A Roundtable Review of Dr. Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950

By | December 17, 2013 | No Comments

Background image near Folklore Village in Sariwon, DPRK | Image: David Stanley

Background image near Folklore Village in Sariwon, DPRK | Image: David Stanley

Dr. Suzy Kim, a historian and assistant professor at Rutgers University, makes ample use of uncovered historical documents in order to reveal the lived experiences and processes of a nascent North Korea during the immediate postliberation period. The arc of the book is bounded in the concept of the “everyday”—taking cues from Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, and Marxism. With a focus on the everyday(s), Sino-NK staff and contributors evaluate Dr. Kim’s work. While for some, Dr. Kim’s theoretical framework constitutes a welcome addition to historiography that tends to overlook personal narratives and alliances on the local level, others were not as welcoming. Though the finer points of the reviews differ, depending on the appreciation of the theoretical outlook, none disagree that Dr. Kim’s use of historical documents tells new stories about life in North Korea. — Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

A Roundtable Review of Dr. Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950

by Sino-NK

Kim, Suzy. Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950. Cornell University Press: New York, 2013. 328 pp. ISBN: 0801452139

Studying the Everydays Past to Understand the Present

by Adam Cathcart

Several years ago, at an event sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., some audience members sat up rather straight when Dr. Charles Armstrong used the word “fetishization” to critique scholarly fixation with Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il-sung’s utterances and records at the expense of more subaltern narratives in the history of the Korean War and its intense prelude.  The strong fascination in Cold War history with new documents the Soviet archives, the National Security Archive FOIA requests, the emptying of some of the CIA’s archival guts into the US National Archives, and not least the opening of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive—have given scholars much empirical data that certainly needs to be, and continues to be, analyzed with interest and even a certain fury.

Suzy Kim has taken a slightly contrary approach to the trend, and why not?  Digging in deeper to a well-known but far from exhausted archive of captured North Korean documents in College Park, Maryland, Dr. Kim has produced a worthy product of her explorations. Picking up where Charles Armstrong’s The North Korean Revolution left off, Suzy Kim moves within the “liberation/haebang” period of North Korean history, investigating the construction of the North Korean state from 1945-1950, and allowing her sources to lead her to the conclusion that North Koreans themselves supported the policies and reforms of the party led by Kim Il-sung.

Like Charles Armstrong’s 2004 book, Dr. Kim does not endeavor to interpret North Korea in this era as a slave-labor forged Stalinist javelin destined to be thrown with great force at the heart of the South Korean republic. Quite the opposite: the author instead drives forward a narrative of populist, if not conventionally “democratic,” cultural and political construction north of the 38th parallel. Indeed, she sets out to chronicle “everyday life of local villages undergoing a major transformation, instituting hands-on the radical changes in a revolution that no Soviet official could have orchestrated” (p. 7), adding further to our knowledge of life among Korean returnees in the North and North Korean women prior to 1950.

Such interpretations operate not simply as a kind of redemptive function for the North Korean project in history, they also move us closer to understanding how, for instance, Kim Jong-un might yet be able to appeal to North Koreans toward an ethos approximating that of 1946, and for these words to have some effect and ample context. Just as Ryoo Kihl-jae, the present Minister of Unification in the Seoul, studied North Korean land reform, it behooves our understanding of North Korea today to understand better the movements in the 1940s.

Everyday life in Pyongyang | Image: Matt Paish

Everyday life in Pyongyang | Image: Matt Paish

Successfully Seeking the “Normalcy” in Everyday North Korea

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Warren G Harding’s neologic and malapropic conception of “normalcy,” deployed during his campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1920, surely must be as far removed from the lives of ordinary Koreans living on the northern side of the 38th parallel as it is possible in conceptual or historiographic terms to go. However what constitutes and manifests as “normalcy” or normative practice or practices is in a sense a holy grail of North Korean studies, a unicorn of East Asian political and social analysis.

For the hegemonic, extra-colonial gaze of the post-1990s outsider, North Korea of any era appears as remote, bizarre, and incomprehensible as pre-colonial Papua, the ritualistic practice of socialist or Kimist national reverence as alien as post battle consumption of human flesh. However normalcy is achieved within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in a similar way to elsewhere and the processes of change and redevelopment of this reconstruction are similar to elsewhere, spurred by the imposition of the modern and the colonial, along with technological change and environmental impacts. Suzy Kim’s deeply interesting book Everyday Life in North Korean Revolution 1945-1950, seeks to assess the normative at a time of great political and social upheaval, from the perspective of, as the title asserts “the everyday.” This revolutionary time peculiar in the length of its gestation, the suddenness of its emergence and the externality of its participant actors appears historiographically as a series of revolutionary moments deriving first from a vacuum filled by Kim’s everyday, but followed by a reconstruction of social, political, and economic space imposed upon the political structures generated spontaneously by the “ordinary” inhabitants of the everyday.

