History and Revolution: An Interview with Dr. Suzy Kim

By | December 16, 2013 | No Comments

An image from Kim Jong Suk Biography (Pyongyang 2002), a text which describes in depth how Kim Il-song's wife was deeply involved in women's political organizations and publications prior to her death in 1949. Image: Adam Cathcart

As Dr. Suzy Kim decisively argues in her latest book on the North Korean revolution, DPRK depictions of women in the late 1940s go beyond Soviet influence or the Kim family, emphasizing popular (female) participation. | Image: Adam Cathcart

As the debate over North Korea’s future continues, scholars continue to unearth new information and interpretations of the state’s origins. Historians are at the forefront of North Korea analysis: Andrei Lankov and Charles Armstrong being signal examples. Focusing in on the period prior to the outbreak of the universally brutal Korean War, today Sino-NK seeks a more indigenous viewpoint on domestic historiography–and the self-image of the leadership–in the DPRK.

The legacies of the late 1940s, the period of state foundation in North Korea, are multiple.  Some are cosmetic, such as Kim Jong-un styling himself (and North Korean art) directly after Kim Il-song in the late 1940s. Others are more specific arguments, like when North Korean news agencies fulminate against history books disparaging the 1946 land reform. In every case, when it hearkens back to the late 1940s in public today, the North Korean state is both depicting and drawing upon a collective memory of those years which is largely positive. But they were also combative and even explosive: When outsiders assume that North Koreans have had no history whatsoever of popular participation in politics (or revolt), archives and historical sources from the late 1940s provide necessary counterweight.

Suzy Kim, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, is one of the foremost young authors of the new history of North Korea and, most recently, is the author of Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. Dr. Kim, venturing north into Ontario for a Korean Studies workshop and a book talk at the University of Toronto, recently spoke with Sino-NK’s Steven Denney.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

History and Revolution: An Interview with Dr. Suzy Kim

by Steven Denney[1]

Steven Denney [SD]: At the University of Chicago, you studied under Bruce Cumings: what was most influential about his work and his perspective on your own?

Suzy Kim [SK]: I was introduced to Bruce Cumings’ scholarship on the origins of the Korean War during my undergraduate studies at UCLA, where I majored in philosophy. Although his work was not directly related to my major, I was involved with the student movement to expand the Korean studies curriculum there during which we conducted our own study group to learn more about US-Korea relations and modern Korean history on our own. His work was enormously influential in opening our eyes to the nature of the US involvement in modern Korean history, which is why I ultimately ended up studying with him at Chicago some years later.

It’s difficult to say what was “most” influential about his work on my own work, but I share the story about my exposure to his work even before officially studying with him to highlight the impact of his work that goes beyond formal academic training. I was deeply moved by his commitment, not just to research and write on a difficult, potentially controversial, issue with painstaking labor for the sake of truth, but also for the connections his work makes between the past and present to show how historical injustice and continued misperceptions about that history affects the present, continuing the violence and injustices of the past.

In other words, historians have a responsibility, not only to uncover truths about the past, but must also engage with the present to correct past mistakes. I hope that I was able to imbue some of that shared commitment into my own work.

SD: What piqued your interest in revolution generally and the North Korean revolution specifically?

SK: In my first couple of years of graduate studies at Chicago, themes from two different courses ended up converging completely by chance, in retrospect very fortuitously for me. In one class we read Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), where she makes a fascinating comparison of the French Revolution with the American Revolution, making special note of the spontaneous councils and committees that formed in the early stages of the revolution that were to become so instrumental in all social revolutions. This reading coincided with the seminar on modern Korean history with Bruce Cumings, where I learned about the significance of the people’s committees in the immediate post-liberation period. When I expressed an interest in formulating my dissertation topic around the people’s committees as revolutionary organs in the way Arendt described, we agreed that I would have to look at North Korea since the committees in the South were stamped out by the American occupation.

SD: How is the “everyday,” a central concept in your book, different from other temporal categories? If the everyday became a space of revolution in North Korea in the immediate post-war period, why didn’t the same happen in the South?

SK: The first chapter of the book was an attempt to historicize the very idea of the everyday. It is a temporal category that comes out of the historical material from that time in the way people tried to reconstitute the way everyday life was lived. Rather than taking the category for granted as many studies have done (conflating the everyday with the ordinary), I show how the concept became a preoccupation in the early 20th century with the acceleration of industrial capitalism and how the revolution in North Korea can be situated within other socialist revolutions that attempted to change the way that the everyday had been defined by capitalist modernity.

Because the socialist revolution was an attempt to address the way capitalist modernity had come to regulate everyday life with a new way to organize everyday life under socialist modernity, to ask why the same didn’t happen in the South is to ask why didn’t a socialist revolution occur in the South. There clearly was a move toward such a revolution in the South too, but as Bruce Cumings has amply shown, that attempt was thwarted by the American occupation of the South.

SD: What intellectual (or school of thought) had the great influence on your understanding of modernity, revolution, and the “every day?”

SK: For thinking about revolutions theoretically, I’d probably have to say Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon among those I read, and Friedrich Katz and William Sewell among the teachers I studied with at Chicago. For modernity and the everyday, I was first introduced to the connection by Harry Harootunian’s work although I did not have a chance to study with him while he was still at Chicago.

