When Elena Berman, a Soviet citizen and the wife of the North Korean dramatist So Man Il, prepared to give birth to her son in a Pyongyang maternity hospital in 1959, she had a very unusual concern.
It was not the insufficiency of the doctors’ skills or the lack of necessary medical equipment (curiously enough, she found these to be quite satisfactory), but the permanent exhaustion of the nurses.
In her private notes, Elena wrote: “These girls were intern students, emaciated by constant hunger, endless political study sessions and meetings. Finding a minute, when doctors left they used to fall on the cement floor near the bathroom and fell asleep.”
Observers from the socialist camp knew well the exhausting working schedule of North Korean workers in the late 1950s, which was normally between 10-12 hours a day, including weekends.
In the referral material prepared for a coming unofficial visit of Kim Il Sung to the USSR in 1960, it was recommended to “carefully hint to Kim Il Sung that now the circumstances were good to increase the material level of people’s life, decrease stress of the workers, intelligentsia and particularly, students.”
Needless to say, such comments from the “Soviet brothers” were ignored.
CHEOLLIMA IS BORN
In 1958, mobilization and collectivization efforts in the DPRK were reinforced with the announcement of the new Cheollima (thousand mile horse) movement, which gained inspiration from China’s ongoing Great Leap Forward in China.
This movement was named after the mythological animal from Chinese classics, a winged horse which runs one thousand miles in an instant. The whole nation was ordered “to ride Cheollima and run to socialism.”
The nation’s prosperity, it was announced, depended exclusively on the intensity and speed of the people’s work.
North Koreans were encouraged to work hard through appeals to spiritual values, with no material incentives. Notions of physical limits, relaxation, or personal well-being were sinful; and even more contemptible were issues of money and consumption.
It remained, however, a milder version of the Great Leap Forward, excluding the extremes of its Chinese counterparts such as people’s communes, the forcible destruction of private kitchens, and the rejection of modern technology.
“The people’s well-being is not important now; our major concern is the reconstruction of the economy”
The Cheollima movement is often considered a North Korean response to the “Soviet revisionism” – how the North Korean leadership semi-officially named de-Stalinisation under Nikita Khrushchev. The North Korean campaign intended to demonstrate to the Soviets that Koreans, armed only with the proper ideological spirit, could perform better.
At the same time, the Cheollima movement was a logical continuation of earlier tendencies of North Korean leadership, which found their reflection in a characteristic comment from Pak Chang Ok, the Chairman of the state planning committee and in effect, the Minister of Finance, in a conversation with Russian chargé d’affaires Lazarev on 12 September 1953.
Responding to Lazarev’s comment that the Koreans should pay more attention to the people’s well-being, Pak answered that “the people’s well-being is not important now; our major concern is the reconstruction of the economy.”
Guided by a similar logic, the North Korean authorities of a hospital in which Romanian personnel worked in 1952 ignored the endeavors of Romanians to improve the care and comfort of Korean patients.
A Romanian ambassador, Nikifor Stere, complained in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador on 11 May 1952 that the administration of Korean hospitals demonstrated astonishing negligence toward the new Romanian-provided equipment:
“Overall, North Koreans demonstrate indifference to the practices aimed at improving the comfort of Korean patients.”
Apparently, the comfort of patients was not perceived as a matter of primary concern in the North Korea of the early 1950s.
Under the banner of Cheollima, the indifference to the welfare of the common people acquired an ideological justification. Cheollima virtues were forced into the minds of North Koreans through all media, including works of cinema and literature.
One of the earliest examples of Cheollima cinematography is the film “Central forward” (중앙 공격수) produced in 1961.
The film discusses the idea of the movement through the story of the transformation of a mediocre football team into a victorious one due to more intensive training and less rest. The protagonist of the film, a young player, takes his inspiration from his elder sister, a prominent dancer and singer, who owes her success to “sweating” alone.
Under the banner of Cheollima, the indifference to the welfare of the common people acquired an ideological justification
In particular, she claims that her female performance group had made a decision to abandon the old practice, which recommended singers curb their evening sessions for fear it would damage their voices.
Contrary to the practice of singers caring for their voices through rest, the performance group had doubled their singing and dancing practice, evening hours included, and this mercilessness to their bodies allowed girls to reach professional peaks.
The sportsmen followed this pattern, and the extra sweating had led the players to success.
Characteristically, the issue of essential nutrition and rest, more sophisticated training methods, or better equipment, are totally omitted from the film.
The characters are, instead, driven exclusively by the proper revolutionary spirit. Even a bad head injury by the protagonist during a match, which makes him lose consciousness, fails to stop his will – the injured character raises and joins the game, which his team, of course, wins.
Many works of art published in the first years of the Cheollima movement depicted many protagonists recklessly endangering their health in the process of work for the Party.
In the short story “Fedya” by Hwang Chu Yeop (1960), a group of welders is depicted as enthusiastically working, despite the fact that their protective masks are made of improper glass and do not protect their eyes.
The welders refuse to wait for the delivery of proper masks, because they want to make the leader happy by completing their work ahead of schedule.
