Image: Still from the North Korean film "Kind-hearted girl"
Among the many novelties that the 1990s brought to North Korean mass culture is the theme of the adoption of orphans who lost their parents during the ‘Arduous March,’ the famine that devastated the country toward the end of the century.
This trend introduced some interesting additions to the conventional Juche discourse of care for children and orphans.
DEVALUING THE “CALL OF BLOOD”
Traditionally, North Korean official discourse has played down the special bond between parents and children, considering state care as more beneficial to a child than living in a regular family.
Juche arts pushed the idea that in North Korea parents only give life to children — the Mother Party and Father Leader are their real parents, the ones who raise them.
Kim Cheol’s seminal poem, “Mother,” contrasts the love of the Party with the love of biological mothers, concluding that the Party’s love is of much greater importance.
This downplaying of the role of biological parents came hand-in-hand with the promotion of the idea of wider blood ties, which connect all North Korean citizens.
The popular song “We envy nobody” contains the characteristic North Korean line “We are all blood brothers and sisters.” This concept is designed to overcome secluding people in the frame of their immediate families and expand their spiritual ties to the societal level.
While the North Korean regime appreciated the family as a tool of control over a person’s life and claimed that parents are responsible for a child’s upbringing, it viewed parents as inferior to teachers or Party cadres, who are representatives of the state.
Popular films, such as “Problems of our relative’s house” and “School parents,” show that “the call of blood” often prevents parents from performing their duties in a rational way.
In both films, parents spoil their children, and are able to improve their parental skills only by following the advice of schoolteachers — often much younger, childless women who nevertheless serve as authoritative transmitters of Party wisdom in pedagogy.
MOTHER PARTY KNOWS BEST
North Korean discourse concerning care for orphans was driven by the same logic. For decades, official propaganda only promoted the collective way of looking after orphans.
While North Korean films and fiction occasionally detailed motives for private adoption, these were referred to only in passing, with no specific mention of the virtues and sacrifices of those who adopted.
The films “Son of earth” (대지의 아들, 1963) and “Settlers” (개척자들, 1984) depict adoption in a matter of fact way, with the children simply swapping one house for another.
North Korean official propaganda played down family adoption while glorifying state orphanages. The feature film “The country which I saw” ( 내가 본 나라) presents North Korea through the eyes of a visiting Japanese journalist.
In the film, the journalist meets a family of five repatriated orphans he once met fifteen years ago in Nagasaki before their departure to North Korea. Now in Pyongyang, he finds them thriving under the care of the Leader. They all grew up in the same state orphanage and became well-established members of North Korean society.
There’s a special place in North Korean propaganda for Mangyongdae boarding college, which takes care of the children of revolutionary martyrs and was allegedly organized by the “Mother of Korea” Kim Jong Suk, the wife of North Korea’s first ruler Kim Il Sung.
The opportunity to entrust fatherless children to such an orphanage is presented as a special blessing to their widowed mothers.
In the popular film “Traces of life” (생의 흔적, 1989), the heroine loses her husband in a battle with an unspecified “enemy” and is left with their two children.
Her single parenting is presented as an endless torment. A weak woman, she is unable to discipline her young son, and only the manly interference of the local Party secretary helps to bring the boy to his senses.
The ultimate solution presents itself as the opportunity to send the unruly boy to the Mangyongdae college. There is not a hint of sadness in the scene where the son is separated from his mother — it’s accompanied by a song about the ‘true mother’ of each North Korean: Mother Party.
THE EMERGING THEME OF FAMILY ADOPTIONS
Since the mid-1990s, however, North Korean media began to promote the stories of individual adoptions of orphaned children.
There’s a whole range of feature films that employ the motif of adoption as a central theme or a side story. Here are a few examples:
“Kid-hearted girl”(고마운 처녀, 1994): an unmarried female radio correspondent adopts an orphaned brother and sister.
“Bless you” (축복합니다, 2001): the girlfriend of the protagonist secretly adopts an orphan.
“Appointment in Pyongyang” (평양에서의 약속, 2012): a maiden dancer adopts the child of a deceased colleague.
“Firelight” (불빛, 2002): a Party secretary takes an orphaned brother and sister into his family in addition to his two own children.
“Move aside” (길을 비키라, 2001): an unmarried female worker adopts the son of a deceased colleague.
“Flame” (불길, 2008): a bachelor adopts the son of his deceased sister.
“Taehongdan Party secretary”(대홍단 책임 비서, 1999-2000): two adoptions, that of the Party secretary and his adopted daughter’s.
“Flower bloomed in snow” (눈속에 핀꽃, 2011): an unmarried female factory manager adopts several orphaned children of different ages.
The film “Kites in the sky” (저 하늘에 연, 2008): based on the true story of Mother Hero Seo Hye-suk (서혜숙), and the novel “Wolfberry” by Cheong Hyeon-cheol (구기자꽃, 2014), the tale of women who adopted more than ten children during the Arduous March.
The Mother Party and Father Leader are their real parents
The reasoning for promoting private adoptions is quite clear. The deterioration of the economy and the famine that followed caused an influx of orphans, and North Korean propaganda decided to solve the problem in the way it usually solves problems: by unloading its troubles onto the shoulders of regular citizens.
This shift in narrative did not imply the total rejection of previous discourse, however. North Korean ideologists strove to fit the new message into the conventional view of the Juche way of caring for orphans and imbue it with the necessary political messages.
INDIVIDUAL ADOPTION STORIES, JUCHE STYLE
No fuss made over family adoption
North Korean propaganda strives to strip stories of family adoption of any suggestion to the innate valor of adoptive parents, avoiding presenting them as acts of individual bravery.
