A mini-bus driver runs through a busy city street, violating all the traffic rules. He speeds, tailgates, overtakes at prohibited areas, and almost causes an accident. He invites the irritation of other drivers, including an intelligent middle-aged man.
A road police officer, who happens to be a pretty girl, Un Suk, stops the offender, only to discover that in addition to these infringements, he abuses state property: though affiliated with the state grocery shop, the driver is transporting unrelated goods to a different direction, which has nothing to do with his assigned route.
The girl promptly fines him, and no attempts by the driver to use his manly charms work.
Another driver violates a whole bunch of road rules. He speeds, overtakes, randomly changes lanes, and parks by the side of busy city road, just under the sign “no parking.”
Un Suk, again, catches the violator and checks his driving record. Finding references to numerous offenses in the past, she fines him. The attempts of Yun Ok, the violator’s fiancé and Un Suk’s close friend, to interfere on his behalf fail. The road police officer softly explains to Yun Ok that she should not interfere with the legal process.
All the above are the episodes from the North Korean film “Traffic controller on crossroads” (네거리에 초병) (1986).
What do you think is the main message here? Hurray to the incorruptible and watchful police officers who keep Korean roads safe? Glory to the brave and independent traffic controller? Shame on reckless drivers who endanger the lives of citizens and try to avoid the consequences?
Wrong guess. The major wrongdoer in the film is the traffic controller, who is to blame for her cold legalist mentality and lack of compassion.
The film teaches us that the main function of road police in North Korea is not penalizing offenders, but improving their morals. An idiotic young mother tries to cross a busy street carrying a baby in her arms and ignoring the cross lines, just in front of a running car? You should not fine her or even give her a stern look.
Explain to her the rules of street crossing, slowly and clearly, and meanwhile, do not forget to smile.
An imbecilic driver repeatedly disrupts traffic? Do not confiscate his license, take efforts to investigate his private circumstances: maybe something happened in the driver’s life which forces him to misbehave. And if this is the case, do not hesitate to interfere, generously sparing your personal time.
Sure enough, we come to learn that the young driver is overwhelmed by a complex family situation. His mother’s health is deteriorating, and she needs help around the house.
The major wrongdoer in the film is the traffic controller, who is to blame for her cold legalist mentality and lack of compassion
While the simple decision for the boy is to marry Yun Ok so she can perform the role of helper, he cannot do this. Yun Ok is an only daughter of her widowed mother, and the latter wishes for her daughter to stay in her house with her husband.
Torn between the demands of two mothers, the young man is forced to perform domestic chores by himself, and this ultimately drives him to exhaustion. That is why he speeds, and tailgates, and parks in prohibited areas, near the entrance of the shop, where he buys groceries for his sick mother.
In our unsentimental world, an excuse like that would hardly win the heart of a road police officer and help recall your parking ticket. Yet, filmic North Korea is a different case: the traffic controller not only pardons the sinner, but also tries to sort out his personal problems.
Un Suk visits the driver’s sick mother at home and mobilizes her neighborhood community for help. She virtually brings Yun Ok to his house and forces her to help her future mother-in-law with the cooking. In addition, Un Suk suggests that the two families come together and live under the same roof.
This nosy and patronizing behavior meets the full understanding of the community. When Un Suk discards her stony law-keeping ways and treats people with the care of an older sister, people around her are happy and stop breaking the rules. Everybody waves and smiles at Un Suk, and the ex-violators shower her with flowers.
Sure enough, the real North Korea of the late 1980s was a far cry from this wonderland. Nevertheless, “Traffic controller on crossroads” presents a curious historical document which demonstrates an unprecedented softening of the North Korean atmosphere.
Let us look back at the time of the film’s creation: North Korea of the late 1980s.
THE TURBULENT 1980s
The mid to late 1980s, which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet bloc, was a turbulent period for socialist culture worldwide.
Liberalization was a buzzword of this epoch. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, previously unimaginable images of nudity, drug abuse, and graphic violence overflew the pages and screens of the official media; political discussions which questioned the very basis of socialism shook people’s minds.
Against this background, North Korea seemed like a territory where time stood still. Its official press and TV replicated the same old images of the Leader surrounded by happy people, and endorsed the idea that North Korea would forever remain a land of juche utopianism; not a trace of liberalism made an appearance.
The actual situation in North Korea, however, was much more complex. Despite the stagnant rhetoric of the official media, the DPRK in the 1980s, too, experienced an unprecedented wave of freedom.
THE DELAYED THAW
While North Korea in the 1980s did not follow the patterns of contemporary perestroika, it reproduced the earlier Soviet patterns of post-Stalin’s Party-initiated liberalization.
Unlike the USSR’s perestroika of the late 1980s, which aimed at a radical dismantling of existing social systems, the “thaw” of the late 1950s sought to strengthen Soviet Communism by refreshing, softening, and modernizing its rigid political framework. A Slovak politician, Alexander Dubček, would later described this idea as “socialism with a human face.”
Soviet mass culture of the late 1950s was the thaw’s major tool. Without discarding the basic postulates of the Communist ideology, Soviet “engineers of the human soul” aimed to widen artistic horizons of socialist realism and advocate for an open-minded, softer, and kinder attitude to people.
The real North Korea of the late 1980s was a far cry from this wonderland
The Soviet ‘thaw’ had a strong impact on the contemporary cultures of other countries of the socialist bloc; yet in the 1950s Kim Il Sung’s regime resisted the ‘thaw’ as an expression of “bourgeois revisionism.”
