The ascendance of Kim Jong Il to the North Korean leadership was accompanied by the introduction of the “military first,” or songun, policy. The slogan implied that from then on, the life of society had to be subject to the interests of the army.
It was claimed that in conditions where international socialism had collapsed, the DPRK was left on its own, surrounded by enemies whose ultimate dream was to destroy the People’s Korea. The army, therefore, had to stay vigilant and be ready to fight the aggressors, with the full support of the nation.
But this new militarist doctrine came at a time when the actual status of the army had been substantially lowered. The end of decades of Soviet economic aid had put the country on the brink of ruin, and the military suffered substantially under these new conditions.
Unlike the rest of society, soldiers could not jump into the adventurous new world of semi-legal markets. In the eyes of North Korean civilians, army men did not represent order and discipline anymore; local farmers were busy protecting their storages and vegetable gardens from raids by hungry soldiers and tended to see the army as pests rather than the nation’s guardians.
Involvement in military service had also lost much of its appeal. No longer was conscription the only means available for people with less impressive songbun (social caste): involvement in private enterprise opened much better opportunities than membership of the Party, which military service granted.
The new militarist rhetoric brought some unexpected changes to North Korean culture
As a result, the status of officers as marriage material had significantly lowered. For a woman, marrying a man in uniform no longer offered a proximity to better consumer goods or higher calorie food, but it did mean spending years in remote garrisons on meager rations.
In the non-military world, women had the opportunity to be involved in market activities, which gave them a much better economic status.
The introduction of songun did not cause any real changes to North Korean society: the number of people involved in the military remained stable, and so did the structure of the DPRK army.
But the new militarist rhetoric brought some unexpected changes to North Korean culture, in particular to its ideas of gender and romance. In contrast to the cinematic romances of the 1980s – with nice and caring lovers – songun brought a palpable streak of machismo to the behavior of the male characters.
“THE OFFICERS’ WIVES”(2000): TAMING THE SHREW
Films and works of fiction produced from the mid 1990s to 2000 portrayed the DPRK as an ideologically impeccable kingdom of 군민일치, or “unity between army and civilians.” The protagonists, devoted soldiers and officers of the Dear Leader, enjoy the full support of the local population, and, in particular, the young women.
Considering it a top honor to be chosen to be the officers’ “life companions,” beautiful girls forsake their own ambitions and privileges, such as the heroine of “Dawn in distant mountains” (먼산의 노을) who abandons her academic career and Pyongyang apartment to live in a rural area with a low ranking officer.
In the film “The officer’s wives” (군관의 안해) (2000), women put their military husbands on a pedestal and do not need anything for themselves. Even after their husbands heroically die, the women stay with the units, devoting their lives to the motherly care of the soldiers.
The wives’ deifying attitude is not reciprocated. When the protagonist of “The officers’ wives,” the gentle city girl Hae Ryeong, first arrives at the regiment, her new husband drops a few laconic words and leaves for work, making her lonely and confused.
Luckily, the neighbor’s housewife invites her to spend evening at their place. Later the officer secretly comes home and hides behind the neighbor’s door overhearing what his wife is doing. He does not show his wife that he is around, for fear of spoiling her with excessive attention.
The wives’ deifying attitude is not reciprocated
Such treatment persists. Coming home from work, the husband silently gobbles the dinner which Hae Ryeong has carefully cooked for him, ignoring her attempts to involve him in conversation. After finishing the dinner, the husband leaves for work, with no word of gratitude.
Through the words of other characters, we come to learn that such behavior is praiseworthy: the officer is, after all, a devoted solder of the Great Leader and a strong masculine personality who cannot spare time on empty talking. Instead of feeling hurt, his wife must admire him as a “real man.”
In addition, the young wife should appreciate the communal spirit of her husband – even at the price of trumping her own feelings. When Hae Ryeong shyly refuses to sing in front of the working soldiers because they are strangers, she receives a severe reprimand from her husband: “The soldiers are no strangers to you!”
Hae Ryeong’s neighbor, another officer’s wife, teaches her that there are no strangers and no private lives in the regiment. The woman recollects her own newlywed years, when one day she arrived at her husband’s new place of service. Waiting for him to come home, she cooked his favorite food in the hope that they would spend the evening together.
Instead, when her husband returned home, he invited neighbors round, and their room was immediately filled with unknown families gobbling her cooking, shouting and smoked. Embarrassed at first by this intrusion, she understood later that the regiment was one family.
At the end of the film, Hae Ryeong discards her introverted nature and love for privacy and sings in front of the people.
“What do you mean by saying ‘no’? Who do you think you are to treat people like that?”
