Benoit Symposium: Capitalist Dreams in the Communist Utopia: North Korea’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary

By | September 30, 2013 | No Comments

Moving from the literary realm to the cinematic our final stop in this Symposium comes courtesy of Wayne State University’s Sherri L. Ter Molen. Engaging with a movie emerging from the contemporary North Korea, Ter Molen examines the usage of symbols derived from foreign, external, and potential hostile sources within native cultural product. Investigating whether Mickey Mouse might serve as both visual trope and moral or political signifier in the context of 2006’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary, Ter Molen considers the multiple roles such symbols play within the North Korean cultural imaginary. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Capitalist Dreams in the Communist Utopia: North Korea’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary

by Sherri Ter Molen

North Korea regards its cinema as a national treasure, and few films are shared with the outside world. Notwithstanding, the 2006 film The Schoolgirl’s Diary was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007, and this international premiere was followed by additional screenings in France, Denmark, and Romania. Beyond the mere curiosity that any DPRK international release may invoke, this particular film provides additional peculiarities. Anti-Americanism is a critical element of state propaganda, but it is noticeably absent in this case. And though we would not expect to witness symbols of US imperialism, what Rob Kroes describes as advocating for personal consumption and the pursuit of the “good life,” we encounter them in The Schoolgirl’s Diary.

How might international audiences read symbols that seem to embody capitalism and personal gain when these audiences might also be aware of North Korea’s Juche ideology and the country’s steadfast anti-Americanism? To answer this question, ideological criticism is used to unlock the symbols within the visual rhetoric of The Schoolgirl’s Diary and to bring to light the ideologies and ideological conflicts embedded within them. Since the country may be stepping up its cultural exports, looking at this film may be valuable because the mediated context offers us the opportunity to build our intercultural competencies by allowing us to examine and then reflect upon what we observe (Martin and Nakayama 2010). In other words, it may be helpful in discerning how North Korea utilizes symbols in films because the DPRK may also use symbols during Six-Party Talks in regards to issues such nuclear proliferation or human rights.

Ideology is the Mother of Convention |
The Schoolgirl’s Diary tells the story Su-ryeon, a teenaged girl who rebels against her parents because she feels neglected by her father and ashamed of his lack of professional success. In due course, but only after her father makes a major breakthrough in his research, she realizes that her father has dedicated his life to science out of devotion to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, and that her mother exhibits her devotion to the state through her love for her husband. Inspired by her parents, Su-ryeon decides to succumb to her father’s wishes by studying science at the university so that she too can contribute to the success of the country.

Juche is North Korea’s neo-Confucian philosophy, encompassing self-reliance in the areas of defense, economics, ideology, and politics. And from the early years of the DPRK, the government invested “a great deal, financially and politically, in the propaganda value of films” because, as Kim Jong-il himself lauded, film has the ability to impress a “revolutionary outlook” on the people through “rich and vivid” moving images. Therefore, Juche ideologies are embedded within North Korean films to prescribe how citizens “should look, feel and behave,” and these films communicate values such as sacrificing one’s own desires in favor of collective goals set forth by the state.

In North Korean Cinema: A History, Johannes Schönherr proclaims that the commonplace storyline of The Schoolgirl’s Diary as well as its “lightness of approach” and lack of “heavy-handed propaganda” was inspired by Daniel Gordon’s documentary, A State of Mind, which follows the lives of two teenaged girls as they train for the Arirang Mass Games. Certainly, The Schoolgirl’s Diary does not proffer a revolutionary narrative, but it conveys many of the other ideologies commonplace in North Korean cinema.

The ideal of self-reliance, for example, is demonstrated through Su-ryeon’s father’s dedication to his work, which keeps him away from his family for months at a time. When he comes home for a very short visit, he reprimands Se-ryeon for not yet choosing her career path and reminds her, “We can’t survive without science.” By “we” he means, not just his family, but his country, and he presses this idea upon Su-ryeon, relaying that she has a responsibility to choose a career that advances the nation’s Juche ideology. Communal values are also conveyed when Su-ryeon’s classmates work together to replace the chimney of her family’s home, and the importance of filial piety is communicated both through Su-ryeon’s mother’s reverence for her mother-in-law as well as through the many hours she spends translating technical documents to support her husband’s work.

