How to Talk About North Korea Without Being or Making an Ass of Yourself

So, here’s the thing: the DPRK is sort of difficult to understand. We don’t always get what we might call accurate information out of the country. Most of what we get comes from interpretations of the propaganda/state-run media reports or from a dude who knows another dude who told them x, y, z. It’s sometimes hard to sniff out the bullshit. People tend to think that just because it’s difficult to understand what goes on in and the motivations behind decisions made by the North Korean regime that almost anything could happen. For example: that story about every man in North Korea needing to have the same haircut as Kim Jong Un. That sounds like a thing that could happen if you operate under the assumption that literally anything is possible in North Korea because North Korea is crazy and that’s just the sort of thing they’d do. Except it’s not. Come, friend, let me give you a history of the North and then help you understand how to be more critical in your readings about the North.

First things first: North Korea is not crazy. Its people are not crazy, its leaders are not crazy, its bureaucracy is not crazy. Let’s just stop using “crazy” to describe things we can’t immediately comprehend, okay? North Korea is a rational actor. When you actually consider the motives behind the decisions those in power make, and the context in which the country develops and continues to survive, you’ll find they actually make sense (shock! gasp!). The thing with that, though, is that you have to really understand how North Korea came into existence and how it’s maintained itself. If you don’t really get that, it’s basically a given you’ll fall right into the “North Korea is crazy!!!11!!1” analytic method (which isn’t an analytic method). If you call North Korea crazy or imply they’re not a rational actor, I’m basically not listening to you anymore, and neither is anyone else who has any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to North Korea.

If you need a brief history of North Korea, here are my notes on the first 20 years of the DPRK’s existence. Nothing here that isn’t also available on Wikipedia but if you need a quicker list, here’s some major events and concepts. Please don’t repost them without permission (the watermark is there for a reason, you moochers):

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I didn’t make a cheat sheet for the final exam, so you’re going to have to deal with me and my, shall we say, unconventional narration methods.

So, we’re all clear that KJI came to power in the late 60s, had his rise through the 70s, and in the 80s, began taking over more operations. His succession was portrayed as a necessity to propagate the idea of a revolutionary generation.

During the 50s, North Korea looked like best Korea: people had jobs, they were eating, they were clothed. Meanwhile, the South was super duper mega fucked. But the thing with the North was that in the 50s, Juche started to be a thing. It was defined more fully and enshrined in the 1972 Constitution, but it started being a thing before then. So North Korea developed out of colonialism and the Cold War and the two superpowers were snatching countries into their spheres of influence. COMECON (or the USSR’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) was a thing and a thing that basically used the Soviet Bloc and associated countries to help the USSR get resources. North Korea never fully joined it because the North was like “we need to handle our own shit because did you see what the fuck the Japanese did when they ran the place. No thank you.” The DPRK got a lot of things, especially petroleum, at “friendship prices” but was never fully a part of COMECON. The North Korean economy ran on and still runs (to whatever extent it actually runs now) on a Soviet-style system of collectivization. Factories and farmland and stuff are all owned by the state. Small businesses are allowed but only with a certain number of employees and only in certain industries. People are allowed small veggie farms and to raise like, rabbits, but they’re only allowed a certain size for the plot (usually in their backyard or up on a steep slope (we’ll get to that later)); the rest is for the state. The major problem with this is that the majority of arable land is in the south of the peninsula, not the north. The south was the breadbasket for the Empire, and the north is where the Japanese put most of the factories, and this is why the North seemed to be coming out ahead in the 50s and part of the 60s (that and, again, the South got fucked in the Korean War). Shortfalls of this system started to become apparent in the 60s, and by the 70s, the North was importing turnkey factories (they’re exactly what they sound like: you import everything to make the factory run and basically all you have to do is turn the key).

OK, so turnkey factories were a thing, but the North, relying on juche and not wanting to open up to have capitalist companies and states fuck them over, refused to open up past a certain point and basically didn’t pay back their loans for the industrial equipment and defaulted on all their loans in the 80s. Defaulting on their loans to other countries means they, to this day, can’t borrow money and have to pay for every single thing in cash. This is why you have North Koreans overseas hustling for hard cash, and also the increase in tourism in the last 5 years (though it’s been a thing since Koryo Tours began in 1993), because the regime needs hard cash for stuff.

Collectivized ag and a refusal to open to the corrupting influence of capitalism, in addition to an over-reliance on science meant that things started to go downhill in the 70s. Let’s talk irrigation. Most of the time, you let gravity do the work when you want to irrigate the land: you find a water source above your farm, and then you put your pipes and stuff in and you let gravity do the work to bring your water to the land. That’s not how things work in North Korea. People in the 50s were like “man, science rules, what if we used SCIENCE to get water to the farms?” and so decided they would tap into creeks and other water sources that may have been below the farm and then use fuel pumps to funnel the water back uphill to the farm. This sounds really cool because SCIENCE only it doesn’t work when you start to run low on fuel. Remember those friendship prices I mentioned? Russia and the DPRK stopped being so friendly as the Cold War came to an end, and Russia began running lower on fuel, and also when the USSR normalized relations with the South (which gave legitimacy to the ROK state, a thing the DPRK did not like its allies to do (basically, to the DPRK, the ROK is a puppet state of the US and imperialism and all that)). So, friendship started to run cold with one of its main allies. At the same time, because they used chemical fertilizers to fertilize the land, the land began to be deprived of its humus. Basically, the land stopped producing so much because fields can never lie fallow in the DPRK because they need every bit of arable land to produce food to distribute through the rationing system. In the 80s and 90s, they were basically spending more money producing fertilizer to fertilize the land than they were getting back in food from it. So the soil started to turn really red because that’s what happens when soil is depleted of its organic matter, basically. During the 80s, you have campaigns for “let’s eat two meals a day” and to get mothers to put brown rice in their kids’ lunch and etc. Up through the 80s, you weren’t doing so bad if you were a North Korean, but beginning in the 80s and beyond, shit hit the fan.