“GIVE ALL YOUR HEART”(1997): AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE
The culture of the 1990s saw courtship involving the military acquire unusually rough features and often border on harassment: exemplified in an episode of “Give all your heart” (진심을 바치라) (1997).
Seong Nam, a young officer, visits his brother, a Party cadre at a new post in a rural area. The brother admiringly refers to Sung Yeong, a girl in the neighborhood who lost her arm saving precious equipment during an accident at her factory. Seong Nam instantly decides that he will marry her.
He catches her on an evening road when she is slowly coming home from work, pulling a heavy cart with her only arm. Instead of offering to help, the officer stops the girl in the middle of the road, briskly introduces himself and makes a marriage proposal. When the girl politely rejects the offer, he grows irritable and shouts rudely: “What do you mean by saying ‘no’? Who do you think you are to treat people like that? Hey, comrade!”
Trying to elude this unknown lunatic, the girl steps back to the side of the road and barely manages to runs away, pulling the cart behind her.
In Western cinematography, such a scene would perfectly fit in a thriller about domestic abuse. The unmotivated aggression of the hero would surely be a warning sign, suggesting problems with anger management.
In songun cinema, however, this episode has a totally benevolent meaning. It aims to demonstrate that Seong Nam is eager, just inexperienced with women. His “declaration of love” is supposed to look clumsy but cute.
The next day Seong Nam’s brother visits Sung Yeong’s parents and explains that Seong Nam is ready to take care of their daughter for life and then asks her: “Do you really want to stay unmarried? Tell this in front of your parents!” – implying that his brother’s proposal is her last chance to find happiness. The girl maintains an awkward silence, which is taken for an agreement.
The happy parents immediately serve a celebration table, and the pair marries. During this impromptu wedding feast, Seong Nam speaks only to his future father in law, reassuring him that his daughter is in reliable hands. He exchanges no words with the bride.
“TAEHONGDAN PARTY SECRETARY”: A LOVERS’ TIFF IN THE NIGHT
Typically for the militarist cultures which tend to expand army norms of masculinity onto the whole of society, in songun cinema even characters who are not at that moment involved in the military tend to behave in macho, controlling way.
In the North Korean serial “Taehongdan Party Secretary” (대홍단의 책임비서) (1999-2000) a recently demobilized truck driver Chang Myeong U is another hot tempered romantic.
Instead of dumping the abuser straight away, Ryu Gyeong becomes his fiancée
The film contains a characteristic flashback episode. Lovingly thinking about our male protagonist, his fiancée, a telegraph operator named Ryu Gyeong, recollects a scene from their past.
He is driving her home. Ryu Gyeong is in a sunny, playful mood; she hums a merry tune and passes coquettish glances at Myeong U. The girl’s happiness makes him angry, and he solemnly warns her against flirting with the other “comrades”: “There are many handsome people in the world but the lover is one”.
The girl pretends that she is surprised: “Do you consider yourself my lover?” Myeong U answers with the solemn inquiry: “Who do you think am I to you?”
“My colleague, I suppose,”- answers Ryu Gyeong with a nonchalant smile, apparently expecting a continuation of the flirtation: a love confession or maybe even a proposal.
Instead of that, Myeong U roughly stops the truck so that the girl bumps her head into the front window. Then he drags her out of the car, raving that she considers herself important because she is a daughter of the Party Secretary. Then he drives off, leaving her alone in the middle of the night in a snowy forest.
Ryu Gyeong cries for help. She hears the howling of wolves and hopelessly tries to run away, her legs sinking in the deep snow, and eventually gives up, ready to die. Eventually she hears the roar of Myeong U’s car. He stops, gets out and silently waits until the girl runs to him with the desperate cry “Do not leave me!” Then he hugs her, triumphantly and calmly, saying: “You are mine.”
Instead of dumping the abuser straight away, Ryu Gyeong becomes his fiancée. She later recollects the episode with the smile.
Notably enough, Myeong U is portrayed as far from being perfect. From time to time he commits mistakes which he later repents and corrects. Yet, the above-mentioned episode is not meant to illustrate a wrongdoings; it is just a lovers’ squabble, which finishes in a sweet make-up.
Luckily for the mental health of North Korean audience, songun art, which used to promote these harmful social patterns, lasted only for about a decade. Since the mid 2000s, as the DPRK’s economic situation has improved, the country’s cinema has redirected its attention on civilian life.
This process was accompanied with the restoration of the old norms of romantic patterns of North Korean cinema: lovers are, again, caring, polite and respectful towards each other. Though their relations are not free from conflict, these conflicts rarely feature the misogynistic abuse which songun cinema presented in abundance.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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