Su-ryeon’s Mickey Mouse backpack enjoys top billing. | Image: North Korea’s YouTube Channel

Su-ryeon’s Mickey Mouse backpack enjoys top billing. | Image: North Korea’s YouTube Channel

Nothing Envied, Nothing Gained |
Juxtaposed against these anticipated and typical tropes is a close-up of Su-ryeon’s childhood backpack, emblazoned with an image of one of the beacons of American capitalism: Mickey Mouse. As Kroes has argued, since American consumer goods have been used for cultural and political education worldwide, it is puzzling that this symbol appears in The Schoolgirl’s Diary. It is equally baffling that the close up of Su-ryeon’s Mickey Mouse backpack is the very first shot of the film.

It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that the prominence of Mickey Mouse signals a greater desire to open North Korea to the world and to welcome the American brand of capitalism with open arms. However, an alternative reading may be that Mickey Mouse represents Su-ryeon’s material desires and status-driven goals, which would seem to serve her ego but not the state. Su-ryeon is not happy simply possessing a Mickey Mouse backpack, and for much of the film, her greed comes across as insatiable.

gifts from uncle

Su-ryeon and her sister beam with pride after receiving gifts from their uncle. | Image: North Korea’s YouTube Channel

This second reading also lends itself to another scene in which Su-ryeon’s maternal uncle stops by her family’s home. After Su-ryeon and her sister, Su-ok, greet their uncle, they whisk away his attaché case and anxiously wait for him to finish greeting their paternal grandmother and mother. They accurately assume their uncle has brought them gifts. The uncle gives Su-ryeon a blouse and Su-ok a set of athletic wear. The girls are so pleased that they try on their new clothes immediately, primping and appearing quite gratified. In almost any other country, this would not be exceptional, but this scene takes place in North Korea where the government allegedly provides everything its citizens need. The fact that the uncle “bought” these items could possibly be interpreted as an inclination to embrace the market system. Nevertheless, the symbol of new clothes alternatively illustrate that the joy conferred by material goods is fleeting because, as soon as the afterglow fades, Su-ryeon returns to brooding over her absent father and the humiliations he confers on her.


Su-ryeon’s capitalistic dream of moving into an apartment is fulfilled. | Image: North Korea’s YouTube Channel

Almost immediately after the close up of the Mickey Mouse backpack, a young Su-ryeon watches her peers launch paper airplanes from the balcony of a high-rise apartment building, and we learn of her desire to move from an old, ramshackle ground house into a modern, unblemished apartment. This wish resurfaces years later when the dilapidated chimney of the ground house topples over. Frustrated, she escapes into a daydream in which her family is slotted to finally move but in which the move is first thwarted by a school rival and then overturned by her own family. It is only once she submits to her father’s wishes outside of her daydreams and only once she puts the needs of her country first by deciding to study science that she is rewarded with the apartment she has long desired. The Mickey Mouse backpack she carried as a child is not able to satisfy her desires over the long term, and the blouse her uncle gives her provides only a moment of merriment. The message is that material goods do not bring sustained happiness. This can only be awarded by the state. In fact, Su-ryeon’s happiness precedes the move to the apartment. It emerges from her renewed filial piety and newfound dedication to the Juche ideology.

Conclusion | In 2007, Western media outlets such as the Washington Times noted the questionable symbolic manifest of The Schoolgirl’s Diary. International audiences, particularly those familiar with North Korea’s Juche ideology and the country’s steadfast anti-American stance, may be stunned to discover that, though the symbols analyzed here seem to embody capitalism and personal gain, there are other possible interpretations if we give ourselves the chance to think through the symbols in their mediated contexts, as Martin and Nakayama (2010) do. Consequently, North Korea watchers, policy makers, and scholars, should be cautious not to jump to conclusions that are informed only by what we think we know about North Korea while at the same time being filtered through the lenses of our own (perhaps capitalistic) cultures. For Americans, the image of Mickey Mouse may be associated with humor and warmth. But for North Koreans, particularly the elite who create the country’s films, Mickey Mouse may represent the poisons of individualism and envy. Although it does appear on the surface that Su-ryeon has capitalist dreams, they are not fulfilled through the tenets of the market system. They are fulfilled through duty, self-sacrifice, and the benevolence of the state, reinforcing once again the notion that North Korea is the communist Utopia.

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