While there are many characteristics common in both Soviet and North Korean cultural discourses, there is one issue on which the two countries’ values stood in total opposition: in the attitude of characters to domestic work.
In the dreams of early Communist romantics in young Soviet Russia, private households would be obliterated as remnants of a petty bourgeois mentality.
People were expected to live in big communal apartments, enjoy food in communal canteens, and be dressed for free in industrialized retail centers. Children would spend their days in collective kindergartens while their mothers happily worked at the factories and enjoyed their social lives.
In the 1930s, such dreams were postponed as part of Stalin’s retreat from the cultural radicalism of the early revolutionary era. Communist values and aims were, increasingly, mingled with national traditions and conservative values.
Following this change, Soviet culture began to treat domestic responsibilities with more respect. A man with “hands of gold,” a real master of both his workplace and house, and a hardworking woman who, in addition to her industrial achievements, is simultaneously a perfect chef, knitter, and dressmaker for her family, were the new heroes.
Embroidery for girls and carpeting for boys were extolled as decent and useful hobbies, in addition to reading the classics or playing the piano.
These images largely reflected Communist visions of a harmoniously-developed human being who can equally master the physical, spiritual and intellectual realms.
But they also officially encouraged respect towards domestic chores and aimed to compensate for one integral deficiency of Soviet life: the failure to provide well-functioning services and quality consumer goods, which, as the early Communists had planned, would have freed the people from the slavery of household routine.
Soviet culture treated domestic responsibilities with more respect
The structure of the socialist economy, with its distorted incentive structure, prevented the efficient development of such industries and services.
Instead of changing the economic system, the state chose to leave the burden of domestic work on the shoulders of its citizens, including the teaching of housekeeping skills in schools and instilling a respectful attitude to housework.
My primary school teacher used to criticize my bad performance in sewing classes with an indignant: “I know you are academically smart, but how can you survive, not to mention have a family, if you cannot make a basic skirt?”
Indeed, in Soviet society, women who lacked such “basic” skills as knitting, sewing and cooking from scratch were regarded as worthless.
Men had their own scary list of wide-ranging obligatory “abilities,” from fixing a dripping tap to building a house by hand. Soviet mass culture scorned those “lovers of light life,” who tried to avoid this necessary work.
NORTH KOREA: DEVALUING HOUSEWORK
The early North Korean state, too, intended to make women an essential part of the industrial labor force, yet this policy was reversed in the 1960s: the state, like Stalin in the 1930s, opted to pursue the restoration of a more traditional model of society.
However, this big rollback was not reflected in North Korean mass culture and ideology.
Following the patterns of early Soviet Communists, North Korean official culture disregarded domestic chores as a wasteful pastime, serving nothing but narrow self-interest and distracting the people from their essential social duties.
This attitude also echoed the ultimately collectivist Maoist patterns of the Great Leap Forward, when people were supposed to live in communes, prohibited from owning even private cooking utensils.
This epigonism of North Korean propaganda is startling, especially given that Juche Communism avoided the extremes of the Maoist model and retained households in private hands.
In accordance with this radical concept, North Korean mass culture has developed a special type of lazybones anti-heroines, very different from the conventional Soviet “lovers of light life.”
A classical cinematic North Korean female idler does not lie on a cushion polishing her nails and exploiting her housemaid. Indeed, a stereotypical North Korean female loafer tirelessly knits, decorates her house, cooks for her in-laws, and makes clothes for her children, yet carries out her workplace or political requirements quite reluctantly.
One actress who has long specialized in these roles was Chong Mi Suk.
In the 1974 film “When we pick apples” Chong Mi Suk’s supposedly lazy heroine confesses with shame during a self-criticism session: “I am doing embroidery instead of organizational life!”
Notably, official media occasionally recognized that housekeeping in North Korea had problems, caused by the shortcomings of the service industries and the production of consumer goods (see my article “Social criticism in North Korean cinematography”).
However, the same media devalued the individual efforts of people in feeding and dressing their families, and their efforts to make their lives a little more comfortable.
The persistent problems with service industries and consumer goods were to be solved collectively, they argued, by means of state intervention or, since the late 1990s, of local communities.
In “When we pick apples,” the progressive young sister of Chong Mi Suk’s heroine, depicts her future idle life as a housewife in the following sarcastic passage: “Sure! You will be wearing makeup and go shopping pushing a baby carriage under the parasol!”
However, a good picture of what North Korean housework really was, even a decade later in the relatively prosperous 1984, is demonstrated by another film: “The first year after the marriage.”
The film’s plot centers around a typical conflict of socialist realism: a young wife’s intention to work on a socially important seaweed breeding project clashes with her husband’s desire to create a comfortable home where he can care for his aged widowed father.
The wife does not want to abandon her professional aspirations and tries to combine family and job responsibilities.
The film realistically depicts the normal day of a full-time working family woman, who lacks basic kitchen appliances and services and is forced to live with a chronic shortage of food products. (The film mercifully omits the common problems of North Korean households of the 1980s such as bathrooms situated outside the house and the absence of running water).
