In the 1980s, North Korean mass culture experienced an unprecedented influx of films and fiction on foreign themes.
These works invited audiences to a bright, unfamiliar world and were popular; though the most popular were films and fiction which depicted the lives of Zainichi (Japanese) Koreans.
Unlike fiction and films about Western life, which used secondary sources and were produced in North Korean studios, works about Japanese Koreans were filmed in Japan and made with the active participation of members of Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, a pro-North Korean organization created in 1955.
These films and fiction, expectedly, served the goals of the DPRK propaganda; yet they were subject to more lenient censorship and often, unintendedly, carried dangerous messages.
One such message was the declining popularity of Chongryon: an issue never openly recognized in North Korean media but observable in every artistic work about Japanese Koreans in the 1980s.
Works about Japanese Koreans were filmed in Japan and made with the active participation of members of Chongryon
CHONGRYON: CRACK IN THE DISCOURSE
In 1985, North Korean media announced the 30th anniversary of Chongryon, celebrating it as an important bulwark against the discrimination that Korean nationals in Japan suffered.
Yet, those in the know knew very well that the actual influence of this organization was waning. Chongryon was strictly opposed to the integration of Koreans into Japanese society and, working under the slogan “Japan is where we live, but the home where our mind resides is North Korea,” no longer served the needs of Japanese Koreans who resisted ghettoization and aimed at assimilation into Japanese society.
By the 1980s, such assimilation had also become increasingly possible. With racial prejudice against Koreans gradually fading and the status of Koreans in Japan improving, the younger generations of compatriots felt less dependency on the nationalist support system.
While in earlier years Korean immigrants had clung to Chongryun as a major spiritual raft in a hostile Japan, many ended their relations with Chongryon after they were issued permanent residence in 1965, with the accompanying social benefits of this status.
The most important inhibition to Chongryon’s popularity was its political affiliation. The organization stressed that the only guarantor of “true Koreanness” for Koreans in Japan was their allegiance to the DPRK.
Meanwhile, letters from the repatriated relatives, which combined praise for the Communist paradise with requests for money and basic products, as well as personal visits to the DPRK, had significantly worsened the image of North Korea in the eyes of Japanese Koreans.
Last but not the least in pushing young Japanese Koreans away was Chongryon’s very structure, which presented a radical contrast with the egalitarian rhetoric and the rigid hierarchy of its ranks.
The organization’s leaders summoned the believers to sacrifice their everything for the organization (and often succeeded in forcing poor Koreans of older generations to donate all their property), yet they themselves lived shamelessly prosperous lives.
To the younger Korean nationals, uninhibited by ideological blinds, this appeared to be a hypocritical religious sect, and they saw no reason to join it.
In earlier years Korean immigrants had clung to Chongryun as a major spiritual raft in a hostile Japan
KOREANS IN JAPAN: GENRE CONVENTIONS
This objective dynamics could not satisfy North Korean leadership: for them, Chongryon was an important source of financial support and a platform for political influence which they did not intend to lose.
Through all available channels, the official propaganda continued to promote a melodramatic discourse of Zainichi Koreans as “compatriots in exile” whose only hope was Chongryon – an organization allegedly financed by Kim Il Sung personally.
In North Korean mass culture, this picture has remained unchanged, relying on the following pillars: a) the victimization of Koreans in Japan, b) vilification of the Japanese, c) reduction of North Korean identity to ‘victims’ and d) repatriation to the DPRK as the ultimate bliss.
Victimization/infantilization of Koreans
According to North Korean propaganda, Korean nationals in Japan are all deprived sufferers who have been unwillingly dragged to this alien land and failed to adapt.
The heroine of a short story by Pak Chong Sang entitled “Resuscitation” states in 2004 that “with difficult circumstances such as poverty, the impossibility of returning to the motherland, loneliness in the alien country… contempt of the Japanese society —Koreans in Japan have no reason to brighten their soul and to smile.”