Steep-slope farming became a thing because people needed arable land for farming, so KJI encouraged people to go up into the hills and mountains and use the land there. The problem with this is that the lack of trees and other vegetation to block the rains when they come meant that when heavy monsoons came through in the early-mid 90s, there was little to stop them from devastating towns and cities. After this, we have the famine, the first real wave of refugees (people just really didn’t leave the DPRK before this), and we’re all pretty familiar with what happens after this, yeah?

So the thing I need you all to take away from this is that the DPRK does not want to open up to the corrupting influence of capitalism. Those in power see the way the US treats other countries around the world and sees a very real threat to its existence, particularly when the US and ROK military do war games exercises. And while I’m here, North Korean people are not brainwashed automatons, and the extent to which people believe the propaganda can vary from person to person. And while the North does absolutely function on a system of having everyone spying on one another, the people there are still people.

Now, how do we talk about North Korea without being assholes? Well, apparently that’s a really difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really not that hard, I promise!

  • North Korea is not crazy. Just. Stop. In order to maintain sovereignty, the North Korean regime uses threats and belligerence to keep itself in power. The people in power are not stupid: they know they would lose in an all-out war with South Korea, the US, possibly Japan, and other allies. These threats and acts of violence serve a purpose, usually a domestic propaganda purpose. Nuclear weapons are a way to guarantee a stalemate and ensure the country can continue to exist. There’s a reason for everything and if you took five minutes, you’d be able to figure it out.
  • North Korea is not funny. Famine isn’t funny, jokes about labour camps aren’t funny. Someone showed me an article on Cracked recently where they were trying to be more serious in their reporting that referred to NoKo as the Kims’ “murderous Disney World.” Like. Can you not.
  • Five minutes with a history book and a critical eye before you mouth off about Korea, please. Ishmael and Ahab maintain that Bruce Cumings is pretty much the worst Korea Studies has to offer, but even his book would give you a decent perspective on the history of the peninsula. Not a great one, but better than you probably received in school. Ahab will be adding recommended reading on North Korea soon.
  • Understand that the US is far from blameless in all of this. The US happily supported brutal dictators in South Korea for decades because it served our ~economic and political interests~. The US is not a shining beacon, a city on a hill. We’re an example for the rest of the world, but not always a good one (in case you forgot, our government tortures people then tries to say it wasn’t ~real~ torture! Our police are basically unaccountable for their actions! AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!)
  • Regime change is difficult (understatement of the century). Military force may bring about regime change, but then who’s gonna be there to rebuild the country and help all the North Korean people adjust to life in late capitalism? How would a confederacy work if both governments were to agree on it? There’s a reason there are a bunch of institutes that study how regime change could happen (hint: it’s not because it’s easy!). I remember years ago when I was first beginning to actually study Korean history and politics, conventional wisdom was that a million people would die just on day 1 if the US and its allies went to war with North Korea. A MILLION. There’s seriously no fucking easy solution here and if you honestly think there is, you aren’t paying attention.
  • Stop making blanket statements. We can get a clearer picture of life in North Korea (and we have) from defector testimony, and we can generalize certain things but not others. We will honestly never know what “all North Koreans” think. Some believe the propaganda, some don’t; some question, some don’t. This is where being critical and having a variety of opinions and perspectives comes in handy.

tl;dr: The North Korean regime is the actual worst but we can all be a lot better in how we think and talk about it. Remember also that whatever happens in North Korea, it also has the potential to/does have a huge effect on the rest of the region, particularly South Korea, but also China and Japan. The situation on the peninsula did not develop overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. There are no easy solutions. Please try to be more critical. Please just try to be less of an asshole. Remember also that I am not The Expert on North Korea. There are a lot of differing opinions out there and I am but one person shouting into the void that is the Internet, but I hope you’ll take the time to learn to be more critical in your readings on and discussions and about North Korea. OK, thanks for stopping by, drive safe!


. Notes and Citations .
In general, I’m drawing mostly from Adrian Buzo’s Guerrilla Dynasty, things I’ve just picked up from grad readings on North Korea, and my class notes from my grad class on North Korea.

Ahab Watches “The King 2 Hearts”: Ep 2

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!”



Revolutionary Femininity

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.



Episode Contents

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.

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Again, propaganda slogans everywhere. And then Lee Jae Ha, genius, gentleman, scholar, asks if the Leader is a dog.

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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.

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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).

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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.”

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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.

Ahab Watches “The King 2 Hearts”: Ep 1

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

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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).

MOVING ON.

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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.

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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!

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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.



Ideology

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.



Analysis

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