It took North Korean culture three decades and a new, younger leader, Kim Jong Il, to enter a similar stage of liberalization. In the mid-1980s, North Korean literature and the arts began to manifest features which have brought them quite close to the patterns of post-Stalinist culture of the Soviet Union.
Among the features of the delayed North Korean ‘thaw’, the most prominent was a departure from an inseparable part of past discourse: social criticism.
“IT WAS SO SELF-IMPORTANT…”
Since the late 1940s, a favorite practice of North Korean Communism were sessions of self-criticism, which were expected to purify people, keep them alert, and mobilize them for new exploits.
The very term “self-criticism” combined two meanings: public confessions of a person before the collective, as a part of his or her “disarmament before the Party”, and criticism of a person by the members of his or her collective which was considered part of the necessary self-purification of the collective.
Self-criticism was prevalent in both cultural bureaucracy and in the content of North Korean official culture.
In cultural bureaucracy, the practice of self-criticism got off to a bumpy start. One of the earliest cases was the campaign against the first anthology of North Korean poetry published in Wonsan titled “Hidden Fragrance” (1947).
The anthology included works written by inexperienced devotees of the Communist North and contained a few verses which failed to adequately follow the contemporary political line.
Any attempts by the victims to stand up for themselves only worsened the situation
Instead of pointing to these unintended mistakes or editing the wrong poems, the North Korean Federation of Literature and Art dispatched to Wonsan a group of “investigators” which consisted of distinguished intellectuals, Song Yong, Kim Sa Ryang, Choe Myong Ik and Kim Yi Sok.
They subjected the poor enthusiasts of Communism to humiliating self-critical sessions. The investigator shouted at the poets, called them names, and forced them to perform public confessions. A contributor to that anthology, Ku Sang, later recalled that “it was all so self-important; no one could believe that just a few poems could cause such a fuss.”
Any attempts by the victims to stand up for themselves only worsened the situation: a truly conscientious person, they were told, “must love criticism.”
Not accidentally, sessions of self-criticism often served as climactic moments in the majority of North Korean films and works of art in the 1960s-1970s. In these works, the criticized characters feel invigoration, mend their wrong ways, and begin to work with enthusiasm.
In real life, such masochists were rare. Usual responses to public disgrace varied – depending on a victim’s temperament – from falling into a stupor, to defection to South Korea (like the above-mentioned Ku Sang), or to suicide.
“ARE YOU SICK, BUDDY?”
The first sign of changes in the climate of North Korea of the 1980s was a waning in the intensiveness of these criticism sessions.
Many refugees report that regular weekly sessions of mutual criticism were becoming more like a formality. Colleagues and friends used to agree beforehand who would be criticized for what during a particular session (smoking in prohibited areas was the most popular sin to confess to) and performed the ritual lazily, not even bothering to imitate enthusiasm.
The best manifestations of this lenient environment became North Korean films, in which self-criticism lost its unambiguous righteousness and sometimes even became a subject of mockery.
For all its benign nature, the ‘thaw’, like any spiritual revolution, often crossed the threshold of reasonability
The film, “Another Problem of my family” (다시 시작된 우리 집 문제) (1986) depicts a conflict related to the problematic implementation of a local innovation at the factory.
Contrasting a socially conscientious chairperson, Kim Song Hun (김성훈), who bravely takes risks, and his cowardly deputy, Hong Tae Sik (홍태식), who tries to avoid responsibility at all costs, the film featured an episode of a Party meeting where people discuss the recent incident.
At the meeting, Kim big-heartedly takes all the blame for the accident without referring to Hong’s faults, while Hong slyly tries to redirect the public’s attention onto Kim.
Hong breaks the productive professional atmosphere with the sudden hysterical shouting at Kim and a flow of unrelated demagoguery. Hong’s rhetoric is personal and offensive, and the tone is so loud that he almost loses his voice.
Opening his little notebook in which he has recorded all the ideologically dubious phrases of the chairperson, Hong reads them aloud, with the dates. Then Hong pounds the table in a fake fit of anger and pours crocodile tears over his own, apparently diminished, faults.
Hong’s performance is a typical session of self-criticism, yet the reaction of the listeners is unusual. Instead of being impressed or intimidated, they feel embarrassment or poke fun at Hong.
“Are you sick, buddy?” asks one of his colleagues after the meeting. Hong’s righteousness does not win the applause of the Party secretary either.
NO WAY BACK
For all its benign nature, the ‘thaw’, like any spiritual revolution, often crossed the threshold of reasonability.
While one could only applaud the disappearance of cruel criticism sessions, the idea that in the new humane society, a road police officer should pat the offenders on their heads, instead of dispatching tickets, was surely not sustainable.
In the post-thaw Soviet culture of the 1970s, many comedies mocked such infantile illusions, poking fun, in particular, at an inadequately soft attitude to criminals.
Overall, however, the delayed ‘thaw’ of the 1980s had positive, and, most important, irreversible social impact. All the later attempts of the regime to tighten the screws failed to return North Korean morals to the inhumanities of the first decades of North Korean communism.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube screen grab
A mini-bus driver runs through a busy city street, violating all the traffic rules. He speeds, tailgates, overtakes at prohibited areas, and almost causes an accident. He invites the irritation of other drivers, including an intelligent middle-aged man.A road police officer, who happens to be a pretty girl, Un Suk, stops the offender, only to discover that in addition to these infringements,
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.