What has always startled me about North Koreans inside and outside their country is their remarkable adaptability to new technology. Progressists to the marrow of their bones, they seem to accept enthusiastically and unconditionally computer gadgets and pesticides, mobile phones and crystal meth, showing no sign of resistance or trace of conservatism. In the North Korean mindset, the old is bad, the new is good: period.
Leaving aside the question of whether this uncritical embrace of the new is always good, this attitude is also reflected in North Korean cultural discourse, which espouses a staunch belief in technological progress.
North Korean nationalism is consistently urban and progressivist. Despite the many cinematic panegyrics to Dokto-our-historical-land, taekwondo, and Korean traditional pottery, none of such works imply that pre-modern life was essentially better. Moreover, such historical sagas tend to portray the enemies of Korea as laughably primitive.
A good example is the film “Spirit of green celadon” (청자의 넋, 2002) which contrasts the technologically-advanced people of Koryo with the half-naked Japanese barbarians whose brains are not developed enough to create good-quality ceramics so they steal it from their civilized Korean neighbors.
North Korean nationalism is consistently urban and progressivist
In works of North Korean mass culture, negative images of technological progress appear only if the results of such progress are appropriated by foreigners and the comprador exploiting class – that is, when the story or the film is set in South Korea or during the colonial era. Inside North Korea, modern technology always means happiness.
VILLAGE AND CITY: TOWARD EQUAL STANDARDS
This technocratic thinking supports another core value of North Korean cultural discourse: the concept of the socialist village.
In a spirit of classical Marxism, Juche culture approaches the village as a backward aspect of socialist society, lagging behind the city in terms of culture, technology, and general quality of life. This is to be cured by the application of all means of technical progress until the life level of the countryside reaches that of the city; as the ultimate goal, city and village are supposed to turn into essentially one homogeneous space.
Not every socialist culture shared this progressivist attitude. In Maoist China, the countryside was glorified as an alleged repository of true ideological values, in contrast to the decadent cities.
In Maoist films and novels, city-dwelling characters often move to the village, with the purpose of “making him/herself a better revolutionary” through proximity to the more ideologically-loyal “people of real labor.”
In Soviet official culture, the initial policy of the standardization of living standards in cities and villages was diluted by the de-Stalinization of the late 1950s- early 1960s. Among other concessions to non-Communist discourses, this “thaw” brought to life “village prose” which idealized traditional Russian village and criticized changes which happened to this way of life under the influence of modern technology.
This “village prose” glorified farmers as repositories of the national essence and morally better people in comparison to the spoiled city-dwellers.
Inside North Korea, modern technology always means happiness
DEPARTURE FROM AGRARIAN NATIONALISM
This North Korean emphasis on the technologically sophisticated village is notable providing that, among its predecessors, DPRK official culture counts the literature of KAPF (Korean Proletariat Arts Federation, 1925-1935).
Despite the proletarian rhetoric, this group advocated “agrarian nationalism,” which juxtaposed the virtues of a traditional Korean peasant community with the vices of modern cities. All portrayals of modern technology in KAPF work were malicious; a typical motif was of a hero being hit by a car or a train.
After liberation, myths of “unspoiled village life” and the “ambiguous effects of modern technology” were no longer welcome, and ex-KAPF writers had to accommodate to the new ideological demands.
In 1948, leading ex-KAPF writer Yi Ki Yeong produced the first major North Korean novel “Land,” which was devoted to the theme of “new village construction.” The idealized Communist present in the novel was presented in the mode of an idealized Korean past, which Yi had loved to depict in his previous writings, and contained plentiful references to ture (traditional farmers’ groups of mutual help), folk songs, and old stories of filial piety.
At the same time, all the book’s images of modern technology, such as tractors and city-style houses of Korean farmers, were referred to in exclusively positive terms. The ultimate prize for the heroes was traveling to the progressive cities of Pyongyang or Moscow.
“BROAD BELLFLOWER”: IMAGES OF IDEAL VILLAGE
An iconic North Korean film “Broad Bellflower” by director Ri Chung Gu (1987) further develops this approach. The film tells the story of countryside-born lovers, Song Rim and Wong Bong.
After the Korean War, Song Rim decides to stay in her remote village Pyokkye-ri and, along with her community, make it a paradise on earth. Absorbed with the idea of establishing pedigree livestock, she dies in an avalanche trying to save a sheep donated to the collective farm by the Great Leader.
In contrast, Wong Bong deserts his home village for the prosperous city and though safe and sound, finds no happiness there. 27 years later, he comes back and pleads for the forgiveness of his homeland.
Interesting is the cinematic images of the countryside before and after reforms. The beginning of lovers’ story is set in the post-war Korean village. Like all films by Ri Chung Gu, “Broad Bellflower” is slow-moving, and filled with the images of untouched picturesque landscapes and the sounds of melodious folk songs, which force the viewer to admire the splendor of traditional Korea.
Nevertheless, the films make it clear that this traditional beauty goes hand in hand with numerous inconveniences, such as the absence of electricity and running water, and paved roads and modern entertainment: people have to perform hard manual labor with no machinery, only with primitive medieval tools.
