beginning, they start at the beginning) (you should totally ask anthropologists to tell stories, though; we’re the best storytellers).
Obviously, a huge part of the founding of the DPRK was doing away with the traditional gender roles (changing ideas about gender actually sprung up around the time Korea was opened to the West. You had Koreans writing newspaper articles/opinion pieces about how shameful it was that women were treated the way they were and look how backwards Korea is1. I digress, but don’t get it twisted: changing ideas of gender weren’t unique to the socialists, but they did institutionalize them). The law on the equality between the sexes was passed in 1946, the same time the land reform happened. The latter gave women and men land equally, and the former outlawed the kwonbŏn system to train kisaeng and ended concubinage, allowed women to marry and divorce freely, outlawed primogeniture and made inheritances equal among all children, and, most importantly, gave equal rights in politics. The government also gave mothers and pregnant women rights with Labour Laws 14-17. So pretty much right after liberation (remember, the Korean Peninsula was liberated on August 15th, but the state wasn’t officially founded until 1948 (with the first Constitution)), you have sweeping reforms happening all over the country2.
To organize women (revolutionarily but also socially and stuff) you had the Women’s Defense League, begun in 1946 (those who’ve studied SoKo will remember there were similar leagues in South Korea during the Park Chung Hee era to institutionalize certain gender norms. The same is true for NoKo). By mobilizing women, you bring in a huge workforce, which your nation desperately needs if it’s going to rebuild (and particularly after the Korean War), and while women made up only 20% of the workforce in 1956, they were 48% of it in 19953, making up 56% of the agricultural labour force, 70% of the light industry labour force, and 80% of elementary educators (anyone who’s studied SoKo will also note that women were largely concentrated in light industry (textile manufacturing and the like, for those unfamiliar) and teaching during this same time period).
It wasn’t just that women were being mobilized, but their labour was being cast as revolutionary. Suk-Young Kim states that the people (인민, 人民, inmin) were imagined (as a community, a la Benedict Anderson) to be underprivileged peasants who had been exploited by corrupt landlords and/or feudal lords (this theme comes up a lot in North Korean cinema. In fact, it comes up in the first North Korean movie, “내 고향” (nae kohyang, “My Hometown”), shot in 1948, and my favourite North Korean movie, “불가사리” (“Pulgasari”)). So you have the people as historically oppressed, and women are portrayed as not just peasants, but also workers and soldiers. I mean, think about it: does it really make sense to exclude half your population from the workforce, including the military? Not really.
So women and their labour come to be seen as revolutionary, particularly through the lifting up of historical women revolutionaries like Kang Pan-sŏk (Kim Il Sung’s mother) and, later, Kim Chŏng-suk (Kim Jong Il’s mother), and associated study groups and stuff. Suk-Young Kim here is drawing particularly from stories like “True Daughter of the Party” and “Sea of Blood.” To quote Kim, “Women are agents of national ideological awakening.”4 So this is basically a carefully crafted and self-supported image. But from this, because these revolutionary operas/films are propaganda and meant to send a message, they’re also taken by SoKo and the US and elsewhere and brought about to foster an idea that North Korean women will, basically, fucking kill you for the revolution.
That’s where Kim Hang Ah comes in.
We rejoin our friends in the WOC as Kim Hang Ah follows Prince Lee Jae Ha into the bathroom and is like “bro you know what they told me? To kill you the second I saw you” and she knocks him down and he’s like “I’LL GIVE YOU WHATEVER YOU WANT” and she’s all “J/K~!!”
But this falls totally in line with the idea of the woman soldier. She’s fully committed to the revolution and the Party5 and she will fuck your shit up if you’re a counter-revolutionary.
Yet here’s the thing about Kim Hang Ah: she’s in a privileged position to know this, but she’s still totally cognizant of how she comes off, not just to her countrymen, but to the world. Check it:
This is part of episode 1 where she’s discussing with the dude in charge about whether or not she’ll compete in the WOC. That’s his line in the first cap, urging her to join the WOC and be the fierce female soldier she is. She counters that that’s just the problem — she’s only seen as a fierce female soldier. And a big part of this show is getting others, particuarly Lee Jae Ha, to see her as more than just a soldier who could easily kill him in two seconds flat.
At this part here, she’s just come back from seeing an old friend. She gets all nostalgic walking over, remembering the promise they made to one another when they were younger: if they were both still single, they’d marry each other. She gets to the restaurant where he’s asked her to come, and he proposes in a grand fashion. Turns out it was a test run for when his actual soon-to-be fiancee shows up. She naturally gets upset and leaves, returning to the training facility to run off her feelings. She trips, twists her ankle, and then breaks down in tears as Lee Jae Ha (who was slacking on his training but happened to be in the gym) was looking at it. As much of a douche as he is, this is one of his better moments.
