Collapsist Narratives and State Strength: Reading The Interview through Han Sorya’s Jackals

By | February 18, 2015 | No Comments

Among a cornucopia of colorful propaganda entreaties, this poster calls for the "American imperialists" to be "wiped from the earth." | Image: Chosun Central TV

Midst a cornucopia of colorful propaganda entreaties too diverse to describe in its entirety, this poster calls for the “American imperialists” to be “wiped from the earth” (bottom left, in black print). | Image: Chosun Central TV

Stephen Epstein opens his 2002 Acta Koreana paper on the reading of millennial North Korean short stories with a quote from a 1999 piece from Chosun Munhak, the most famous and widely available DPRK literary journal. In it, writer Ri Chun-gil regards the dawning of the new century with mixed emotions. “Not many years ago the 21st century seemed as remote as the end of space,” he muses, “but now we have reached its cusp.” While Ri–quite understandably–stops a long way short of an honest accounting of the previous four years of North Korean history, the implication is perhaps evident: that many thousands of people were nowhere near as fortunate as he, for they did not make it into the new millennium at all. 

Needless to say, ideologies and descriptions survive trying conditions far more readily than the people who are made to internalize them. Look at Han Sorya’s conception of Americans as “jackals,” a 65-year-old wartime description of an enemy but one that never went away–a bit like the war itself, one might argue. It came back with renewed venom in the media’s excoriation of “lantern-jawed” US Secretary of State John Kerry last August. In this essay, David Fields looks through the Han Sorya lens at another vitriolic North Korean response–to The Interview–and digs for conclusions as to what it all means. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.   

Collapsist Narratives and State Strength: Reading The Interview through Han Sorya’s Jackals

by David Fields

As The Interview opened in Europe and Brazil, a broader audience learned what Americans who had seen the film already knew. It is raunchy, in poor taste, and replete with tiresome portrayals of Asian female sexuality and gratuitous references to Korean canine consumption. At a macro-political level it also perpetuates the myth of North Korean “collapsism” that prevents many from taking North Korea seriously and stunts the development of a policy beyond the “wait and see” approach. The Interview feeds the mistaken hope that the Kim regime is just a façade, that North Korea is a giant theater with elaborate props, and that popular discontent is brewing just below the surface, perhaps just waiting for a little foreign stimulus to encourage the masses to tear the whole structure down.

In the film’s climactic scene the protagonists assassinate Kim Jong-un using a Soviet tank gifted to Kim Il-sung by Joseph Stalin. The ironic visual gag reassures viewers that North Korea is an apparition of the Cold War and sooner or later will go the way of the Soviet republics, collapsing under the weight of its own mismanagement and brutality.

This has been the hope of many in the West for more than two decades, yet it has not happened. The Kim regime appears to be built on a different and much firmer foundation than the constituent parts of the former USSR. It maintains the support of the country’s elite and essential bureaucrats with state largess, and deals mercilessly with political enemies. For everyone else, the regime has supposedly mastered the art of underdevelopment as a means of social control. The majority of North Koreans live in poverty, isolated in rural communities or small towns.[1] Subsistence takes up any spare time that might–in principle–be used for political activism. Isolation, not just from the outside world but from each other, is a fact of life. Atomization is reinforced by the poor transportation infrastructure. North Korea has only 754km of what could be considered highways. The South Korean Ministry of Unification estimates that less than 10 percent of roads are paved. The decrepit public transit system would be inadequate to allow North Koreans to move freely even if they were permitted to, which they are not.[2]

Back issues of the DPRK literary journal Chosun Munhak on display in Seoul. | Image: Ministry of Unification

Back issues of the venerable DPRK literary journal Chosun Munhak on display in Seoul. | Image: Ministry of Unification

The Pen: Mightier than the Treasured Sword? | While North Korea certainly shares much in common with the communist states of the Cold War, it also had a strong independent streak. It adopted Soviet symbolism for use in state iconography, but with significant changes. In North Korea the “hammer and sickle” became the “hammer, sickle, and brush,” a testament to the importance the regime placed on intellectuals and writers as guardians of the revolution. Through the decades the regime has invested greatly in constructing a narrative that holds North Koreans together. This ardent ethno-nationalist narrative casts every North Korean in a struggle for the survival of their race and gives meaning to the harsh realities of North Korean life. They are taught that the Korean War was a war of extermination waged against them by the Americans and that the United States continues to keep American forces in South Korea looking for an opportunity to destroy them as a people. This American threat is used to explain their abject poverty, the necessity of placing military development over everything else, and the concentration of power in the hands of a single dynasty, which has “proved” it knows how to handle the American threat. Casting their struggle as one of racial survival has led to anti-miscegenation laws and measures that give North Korean ethno-nationalism a tinge of “pure race” ideology. A 1963 law forced all North Koreans to divorce their non-Korean spouses or face internal exile.[3] A 2014 UN report documented evidence that North Korean women repatriated from abroad were given blood tests and forced to have abortions if found to be pregnant. As BR Myers pointed out in The Cleanest Race, North Korean ethno-nationalism portrays Koreans as especially pure and virtuous, characteristics which stem largely from their homogeneity, while portraying Americans as the embodiment of evil, decadence, and greed.

