The recent deterioration of North Korea-China relationships has been accompanied by an exchange of criticism which has surprised observers with its seemingly unprecedented hostility.
Mutual diatribes by the decades-long political partners, who have accused each other of various transgressions, signify a radical turn in what for decades looked like an unbreakable alliance, glued together by shared economic interests and political sympathies.
Yet there are reasons to think that we are witnessing not a “sudden fissure in friendship”, but rather a process of venting long-suppressed negative feelings, at least from the North Korean side, and a closer investigation of DPRK official culture shows that barely hidden anti-Chinese sentiments have been persistent for quite a long time.
When conducting research on North Korean literary texts and films about “friendly foreigners”, as they are called, I was astonished to discover that only a negligible section of such works feature China, long North Korea’s major patron.
The number of pro-Chinese works of art is insignificant not only in comparison to pro-Soviet works, but even in comparison to the works about “good Japanese.”
The impact of China on North Korean affairs was unparalleled to that of any other country, including Russia. With the decisive role which Chinese “volunteers” played in the Korean War, as well as China’s economic aid during the North Korean famine of the late 1990s, it is not an exaggeration to claim that the DPRK owes a lot to its neighbor.
But what is truly startling is the peculiar way the Chinese are portrayed in North Korean texts and films which ostensibly aimed to glorify the DPRK-China friendship. Instead of translating gratitude and sympathy to its benefactor (as we see in pro-Soviet works), these texts and films downplay the significance of Chinese involvement in North Korean affairs and treat supposedly positive Chinese characters with contempt.
Let us have a look at two typical cases of supposedly pro-Chinese works of North Korean cinematography, produced between an interval of thirty years: “The new legend of Piryu river” (1983) and “Appointment in Pyongyang” (2012).
CHINESE SOLDIERS AS LOYAL PETS
In the typical style of North Korean cinematography of the 1980s, which expanded the horizons of its audience by introducing the world of North Korea’s overseas admirers, “The New Legend of Piryu River” tells the story of a Chinese “friend of North Korea”, Luo Shen-jiao.
The film is based on actual events. According to Mao Min’s “The Korean War”, Luo Shen-jiao, a Chinese volunteer, was a member of the reconnaissance team of the 141st Division of the 47th Army. On January 2 1952 in Samchonli Village, South Pyongan Province, he saved a drowning Korean boy jumping after him into an ice-hole. The Korean boy was saved, but Luo lost his life.
Though half of the characters in the movie were originally Chinese, their roles were played by Korean actors. The great artist Kim Sung O played the role of Luo, and Ri Sol Hui, then a rising star of North Korean cinema, played the role of the protagonist’s Chinese girlfriend.
While documentary reports leave no doubt that Luo, who conscientiously sacrificed his life for a child, was a brave and noble man, the cinematographic image of Luo is quite different. Kim Sung Ho plays the character as a compliant, rather spineless, fellow with an ever-present dumb smile.
The character has a habit of walking through the village dancing and humming merry tunes, and rather than fighting the enemy in battle, Luo is shown as constantly involved in minor errands such as mending houses, playing with Korean children, and catching an ox that is always trying to run away.
The Korean villagers enjoy having Luo around like a tamed bear from a petting zoo, showing him no respect. The village boys throw snowballs at the Chinese soldier, push and pull him, and roll him in the snow. Korean adults observe their children’s practical jokes with lots of laughter but do not attempt to stop the disrespectful treatment of their “foreign friend.”
If an indignant Chinese viewer had approached the filmmakers of “The New Legend of Piryu River” and asked why they presented the Chinese hero as a village idiot, they would certainly be reassured that “children are children, and they make these jokes out of friendship to Luo, not out of animosity.”
Rather than fighting the enemy in battle, Luo is shown as constantly involved in minor errands
But no Korean child in a North Korean film would ever try to play such tricks on a Korean adult, not to say on those Koreans who are supposed to be the “best friends of children” such as local Party cadres.
