In North Korea in the early 2000s, there was an upsurge in interest in art about South Korea. This was inspired by the rapprochement of the two Koreas, brought about by the Southern-initiated Sunshine Policy.
A popular theme was the repatriation from the South to the North of 63 unconverted North Korean prisoners and spies, which began in 2000 under the initiative of the Kim Dae-jung administration.
Expectedly enough, North Korean official media did not recognize this gesture of goodwill from the South Korean government, and gave all the credit to then-ruler Kim Jong Il, whose personal influence had allegedly disarmed the South Korean “puppets.”
To emphasize the Dear Leader’s achievement, North Korean reports told the stories of the medieval torture that the patriots were subjected to, emphasizing the ‘bestial cruelty’ of the South Korean regime.
Though they did not specify exactly how, despite such unbearable treatment, these patriots managed to survive in the Southern prisons and leave them in one piece.
To the official propagandists, the repatriation of unconverted prisoners was indeed a real gift. The images of people who, in contrast to the masses of defectors, did not stay in the prosperous South but came back to the embrace of their impoverished homeland, was a fresh weapon in the struggle against the demoralizing influence of the encroaching capitalization on the Juche state.
The unconverted political prisoners became icons of North Korean media in the 2000s. Typical of the emotionalized propaganda of the Kim Jong Il era, particular attention was paid to the private lives of the ex-prisoners.
Many unconverted political prisoners were portrayed like monks, who sacrificed their private lives in the name of the Great Leader. These old male virgins were unable to find love and have happy families because of the South Korean regime’s cruel policies, which had them locked up in prison from a young age for their patriotic activity.
After they returned to Pyongyang, however, these elderly bachelors were compensated for their sufferings. Along with comfortable new houses and some social privileges, their socialist motherland bestowed special awards on its loyal servants: brand new attractive wives.
As is characteristic in North Korean media, loyalty to a person was presented as loyalty to their political agenda
The “award wives” were seemingly much younger than their elderly spouses: for example, the wife of an ex-political prisoner Ham Se-hwan, who was over 70, managed to give birth to his first child. In Cheong Seung-il’s “Bachelor years” (2004), he comments on the situation as follows:
“O, the green bachelor years! When you leave
You will never come back
The prison bars of the Southern land
I turned into a grey-headed bachelor of sixty five years
And in Pyongyang which I dreamt about so much
I have finally met my first wife.
Sorry, my beautiful woman,
Because though when I met you and held your hands
My body was virginal
But my head was grey.”
With the information that the marriages occurred immediately after the prisoners had come to Pyongyang and that the wedding banquets were organized by Kim Jong Il himself, one can deduce that most of these marriages must have been prearranged, if not forced.
However, the “award marriages” between ex-prisoners and younger women were presented as the politically conscientious unions of both parties.
Commenting on the wedding photo of ex-prisoner Ri Chae Ryeon (in his fifties and the youngest of the group of repatriated ex-prisoners) with his younger-looking wife Kim Keun-sun, the journalist exclaims: “their faces bespoke that till the end of their life they will be closest comrades and companions on the road of realization of the revolutionary deed.”
A lot of the material in Korea Today ecstatically praised the loyalty of the wives of those who had married before being taken prisoner. They had waited 30-40 years for their husbands to return.
As is characteristic in North Korean media, loyalty to a person was presented as loyalty to their political agenda.
The lives of these wives were presented as being exemplary. While their husbands were suffering in a South Korean prison for the good of the state/Party/Leader, they had also been devoting themselves to the same state/Party/Leader back in North Korea.
While waiting for her husband, the wife of ex-political prisoner Ryu Yeon-cheol not only took care of their children but also graduated from two universities and became a director in a factory.
In her interview, 80-year old wife of Pang Chae-sun claimed, “I waited for my husband for 47 years. I did not want him to return with a piece of gold. I just wanted him to remain loyal to the state; I wanted our love to be pure.”
To the official propagandists, the repatriation of unconverted prisoners was indeed a real gift
None of these accounts described the family situations of prisoners who used to have South Korean wives. Apparently none of those wives demonstrated the qualities essential for the perfect ‘road companions’ of these exemplary heroes.