If it was only about a different country, The Interview is the sort of film that the Kim regime would love their people to see. The promiscuity, drug use, meaninglessness of American culture—which is what pushes Seth Rogen’s character to try to secure an interview with Kim Jong-un in the first place—and the impunity with which the CIA executes its plan to kill a foreign leader are all things the Kim regime would like the ordinary citizens of North Korea to believe are characteristic of the United States and its government.

One of the most famous images of novelist Han Sorya. | Image: Wikicommons

Famous novelist Han Sorya, author of The Jackals, 1951’s quintessential North Korean wartime portrayal of Americans. | Image: Wikicommons

The Day of the Jackal(s): North Korean Portrayals of Americans | These caricatures of the United States and Americans are rather tame by North Korean standards, however. Han Sorya’s 1951 novella The Jackals, long considered a classic of North Korean literature, sets the standard for North Korean views of Americans.[4] It tells the story of Sugil, a poor Korean boy who is beaten into a coma by an American missionary’s son for playing with a ball that the latter had discarded. When the missionaries realize the extent of Sugil’s injuries they deny the attack but invite him into the missionary hospital for treatment. Fearing reprisals once the truth is known, they collude with an American doctor to murder Sugil via lethal injection and cremate the body to hide their deeds. Throughout the story, Han describes the Americans in bestial terms, with snouts and claws, and devoid of any respect for Koreans as people. The only admonishment the American boy gets from his father is for beating Sugil with his “sacred hands” rather than with a stick as he would a “n***er.” North Koreans are not kept totally ignorant of some aspects of American history.

It would be easy to minimize the importance of this novella and its overtly racist language as fifty year-old overheated war propaganda, not unlike the American “Beat Back the Hun” campaigns of World War I. The difference is that The Jackals is still popular, and the term has become synonymous with Americans. The novella has been reprinted many times, most recently in 2003 with an accompanying essay entitled “The Jackals Are Alive Today.” Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s major daily newspaper, still regularly uses the term “American imperialist jackals” [미제승냥이] or simply jackals to refer to Americans, sometimes seeking out “experts” on the American character such as one “Mr. Ma Hye Song,” a wild animal trainer at the North Korean National Circus. Mr. Ma assures his readers that some animals cannot be tamed and notes that the geography of the US makes it a good habitat for jackals.

Last summer, when North Korean media attacks on American leaders drew international headlines, many stories focused on insults aimed at John Kerry’s appearance, trying to figure out how to translate the colorful language used to describe Secretary Kerry’s chin. Most translators chose to render the insult [흉물스러운 주걱턱] with the term “horrendous lantern jaw” for what could have been more literally translated as “paddle jaw.” They took the same approach when translating the other epithets in the piece, reporting that Kerry had been called a “wolf donning the mask of a sheep.” In fact the term used was jackal (승냥이) and just so no one would miss the reference in Korean, Kerry was compared to a jackal eleven times in the article. Such insults almost seem comical, and tend to be reported with a comedic air, but when one understands the cultural context of the term “jackal” and realizes the images it likely stirs in North Koreans minds—of American child-murdering missionaries—it becomes significantly less funny.

The Jackals, and the pseudonym of Americans that it has become, shows a very real dark side to North Korean propaganda. Unfortunately it is far from unique in North Korean literature. In an excellent essay on racism in North Korean literature,[5] Tatiana Gabroussenko assembled numerous other examples of American barbarity against Koreans, such as of an American teacher breaking the hand of a Korean pupil for damaging a flower in her garden or of American doctors harvesting living organs from North Koreans to transplant into rich Americans. Dr. Gabroussenko points out, however, that not all depictions of Americans in North Korean literature are so overtly racist. She discusses at some length the 1998 short story Enchantment, a fictional depiction of Jimmy Carter’s 1994 visit to Pyongyang, in which the Carters are integrated into the North Korean “good foreigners” trope—meaning that after meeting with Kim Il-sung, the Carters–like North Koreans–come to recognize his “moral and physical” might and quite literally fall in love with him. Rosalynn Carter, then 67, is described as if she was a young girl struck with a physical attraction to Kim Il-sung that borders on sexual. Under the enchantment of the “Great Leader,” Carter himself comes to realize Kim’s “inner beauty” and becomes ashamed of his country and countrymen. Dr. Gabroussenko argues that this depiction of the Carters is anti-racist because it shows that Americans too can become like other good foreigners who are capable of recognizing the moral purity of Kim Il-sung just as Koreans do. This may well be true, but Enchantment also reinforces another key aspect of North Korean propaganda that Myers and others recognize: that one of the Kim family’s principal claims to power is its ability to manipulate foreigners, whether it be by bewitching American leaders like the Carters or by “intimidating” them into delivering food aid, which the regime frequently portrays as “tribute.”

