Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

By | August 25, 2015 | No Comments

Kim Jong-suk and the azaleas

Kim Jong-suk: Indomitable Revolutionary | Image: Women of Korea

In the midst of a recent “state of semi-war” in North Korea, the country’s domestic media featured multiple portrayals of patriotic women steeling themselves ideologically for a showdown with external enemies of the revolution. For many women in North Korea, this process has been mixed with an intensified state focus on history. Old artifacts of Kimist loyalty such as “slogan trees” are re-emphasized through new songs and new music videos featuring the female voices of the new Changbong Band. On August 22, North Korean television showed one group of women marching up to Musan, a mining city along the Chinese frontier, and depicted their contemplation of monumental art depicting the young Kim Jong-suk engaging in acts of anti-colonial resistance. 

But for women simultaneously targeted by state messages about growing prosperity in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-suk’s journeying and struggles against the forces of Imperial Japan are marked by both an intense precarity and an extraordinary level of violence in their moments of altercation. Robert Winstanley-Chesters’ “…and did these feet in ancient times…” series published earlier this year will have acquainted readers with several permutations of the mythical woman of Baekdu. Amid the ongoing commemoration of North Korea’s revolutionary history, Winstanley-Chesters here urges us to consider evolutions in her narrative and the state’s paring-away of women whose exposure to imperial violence was intense. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Charismatic Politics: Kim Jong-suk’s Supporting Cast of Female Fighters

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

“Wreaths were laid before the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mt. Taesong on Saturday, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation…The participants paid silent tribute to the revolutionary martyrs who laid down their lives for the liberation, reunification and independence of the country and accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche…They laid bouquets before the bust of anti-Japanese war hero Kim Jong Suk and observed a moment’s silence.”1)Wreaths Laid before Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong,” Rodong Sinmun, August 17, 2015

The overt singling out of Kim Jong-suk amongst all the other revered residents of the cemetery on Mount Taesong at this utterly vital moment in North Korea’s political calendar suggests that the once humble share-cropper from Hoeryong certainly has assumed a uniquely important place in the narrative pantheon of Pyongyang’s political legends. Kim Jong-suk appears in 2015 alongside North Korea’s Great, Dear and Young leaders in a way unlike any other of its citizens. Within the narratology and historiography of North Korea, Kim Jong-suk now, alongside Kim Il-sung, overwhelms all other participants in these struggles and amongst this topography.

Pyongyang’s institutions urge North Korean citizens to re-temporalize and re-territorialize events from the period in contemporary time. This is done for the purposes of ideological reiteration or the transmission of political charisma — as we saw last year with the march of the school children and recently in the Red Flag Relay. 2)Red Flag Relay Groups of Service Personnel Arrive in Panmunjon,” Rodong Sinmun, August, 17, 2015. At the center of such drives are the experiences and encounters of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il — but rarely are any other revolutionary Koreans singled out as exemplary.

It was, as one might suspect, not ever thus; there is a substantial fluidity and transmutability of North Korea historiography and narrative. Kim Jong-suk’s own biography makes repeated reference to other participants in the revolutionary struggles, describing her companions and fellow travellers as “other female guerrillas.” These women play a role at the moment of conceptual consummation of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk’s relationship: (“Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo.”3)Biography of Kim Jong-suk (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 132. However, they are rarely, if ever, mentioned by name and their stories are not described in any useful level of detail in the texts of Biographies or core publications directly focused on Kim Jong-suk.

So where might we travel as readers and scholars to encounter or uncover the stories of other woman, a supporting cast if you like, who supported and fought with Kim Jong-suk and Kim Il-sung during the period from which North Korea derives so much of its charismatic political authority?

Women of Korea: North Korean “Herstory” | Archival research by this author in the libraries and institutions of South Korea and the Captured Documents collection of the United States National Archives and Public Records Administration in College Park, Maryland has uncovered a fascinating publication, Women of Korea. One of North Korea’s extraordinary collection of semi-academic, semi-populist English language publications produced for an audience in the wider world between the 1970s and 1980s, Women of Korea seeks to address in detail the experiences of women in many different fields of business and life in the North Korea of this time. Women of Korea also sought to be educative so far as North Korea’s political and historical narratives were concerned at their intersections with women’s lives and what has been called by critical feminist historians “herstory.”4)Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (New York City, NY, Random House), 1970

While such an approach to historiography perhaps unsurprisingly revolves around those most important to North Korean politics, such as Kim Il-sung and his “love and care” for women, the magazine includes narratives which are occasionally contradictory to its current political mainstream. A key example is the intriguing interplay of importance and centrality focused on Kang Ban-sok, Kim Il-sung’s mother, on the pages of Women of Korea throughout the 1980s. Kim Jong-suk does not appear in the magazine prior to 1981. Between then and 1984, Kim Jong-suk and Kang Ban-sok have an uneasy coexistence on its pages, and then Kang Ban-sok disappears from the narrative, seemingly not to appear again. It seems rather clear that the emergence and emphasis of Kim Jong-suk within North Korean history and myth is was connected to the succession campaign of her son, Kim Jong-il in the early 1980s, but this is not our focus here.