The way the protagonist reacts to the “jokes” totally lacks dignity: he endures them with a timid smile, like a big friendly pet who tolerates even the most unpleasant tricks of his master’s kids out of boundless loyalty. Even more, Luo feels a particular attachment to the master’s children. When a little Korean girl from the village is killed during American air raid, Luo grieves over her with emotions which surpass even that of the Korean villagers – again bringing to mind a loyal dog howling over a dead member of the house.
Even the most resolute and honorable actions of Luo are portrayed not as manifestations of his personal bravery and nobility, but rather as expressions of his slavish devotion to the Koreans. These expressions are cute and often funny. For instance, in one episode, the protagonist loses his shoe and is dragged by the bull through the snow barefoot, making him look powerless and clownish.
The following scenes in which a Korean granny and Korean children look after the frostbitten yet foolishly grinning Luo drives the attention of the audience away from the valor of Luo’s act to the attentiveness and kind hearts of the Korean villagers.
Characteristic in this regard is an episode when Korean grandmother whose ox Luo has saved treats him and his girlfriend to the Chinese specialty of dumplings. They are touched to tears by this act of generosity, and they exchange emotional glances as if promising each other to repay this debt.
The message is quite clear here: rather than being a trivial expression of the grandmother’s gratitude to the Chinese guests, dumpling-making is the service which obliges the Chinese to further sacrifice for the Koreans. In this context, the eventual death of Luo while saving village children from an ice-hole seems to a fair repaying of the debt.
Even the most resolute and honorable actions of Luo are portrayed not as manifestations of his personal bravery and nobility, but rather as expressions of his slavish devotion to the Koreans
DENIGRATION OF THE CHINESE DANCER
Another film about the North Korea-China friendship, “Appointment in Pyongyang” (2012) is a joint production between North Korean and Chinese cinematographers.
Paradoxically enough, this film, too, places the North Korean characters in a superior position to the Chinese, presenting the Chinese as eternal learners from the Koreans, and as their eternal younger sisters and brothers in the field of the arts, culture, and morality. The Korean treatment of these “youngsters” is rather humiliating.
The plot of the film is as follows: Wan Xiaonan, a young female Chinese dancer, performs Korean dances at a folk festival in Beijing. Despite her hard work and enthusiasm, Wan receives only 10th place due to the negative response of the main judge. When commenting on her failure, the judge claims that “Korean dances are very difficult” and recommends Wan visit Pyongyang to understand the “spirit of Korea.” Xiaonan follows this advice and goes to Pyongyang to learn Korean dance from a young and distinguished dancer named Kim Un Sun.
A North Korean film encyclopedia depicts the further developments as following: “at first Xiaonan behaves as she pleases and disagrees with Kim Un Sun… But she is greatly moved by the Korean girl who is tender-hearted and strict with the art and sincere in creative work. When she sees Arirang she finds the mental world of the Korean nation and the soul of the Korean dance.”
This film, too, places the North Korean characters in a superior position to the Chinese
A closer watching of the film, however, reveals a rather different picture.
Wan comes to Pyongyang with her superiors after making all the necessary official arrangements with Kim, and is ready to learn from the North Korean master. Yet, during her first meeting with Kim Un Sun, the sparkling-eyed, enthusiastic Wan is shocked to find out that Kim Un Sun virtually looks through her. After briefly greeting the Chinese delegation, Kim immediately returns to her job of preparing for the Arirang festival.
Only after extensive nagging by the Chinese does Kim Un Sun reluctantly agree to watch Xiaonan’s dance briefly, yet gives her no comments. Only after persistent inquiries does she condescend to say that, “in some aspects, the dance is like that of Koreans, but in the other aspects, it is not”.
All attempts by the eager Wan to communicate with the Korean dancer fail. The supposedly “tender-hearted” Kim avoids eye contact with Wan, and during group conversation she speaks over the head of the Chinese guest, disregarding her remarks.