The characters are driven exclusively by the proper revolutionary spirit
WONDERS OF CRITICISM
While the overall Cheollima movement followed Chinese patterns, it had its own unique ideological quirks. Cheollima‘s ideological base presupposed no existence of class struggle or as yet unsurrendered enemies inside the country.
In the discourse of the Cheollima movement, class struggle was placed outside the geographical or historical borders of the DPRK.
North Korean works of art eagerly described class conflicts in colonial Korea or in contemporary South Korea, but the DPRK under Kim Il Sung was a happy place inhabited by the children of the Great Leader and no-one else.
No one of these children are essentially bad, but they can be insufficiently educated. After receiving proper correction during criticism sessions, the little rascal happily returns to the bosom of the Great Leader.
Within an official paradigm of Cheollima, criticism of a person by the collective is a wonder technique, which can correct practically any deficiencies or blunder. Refreshing sessions of criticism can improve even the most stubborn psychological conditions.
Take for instance, the film “School children’s parents” (학부형)(1971), in which the tonic power of public criticism helps an elementary school boy get rid of the complicated condition of stage fright.
In the film, the active involvement of a mother in her son’s school life allows the boy to radically improve his academic performance – he becomes a straight-A student and the pride of his class.
After a while, however, the parents find out that there is one aspect in which the boy still fails. Serious stage fright prevents him from being a confident speaker – when the son finds himself on the stage in front of many people, he loses his composure and forgets his lines.
Class struggle was placed outside the geographical or historical borders of the DPRK
The boy’s father does not care about this problem: after returning from the concert in which the son fails, he nonchalantly tells his wife to leave the son alone.
People are different, the father claims, so there are more and less public temperaments. After all, the son is good at math and intelligent, so he can find his path in life.
Yet, the filmmakers make it clear that the father’s approach is reactionary: everybody should be a good public speaker, and the collective should work hard to improve this deficiency of its member.
The next day after his failure at the class concert, the boy is subjected to a lengthy session of harsh public criticism from his comrades.
The session, which consists of continuous yelling phrases like “How could you do this to us?!” “How could you let your comrades down?!” “Why you did not properly learn your words?!” makes the hero sob, yet it works. The next public speech by the boy is a success.
The ideal character of Cheollima cinema and literature was a starry-eyed maiden
What to a Western viewer looks a cruel case of psychological abuse of a child, which could only make the stage fright worse, in North Korean cinema is presented as the exemplary care of the collective over its strayed member.
The collective yelling speaks of love, while the father’s pampering and support for the boy is, in effect, a neglect of his parental responsibilities.
ENTHUSIASTIC MAIDENS, DANGEROUS AJUMMAS
Aiming to monopolize the attention of North Koreans, the Cheollima movement tolerated no competition from other social ties and connection, be it friendships, family or romantic relationships.
The ideal character of Cheollima cinema and literature was a starry-eyed maiden who lives in a dormitory and spends her nights reading works by the great leader.
When it comes to mobilization, the perceived innate emotionality and the lack of critical thinking in the young women plays in their favor – they are much better soldiers for the father-leader than boys, who are more prone to thinking and doubting.
Such are the protagonists of films such as “When it is time to collect apples” (사과딸때), “Girls of the port” (포구의 처녀들), “The young female hairdresser” (처녀 리발사), “Our train waitress” (우리 렬차 판매원), among many others.
However, the major villains of these North Korean works of art are not boys but rather married women, ajummas, who are mostly the wives of party cadres.
These mature characters do not to share the mass enthusiasm and revolutionary fervor, searching instead for the relaxed life, new fashionable clothes, and better jobs for their children.
Unlike their selfless husbands, their wives hunt for the benefits that come with high rank. These women even go so far as to strive to avoid the joys of collectivist life and search instead for the comfortable privacy of their family houses.
In the mid-70s to early 80s, North Korean cinema produced a whole range of works which portray middle-aged women who lead their ideologically perfect husbands to the dangerous ways of individualism and social passivity.
The major villains of these North Korean works of art are not boys but rather married women
The best-known example of such works is a serial called “Problems of our house” (우리집 문제). It focuses on the various problems which the antisocial behavior of the wives brings to the families and careers of their husbands.
The serial was extremely popular in the DPRK. Unlike the wooden, one-dimensional figures of the young girls, the married women in these films are astonishingly persuasive. North Korean viewers could easily recognize these greedy, individualistic, arrogant and vain creatures – played by the best actresses of the time.
North Korean film-makers made sure that these destructive characters are singled out from the positive majority of Cheollima adherents.
The negative behavior of their female characters does not prevail. Their anti-social ways ruin the careers of their husbands, and their greedy wives naturally lose their access to the special benefits. As a result of this shock, the wives come to their senses, repent their bad behavior and turn into good spouses and citizens.
The films are accompanied with didactic songs, which call husbands to ideologically educate their wives: “What husband are you if you cannot educate your wife?” asks the song.
Yet, the very familiarity of these figures in the late 1970s-1980s was a characteristic sign that Cheollima propaganda had reached limits of its influence. While in the first years, its altruism and mobilization messages tended to touch hearts, now people apparently needed rest and material comfort.
And the leaders granted it, aware that Cheollima’s efficiency eventually proved to be nill. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the campaign has visibly cooled, though the revolutionary rhetoric persists to this day.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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