Between 1981 and 1992, Women of Korea featured an extraordinary monthly series focusing on a woman who accompanied or who was known by Kim Jong-suk during her guerrilla period. The series contains biographical details expounded about the women and their place within the wider charismatic political narratives. These articles form an important and extension corpus through which both the individual lives of these women can be glimpsed and in which perhaps familiar generic narratological tropes of the North Korean historical canon can be seen.

There is extensive focus, for example, on the similar backgrounds these women shared with Kim Jong-suk, whose childhood as an impoverished share cropper harassed by landlords and Japanese colonialists at the margins of Korean and diaspora life and the impact this had on her rapidly developing sense of nationalism is intricately detailed as a vector of her transformation in her many biographies. Choe Hui-suk, for instance, is described as having been “bereaved of her mother at the age of three. She and her father, a farmhand, barely got along under all kinds of exploitation, contempt and poverty.”5) Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25. Pak Rok-gum was born into a ‘poor peasant family in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province,6)“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26. similar to Li Gye-sun.7)“The Brilliant Last: Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter Li Gye Sun, Women of Korea 1 (1987): 27. Pak Su-hwan was even born in the same county, Hoeryong as Kim Jong-suk and grew up “undergoing all sufferings and sadness of a ruined nation.”8)“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.

Pak Rok-gum

Pak Rok-gum “brave as a lion in battles” | Image: Women of Korea

These women, similar to Kim Jong-suk utilize education as a transformational vector in their transformation from obscurity in the mass of Korean peasantry into politically inspired, committed revolutionaries. Choe Hui-suk, for example, “trained herself to be a woman revolutionary under the guidance of the great leader,”9)“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25. and Li Sun-hui was one of a “large number of women who were educated in the revolutionary idea” 10)“Liberty, then Life Counts,” Women of Korea, 3, 1991, 29.. Similar to Kim Jong-suk’s own experience, these women, having been bestowed with and transfigured by charismatic revolutionary consciousness, project this charisma through educative and agitative activities. Pak Rok-gun for instance apparently “concentrated her strength on bringing many women to class awakening and rallying them around the revolutionary organizations,”11)“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26. and Chon Hui is recounted as “having exerted herself to train the children to become fighters possessed of iron will, perseverance, courage and boldness.”12)“Chon Hui, Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Martyr,” Women of Korea 4 (1988): 20.

Crackshots and Angry Tigresses | Perhaps unsurprisingly this group of attendant female guerrilla fighters beyond their perhaps more positive educational contributions are equally adept at acts of combat and violence. Kim Hwak-sil, apparently called “woman commander” by her colleagues and comrades was a “crackshot” who “could hold a rifle by the barrel in each hand and lift them overhead.”13)“A Guerrilla Amazon: on Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25. Kim Il-sung himself presented her with a golden ring for “mowing down the enemy with a sharp-edged bayonet like an angry tigress, shouting out ‘Enemies, Come on! I’m avenging my comrades with this bayonet.’”14)“A Guerrilla Amazon,” 25. Pak Rok-gun was “as brave as a lion in battles…. She walked more than 15km a day with a machine gun on her shoulders,”15)“Eternity,” Women of Korea 2 (1990): 25. and Pak Su-hwan “fought bravely in many battles including those at Chechangzi and Naitoushan.”16)“Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.

Unlike Kim Jong-suk, however, these women are not always successful in battle nor in evading arrest and capture by the forces of Imperial Japan. Whereas Kim Jong-suk appears capable of resistingany threat to Kim Il-sung’s life and avoiding any threat to her own mortality in battle, Kim Jong-suk’s supporting female guerrillas are regularly dismembered, annihilated and eviscerated. Sometimes their deaths are portrayed and memorialized as acts of military significance. Such was the case for Kim Hwak-sil, who in March, 1938 encountered an attacking Japanese force having walked through “a field of shoulder-high purple eulalia.” Hiding behind a rock, she was wounded in the chest and then ran out of ammunition. Women of Korea describes her next move in some detail: “She disassembled the lock of her rifle and buried it under the snow so that the enemy could not deprive her of the rifle permeated with the blood and soul of her comrades in arms. Then she dashed into the enemy with hand grenades in her arms. An explosion shook the forest and the enemy was wiped out.”17)“A Guerrilla Amazon: On Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.