Vilification of the Japanese
Thin-skinned and impractical Korean characters conscientiously alienate themselves from the Japanese. When the communication occurs by chance, it has disastrous consequences for Koreans.
In the short story by Nam Sang Hyeok “Two Women” (1991) a divorced South Korean heroine Min Ok immigrates to Japan and remarries to a Japanese man Chūkamoto.
The husband is a monolithic representation of vice, which stalks defenseless Koreans overseas. He is heartless and irrationally xenophobic to the extent that he abuses his Korean wife for cooking her mother’s culinary specialty.
Being physically ugly and lewd in contrast to the delicate and pure Min Ok, Chūkamoto turns her into his sex slave and drives her to a suicide attempt.
Luckily for Min Ok, she is saved by a Chongyron-affiliated woman.
Reduction of North Korean identity
The Koreanness of Korean nationals in Japan has a definite political face: North Korean. South Korea is described as a territory where every expression of Koreanness, including language and authentic culture, is suppressed by the puppet government and the “American bastards,” the DPRK and Chongryon emerge as the only national sanctuary for foreign compatriots.
An exodus from the hell of Japan comes through repatriation to the DPRK
The protagonist of Kang Kui Mi’s short story “The Wallet” (2001) sells the family house to donate money to Chongryon.
His wife at first objects to this decision, but the hero convinces her that “the deeds of Chongryon are the deeds of our country” and “a house without a country does not matter.”
Repatriation to the DPRK as the ultimate salvation
An exodus from the hell of Japan comes through repatriation to the DPRK, which is mercifully granted by the Dear Leader.
Repatriation is presented as a miraculous accomplishment in the most daring dreams of the Japanese Koreans: dreams of education, nutrition, and a decent house (“The Wallet”), or a fantastic cure for the incurable illness performed by the highly-qualified DPRK doctors (Pak Chong Sang’s “Resuscitation” (2004)), or finding a long-missed friend in Pyongyang (Kim Seon Hwan’s “Study Travel”(1999)).
The very motif of repatriation bliss, however, raises a burning question: why the majority of Zainichi Koreans do not rush toward this happy ending.
Instead, they stay in Japan, suffering and dreaming about North Korea; they can even temporarily visit the DPRK and go back to Japan keeping the best memories of their motherland.
Yet, these distant admirers do not move back to the beloved motherland permanently.
An attentive reader or viewer could find answer to this question in the artistic works made with the participation of Zainichi Koreans, such as a popular film “Silver Hairpin” (1985).
SILVER HAIRPIN (1985)
The plot of the film is as follows: Rim Chin Seok (played by people’s actor Seo Gyeong Seop) is an old deliveryman of Chongryon newspaper Choson Sinbo. He survives on a meager salary along with his daughter Su Hyang (played by the peoples actress Hong Yeong Hui) who he rose alone – many years before the events of the film, his wife had been lured to South Korea and detained there.
Despite his deteriorating health, Chin Seok actively participates in the life of the Korean community. He leads a juche study circle and helps a neighboring widow Seon Geum bring home her strayed daughter Ok Cha.
Su Hyang is engaged to Myeong Sik, the son of a rich entrepreneur, who objects to son’s marriage to the daughter of a low-ranking Chongryon activist.
Despite his deteriorating health, Chin Seok actively participates in the life of the Korean community
Myeong Sik, together with a friend of the family, a rich Pachinko business owner, try to persuade Chin Seok to quit his job. He insists, however, that he will only retire once the unification of Korea is complete.
Su Hyang sides with her father and splits up with her fiancé. After much deliberation, Myeong Sik stands against his father and reconciles with his sweetheart.
Meanwhile Su Hyang’s mother escapes South Korea and illegally sails to Japan, only to be caught on the border and placed into a Japanese detention center. With the involvement of Chongryon she is freed and joins her family.
