Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: North Korean Literature at Masik Speed

By | December 20, 2013 | 16 Comments

Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang | Image: Stephan

Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang | Image: Stephan

We have reached the third week of Sino-NK’s 2013 Rewind series, this time a dedication to cultural and literary production in again a twin pairing of essays. As Brian Myers, robust intellectual sage of Dongseo University and author of The Cleanest Race might assert, North Korea’s cultural output depends on the narrative positionality of the reader/consumer, internal culturation appearing radically different to those exposed to external outputs. 

Thus, while we first considered the validity of reviewing the year from a high/low culture (considering North Korea as a “Kulturnation,” revealing perhaps its “Innerlichkeit”) it might be more functional to adopt an “inside/outside” strategy instead. So, in this week’s examination of North Korea’s “Weltanschauung” through the cultural lens, Benoit Berthelier, Sino-NK contributor at Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales/Yonsei University, delves deep within the “inside,” assessing the narratives of Pyongyang’s literary production in 2013, a year of revolutionary speed. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: North Korean Literature at Masik Speed

by Benoit Berthelier

Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have been the subject of many a North Korean novel, and Kim Jong-un was quick to follow in their footsteps. The Young Marshall made his debut as a literary character last year, appearing in several paeans, epics, and a couple of short stories prompting a timely and thorough analysis by Professor Kim Seong-su of Sungkyunkwan University. These early efforts at applying “Leader Representation Literature” (suryeong hyeongsang munhak; 수령형상문학) to Kim Jong-un intensified in 2013. While fictional representations of Kim Jong-un in 2012 tended to be brief, 2013 saw the publication of the first short stories entirely devoted the new Leader’s achievements.[1]

“Gratitude,” by Yun Kyeong-chan,[2] starts with what is perhaps one of the most common narrative settings in suryeong hyeongsang literature: Kim Jong-un traveling by car to “an on the spot observation” (hyeonji sichal; 현지 시찰) site with a party official. On the way, the conversation switches to Comrade Choi Han-seong, an army commander who recently came to the attention of the party for punishing one of his subordinates. Choi and his men had been dispatched to the Bukseong Machinery Factory by Kim Jong-un himself to help build “welfare facilities.”

Since the region is poor, the Marshall personally advised Commander Choi against accepting “relief material” (wonho mulja; 원호 물자, goods voluntarily offered by the people to the army) so as not to burden the locals. However, after one of his men falls ill, Platoon Leader Kang Cheol-ho lets the insisting villagers feed the ailing soldier fermented anchovies.

For accepting “relief material,” Commander Choi has Kang demoted to a lower rank.The people of Bukseong complain to the party about this harsh punishment, but Kang readily accept his demotion and performs self-criticism. Once the construction is over, the officer is restored to his former duties by Kim Jong-un himself.

Although overtly political and moralizing, the narration retains a light-hearted tone all throughout and Yun manages to fit in a couple of humorous scenes, such as when a local schoolteacher falls in love with Kang Cheol-ho forcing the oafish Commander Choi to play matchmaker for the girl.

relief material

Civilians sending “relief material” to soldiers. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

“The Promise of Fire,” by Kim Il-su,[3] starts with a symbolic scene of transmission. Traveling at night, Kim Jong-un is driving at full speed in the hope of catching up with his father’s vehicle. After arriving at the place where Kim Jong-il was supposed to spend the night, he notices tire marks on the road and realizes his father has already left. The owner of a nearby factory comes up to Kim Jong-un and gives him the worn-out gloves his father forgot to take with him. The story then switches to a more prosaic matter, the organization of large scale fireworks “In Our Style” (uri sik; 우리 식) which Kim Jong-un takes over from his father.

