While Western fans were impatiently waiting for the release of new episodes of “Games of Thrones,” North Korean audiences were waiting for their own shows.
Among them were new episodes of the lengthy children’s cartoon series “Boy General” and “Kochumong,” both set in the long-gone days of the Koguryo kingdom, which existed in the northern part of Korea in the first millennium AD.
Though the intended audience of both serials is schoolchildren (mostly boys), the films have fans among all age groups in the DPRK, and North Korean studios try their best not to disappoint these people.
“Kochumong,” the serial about the founder of Koguryo state, is a new project, launched in 2016, and by 2019 had reached 24 chapters. The serial employs new (for North Korea) exceptionally high-quality 3D animation techniques.
Following the socialist tradition of historical fiction an important educational tool, North Korean authors strive to reproduce historical events as accurately as possible, so that the serial can serve as a good supplementary material to those who want to refresh memories of their school curriculum about the ancient Koguryo state.
“Boy General” is a fantasy, and is also set in Koguryo days. The serial began in 1987 as one of the first animation serials in the DPRK.
The earlier artistic techniques used in “Boy General” are reminiscent of the style of the distinguished Soviet art-house animator Robert Saakyanz, of Armenian origins. Despite the serial’s popularity and plans to produce 100 episodes by 2002, the production was interrupted in 1990 due to economic crisis and a lack of funds.
The revival of the popular serial in the 2000s was a positive sign that the country’s economic situation was improving. The previous Saakyanz-like style changed in the new chapters into a more conventional Disney-style animation, similar to that of “Mulan.”
It has been announced that by the end of 2019 the animators will reach their previous goal of 100 episodes. And this time around, the goal seems more possible: recently, they released the 93rd episode.
Unlike remakes of once popular Soviet films, which have dissatisfied contemporary Russian audiences so far, the new version of “Boy General” has been successful in North Korea.
The renewed artistic form has visibly improved the serial, adding more colors, richer facial expressions, and more dynamic movements to the heroes.
The plot of the serial, which tells the adventures of the Koguryo officer in the enemy’s den, is only becoming more exciting with each chapter. The Korean characters are attractive and act in such smart and persuasive ways that it is indeed difficult to resist the temptation to swallow the messages of the serial.
PROMOTION OF KOGURYO MYTH
Like any production of Juche mass media, North Korean cartoons for children are by no means free from propaganda. Any artistic work set in Koguryo presupposes the promotion of the core nationalistic myth, which represents the basis of the historical self-identity of North Koreans.
The application of the Koguryo myth… seriously distorts North Korea’s perception of history
The myth has been evolved in a number of previous works of North Korean cinematography, such as the feature film “Ondaljon” (1986), or the animation serial “Koguryo Young Warriors” (2012), which is based on the “Warriors of Koguryo” (1999) comics of Kim Min-su.
According to this myth, during the Koguryo period, the early feudal state, whose territory largely coincides with the contemporary borders of North Korea, was a kind of golden age for the Korean nation, and contemporary North Koreans should strive to reproduce the patterns and principles this state supposedly followed.
The myth goes that Koguryo, the ideal Korean state both socially and nationalistically, was strongly centralized, fully self-sufficient, and based on military and moral superiority over its neighbors.
Their unity and military were the major, essentially only, sources of its strength. All selfish attempts of the ambitious local lords to be free from the central power of wise Koguryo kings were disastrous for the population of their territories.
Interestingly, unlike fiction or films set in the later Chosun dynasty, narratives on Koguryo omit any references to social injustice or class struggle. Koguryo is presented as an ideal society where all classes were united by their loyalty to the nation, and had little if any confrontations.
The serials present Koguryo citizens as smarter, nobler and more cultured than the other peoples around them – they come across very favorably, in particular, when compared with the Chinese and Japanese.
The male protagonists of Koguryo possess the same “gentle giant” physical type with large eyes, a round face, strong jaws and a simultaneously soft oval mouth; they speak in deep, pleasant baritones and move with powerful dignity. Their enemies, in contrast, are rough and ugly, and speak in unpleasant high-pitched voices.
The narrative of Koguryo provides solid justification to contemporary Juche ideology
Koguryo women are not only beautiful but also strong, skillful in martial arts, simultaneously loyal to their loved ones and wonderfully independent in their actions.
Not surprisingly, one of the first children’s films where the romantic relations of the Korean heroes are portrayed as they would be in a Disney movie is the Koguryo-set “The Fisherman Bachelor and the Black Dragon” (어부총각과 검은용, 2002).
The image of Koguryo as vast and prosperous land, with the impressive architecture of regular homes and, of course, the splendor of the grandiose palaces, drives the audience to the conclusion that the Korean golden age state was mighty and self-sufficient enough to live and prosper without dependence on foreign trade (with the neighboring barbarians).
Who and what else did we need, the viewer is asked, with people, territory, and culture like that? With more arms, self-determination, and loyalty to the leader, Koguryo (i.e. North Korea) could easily conquer the world.
Thus, the narrative of Koguryo provides solid justification to contemporary Juche ideology. Providing that these complimenting messages are delivered in entertaining and artistically sophisticated forms, there is no surprise that young – and not so young – North Korean audiences readily digest them.
At first glance, these tales of an all-powerful Koguryo as the glorious predecessor of the contemporary DPRK are no more than innocuous self-confirmations, aimed to boost the national ego of North Koreans.
But upon closer examination, the Koguryo myth seems to be rather dangerous internal propaganda, which warps North Koreans’ sense of reality and might mislead them in their understanding of today’s world.