He’s comforting her, telling her she’s still young and she can still marry at 30, but she counters that while that’s fine for the South, in the North, she’s an old maid, and a soldier, going back to our previous point. She performs a certain kind of feminine, but one that scares the shit out of dudes in the North.
Basically what I’m getting at here is I appreciate the human portrait (again). “Fierce female soldiers,” daughters of the revolution are still people. The writers of this show have an understanding (I don’t know them so I don’t know how much, but) of the idea of revolutionary femininity and the female soldier. It’s not that she wants to give up being a soldier, but she does want someone who can see beyond the fact that she’s a trained killer and remember/recognize that she’s also a human who wants to be loved just like everybody else.
Okay! Thanks for sitting (or scrolling) through all that. Here’s some other things in the episode that are relevant and that I want to show you.
Again, propaganda slogans everywhere. And then Lee Jae Ha, genius, gentleman, scholar, asks if the Leader is a dog.
This is our good friend, Ri Kang Suk. He’s great people, and we’ll talk more about him later. Right now, I want to emphasize that this dude has the patience of a saint, because Lee Jae Ha just did one of the things you absolutely do. NOT. do in the North: insult any of the Leaders. I’m really understating it when I say there are serious consequences for questioning or insulting the Leaders.
If this were actually filmed in North Korea, no way they get away with these shots. You always get the entire statue in the frame. No artsy shots, nothing like that. Whole statue, from the front, or a guard there is like “dude” or it gets erased by border guards on exit (if/when they go through your photos).
Lee Jae Ha surveys his room for the WOC (see, they go back and forth between North and South every two weeks in their training). The slogan on the wall, which the fansubbers didn’t translate, is basically “the officers will take the lead in North-South reunification.”
For those who know little to nothing about Korean reunification, this is a big point (I really hesitate to call it a talking point, but in some ways, it kind of is): common ethnic identity. It gets trickier in practice, because part of some of the prejudice you find in the South against the North (and people who come to the South from the North) is, “well, how much do we really have in common anymore beyond the fact that we’re ethnically Korean?” But “we’re one Korea” is a thing you hear a lot, both North and South. More North, in my experience, but I didn’t really talk to a lot of people about reunification in the South, outside the one language class where the Korean War and reunification were the discussion topics. But anyway, one of the things that absolutely unites both countries and that they do share is the folk song, “Arirang.” (Here’s two videos: The NY Philharmonic in Pyongyang, and a South Korean choir) I’m actually a little surprised they didn’t sing “Arirang” in this scene, because they always all know it in North-South stories. Anyway, “Arirang” is important, but what’s more important here is the fact that they’re sitting together and sharing songs and stories and joking with each other. This is also a big theme in stoires about the North and South, coming back to the idea of shared ethnic identity: you get Koreans together, and no matter which Koreans they are, they’ll be laughing and sharing in basically no time. Further, I feel like this scene (the drama as a whole, but this scene in particular) is a metaphor for hopes of reunification.
That’s really all for that, friends. Fewer establishing shots, so less for me to point out. See you next time~
Citations and Notes
01. I’m drawing specifically from Andre Schmid’s Korea Between Empires.
02. Tentatively recommending Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945-1950. I say tentatively because I love the intro but I haven’t read it all the way through since a friend needs to borrow it for a historiography seminar. Anyway, its main point is that, while most scholarship (particularly that of Suh Dae-Sook but also that of Andrei Lankov) emphasizes that the Soviets were running the show, they weren’t as involved the farther you got from the capital and Koreans were the ones really running the show. There’s also a chapter about women I’m going to read and maybe will edit this essay when I do.
03. I should note I’m taking all these from notes I took during a grad seminar on North Korea a few years ago. If you really care where I’m getting these, I guess I could ask my advisor? (even tho he’s still quite scary to me)
04. Suk-Young Kim, Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, pp.215-217.
05. Can I just have an aside here? I found a bunch of quotes I’d written down that my friends and professors had said, and one of them was my advisor’s: “So what does the Party do? What if it were a Par-tay? I think North Korea would be a lot more fun.” He has the best quotes and I just wanted to share that one. OK, thanks for listening. Back to the real story.
06. Ishmael would like me to mention that Kim Jong Il apparently saw Im Kwon Taek’s films as a potential for cinematic collaboration between North and South.