What did not become the subject of documentary reports, however, became the subject of artistic fantasy.
For example, the lengthy novel The Storm Fills the Big Sail (2005), by Hong Seok Jung — who also wrote the scandalous erotic novel Hwanjini (2002) and is the grandson of the renowned author Hong Myeong-hi — dealt with the marital affairs of the unconverted political prisoners.
Hong tells the story of a romance between a South Korean woman, Sun-heui, and a North Korean spy, Pak Seun Je. They marry, have children, and then divorce after Pak is detained.
The author emphasizes that this sad romance embodies relations between the two Koreas and the fundamental natures of the two Korean peoples.
AN EXOTIC FRUIT
Sun-heui, this supposed embodiment of the South Korean spirit, is a childishly innocent soul. Her eyes remind one of “a scared deer,” her laugh is the “cute laugh of a pure child,” and her jokes are sweet and naïve.
Her childish innocence makes Sun-heui socially vulnerable. Before she meets her husband, Sun-heui had lost her property at the hands of a sly swindler and tried to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge; Pak Seung Je, who happens to be nearby, saves her from the Han River.
The narrator constantly stresses that “there is something very traditional in Sun-heui’s looks,” and compares Sun-heui with the wholesome heroines of the novels of the 1930s-1940s:
“The girl seemed to be surrounded by cool air. Hers was the appeal of serene “Miryang Ariran” to which contemporary loud electronic music did not fit… It was an appeal of ancient folk songs which went back to the depths of history, the appeal of kayageum music.”
For all the innocence and traditionalism of South Korean heroine, the novel is brimming with sensuality.
Though the novel does not have any sex scenes, it is permeated with the theme of physical passion. If in regular romantic stories North Korean authors barely endow their female lovers with anything more than “glowing/bright eyes” and a “beautiful smile,” The Storm Fills the Big Sail contains long depictions of Sun-heui’s body, whose lines remind the “tempting curves of a ripe exotic Southern fruit.”
The illustrations by Kim Weon-tae, which make this Asian female look like a voluptuous Italian,reinforce the message.
The novel widely employs olfactory idioms. These are highly unusual in North Korean prose.
The lovers constantly inhale each other’s pheromones: Sun-heui loves her husband’s bodily smell with a touch of tobacco; her bodily aroma excites Pak Seung Je to the extent that he cannot concentrate when sitting on their bed, even when she’s not there.
This sensual rhetoric is complemented with a romantic one. Like characters in Victorian literature, Pak Seung Je and Sun-heui exchange long love letters. Pak feels that his young wife is so refined that he does not dare to call her manura (a slightly derogatory way of saying ‘missus’).
Thinking about his love for Sun-heui, Pak quotes old poems and generously uses poetical romantic allusions: “The glasses which love wears makes gold from copper, makes a poor person rich, and turns a spark into a pearl”; “I could not resist the glow of her eyes. This flame got inside me like a snake.”
NO REVOLUTIONARY WIFE
But the unusual vibrancy of this love lacked one essential quality: political and ideological unity. This is what torments the revolutionary hero.
Unfortunately, he feels that Sun-heui is unable to distinguish between good and bad and break through the habits of her social circle. For example, she has a penchant for decorating their house with second-hand Japanese goods, thus creating “Japan within Korea.”
Pak jokes that birds choose the cleanest feathers when they make their nests, but she decorates her house with Japanese trash. Sun-heui feels hurt by her husband’s jokes and cries, unable to understand the truth behind his words and share in his national pride.
“Sun-heui knew that I was a “red,” who had been born in the North, but she never raised any questions about my ideas or political concepts. Nor did I.
“In fact to sit in front of Sun-heui and discuss politics would be totally out of place, like putting the words of a march to the melody of the popular song “Chinju, the road of a thousand li”…
“She belonged to the sentimentalists, and I naturally hated sentimentalism.
“Yet, for some strange reason, I could not reject her sentimentalism. Even if I did not sympathize with it, I felt a strange compassion and attachment to her.
“It was like a grafting of two directly opposing souls. Or, even better, a symbiosis.”