In Kim’s most fascinating chapter, the author addresses her analysis of normalcy within the process by which this new reconstructive imposition inserts itself into the realm of the familial and the personal. This chapter of her book assesses the constructed narratives, which individuals within the new “revolutionary” space of North Korea were forced to mediate their social selves and familial pasts to the new political and structural reality through the construction and writing of personal narratives, narratives through which their political and revolutionary acceptability will be judged. Kim reveals to us the process through which the previous manifestations of normalcy and the normative are reconstructed and reframed by those same actors and participants of the everyday, who will themselves participate in future everydays and future normalcies. For Kim and for the reader, however, the non-presence or opacity of the everyday for women involved in the North Korean revolution is a real disappointment. It seems that while normalcy and the normative for at least one half of the populace will remain invisible, un-actualised or precluded by the continuation of everydays and normalcies from a previous political era.

In spite of this acknowledged absence, one that perhaps would have formed a key element of Kim’s analysis, Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945-1950 is an important analysis of the political and social interactions at ground level during what must have seemed to its resident participants as a tumultuous and acutely difficult time, even if it was replete with hope and aspirations for the casting off of previous colonized and exploited subjectivities. It is an intriguing insight into the lived reality of political historical moment from which, unlike in Harding’s campaigning aspirations, there would be and have been no return to once previous extant normalcies.

North Korean child writing

North Korean children practicing calligraphy in September 2009. | Image: Fresh888

Children of the Revolution: Childhood Policy and Practice in North Korea, 1945-1950

by Christopher Richardson

Although the most well-known memoirs of the North Korean gulag focus on childhood experiences, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy evinces a powerful portrait of childhood in a time of social and economic decay, little has been written of the experiences of North Korean children during the decades from the end of Japanese colonialism until the early 1990s. In other words, most of North Korean children’s history remains untold. Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 offers a bracing corrective, not only affording childhood policies, practices and experiences an important place in the early social history of the North Korean revolution, but locating them at the center of the construction of North Korean statehood and identity. Indeed, Kim argues that beyond the emancipation of women from traditional gender roles, the “rising influence of young people [was] arguably the most profound change in postliberation North Korea” (p. 119).

The revolution was, in many respects, a children’s revolution. Within three years, school enrolments soared from “below 50 percent” under Japanese colonialism, to “1,317,630 children of peasant families enrolled in schools throughout North Korea,” a figure Kim gauges as “an increase of 204 percent” (103). Women largely drove this new educational fervor, mobilized via the Democratic Women’s League. Apart from the obvious benefits for their children, kindergartens and primary schools freed women from (some) domestic obligations, permitting them to participate more fully in the workplace. The Law of Equal Rights for Men and Women increased the provision of maternity leave, and assisted new mothers to remain in the workforce with regulated nursing breaks, and restricted work hours (p. 185). Other reforms to directly benefit children were the 1947 Law to Eradicate Remnants of Feudal Practices, abolishing child marriage (p. 175), and laws protecting children from employment in hazardous labor (p. 38).

Such changes allowed the revolution to meet its goal of creating a largely numerate and literate society, whilst serving the wider goal of forging a post-liberation social, and ultimately state, identity (p. 105). Indeed, the kindergarten and primary school systems would constitute the first of several key institutions inscribing ideological orthodoxy and social orthopraxy on North Korean minds and bodies, shepherding citizens from childhood through kindergarten and primary school, through the Children’s Union to the Youth League, and ultimately revolutionary adulthood. Kim writes that the Children’s Union, founded in 1946, encouraged “collective learning” instead of individualism, whilst promoting civic virtue via exuberant social activities, such as singing, poetry recitation, camping, “making paper flowers to pin on voters during elections, drawing cartoons and posters for May Day celebrations, and holding concerts and plays to entertain villagers during labor mobilization projects,” along with arguably less wholesome activities such as “targeting children from Christian families in order to dissuade them from attending church” (p. 125). Then as today, the Union was careful to balance pedagogy with play, still at the core of contemporary North Korean children’s culture, in many ways unchanged since the era Kim so vividly describes.