After all, in the DPRK all people are brothers and sisters, so everyone is supposed to be happy to take parentless children into their families.
In “Kind-hearted girl,” members of the community are virtually competing for the right to take two orphans into their families.
The dormitory cleaner with a family of six children and aged in-laws; an aged Party secretary and his wife; the mother of the village Party secretary; a demobilized officer — all are eager to take on the life-long responsibility of looking after the two children and providing food for two extra mouths. Apparently, everybody in the North Korea of 1995 has plenty of energy and food.
The person who eventually gets the privilege of adopting the children is the young, attractive, unmarried woman Yeong-sim, a correspondent from the local radio who has just quit her job to join her parents who had recently moved to Pyongyang.
The adoption radically changes the course of Yeong-sim’s life: she’s recalled from Pyongyang, returns to the radio, and stays in the dormitory to take care of the orphaned kids.
When explaining her decision to adopt, Yeong-sim claims that she wants “to live an efficient life.” Thus, the author implies that Yeong-sim’s decision is related to her personal spiritual growth, not anything to do with saving the children — who are shown to be showered with presents and the attention of the community.
Orphans as singular cases
The existence of orphans is presented not as a systematic problem but rather as simply a series of singular occurrences. The deaths of their parents are explained as to be a result of their overworking for the sake of society or of an unspecified illness, not by famine.
In “Kind-hearted girl,” members of the community cannot come to terms with the shocking fact that “in our good world there are children left without parents.” Apparently, all other children in the DPRK are happy and well-off.
Party at the forefront
Following the tradition of Juche childcare, adoptive parents are expected to play the same submissive role in the lives of the adoptees as their biological parents. Those who adopt maintain that it’s not them but the Party, the state, and/or the Leader who are the real parents of the orphans.
Interestingly though, the local Party cadres only provide adoptive parents with spiritual mentoring. Any material assistance is out of the question.
In “Wolfberry,” the Party secretary visits the sick protagonist in hospital, encouraging her to take care of her health because “you need it to take care of the children entrusted to you by the Great Leader.” After hearing these words, the protagonist feels “as if her sickness has gone.”
North Korean propaganda strives to strip stories of family adoption of any suggestion to the innate valor of adoptive parents
While devaluing adoption, North Korean authors tend to spice up stories of individual adoption with additional motifs of self-sacrifice.
Adoption by bachelors
Adoption by attractive unmarried men and women is a popular motif.
Adoption prevents these people from enjoying their youth and spoils their prospects for marriage. Why they do it then is puzzling, especially since, according to official propaganda, every North Korean, including those who are married, is happy to adopt.
In most narratives, the unmarried adoptive parent is relieved to find out that their lover is happy to share the burden.
While the stories never deal with disabled children, they often include children with fantastic health problems, which the adoptive parent then overcomes in a heroic way.
I happen to have a close relative who is a surgeon, and every time I consult her about medical conditions described in North Korean works of art she thanks me for brightening her day.
In “The Kites fly in the sky,” an adopted girl begins to lose her eyesight, and in order to save her vision the adoptive mother donates her own conjunctiva. This procedure completely restores the girl’s vision, but causes the mother’s eyesight to deteriorate.
According to my medical consultant, the conjunctiva is never transplanted — even if it was, it would not improve someone’s eyesight in any case. The only thing that can be transplanted in eye surgery is the cornea, but this is normally taken from deceased donors.
In “Wolfberry,” a woman adopts a newborn child who is dying of malnourishment. A blood transfusion can save him, but they don’t have the necessary blood type in the hospital, and they refuse to take blood from the adoptive mother because she’s also weak herself.
When the mother (not a medical specialist!) comes home, she takes her own blood with a syringe and carries out a blood transfusion herself.
The transfusion almost kills her, but the baby begins to thrive – in reality, the baby would likely suffer any one of numerous possible complications.
These medical horrors apparently aim to add drama to the stories, that can’t be described as purely heroic for ideological reasons.
Trading biological children for adopted ones
In “The kites fly in the sky” and “Flower bloomed in snow,” the adoptive parents refuse to have children of their own in order to be better mothers for the orphans.
In “Wolfberry,” the mother sends her own daughter away to her grandma’s house after a conflict between her and the adopted children.
STORIES OF KINDNESS
Despite their unbelievable elements, films and novels about adopting orphans are, overall, quite realistic and interesting to read.
In “Wolfberry,” life poses never-ending questions to the adoptive family: where to find three tons of cabbage to make kimchi and survive winter; how to provide a school uniform for every child; how to get a runaway teenager to come home; where to get good study materials for the talented son so he can prepare for the entrance exam to the first Pyongyang school.
These narrations are charmingly optimistic and based on the presumption that “love is more important than blood” in parent-child relations.
“Wolfberry” includes an interesting moral dilemma. One adopted child, in addition to his trouble-making character, turns out to be a son of the person who once libeled the heroine’s brother, falsely accusing him in an industrial accident. The brother was sent somewhere for ‘remolding,’ where he died following the exacerbation of his chronic lung disease.
While some people expected that the family would send the boy away, the mother strongly objects to such an idea, asserting that the child should not be blamed for the sin of his parent. He will be her son forever.
The boy does not let her down, growing up to be a decent person and a loving son.
Above all, these are the stories of people’s kindness, which have been saving the human race since the olden days. Even Juche propaganda fails to spoil these eternal tales.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: still from the North Korean film “Kind-hearted girl”
Among the many novelties that the 1990s brought to North Korean mass culture is the theme of the adoption of orphans who lost their parents during the 'Arduous March,' the famine that devastated the country toward the end of the century.
This trend introduced some interesting additions to the conventional Juche discourse of care for children and orphans.
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.