After a busy day at work, the woman rushes to the grocery shop to find only scraps. Luckily, the shop assistant is her acquaintance and has something left for her. Upon getting home, the young woman instantly runs to the kitchen, takes on the apron and starts cooking, not sparing even a minute to change her clothes.
The conservative husband hardly sits idle
To make a favorite side-dish of her father in law, she has to work with a living octopus. For a basic chicken broth, she needs to kill a chicken, and cooking rice on the primitive stove takes ages.
After this tiresome and time-consuming cooking, the wife has to wash dishes without a dishwashing machine and clean the home without a vacuum cleaner. To make breakfast in advance or store evening meal leftovers is out of the question: the family has no fridge.
Indeed, these scenes in the film look like a setting for a commercial: readers might expect the drab kitchen to be illuminated with sparkles, and, under happy music, the excited housewife would see a new fridge, vacuum cleaner, and a knife of a particular brand.
Yet, this miracle does not happen. Instead, the authors of the film suggest another option: the new husband should be less demanding, they claim, help his wife more and let her work on her social projects instead of hustling around the house.
The film shows, however, that in his turn, the conservative husband hardly sits idle. He, too, is constantly sawing, carping and fixing different parts of the house and the backyard.
The household is thoroughly primitive which means that the husband, too, has his fair share of responsibilities, which require special skills, physical strength, and endurance.
CARING FOR THE WEAK
Lucky for the young family, their father-in-law is still in good shape and there are no children around yet. Even in this state, their household routine appears unbearably hard, with no way of getting help from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine how they would manage their double burden in a situation with children.
Notably, while North Korean propaganda extolls the ideas that “children are the only kings in North Korea” it simultaneously disregards child care within the family, implying that all the bodily needs of children are satisfied by the state.
Sure enough, many films and works of arts in North Korea promote the special roles of mothers in the children’s family education. One such film is “School parents” (1971) which urged the people to pay more attention to their children’s school affairs.
Yet, in all these cinematic works, positive mothers fulfill their parenting responsibilities after a full day at work, not in lieu of it.
Full-time parenting is discouraged even if a child has special medical needs. A popular short story by Chong Hyon Chol “Aroma of Life” (1991), for example, describes a situation in which an old professor criticizes himself for letting his wife quit her academic career because of the poor health of their child.
Due to her selfless efforts, the child grew healthy and safe, yet the professor feels that his wife has failed to combine family and social duties and is an “undutiful child of the Mother Party and the Leader.”
The author, conveniently, avoids discussing how the problem could be solved at a practical level, and what would happen with the sickly child without the mother’s care.
This hypocritical devaluation of unavoidable and tough domestic labor in North Korea had far-reaching consequences.
Full-time housewives (whose number in North Korea was, understandably, huge in comparison to other socialist countries) have been treated as non-workers, which implied lesser norms of distributed rice (300 grams a day) and greater obligations to participate in the maintenance of roads, sewage cleaning, and other unpalatable quasi-voluntarily state chores.
Her husband, under the criticism of his colleagues, forces her to work on the fields
Even so, many North Korean women preferred to stay home. Hustling around the house, no matter how hard it was, provided them with the material stimuli to improve their family’s well-being. In the workplace, this was often absent.
In the 1984 film, “Flowers which have bloomed the last night,” Chong Min Suk played the role of the wife of a chief engineer of a collective farm.
A skillful and motivated housekeeper, she strives to avoid hard work at the farm in order to pay more attention to caring for her family. Yet, her husband, under the criticism of his colleagues, forces her to work on the fields. (A wide-nation campaign pushing cadres’ wives to join the workforce was in full bloom at that time).
The work on the field, extremely physically hard, makes Chong’s heroine inept and impatient. She must carry heavy stuff, sweat, and soil her clothes and shoes — with the only goal to “make the Leader happy”.
The film necessarily shows how class conscientiousness of the individualist heroine develops, and she eventually receives the praise of the collective.
Yet the whole narrative strikes us as odd, with its realistic contrasting of domestic work, which brings comfort and peace of mind, and the work outside the house, which sucks time and energy and provides nothing in return.
Since the mid-1990s, crawling marketization of North Korea has demonstrated how socially active and ambitious housewives can become when working outside the house makes economic sense. North Korean women rushed into the semi-legal market, started small businesses, and begun to earn income which often surpassed the incomes of their state-employed husbands.
Not surprisingly, among the thriving businesses of the new female-faced North Korean market economy are those related to easing the drudgery of household activities: catering services, private canteens, shoe repair, interior designs, baking bread, professional house help, etc.
The official propaganda did not fail to notice this trend and was not happy about it. Since the late 1990s, some North Korean films and fiction suddenly begun to extoll the domestic skills of women and the virtues of thrifty housekeeping.
Yet, it was too late: North Korean women are finally freeing themselves from ‘housework slavery’ even if by capitalist means.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: screengrab
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