No Puppet, All Puppetmaster: What The Interview Got Right | And this is perhaps where The Interview struck a North Korean nerve. The Kim Jong-un of The Interview is far more realistic than any previous depiction of a North Korean leader, not only because he is played by a flesh and blood actor (unlike the puppet portraying Kim Jong-il in Team America: World Police), but also because he is a master manipulator. In the film the fictional Kim nearly manipulates the protagonist Dave Skylark into playing the role of the “good foreigner” through his charisma, openness, sensitivity, and gift giving. In the end, Kim Jong-un’s plans for using his interview as a propaganda coup unravel only because Skylark finally overcomes Kim’s manipulation and a trusted lieutenant refuses to stop the interview when it takes an embarrassing turn. In this one scene two key pillars of the North Korean narrative are called into question: Kim’s ability to manipulate foreigners and North Koreans’ unfailing loyalty to their leader. The killing of Kim Jong-un in the following scene was only the icing on the cake. Kim Jong-il had previously been killed on Hollywood screens, but in a context so ridiculous it hardly garnered a reaction. Presenting Kim Jong-un as a master manipulator of foreigners was the one thing The Interview got right. Showing Kim lose control over those foreigners was one of the principal things that made the film dangerous.

For these reasons The Interview is a film the Kim regime does not want North Koreans to see. The regime knows that it no longer completely controls the media consumption of its citizens and hence its campaign to kill the film prior to release and, that failing, reports of measures cracking down on foreign media consumption in North Korea to prevent its citizens from seeing it. Still the scenario of a North Korean collapse as laid out in The Interview is as implausible as the on-screen relationship between Seth Rogen and Diana Bang. The portrayal of Kim Jong-un in The Interview can hardly be expected to have the same effect on real North Koreans as it did on fictional ones. The Kim regime has faced much more serious challenges to its narrative before, most significantly the “Arduous March” period of the early 1990s, and yet it did not collapse.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Kim regime has a compelling narrative for why their country suffers so, who is responsible for it, and who preserves their race in the face of such aggression. It ia likely not all North Koreans believe this narrative, but as several scholars have noted, if they do not then they have nothing else to believe in. This narrative alone would be powerless to hold the country together, but coupled with a lack of access to contradictory information and the horrible consequences of questioning it, it forms a crucial pillar in the surprisingly stable structure that is the Kim regime. The Interview is dangerous to the Kim regime in as much as it calls this narrative into question. It is dangerous outside of North Korea by feeding the collapsist fantasies that many knowingly or unknowingly harbor. The longer “collapsism” remains the intellectual foundation of anyone’s North Korea policy, the more dangerous the situation may become.


[1] The question of North Korean urbanization and its connection to rates of poverty is problematic from a research standpoint. Most sources, including the CIA World Fact Book and Nicholas Eberstadt’s Policy and Economic Performance put the number at 60 percent or lower, while acknowledging that no one knows what the North Korean standard for urbanization is; one also has to realize that the DRPK government has plenty of incentive to overestimate. In The Economist article cited, Go Myoung-hyun uses satellite data to suggest that urbanization could be as low as 25 percent. North Korea does not provided meaningful data on poverty within the country. The CIA World Fact Book estimates North Korea’s GDP per capita to be $1,800, but explains that estimations of North Korea’s GDP are educated guesses. Despite the lack of accurate statics, an abundance of anecdotal evidence from visitors and defectors points to widespread poverty.

[3] Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 18.

[4] “승냥이” literally translated means dhole, but is more frequently translated as “jackal” or “wolf” for English-speaking audiences. While The Jackals is hardly known outside of North Korea several scholars of North Korean literature have published interesting reviews of it. See BR Myers, Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1994); Alzo David-West, “Savage Nature and Noble Spirit in Han Sŏrya’s Wolves: A North Korean Morality Tale,” Transnational Literature 4 no. 2 (2012); and Jerôme de Wit “The representation of the enemy in North and South Korean literature from the Korean War,” Memory Studies 6 no. 2 (2013): 146-160.

[5] Tatiana Gabroussenko, “Americans in North Korean fiction: questioning racism in North Korean propaganda,” Korean Studies in Shift-Proceedings of the Pacific Asian Conference on Korean Studies, New Zealand Asia Institute, 2011.