Among the many changes the 2000s brought to North Korean mass culture was a new type of positive character: industrial managers. This group included factory directors, chief engineers, chairpersons of collective farms, and others.
To understand the importance of this change, it is important to look back at how managers were previously represented in North Korean cinematography.
In 1961, the North Korean state implemented the “Taean work system,” according to which the Party secretary of an enterprise was supposed to hold a higher status than a top manager did.
Works of official culture dutifully reinforced this idea. The fictional managers were eclipsed by heroic soldiers, exemplary workers, innovative farmers, and, above all, by the impeccable Party Secretaries of different calibers.
In the 1970s to early 1980s, the fictional relations between the Party secretaries and the population, including top managers, were not unlike that of the local priests and their flock.
In Rim Hui Mun’s play ‘‘Our County’s Party Secretary’’(1980), the county Party secretary Pak Sang Jun spends all his time traveling around his county on a bicycle.
Pak identifies the people’s needs, such as a lack of matches and inspirational novels, and he takes care of the family of a bulldozer operator after his wife gave birth to twins. Though he modestly calls himself “an errand boy” of the farmers, his authority is unquestioned.
But the manager’s authority is another story. A female chairperson of the county’s cooperative farm is a negligible character of the play; instead of organizing the farm’s work, she carries steamed sweet potato for the farmers’ snacks and handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their brows.
Many North Korean films or fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s used to portray middle-scale managers as shameless comfort-seekers. A work team leader in “When we pick apples” (1971), or a train station manager in “Our waitress” (1971) are unwilling to voluntarily extend their responsibilities beyond their job descriptions to make the life of the customers easier. Yet, harsh criticism for “forgetting the orders of the Father Leader” brings the “bureaucrats” to their senses.
Notably, the criticism is conducted not even by the superiors of the sinner, but by his most humble subordinates, including younger relatives. The “bureaucrats” surrender instantly, recognizing their wrongdoings and not daring to provide any counterargument in their defense.
Since the late 1980s, the collapse of socialism in the world began to shake the economical and ideological base of the DPRK. North Korean ideologists responded to this challenge by reinforcing the concept of the leading role of the Party.
Many films set their plots around Party secretaries. Some examples include “County Party Instructor” (군당지도원 – 1986), “County Party Secretary” (군당책임비서 – 1987), “Guarantee” (보증 – 1987), “Give Your Heart” (진심을 바치라 – 1997), and “Firelight” (불빛 – 2002).
These works portray Party secretaries as outstanding personalities who are able to cure economic and social wounds by serving as conduit for the wisdom of the Leader to the flock.
In “Trace” (발자국 – 1991), the Party secretary voluntarily demotes himself to the position of chairperson of the cooperative farm, and his farm subsequently successfully completes many projects. Only near the end of the film do we learn that the enthusiastic chairperson is a one-legged veteran soldier – his handicap is, presumably, unknown to his subordinates.
The sparkling passion of the Party Secretaries, however, often meet the wet blankets of professional managers of the troubled North Korean economy.
The latter tend to operate within the boring world of economic efficiency and resource limitations and engage in a painful tug-of-war between the state and their industrial enterprises. In their world, the mobilizing calls to “work diligently and selflessly, relying on your own strength alone, without asking anything from the state” simply do not work.
In some films, the manager’s opposition borders on sabotage. In “Guarantee,” a factory engineer invents a new technology which would substitute foreign analogues and save the state money. While the progressive Party secretary enthusiastically supports the invention, the reactionary factory director refuses to implement it.
Being skillful in patriotic rhetoric himself, the director knows in his heart that the foreign technology has proved useful, but that implementation of the questionable invention would, however, inflict the pains of trial and adjustment on his factory. The director is also seemingly aware that the state’s money is not his factory’s money, and so he does not have any incentive to save it.
In “County Party Secretary,” the chief engineer, too, rejects innovative technology invented by a local scientist to save the state’s coal resources. The practical mind – the chief engineer – knows that if he accepts the still-new innovation, it would surely lead to a shrinking of the coal funds allocated to his construction site. In response to the admonitions of the Party secretary, the chief engineer reasonably argues that he “cannot afford thinking about the others,” for he must think about his work duties first.
In both films, the sober reasoning of the managers is overwhelmed by the passionate cries of the Party Secretaries to take all risks and move forward. This victory of the Party line is unsurprising, showing the real balance of powers in North Korean industry (the “Taean work system” was still operational in the 1980s-90s). Nevertheless, the films leave a bitter aftertaste: the practical arguments of the managers often sound quite convincing.
North Korean audiences were well aware of the fact that in big state enterprises, taking initiative is punishable and keeping a low profile is wise. In case of some misfortunes, the very enthusiastic Party secretary would be the first to scold the director or the manager.
Since the mid-1990s, open discussions between Party cadres and managers disappeared from the North Korean screen. Instead, the enthusiasm of the fictional Party secretaries clashed with the indecisiveness of the executives.