Few, if any, in North Korea understand that the real historical Koguryo was able to acquire its influence only because contemporary China, with its huge population, happened to be in long-term political disarray between the 3rd and 7th centuries: the time Koguryo was at its strongest.
This turmoil in China ended with the establishment of the strong Tang dynasty in the early 600s AD, and once it happened Koguryo rapidly lost its power and eventually collapsed under the heavy blows of the Chinese and their allies.
If we narrated these historical facts in cartoon form, with the favorite anthropomorphic animal characters of North Korean children’s cinematography, it would be the story of a smart weasel who became the king of the mountain while the tiger was temporarily sick. After the tiger (China) recovered his strength, the weasel (Korea) was forced to return to where he belonged – to his burrow under the tree.
Sure enough, this cartoon would hardly impress Korean boys who associate their country with the all-mighty tiger. Nevertheless, this is a more realistic picture of East Asian international relations.
No matter what North Korean boys of all ages imagine, size and resources matter tremendously, and ignoring this fact leads to drastic mistakes in international politics.
Underestimating mighty China is a recurrent mistake in the contemporary politics of the DPRK.
Following and embellishing the myth of self-reliant Koguryo, both serials reinforce the idea that an ideal Korean state does not need foreign connections and Korean interests are by definition incongruent with those of the foreigners.
With more arms, self-determination, and loyalty to the leader, Koguryo (i.e. North Korea) could easily conquer the world
This message is further emphasized by the story of Koguryo’s defeat, which occurred when another Korean state, Silla, the southern competitor of Koguryo, “treacherously” collaborated with the foreigners from the Tang dynasty. The historical parallels with contemporary ROK and its American ally are very apparent here.
Distrust of foreigners is the favorite message of North Korean children’s cinematography — this can be seen in “The King Crab and the Heron” (참게와 왕새, 2006).
The plot of this cartoon is as follows: a community of king crabs suffers due to drought, and a young crab suggests to dig the water spring out. Yet, while he is away, a conniving heron lures the little crabs into a big shell full of water, and after they are all in shuts the trap.
Luckily for the credulous creatures, their older brother comes back in time to save them. Through their collective efforts, they kill the aggressor and dig the well.
Moral of the story? Beware of strangers: they never wish you well.
However, for economic and political reasons, smaller countries cannot afford to live in isolation, they cannot afford to be fully self-sufficient. This is a basic geopolitical fact.
All small countries need to cooperate with the world, balancing their own national interests with various concessions to their allies.
Korean history teaches us that this practice has worked well for Korea over the centuries: living under the wing of the huge and culturally similar China provided Joseon leaders with centuries of remarkable safety and economic stability.
However, the idea of concessions to anybody, especially to the despised Chinese, is incongruent with the shiny image of self-sufficient and proud Koguryo.
Do not ask North Korean propagandists how the idea of the country, which does not need foreigners, coexists with condemnation of international sanctions which prevent North Korea from the trade with the world, or boasting about the fact that some “foreigners approved” of North Korean mineral water/Arirang games/Ryomyong apartments/Masik ski resort.
THE WRONG REFLECTIONS
The world knows many “small but proud nations” whose political elite keeps nationalistic lullabies for popular consumption yet soberly comprehends the actual place of their country in the world and communicates with stronger international partners in rational and pragmatic ways.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for North Korea. The Juche state allows no objective research of Korea’s past, and North Korean decision-makers are fed with the same tales of all-mighty militant Koguryo as a spiritual haven where Korea should return one day. Militarization, loyalty to the local chiefs, and repelling foreigners are the essentials for this return to that haven.
Who and what else did we need, the viewer is asked, with people, territory, and culture like that?
The application of the Koguryo myth, as understood and presented in interpretations of modern North Korea, right to later events in Korean history seriously distorts North Korea’s perception of history.
For the supporters of the Koguryo myth, it is difficult to see, for instance, that the Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 1900s resulted not from the lack of military strength or the collusion of the treacherous Choson nobility with evil foreigners.
Rather, it was the logical consequence of Korea’s technological backwardness in every sphere of life, which in its turn resulted from its long-term isolation from the rest of the world.
On the other hand, the economic and political stability of the DPRK under Kim Il Sung was not the consequence of his self-sufficient militaristic ideology, but rather was the result of North Korea being part of the socialist bloc which protected it with arms and provided it with free access to relatively modern technology and natural resources.
Although Kim Il Sung strove to act autonomously, cheating and manipulating his foreign protectors, this only made things worse for North Korea.
The Korean War is the most notorious of Kim Il Sung’s independent political decisions: he manipulated Stalin and Mao into approving his bellicose ambitions, and ended up bringing massive disaster on the country.
Today’s expressions of self-sufficiency schizophrenia by the North Korean elite are well known: an arrogant and dishonest treatment of foreign investors and professionals whose money and expertise North Korea badly needs, unpreparedness for any concessions and conflict settlements, and shoplifting diplomacy when the impulse to cheat a rich foreign patron overweighs long-term strategic considerations.
Among many things, these traits are further reinforced by their interpretation of national history, which can be seen so clearly in these cartoons.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today
While Western fans were impatiently waiting for the release of new episodes of “Games of Thrones," North Korean audiences were waiting for their own shows.Among them were new episodes of the lengthy children’s cartoon series “Boy General” and “Kochumong,” both set in the long-gone days of the Koguryo kingdom, which existed in the northern part of Korea in the first millennium AD.
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.