As a doctoral candidate researching childhood policy and practice in the DPRK, it is rare to encounter another scholar who takes so seriously the experiences of children in the history of North Korean society and statehood. For me, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution is thus the most important contribution to North Korean studies this year. Yet my praise comes with some reservations. As Kim ruefully acknowledges, the early promise of the North Korean revolution would falter, as “older forms of inequality and exploitation were eliminated only to be replaced by different forms of hierarchy and domination” (p. 6). The revolution, as they say, devoured its children. To find out why, however, readers will need look further than Kim’s book, weakest when trying to explain how in June 1946, an emancipatory revolutionary movement passed a Labor Law, seeking to free North Korean children from labor in hazardous industries, yet evolved into a state that would literally breed Shin Dong-hyuk, and other children like him, for that very purpose. To label this “the common by-product of modernity” (p. 2) seems inadequate for the task. Kim is on firmer ground when recounting the discoveries of her vast archival research. Today, Kim Jong-un repeats his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s mantra that the “child is the king of the country.” To read Suzy Kim’s important new book is to revisit a moment in North Korean history when that seemed to be the case.

Rethinking Revolution, Everyday: A Fresh Take on the Chinese Cultural Revolution

by Mycal L. Ford

At the outset, Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 forces the reader to deconstruct conceptions of how we not only understand this notion of the “everyday,” but also the ways in which we conceive of “revolution”—especially in her juxtaposition of the Chinese and Korean revolutions. However, in order to compare China against Korea, Kim legitimizes the history of mass movements in Chinese society, most notably the Chinese Revolution, likely to support her overarching claim: that revolution trickles up, not down.

At times, the reader can become entangled in the great deal of theory and jargon embedded throughout much of the book, especially in her discussion surrounding the “everyday.” According to the author, the everyday is a modern concept inaugurated since the age of capitalism. In other words, the notion of the everyday followed the emergence of the free-market system, where time became tantamount to money. Kim writes, “the everyday functioned not as a duration of actual lived time, but as a concept, a commodified form of time in the age of capital… tied to the rhythm of production, exist[ing] side by side with the novelty of consumption” (p. 20). As she describes the manufactured elements of the everyday, Kim also goes onto explain that the everyday is the spontaneous moments in one’s life—those irresistible joyful sites unfettered by the capitalistic notions of time. Thus, the everyday is in opposition, and a direct response, to capitalism.

Following a relatively dense discussion surrounding the everyday, where revolutions take place, Kim makes a swift transition to the Cultural Revolution. Literature which emphasizes the creative dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are not as ubiquitous as other texts which focus on its destructive elements. In order to support her broader argument concerning the bottom-up processes to revolution, Kim legitimizes the Chinese Revolution. Rather than emphasize the destructive aspects of revolution, which can be “misleading and one-sided,” according to Kim (p.  22), she surprises the reader as she brings to the fore the revolution’s creative, experimental, even empowering dimensions. She emphatically writes, “Mao had given free rein to the students, workers, peasants and soldiers who became the primary agencies of the Cultural Revolution, decentralizing state power, and reviving the revolutionary fervor that had dissipated.…” Similarly, she goes on to cite Liu Guokai, a critic of Mao’s legacy: “people actually exercised their democratic rights such as freedom of speech, publication, assembly, and demonstration (p. 34).”  In both occasions, Kim suggests that the Cultural Revolution was more than destruction, but also a space between joy, uncaged by time or work, and the rhythm of production in which people were empowered—something likely to pique the reader’s interest.

Typically, the notion of revolution—in the context of China—conjures up painful images of suffering experienced among many Chinese. By placing an emphasis on the creative aspects of the Cultural Revolution, the author demonstrates how Mao Zedong’s bottom-up approach awakened the masses and transformed peasants into social agents of change. She opines, “irrespective of the ultimate assessment of the Cultural Revolution… it was [a] bottom-up process that radically transformed the experience of the everyday (p. 31).” Definitely the path less trodden, she remarks how the Cultural Revolution played an invaluable role in enlightening people, allowing space to exercise democratic rights (p. 34). The author points to how university students initiated mass movements throughout the country and criticized, denunciated, and verbally and physically attacked perceived threats to form their ideal society (p. 31). This spontaneity coupled with the mass political participation during the “Paris Commune” radically changed the power structures in the local municipalities, “as ordinary workers and peasants rose to positions of power… who, unlike their predecessors, looked, talked and thought like the people they represented (p. 31).”

In essence, by focusing on the creative elements of the Cultural Revolution, the author legitimizes the Chinese Revolution in order to demonstrate later in the book the similarities between China and its Korean counterpart to support her argument: that revolution does not trickle down; rather, revolution begins from rifts within the core of society in the everyday, and as those rifts manifest, the very foundations on which society is based is shaken—precipitating the complete reorganization of society, as in the case of Korea. Should the persistent reader persevere through the initial, theory packed chapters, only refreshing insight and analysis regarding the processes to revolution await.