After liberation, myths of “unspoiled village life” and the “ambiguous effects of modern technology” were no longer welcome
In one episode, we see two pretty sisters Song Rim and Song Hwa in their night room, which is lit only by the dim oil lamp and the full moon. Song Rim is bending over her sewing, and her younger sister Song Hwa writes something lying on the straw mat. The poetical mood of this scene is soon disturbed by the irritable complaint of Song Hwa about the room’s darkness, and a reassuring comment from the heroine that the decision to electrify Pyokkye-ri has already been taken.
Thus, the tranquil beauty of the remote North Korean countryside is tolerable only temporarily. The village is happily rushing towards progress, which comes with visions of enthusiastically chopped-down trees to serve as electric poles, and the splash of the heavy stones which block the river to make a hydroelectric power station.
This enthusiastic work is sometimes interrupted by unsophisticated rural pleasures, such as singing folk songs and dancing around bonfires, riding horse sleighs and, on rare occasions, movie watching. During one such session, Wong Bong, enchanted by the filmic visions of modernized Pyongyang, asks his sweetheart:
“Look how wonderful! Do you envy it?”
“Yes, I do.”
Yet, envy drives the characters in different directions. While the “wrong” envy forces the boy to search for city comforts, the “correct” envy of the girl inspires her to work even harder to turn her homeland into a similar paradise.
Song Rim’s dream comes true, even after her death. The prosperous village, in which her younger sister is now a chairperson, becomes as good as the city: all dwellers live in spacious houses and dress fashionably. The village has a new kindergarten, nursery, and a carp pond, and is planning the construction of a wine factory.
At the center of the village is a big club, and near its entrance, we see a line of farmers’ children carrying violins. The new youth of the village ride not sleighs but bikes, singing contemporary songs to the accompaniment of not primitive drums and gongs, but guitars.
All these visions are to demonstrate that by living standards, life in the reformed Pyokkye-ri is no different to the city.
This modernization is a matter of pride which leaves no place for nostalgia, and all references to the village’s past are negative. When sending a group of newlyweds on their honeymoon with rich presents, the chairperson Song Hwa reminds them that their grandmothers only allowed enjoy corncakes at their marriage feasts.
This pride in Pyokkye-ri’s achievements does not imply any negative feeling toward the city. Won Bong remained alienation from city life because, according to the film, he squeezed into the already-established paradise and tried to skim off the results of other people’s labor.
The city and the village must be one
VILLAGE AS A BOOTCAMP
North Korean culture, with its disdain for individualist pride, has never employed the popular Western motif of a country bumpkin who conquers the city and becomes a star. It celebrates the opposite move – that of the city-born altruists who move to the village and, enduring all hardships. modernize it.
One of the first examples of these works was a play by ex-KAPF writer Song Yong “Two girls” (두 처녀) written in 1953. Yet, the motif became especially intensive in the late 1980s to early 1990s when, after a long period of relative stability, North Korean society began to see the first signs of food shortages.
The propaganda did not attribute the problems to the structural flaws of the North Korean economy but instead reduced them to the underdevelopment of the rural area alone; according to the official version, the village failed to produce enough food because it lagged behind the advanced city.
The Leader warned about this a long time ago, the ideologists claimed, yet his carefree children did not listen to his warnings properly. Now, it was time for the nation to pull the village out of the swamp.
A popular romantic comedy “City Girl Marries a Village Fellow” (도시처녀 시집 와요) (1992) depicts the alliance between the village and the city through the story of a romance between a country boy Song Sik and a city beauty Ri Hyang, who first comes to his village with the assistance brigade of her Pyongyang clothes factory.
This romance grows out of common love for the leaders’ orders. During their dates, the characters thoroughly discuss the problems of Korean countryside. Song Sik reminds us that Kim Il Sung’s “noble intention” to provide every farmer with “house with a tiled roof, a bowl of boiled rice and soup with meat and silk clothes” has not yet been accomplished.
He recognizes the backwardness of “our village” in comparison to the city and blames “deserters from the battlefield of the village’s modernization.” His life goal is “building the ideal communist community here, too. “Enchanted by the politically-conscientious farmer, Ri Hyang leaves Pyongyang to marry him and work for the modernization of the village shoulder to shoulder.
For all necessary glamorization, the North Korean village in the film indeed looks like a battlefield. It is almost painful to watch the delicate Ri Hyang collect duck manure with a heavy sap, or smoothing the board of the rice field with unprotected hands.
Still, the film portrays the village as an as-yet-underdeveloped city. In their recreation time, villagers and city-dwellers wear the same clothes and play the same music. Song Sik dreams his fellow farmers would wear comfortable and fashionable clothes during work hours, and Ri Hyang designs and makes a new uniform.
Characteristically enough, her design for the farmers’ clothes show not traditionalist motifs: these are just standard urban-style uniforms.
After all, the city and the village must be one.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
What has always startled me about North Koreans inside and outside their country is their remarkable adaptability to new technology. Progressists to the marrow of their bones, they seem to accept enthusiastically and unconditionally computer gadgets and pesticides, mobile phones and crystal meth, showing no sign of resistance or trace of conservatism. In the North Korean mindset, the old is bad,
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.