The author emphasizes that this sad romance embodies relations between the two Koreas and the fundamental natures of the two Korean peoples
Pak feels that his relationship with Sun-heui is wrong. The words of his comrade Ri, a more experienced underground fighter, reinforce his doubts:
“It does not matter what social layer your partner comes from. What makes a real love is friendship, comradely love and shared common interests…
“Ancient people used to say that ‘marriage based on love is fun,’ but if this love has no meaning and content, if you marry a woman only because of her charm, it is as stupid as going to the market and buying a useless thing only because it is pretty.”
Pak, nevertheless, justifies his feelings in a rare way for the standards of North Korean literature:
“While love indeed has to have meaning and content, I am not sure if my love to Sun-heui has any friendship, comradeship, or common interests. I just know that I love her… Love permits everything and forgives everything.”
LOW AND HIGH PASSIONS
Contrasting his wife with the ideal partner of his comrade Choe, Pak compares his wife’s “extraordinary, sweet flavor of exotic fruit” with the “plain and clean aroma of a Korean apple.”
Choe’s wife took care of their three children all by herself for years while he was in prison. She also used to bring him special food and medicine.
When Choe was transferred to another prison in a different city, she followed him. And after he had died in prison, Choe’s wife still remained loyal to him.
Pak felt that Sun-heui would not be able to meet the high standards of Choe’s wife.
The South — like the body of Sun-heui — may be refined, sexy, and attractive like an exotic fruit, but it lacks the wholesomeness of a plain apple
Nevertheless, the protagonist cannot find the strength to break off the ill-suited romance. In the end, it is Sun-heui who deserts him when he is sent to prison.
When Sun-heui visits Pak in prison with their child, she is so scared by the sight of her husband’s terrible condition that instead of helping him she simply cries:
“An innocent woman who did not know falsity or how to show off, she knew that she had to take this as it was, but she simply could not. She wept because of this huge spiritual burden. Who can be blamed for not being able to weigh a huge rock on a small plate of scales?”
Under pressure from her relatives, Sun-heui sends her imprisoned husband divorce papers. She also gives him a final letter, in which she explains that she still loves Seung Je but does not have the strength to fight and lacks his firm belief.
Though deeply hurt by his wife’s betrayal, Pak does not blame her. He feels that their separation is symptomatic of the eternal separation between the north and south of their country.
After many years in prison, Pak, along with other prisoners, is freed as a result of Kim Jong Il’s intervention. At the end of the novel, Pak is “on the way to the embrace of the Big Love, the love of Kim Jong Il.”
BLINDED BY HIGH PASSION
The novel takes a condescending and patronizing approach toward South Koreans.
The South — like the body of Sun-heui — may be refined and attractive like an exotic fruit, but it lacks the wholesomeness of a plain apple that is embodied in comrade Choe’s North Korean wife.
Lost and miserable, South Koreans need guidance, which is what the Northern-oriented unconverted political prisoners — with their strong belief in Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — should provide them with for the common good.
However, upon closer inspection, the unconverted political prisoners fail as mature guiding figures. Pak Seung Je’s ‘boundless trust’ in the North Korean leaders is in fact the same irrational, blind passion, that characterizes his attraction to Sun-heui:
“I do not remember all the words which the Marshal said. My whole soul was captured by his bright splendor.”; “The magnificence of the sun can only be felt by heart; you cannot express it through words.”
In Pak’s opinion, those who do not understand the greatness of the “Sun-leader” must have a faulty heart: “in the eyes of the blind even the sun is dark.”
Summoning South Koreans to join the club of the Great Leader lovers and indulge in “high passion,” in which apparently emotions trump reason, the novel suggests no rational advantages for the DPRK’s political and social system over that of South Korea’s.
South Koreans would hardly ask for a guide like them.
Edited by James Fretwell
In North Korea in the early 2000s, there was an upsurge in interest in art about South Korea. This was inspired by the rapprochement of the two Koreas, brought about by the Southern-initiated Sunshine Policy.A popular theme was the repatriation from the South to the North of 63 unconverted North Korean prisoners and spies, which began in 2000 under the initiative of the Kim Dae-jung
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.