Kim rejects Xiaonan’s presents and ignores her questions, leaving the Chinese guest at a loss for the meaning of this treatment. While some of unanswered questions may indeed sound intrusive, like “at what age did you have your child?” (26-year-old Kim happens to have a child of elementary school age), leaving unanswered the question “what is wrong with my dance?” is, indeed, impossible to understand.
And far from “behaving as she pleases”, Xiaonan humbly accepts this treatment until the moment Kim Un Sun skips a meeting, without any explanation, and leaving her Chinese guest to wait in vain for hours. Finally, Xiaonan takes offence. She announces to her Chinese supervisor that she is coming home, since there is no point wasting her time in Pyongyang anymore.
After this announcement, Xiaonan is immediately given answers to her questions. She is informed that Kim missed the meeting because she had to search for a birthday present for her son who she had adopted at the age of two. The boy is not a simple orphan: his father was a heroic officer who sacrificed his life saving another soldier. Kim raised the boy and refuses to marry the film’s handsome interpreter, in fear that this will break her son’s heart.
All attempts by the eager Wan to communicate with the Korean dancer fail
In the eyes of the film’s writers, these circumstances fully justify the disrespectful attitude of Kim Un Sun to her Chinese colleague. No one from the Korean side apologizes to Xiaonan for the lack of communication that made her feel unwanted and ignored. On the contrary, it is Xiaonan who rushes to Kim Un Sun and begs her forgiveness for misunderstanding her noble soul. Kim Un Sun accepts the apologies with a dignified little smile.
After that, the necessary training begins. But Kim Un Sun still doesn’t teach Xiaonan any artistic techniques. Instead, she takes Xiaonan to her home village to see a folk performance on a Korean collective farm so that she can “understand the soul of Korean dance.”
The Chinese are portrayed as not possessing the moral virtues which are innate in Koreans
The culmination of Wan’s spiritual remolding comes when she watches the Arirang games. Seeing thousands of people dancing in unison, Xiaonan understands her major deficiency as a dancer: she is too individualistic and absorbed with herself, she enjoys her personal fame too much while the actual purpose of Korean dance is making the leader and the Party happy.
When Xiaonan leaves Korea, she and Kim Un Sun exchange a promise to “dance for their countries and the peoples.”
This declarative statement of friendship, however, fails to shade the clear-cut meaning of the film: that the Chinese are inferior to the Koreans in most areas. In the film the Chinese lack manners: Xiaonan bumps into people on Pyongyang streets, she speaks loudly and asks indelicate questions. The North Korean dancer, on the contrary, demonstrates exemplary self-control and polished etiquette.
It also encourages the idea that Chinese culture lacks sophistication. Kim Un Sun perfectly performs a Chinese dance without much training, but enabling Xiaonan to perform Korean dances even on a basic level requires years of training, spiritual remolding and a special educational tour to Pyongyang.
More importantly, the Chinese are portrayed as not possessing the moral virtues which are innate in Koreans: self-sacrifice, modesty, and team spirit. That is the major lesson which Xiaonan learns in Pyongyang.
So much for friendship. Discussion of the reasons for these anti-Chinese sentiments in North Korea is beyond the scope of this article – we can only say that judging by these works of North Korean art, such feelings have existed in the DPRK for quite some time.
Providing that both of these China-bashing movies ostensibly belong to the genre of “friendship films”, one can only wonder about the attitudes towards the Chinese articulated by North Koreans in less obligating, and less open, environments.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
All photos courtesy of Tatianna Gabroussenko
The recent deterioration of North Korea-China relationships has been accompanied by an exchange of criticism which has surprised observers with its seemingly unprecedented hostility. Mutual diatribes by the decades-long political partners, who have accused each other of various transgressions, signify a radical turn in what for decades looked like an unbreakable alliance, glued together by
Tatiana Gabroussenko obtained her PhD in East Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She is currently a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, Seoul. Her latest book Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy, was included in the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012.