Among present scholars of North Korea, there has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to labels like “socialism” or “communism” in favor of terms like “fascism” or “race-based nationalism,” even to the point of suggesting that North Korea was never really a communist country at all. While there may be a good case for doing this, this tendency obscures the fact that there were times in North Korea history when socialist-oriented discourse was the norm. The most notable such period was the Flying Horse Movement, or what North Korea has come to refer to as the Age of the Chollima.
The Chollima, literally the “Thousand Li Horse” came from a wide range of pre-modern Chinese texts featuring a horse that could travel a long distance in a short period of time. It was first used in North Korea as a rallying cry to motivate North Korean workers and ended up as a potent symbol for North Korea’s proposed path towards industrialization and prosperity. Other than the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim Il Sung and his fellow guerilla fighters, it is probably the most monumental period in North Korean history to North Koreans.
These people, referred to as Chollima people, or Chollima riders, were and still are adorned with superhuman and even supernatural qualities
The propaganda from the Chollima era (which spanned the late ’50s-early ’60s) as well as the state-sanctioned media material commemorating it afterwards presents a challenge to the notion that the North Korean regime has maintained its control primarily through negative appeals to fear of the outside world. Moreover, it offers a rare glimpse into a time when the North Korean people, not merely the leaders, were glorified. These people, referred to as Chollima people, or Chollima riders, were and still are adorned with superhuman and even supernatural qualities.
COMING OF AGE
A recent article in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper highlights the heroic struggles that different groups of workers had to go through during the Chollima era. It portrays the workers as having boiling blood, going beyond their production targets by hundreds of percentages, and having indomitable wills that still warm the hearts of people today. The workers come from various sectors, and in addition to being called Chollima Riders are referred to as “railroad construction worker youth,” “youth coal miners” and sometimes just “youth.”
The decision to call the workers “youth” is not simply a means for describing their ages. It was a way of conveying that North Korea at this time was in an adolescence or coming-of-age stage, not yet fully developed but in the process of becoming so. Interestingly enough, Kim Jong Il, whose birth North Korean mythology presents as coinciding with the birth of the North Korean nation, was also coming of age at this time. The nation, like the son of the Great Leader was in the process of attaining its adulthood and reaching maturity.
Another recent feature of the Chollima movement in the North Korean media is a photo of North Korean people presenting flowers to a large painting of Kim Il Sung giving a speech to workers at the Gangseon steel plant in December of 1956, when the five-year plan was launched and the date North Korea recognizes as the starting point of the Chollima campaign. A Rodong Sinmun article, published a day after the Kim Il Sung speech presumably took place, reports on it but the slogan at the time was not “Chollima” but rather “Boost Production and Economize.” “Chollima” did not start appearing in Kim Il Sung speeches until 1958, probably derived from the similar sounding Great Leap Forward in China, which had begun that year.
While the name of the Chollima (“thousand li horse”) campaign resembled the simultaneous Great Leap Forward in China, its execution differed somewhat. For one thing, Chollima was strictly an ideological and cultural campaign to supplement the existing Five-Year Plan for the economy, while the Great Leap Forward was both an economic and ideological campaign. Also, while the Great Leap Forward is almost universally recognized as an abject failure, the Chollima campaign may or may not have succeeded in its purported economic objectives but certainly succeeded in its actual political objectives: to limit the influence of political proxies of two larger countries, the Soviet Union and China, subsequently putting the power in the hands of one man.
I refer to this process of using the socialist and communist themes to purge out foreign influences as ‘nationalism in form and socialism in content’
The way the North Korean regime was able to do this was to use the discourse of communism and socialism but in a way that would limit dissenting voices and consolidate a national agenda. One example of this is a Kim Il Sung speech dated November 1958 when he castigated those whom he called conservatives for “(paralyzing) the creative initiative of the working people by holding up the norms of others.” These “conservatives” included scientists and technicians, many of whom were Soviet Koreans, and also writers and artists who the regime believed too obsequiously imitated the style of Socialist Realist writers of the Soviet Union. In my work on the Chollima campaign, I refer to this process of using the socialist and communist themes to purge out foreign influences as “nationalism in form and socialism in content.” This is the opposite of how Charles Armstrong characterizes North Korea a decade prior to the Chollima period.
The real beginning of the Chollima campaign as an era to be memorialized in time was August 1960 when Kim Il Sung gave a speech commemorating model workers or “Riders of the Chollima.” Following that speech, references to these Chollima Riders could be found everywhere in the North Korean press. For instance, in the Kyoweon Sinmun, a newsletter for educators, some headlines between the dates of August 22 and 31 were “The Chollima Riders are the Heroes of the Era and the Red Warriors of the Party,” “All over the country, squads of Chollima Workteams Compete with the West,” “The Communist of the Chollima Age” and “Let’s continue to expand the ranks of the Chollima teaching masses.”
THE STATURE OF CHOLLIMA
In fact, the Riders of the Chollima were taking on roles of mythic proportions, not unlike those usually reserved for only the Kim ruling family. One instance of this comes from piece called “Chollima, New Morning” from the children’s literary magazine Adong Munhak in 1961, which begins with a young boy asking his mother why his father’s eyebrows have not grayed and his mother replying, “When it comes to people who ride the Chollima, their eyebrows never turn gray.” Another from a song from the 1961 “Chollima March” illustrates the divine prowess of the Chollima riders by proclaiming that surging waves and thunderstorms bow down before them.
Nevertheless the propaganda during and after Chollima age never lost sight of the fact that there was still someone in charge and calling the shots. One poem called “Cheongsalli eseo” from 1961 portrays Kim Il Sung coming down to the Cheongsan countryside (just outside Pyongyang) and exercising power over the farmland there just by gazing at it. Cornstalks bow down before him, the entire farmland is alive in song, and the red seeds he drops bear fruit in all seasons. By claiming that the people who cherish these seeds from the leader are able to grow wings and fly, the poem simultaneously emboldens the workers and places them in a subservient relationship with their leader. The reader is reminded that no matter how sublime one’s potential, such sublimity is contingent about how much loyalty one has to the leader who makes it all happen.
While North Korea is neither a socialist worker’s paradise nor is even remotely moving in that direction, the language of socialism conveyed through the honoring of the Chollima riders, continues to resonate with the North Korean people (or at least is believed to do so by the North Korean propagandists). Considering the fact that Kim Il Sung’s grandson was proclaimed, even before Kim Jong Un’s accession, to be the one who would complete the task of achieving socialism in North Korea, appeals to socialism as a means for securing legitimacy, are likely to continue along with the more frequent and more widely covered appeals to nationalism.
Picture: North Korean propaganda materials
Among present scholars of North Korea, there has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to labels like “socialism” or “communism” in favor of terms like “fascism” or “race-based nationalism,” even to the point of suggesting that North Korea was never really a communist country at all. While there may be a good case for doing this, this tendency
Peter Moody is a contributor to NK News. His main research interests include North Korean political culture, mass media, ideology and daily life. He holds two masters degrees, one in East Asian Studies with a concentration in Modern Korean History and one in TESOL. He has lived in South Korea and has been a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship recipient; his research on North Korea has been published in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies. He currently lives and teaches in Saudi Arabia.