Transmission is also the main theme of “Our Heritage,” by Yun Jong-gil,[4] in which the author puts in parallel discourses on the continuity of the Kim clan and a story about an intergenerational conflict. A fresh military academy graduate, Oh Deok-chan is charged with compiling the latest research on military science into a book. When his father, Korean War veteran and retired strategist Oh Seong-gwon, asks to review the book manuscript, Oh Deok-chan flatly refuses, arguing that old military ways are of no use in today’s warfare theory. Dispirited, the old man starts thinking about his encounter with Kim Jong-un a few years earlier.

On the way to an inspection site, the Marshall had stopped to eat grilled potatoes with Oh Seong-gwon’s military unit and shared some of his thoughts on the way to uphold the revolutionary ideals of his father and grandfather. When Oh Deok-chan’s book is finally published, Kim Jong-un is surprised to find that the young man did not include his father among the reviewers. He proceeds to meet with Oh Deok-chan and explains to him the importance of learning from previous generations.

bathhouse

Swimming Pool at Pyongyang’s Changgwangwon bathhouse. | Image: Tongilnews

All three stories depict Kim Jong-un as a benevolent leader, frugal and close to the people, traveling the country to give people guidance: an image that would surely sound familiar to any readers of suryeong hyeongsang literature. But the way the Marshall is portrayed is not a mere imitation of the characters of his father and grandfather, and a closer look at these texts can reveal some interesting facts about the way the new Leader is presented to the North Korean people.

Kim Jong-il’s Legacy | The physical resemblance between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un had led some to speculate that the new Leader was trying to appeal to the memory of his grandfather rather than to his father’s legacy. However, while Kim Il-sung is often mentioned in the three texts, Kim Jong-il appears as the dominant figure–mirroring changes observed in other forms or propaganda–and Kim Jong-un is depicted as a devoted follower of his father’s vision. Furthermore, the fact that the army stands at the center of these stories is enough to remind us that Kim Jong-il’s Songun, or “military-first politics” (선군정치), is still alive and well on Kim Jong-un’s agenda.

“Let’s make a swimming pool with a paddling pool too and some sports facilities like a table tennis room. And wouldn’t it be nice if we also added a restaurant so that the factory workers can have some cold drinks and play go, Korean chess or computer games when they spend their break here?” The people of the factory could only be surprised by these words of the respected comrade Kim Jong-un who was going to build facilities of the like of Pyongyang’s Changgwangwon in this remote mountainous region of the Northwest.

– “Gratitude,” Yoon Kyeong-chan

Toward a Society of Leisure? |  In 2012, professor Kim Seong-su singled out the “discourse on improving the citizen’s lives” (inmin saenghwal hyangsang damnon; 인민생활 형상 담론) as one of the trends of literature at the end of Kim Jong-il’s era and the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s, which meant that light industry and daily necessities became the object of more literary interest. This trend is still going strong in 2013, and even seems to have taken another step.

Going beyond the improvement of citizen’s material lives, these new stories present the image of a leader who adds the circenses to the panem. “The Promise of Fire” deals with a spectacular firework. In “Gratitude,” after Kim Jong-un is informed that the “welfare facilities” being built in Bukseong will include a hair salon and a beauty parlor, the Marshall immediately suggests to add a swimming pool, a computer game room and a table tennis room. This shows a peculiar concern for leisure and entertainment, which might very well be a corollary to the construction of the Masik Ski Pass project, undertaken earlier this year “to provide the people with more wonderful cultural living conditions.”

“Masik speed,” North Korea’s new buzzword since June, has indeed already made its way into literature and criticism. The literary journal Munhak Shinmun republished Kim Jong-un’s Masik speech on its front page and before long, a few poems about the ski pass appeared in the pages of the journal, while stories such as Min Kyeong-suk’s “Fruits” (Yeolmae; 열매) were singled out for praise for exemplifying the combative spirit of “Masik speed.”

No piece of prose fiction seems yet to have been written about the works undertaken at the ski pass itself, but perhaps the subject is being kept aside for a full-length novel, in the continuity of the Immortal Guidance (bulmyeolui hyangdo; 불멸의 향도) and Immortal History (bulmyeolui ryeoksa; 불멸의 력사) series about Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.