Women’s bodies as topographies of violence | Kim Hwak-sil’s self immolation in resistance is by no means an isolated occurrence. The violence enacted by Hwak-sil on her own body and the bodies of her enemies (who no doubt died both agonizing and instant deaths), in fact becomes a key narrative and political device. The disfigurement and destruction of these women’s bodies at the hands of their Japanese enemies perhaps serves to illustrate for North Korean readers the potential violence to be enacted on themselves in the event of a future enemy victory. In some sense, it also echoes both the real and imagined violences of instances such as the Sinchon massacre during the later Korean War (an event very much in the mind of the commemorative authorities of North Korea at the moment).The brutality enacted upon fighters such as Pak Rok-gum whose “torture was extremely cruel,”18)“Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26. and who was apparently thrown in a room where “those with epidemic diseases were kept” and thus “died of illness on October 16, 1940 at the age of 25″19)Ibid., 25. is extraordinary and savage.

Yet the acts and actions of these women’s deaths and tortures are presented in such a way that serves to transform them from simply gory testimonies which deny the victims of any agency. Instead they are rendered quite powerful moments of witness in which the dying women themselves testify to future revolutionary generations as to the charismatic nature and political, nationalist legitimacy of their cause. Pak Rok-gum while dying in prison coined a song with the verse “the red flag of the masses/covers the corpse of the fighter/the blood dyes the flag/before the corpse cools,”20)Ibid. suggesting the transfer and rescaling of charismatic and nationalist power through violent death and narrative transfiguration.

This essay ends with the most extraordinary and violent narrative of them all, which really illustrates the intertwining of these women’s lives and deaths with North Korea’s political charisma and the potentially vital message for its future citizens. Through the story, the state argues the immolation and immersion of the needs and lives of the individual is sometimes an important and necessary process for the eventual success or utility of the collective.

Choe Hui-suk

“I have no eyes now, yet I can still see the revolution.” | Image: Women of Korea

Choe Hui-suk died on March 12, 1941. As rendered in Women of Korea, her death serves as the ultimate testifier at the altar of North Korea’s revolutionary period and its nascent political charisma, one whose political presence colours much of the later narrative focused on Kim Jong-suk. It is a telling absence in today’s North Korea that Hui-suk and these other women, having died horrendous deaths for the North Korean revolution, have been left behind by its narratives. Kim Jong-suk, as positioned by those who control her position in the histories, has subsumed the tropes of their narratives, effectively absorbing and embodying the political power generated by their deaths. Perhaps the urgency and pain of their annihilations perhaps is no longer necessary in the age of the Young Generallismo. Yet an encounter with the texts of Women of Korea and this charismatic supporting cast can revivify their presence in the mind of any reader.

Hui-suk, like many of her kind was captured by a Japanese “punitive force” while taking a message to Kim Il-sung and was badly wounded in the initial raid. After asserting to her captors that “A communist is also a human being. There is nothing to look down on!” she was spared nothing in her torture, the text recounting that “The enemy desperately inflicted atrocious tortures on her every day. They cried, “Reveal the secret of the partisan!” searing her body with a red-hot spit.”21)“Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25. Eventually after entirely failing to break her will, Japanese army doctors “gouged out her eyes” and “scooped out her heart,” Hui-suk’s final words of testimony bequeathed to North Korea’s historiography and politics, and whose intent and power are surely transmitted to support its charismatic form, even at the most unlikely and desperate moments being, “I have no eyes now. But I can see the victory of the revolution.”22)Ibid., 26.

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1. Wreaths Laid before Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetary on Mt Taesong,” Rodong Sinmun, August 17, 2015
2. Red Flag Relay Groups of Service Personnel Arrive in Panmunjon,” Rodong Sinmun, August, 17, 2015.
3. Biography of Kim Jong-suk (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 132.
4. Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (New York City, NY, Random House), 1970
5. Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.
6. “Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.
7. “The Brilliant Last: Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter Li Gye Sun, Women of Korea 1 (1987): 27.
8. “Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.
9. “Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.
10. “Liberty, then Life Counts,” Women of Korea, 3, 1991, 29.
11. “Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.
12. “Chon Hui, Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Martyr,” Women of Korea 4 (1988): 20.
13. “A Guerrilla Amazon: on Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.
14. “A Guerrilla Amazon,” 25.
15. “Eternity,” Women of Korea 2 (1990): 25.
16. “Pak Su Hwan: Woman Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 4 (1987): 30.
17. “A Guerrilla Amazon: On Kim Hwak Sil, An Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighter,” Women of Korea 1 (1990): 25.
18. “Woman Revolutionary Fighter Pak Rok Gum,” Women of Korea 1 (1987): 26.
19. Ibid., 25.
20. Ibid.
21. “Daughter of Korea,” Women of Korea 4 (1986): 25.
22. Ibid., 26.