Image: Gabriel Prehn Britto/Courtesy Flickr (Gabriel Britto)

Members of the Children’s Union–marked by their red neckerchiefs–ride the Pyongyang Metro in Septebmer 2012. | Image: Gabriel Prehn Britto

“Socialist Modernity:” a Romantic Marxist View of the Transitional Stage

by Matthew Bates

Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the Korean Revolution 1945-1950 draws directly from the 1,608,000 pages of North Korean Captured Documents at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, which is the premier archive publicly available on the period, although the lens of North Korean officialdom which presumably colors the documents appears insufficiently critiqued.

Kim gives foremost praise to her supervisor Bruce Cumings’ scholarship as “an inspiration for its rigorous pursuit of truth and justice while he remains a compassionate historian above all,” and path-breaking in going beyond “top-down focus to include social conditions,” which also represent her focus. But for those of us who find that sometimes in Cumings’ writing theoretical concepts seem to overwhelm the historical narrative that they purport to explain may have similar reservations about the interpretative framework of this work.

This “active subject” within socialist modernity feels particularly problematic for readers who believe that a core reason for the failure of the socialist project was the predominance of state power over individual initiative. I was struck by the resonance left by Brian Myers’ forthcoming account of this concept as the real meaning of Juche (p. 246). Indeed the conclusion notes that “the ‘conscious’ exercise of ‘autonomy’ and ‘creativity’… were to become the very elements of the Juche idea.”

Meanwhile, despite taking the experiences of ordinary people as its topic, the idea of greater social mobility under Japanese colonialism is largely treated contemptuously; the neutrality of terms such as “revolutionary justice” which she says was “meted out to colonial authorities and their collaborators, at times violently” appears unquestioned, adding that, “in the south, this period of autonomy did not last” (p. 44). On the other hand, the fears of Christians that those who did not vote may be sent to labor camps appear to be trivialized (p. 246).

For example, relatively liberal early periods can be seen in 1920s Soviet Russia under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, under Mao’s 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign, as well as in Korea under Japanese colonial with Governor Saito Makoto’s Cultural Policy. Given that from the authorities’ point of view Korea was in a sense pre-liberated, and the government did not need to assert its dominance to a degree comparable to the Japanese colonial government in Korea in the 1910s or the Bolsheviks between the October 1917 revolution and the early 1920s, it would follow that central power was consolidated in a relatively uncontrolled atmosphere.

The lens of “socialist modernity” seems to bias Kim’s interpretation of the primary sources onto which she offers a window. But at least it is a wide window, and her extensive translations of primary sources permit alternative interpretations.


All about the Benjamin: An Issue with the Concept of Socialist Modernity Applied to North Korea

by Peter Ward

Borrowing from Walter Benjamin, Suzy Kim creates a new concept of “Socialist Modernity,” as distinct from “Capitalist” and “Colonial” modernities. Benjamin’s ideas about the Soviet Union under revolutionary ferment in the 1920s do not seem all that relevant to a proper understanding of North Korea in the 1940s. North Korea, a country under Soviet Army occupation and whose officers were under instructions to construct a Soviet client amenable to Moscow, was not interested in recreating the relative cultural and social anarchy of Lenin’s Soviet Union of the 1920s. Rather than Benjamin’s tourist diary, another way to understand the revolution in the North Korean countryside might have been better to use make a comparative project using the oral history work that has been done in Russia covering the last hundred years, such as Orlando Figes’s recent book The Whisperers or Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism.

The other point of comparison that Suzy Kim makes use of in constituting this idea of socialist modernity is that of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. Jiangxi Soviet in the 1930s could function as specific comparison to Inje Country, a subject of Kim’s book. The Cultural Revolution was after all an urban event, whereas Inje County, the subject of the book, is decisively rural, as was the Jiangxi Soviet. Another interesting comparison might be Yenan under Communist rule in the late 1930s, a place where many Korean communists became actively involved in constructing a new socialist state.

The other important element of Suzy Kim’s foundation is the idea of Colonial Modernity. While she makes excellent use of studies dealing with the generalities of life under the Japanese discussion of local government and village life seems under-examined. Indeed, in the last ten to fifteen years there has a number of fascinating studies in Korean on local and regional governments under colonial rule – its main actors, structures and policies. None of this work seems to have made it into English yet, but the lack of reference to this work does this book a great disservice, dealing as it does with a specific locality and its governance. Indeed, the People’s Committees are partially the descendants of the youth groups (혁신청년집단), and Kim’s lack of reference to this is certainly a major issue with the book, in that it is an important legacy of colonialism on post-colonial North Korean governance.