The word ‘ski’ so unfamiliar to our ears / The word ‘ski’ that seemed so remote from our lives / Is now familiar to our ears and rings throughout our lives / Ho how nice will our future be

– “Outside the bus window, inside the bus window,” Ryu Myeong-ho[5]


[1] See, for example: Kim Sang-su, “Trends of the North Korean Literature in the Early Period of Kim Jong-un–With a Focus on the Analysis of Literature Newspaper and Chosen Literature (2010-2012)” [donghyang; kimjongun shidae choui bukhanhakmunhak: 2010-2012, “chosonmunhak,” “munhaksinmun,” bunseokul chungshimuro; 동향:김정은 시대 초의 북한문학 동향 : 2010~2012년 『조선문학』, 『문학신문』 분석을 중심으로], Minjok Munhaksa Hakhoe, 50, 2012.

[2] Yun Gyeong-chan, “Gratitude” [gamsa; 감사], Choseon Munhak, no. 10, 2013.

[3] Kim Il-su, “The Promise of Fire” [bului yaksok; 불의 약속], Munhak Shinmun, August 10, 2013.

[4] Yun Jeong-gil, “Our Heritage” [Urui gyeseung; 우리의 계승], Choseon Munhak, no. 9, 2013.

[5] Ryu Myeong-ho, “Outside the bus window, inside the bus window” [chachangpakkeneun chachanganeneun; 차창밖에는 차창안에는], Munhak Shinmun, July 6, 2013.

16 Comments

  1. Masik speed? What to say of daddy Kim Jong-il, who according to his biography wrote 1,500 books over 3 years?

  2. How on earth can Robert Winstanley-Chesters write this in the article preface: “Brian Myers, robust intellectual sage of Dongseo University”???

    This is the inflated, pompous rhetoric of panegyric and hero worship. Please DO NOT write like this. It is extremely backward and propagandizing.

    Sino-NK is supposed to be a “hub for reliable analysis” with an explicitly stated standard of “analytical rigor” (http://sinonk.com/about-us).

  3. Hi “reader,” thanks for the forceful command (with CAPS, no less). There is certainly a bit of hyperbole in Robert’s words. Don’t overlook that.

  4. Mr. Denney, Sino-NK is compromising and discrediting its own stated academic standards by using heavily biased, mythmaking rhetoric.

    This is not a joke. An academic news source has a responsibility NOT to disseminate hyperbolic misinformation about any individual person.

    The adulation “robust intellectual sage of Dongseo University” is cultish. The standard, objective journalistic references to Myers are as follows:

    * associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University
    * director of international studies at Dongseo University
    * director of the Department of International Studies at Dongseo University
    * expert on ideology at Dongseo University
    * expert on ideology and propaganda at Dongseo University
    * expert on North Korea at Dongseo University
    * expert on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University
    * North Korea analyst at Dongseo University
    * North Korea specialist at Dongseo University
    * professor at Dongseo University
    * professor of international studies at Dongseo University

  5. Mr. Denney, yesterday, I posted an urgent reply to your dismissive response by listing the standard, objective journalistic references to Brian Myers.

    All respectable online news agencies/websites identify Myers by his profession, academic rank, or area of specialization.

    When Sino-NK hyperbolically glorifies Myers as the “robust intellectual sage of Dongseo University,” that is willful misinformation and unscholarly mythmaking.

    My reply was awaiting moderation at the time. Since my reply is not here, I presume you — the Sino-NK managing editor — have decided to CENSOR me.

    Again, Sino-NK is compromising and discrediting its own explicitly stated academic standards by using rhetoric characteristic of a cult of personality.

  6. We didn’t censor you. Sometimes it takes us some time to moderate comments (i.e., approve them). We’re busy people. Apologies for that.