The film “Firelight” (불빛 – 2002) presents such an interaction in a heavily gendered narrative. A backward farm, Keumcheon-ri, is led by a female chairperson Chin Sim – played by actress Mun Cheong Ae (문정애) – who is inept, frustrated, and always ready to cry damsel in distress. The new Party secretary – played by actor Ri Ji Yong (리지영) – takes the leadership in his energetic hands and saves the lady.
The measures undertaken by the Party secretary are far from being innovative, in effect being calls to “work diligently relying on your own strengths” and other platitudes. He suggests constructing a new power station with no state support and using only available local materials such as big stones.
Despite the weak protests of the chairperson, who suggests first to ask the provincial department for the funding, the farmers enthusiastically support the idea and begin to run around carrying heavy stones on their backs. The electric station is successfully constructed, Keumcheon-ri crops the record amount of grains. The Pyrenees are no more.
What looked impressive on the screen, however, was not always so in real life. In the late 1990s to early 2000s North Korean leadership begun to quietly recognize the limitations of politico-moral incentives.
“Firelight” was one of the last North Korean films which devalued professional expertise of the managers and prioritized the “firelight” of ideological enthusiasm. In 2002, the North Korean economy departed from the “Taean work system,” and managers were given supreme power, largely overshadowing Party functionaries.
ECCENTRIC MANAGERS OF THE 2000s
Works of official culture at first reflected this change in less radical terms. In “Move Aside” (길을 비키라 – 2001) or the TV serial “Flame” (불길 – 2008), the new managers emerge as characters on par with the Party secretaries in terms of professional authority.
Yet, the new managers are far from being independent. Often, they are portrayed as having some eccentric features or suffering from an imbalance between their professional and private lives. The Party Secretaries, impeccable figures whose personal lives are exemplary, serve as their personal confidants and supervisors.
“Move aside” straddles two eras – that of priority of ideological motivation and that of professional expertise. On the one hand, the film portrays a favorite character of the previous era of cinema: a snobbish chief engineer who ignores a new technology invented by the young worker.
Yet, the person who corrects the conservative engineer and embraces innovation is not a Party secretary but a factory director played by People’s Artist Sin Myeong Uk (신명욱).
Sin Myong Uk is famous for his spontaneous characters, the most well-known of which being Rim Kkok Jong, the noble rebel/robber from the historical serial with the same title (1987-88). Sin’s director is the same explosive type who is nicknamed “wild horse” for his hot temperament.
In his younger years while working in a storm brigade, the future director physically attacked a young coworker to protect the dignity of a woman.
Now, he roars at “bureaucrats” demanding they “move aside” out of the way of progress. In another episode, he storms at the relatives who organize a birthday party for him at the time of the “arduous march”; the director takes all his party food and wine to the factory and shares it with the night-shift workers.
When the invention of the young worker proves successful, the director grabs the inventor and swirls about, carrying him in his arms.
While everybody loves the “wild horse” for his sincerity, the common understanding is that the director’s wild nature requires taming. This is performed by the balanced and wise Party secretary. Besides, the Party secretary is the only person able to help the director with his family problems.
IN NEED OF CONFIDANTES AND CARERS
The director is a widower and lives with his two sons. In the spirit of North Korean gender patterns, three males are portrayed as unable to take care of themselves. They cannot cook; their house is a mess. The director’s jacket is torn, as well as the boys’ socks, and the father mends them awkwardly after coming back from work. His 15-year-old younger son cannot even go to school as he has no proper clothes.
Overworking and an irregular routine take their toll on the director’s health, and he develops a heart condition.
The Party secretary takes the director’s situation into his hands. Noticing the sympathy between the director and a female engineer Yong Sim of approximately the same age, he serves as a mediator and feelings interpreter between the two. The Party secretary makes sure the adopted son of Yong Sim and the son of the director established good relations.
At the end, when the director is about to leave for the sanatorium in an ambulance, the secretary virtually pushes the shy Yong Sim inside the car, requesting she go with the director and take care of him – with the implication that they get married.
The secretary merrily asks the director whether he is against such an arrangement. “If the Party secretary requires this, how can I oppose it?” answers the director, laughing. Yong Sim’s opinion is not asked.
In a similar way, the wise Party secretary serves as a psychologist for a talented young female factory director in the serial “Flame.”
MANAGER IN CHARGE
Nothing is permanent in this world, however. While current North Korean films do not yet challenge the leading role of the Mother Party, they tend to push the Party Secretaries to the background of narratives, or even eliminate them altogether.
In the serial “Where the Cuckoo Sings” (뻐꾹새가 노해하는곳 – 2009), the community headman is also the chairperson of a cooperative farm, while the Party secretary is barely present.
This leading role is played by the merited actor Ko Sung Ryong (고승령), who previously specialized in playing all-mighty Party secretaries.
The TV drama”Commendation” (표창 – 2015) tells the story of an investigation into an industrial accident which would have occurred if not for the vigilance of an old worker. All employees reveal their mistakes honestly. This honesty could have cost them, yet they do this out of their loyalty to the Leader and their “workers’ dignity.”
The investigators are a factory director and the group of executives. In a marked departure from past form, no Party secretary is visible on the scene.
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