Yongusil 12: “War of Words” at Leiden University: Lines of Flight in North Korean Narratology

By | October 15, 2013 | No Comments




“Brigands” on an arduous march? | Image : Bulgarelli 1973 (Pyongyang, Foreign Languages Publishing House)


Yongusil 12:  “War of Words” at Leiden University: Lines of flight in North Korean narratology

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The Korean Peninsula’s landmass has served as the ground and locale for many an adventurer and traveller since its unfortunate and brutal opening by the forces of modernity, institutional decay and the Japanese empire. The great Victorian “lady adventurer” Isabella Bird-Bishop, for example, in her travels through the Orient and “Turkestan”  found great pleasure in travailing within the northern  Taebaek mountain range (brilliantly recounted recently by Tess Morris-Suzuki in To The Diamond Mountains), even as she was disappointed with the forest denudation of the hills surrounding Seoul. Looking north of Korea — the even more wild and distant space of Manchuria — is writ a different category of adventure narrative for the historian, the political scientist and the current Korean analyst.

Visitors to Manchuria may remark upon the gritty frontier ethos of the place, just as Isabella Bird-Bishop wrote extensively on “brigandage” there. Would Bird-Bishop equally have categorized the North Korean leaders (participants in the adventurous and escapading category to which we now refer) similarly as brigands, but of a political type? The narratives, narratology and historicity focused upon the person of Kim Il-sung and the accompanying participants of the United North East Anti-Japanese army are of course subject to contestation and dispute. Even the physical space of their campaigns are questioned, importance being given to which side of the Amur River their struggles occupied among many other aspects. What cannot really be disputed, however, is the importance of the forests of Manchuria and the diffuse, transient nature of national identity or sovereignty possessed of that region to the narratives and struggle, forging and rebellion within North Korea’s narrative of national formation and legitimacy. It is in Manchuria that North Korean and Kimist legitimacy is first actualised and draws its’ first invigorating blood of authority. Fighting the force of the Japanese Empire on Manchurian territory, therefore, is not for the North’s narrative a fact of historical expediency — in that it was the only space available for the denuded forces of Korean resistance movements to actually fight in, and more than a proxy geography — but is far more akin to fighting in and for Korea itself/herself.

Professor Remco Breuker and University of Leiden’s Institute of Area Studies recently announced project; “A War of Words: What Ancient Manchurian History Does to Korea and China Today.” This project, funded by the European Research Council, will foreground “ancient Manchurian history and its politico-socio-cultural manifestations in the present,” and investigate the nature of the constant transfer between the contemporary and the historical in North Korea’s presentation of authentic Manchurian space. This is a significant undertaking, as we can daily chart the impact in North Korea of this externalising of national foundational mythology and mythos. North Korea has, until perhaps very recently, been a space in which historical and cultural time has been flattened, where historical and contemporary figures and events exist simultaneously, where the internalization of the external, this geist of  pre-Liberation Manchuria still exists, where its extant revolutionary heritage is commonplace and everyday. Ultimately the work of Professor Breuker and his team (including a post doctoral fellow and four PhD students), we hope, will have the potential to both weave and unwind these narratives and historical flows, perhaps to generate or rediscover alternative strands and lines of flight for the Manchuria of North Korea’s historical imagination.

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