For his 60th anniversary, Chin Seok receives a commemoration address from Kim Il Sung. The Leader calls him a “real revolutionary and hidden patriot.” Su Hyang decides to follow her father’s path and become a Choson Sinbo delivery woman.
VICTIMS: RICH, CHIC AND FREE
While the major emphasis of the film is the old idea that Koreans in Japan are suffering and lost without Chongryun, the whole atmosphere of the movie undermines this message.
To the prosperous business people, such as Myong Sik’s father or a Pachinko center owner, sticking to Chongryun is apparently unnecessary – they are well integrated and self-important.
Furthermore, by North Korean standards, the lives of regular Koreans in Japan is inaccessibly posh, free, and full of fun. On their date, Myeong Sik drives Su Hyang on a chic motorbike to the seashore, where they surf and enjoy the sunset.
The trip is spontaneous – unlike North Koreans who need permission to travel within their country, Koreans in Japan move around freely.
In the same impromptu way, Myeong Sik drops by the jewelry shop to buy a diamond engagement ring, apparently having no problem with cash or the product’s availability.
The whole atmosphere of the movie undermines the message
Even the supposedly poor deliveryman enjoys luxuries beyond the reach of the majority of North Koreans. Chin Seok lives in decent house with a telephone and spends his free time in cozy pubs.
To get a birthday present for his daughter, he drops by a shop and gets a brooch, which North Korean girls of the 1980s would die for.
The only victim in the film is the neighbor’s daughter Ok Cha, who rejects her Korean identity and hangs around with a Japanese boyfriend, to the indignation of her widowed mother.
The boyfriend seduces and betrays Ok Cha, driving her to alcoholic despair, and Chin Seok persuades the girl that her problem is systematic: you can discard your Koreanness, he claims, yet the Japanese will never take you as equal.
Nevertheless, even dumped by her boyfriend, the Japanized Ok Cha (the only personage played by Zainichi Korean actress) looks impressive: she dresses according to the latest fashion, behaves confidently, and dances in a groovy way in stylish discotheques.
SOME ARE MORE EQUAL
While in principle Chongryon unifies all Koreans in Japan equally, the film demonstrates that it is not the case. Through the narration, Chin Seok is struggling with his old bike when delivering papers; only at the end, he receives a new one as a present from the neighbors.
Meanwhile Chongryon’s top managers, who pat the devoted deliveryman on his shoulder, drive extravagant cars and occupy spacious offices; with their smart sunglasses and luxury costumes, these men look like Hollywood style mafia bosses.
Are you still ready to sacrifice your life for Chongryon, comrades?
SPIRIT IN HEAVEN, BODY IN HELL
On their date on the seashore, when looking over the horizon toward North Korea, Su Hyang suggests Myeong Sik make a promise they will visit Pyongyang, “where our Dear Leader lives.”
Apparently, the lovers intend to visit Pyongyang only temporarily; nobody in the film discusses repatriation at all.
Are you still ready to sacrifice your life for Chongryon, comrades?
Why, above all, do the characters continue to suffer in Japan’s “exile” instead of jumping into the embraces of the Dear Leader?
The answer is obvious: they may keep their souls in the paradise of the DPRK, yet prefer to keep their bodies in the hellish but irresistibly comfortable Japan.
In the light of such an approach, the principle “Japan is where we live, but the home where our mind resides is North Korea” looks remarkably hypocritical.
Chongryon Koreans may feel every right to be loyal to the DPRK as a poetic land of dreams, but are not going to lose the grip over Japan, their precious milking cow.
And North Korean viewers surely grasped this message.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube screenshot
In the 1980s, North Korean mass culture experienced an unprecedented influx of films and fiction on foreign themes.These works invited audiences to a bright, unfamiliar world and were popular; though the most popular were films and fiction which depicted the lives of Zainichi (Japanese) Koreans. Unlike fiction and films about Western life, which used secondary sources and were produced
About the Author
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.