  7. Dear reader, I appreciate your attention to detail. This is not any old dependent clause you’re banging on about, it’s a six-word description of B.R. Myers, a galvanizing figure (to say the least) within the field of North Korean studies who through various essays & a beautifully-produced 2010 book has put himself most forcefully at the center of recent debates. No one at Sino-NK wants Dr. Myers to retreat into the (to us) relative wilds of American literary criticism, but I don’t think he has a bunch of uncritical myrmidons here, either. I take Robert Winstanley-Chesters’ use of “robust” as a highly accurate synonym for “argumentative”; while for all I know Dr. Myers enjoys mountain biking, this is not a hymn of praise for his physical qualities. “Intellectual”; hard to argue with that, although I do wish the copy editing on the _Acta Koreana_ article that serves as “the seed” for his new book discrediting the Juche ideology had been a bit more thorough. But we all must live with a few copy-editing errors on our conscious, no? “Sage”: Ah, this is it, the main word you’re taking issue with, since no one can argue that Myers is in fact a professor at Dongseo University. Had you been a part of our rather extensive copy-editing apparatus in December 2013 when this essay was going up, you surely would have raised the (red?) flag about this. Unfortunately, you were not copy editing for Sino-NK at the time and, speaking for myself, there was a great deal of action at the time elsewhere — something about Kim Jong-un’s uncle — which perhaps meant that the word “sage” managed to slip through the editing net (of which I am a part, and for which I’m ultimately responsible). At any rate, I took the passing reference as all in good fun — if you read the totality of Dr. Winstanley-Chesters’ published work, online and in print (and I believe I have, although it’s very difficult to keep up), I am certain that you will find that your worries are unfounded.

    As to the future at Sino-NK, your concerns over cults of personality academic and otherwise are well taken — we do strive and will continue to strive to be objective and rigorous. I would urge you to peruse our various author interviews and book roundtables, and to continue to scrutinize our introductions to extended essays — it’s nice, after all, to know that someone is reading them with such passion.

  8. Bonkers. U young tyros r apologists, not editors. Reader, ur right on this one.

  9. 인종차별적 외국인.
    마이어스는 아무것도 아니다.
    우리 교수님들은 더 좋다.

  10. you tell em steve and adam!!! that reader is a stinkin nazicommie!!!!myers is the worlds gretest authority on north kore and thats a fact!!!!!!only he has has the courage to tell the world this is a fascistnazi state rooted in fascism!!!!! we cant let thse nk fascistterrorists get away with there inernational war crimes!!!!!! i say we go in there with the USA anf do a gaddafi on those fat nazi kims assess and give the northkoreans DEMOCRACY!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Adam Cathcart, what you emotionally and unscientifically editorialize as a “beautifully-produced 2010 book” (i.e., _The Cleanest Race_ by Myers) is being described as hackwork and polemics by not a few serious scholars.

    Most recently, Prof. Gerd Jendraschek of Sangmyung University has these very strong words to say in his book review of _The Cleanest Race_:

    Myers “downplays synchronic and diachronic variation”; he “does not explain”; he “ignores counter-evidence … while exaggerating”; he “contradicts himself”; and he is “anecdotal … biased and speculative” (_Studies on Asia_, vol. 3, no.1, March 2013).

  12. Jacks write that North Korean are criminals. We should invade them like we did to Iraq and try them for war crimes. Myers book is our weapon to liberate them.

  13. “Beautifully-produced” : Melville House did a nice job with the graphics; this is *not* a full-on endorsement of the contents, which I also have many problems with, not least the uncritical and ahistorical draping of the mantle of “inheritors of Japanese fascism” on the DPRK. But I do appreciate the comment and especially the citation; thanks for reading and the contribution.

  14. I don’t have much peer-reviewed research that wades into B.R. Myers argumentation terrain, but I did write this a few years back, potentially of interest to Jane.

    http://adamcathcart.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/koreanist-schisms/

  15. I though Berthelier’s article was about North Korean literature not Myers.

  16. Precisely! But we got hung up on a single dependent clause that appeared in the intro to this marvelous essay.