Dr. Suzy Kim presentation

Dr. Suzy Kim, during her presentation, “Modern Times in North Korea: Scenes from the founding years,” at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, December 6, 2013. | Image: Steven Denney

SD: What was everyday life like during the North Korean revolution (1945-1950)? In what ways has that sort of life changed? In what ways has it continued?

SK: I’d rather not give a simple and short answer here, as that would be a spoiler for the book! […] In some ways, I’d be interested to see how readers of the book end up answering this question themselves based on the materials they see in the book. And by opening myself up to the perspectives of other readers, I am acknowledging that there could be multiple interpretations.

SD: Your writing on every day life during the revolution is a refreshing bottom-up perspective of how revolutionary ideology collided, mixed, and transformed the lives of ordinary people in North Korea. Other Koreanists (Bruce Cumings, Charles Armstrong, Andrei Lankov, Brian Myers) have written on the importance (or unimportance) of ideology in North Korea. How would you position yourself within the literature on the interaction between ideas and events, ideology and every day life?

SK: I leave this task for intellectual historians (or reviewers like Sino-NK) to tease out in some distant or perhaps not-so-distant future. While I have obvious agreements and disagreements with the scholars you mention, it’s not so interesting for me to try and navel-gaze. A task like this is better left for others in any case as an outside perspective will be more insightful.

SD: How was the North Korean revolution, as a unique period in time (1945-1950), different from colonial period that preceded it (1910-1945)?

SK: While the 1945-1950 period was certainly dynamic and important in the founding of North Korea, I wouldn’t characterize it as “unique” per se. In my first chapter, I tried to situate the North Korean Revolution within the current of other socialist revolutions in Russia and China that attempted to address everyday life. One could say that it was “unique” in light of what I describe in the book because the picture I paint seems to be at such odds from how North Korea is depicted today, but by showing in the conclusion to the book how the dynamism and creativity in everyday life began to be curtailed with the brewing civil war by 1949, I hope readers are able to come to their own conclusions about why there seems to be such a disparity between the hope expressed during the revolution and the state of North Korea today.

As for the colonial period, there’s no doubt that elements of modernity began pouring into Korea during Japanese colonial rule. But, in the second chapter, I show how this kind of “colonial modernity” was limited precisely by curtailing a full-fledged sense of modern subjectivity for the colonized subjects, and ultimately by appealing to a mythological spiritual past to legitimize the Empire. In that regard, the North Korean Revolution was a process of replacing colonial modernity with socialist modernity by situating the previously dispossessed as subjects of history (as revolutionaries), not by appealing to the past but by promising a different future that toppled the previous social order.

SD: Why are women so absent the standard framework of national history in South Korea? Is this a problem?

SK: This isn’t an isolated problem for Korean history alone. Women’s and gender studies have shown full well the extent to which histories have traditionally focused on men, which is an obvious problem not only because there are entire areas of history that are left unexplored but perhaps more importantly because the history that we do have is skewed by the lack of perspective that incorporates women and gender.

SD: Why is there such a lack of available data in Korea on women’s issues and women’s lives in the immediate post-liberation period? Is it simply that this sort of material wasn’t collected, or that, perhaps, US soldiers that collected the data now available didn’t think the material relating to women was worth collecting?

SK: I think there’s something to be said for that (that the US occupation wasn’t necessarily interested in collecting data about women), but I cannot speak to this definitively because the bulk of the archival material I worked with were captured North Korean documents. If this question pertains to the final chapter of the book that deals with memories of the immediate post-liberation period, my point there was that the problem isn’t just about the kinds of materials that remain from that time, but that even contemporary attempts to gather oral histories remain stuck in the framework of national history that relegates women’s history to the sidelines rather than as a way to understand the post-liberation period.

Front covers to "Korean Woman" (성여조선; the words are reversed on the photographed screen), the only women's journal published during the post-liberation period in North Korea, shown by Dr. Suzy Kim during her presentation, "Modern Times in North Korea: Scenes from the Founding Years," at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, December 6, 2013. | Image: Steven Denney

Front covers to “Korean Woman” (조선여성; the characters are reversed on the photographed screen), the only women’s journal published during the post-liberation period in North Korea, shown by Dr. Suzy Kim during her presentation, “Modern Times in North Korea: Scenes from the Founding Years,” at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, December 6, 2013. | Image: Steven Denney

SD: Reading differs from most histories of the period in describing Kim Il-Sung’s ascent to the position of leader as a expression of the popular will, denying significant Soviet influence over the process, in spite of acknowledging the existence of single candidate elections, on the basis that the leading local candidate was preselected by popular consent. The book appears to be relatively uncritical in accepting this version of events, but isn’t an election likely to be a more reliable manner of ascertaining popular consent, and wouldn’t the purported informal pre-selection process be a more attractive option to the authorities rather than the population as a whole?

SK: Actually, the book doesn’t directly deal with the process of choosing leaders at the very top, which no doubt the Soviets had much more influence over. Focusing on the local elections, it’s clear that there were a variety of procedures with some villages having multiple candidates despite the recommendation from the top to field a single slate of candidates. As for the pre-selection process, I don’t think this is as uncommon as one would think. Just think about the selection of candidates even for party primaries in the United States. There’s a lot of informal dealing to decide on the final slate of candidates before the official primaries.

SD: Even though the North Korean Recovered documents at the national archives are the leading available primary resource for studying the period 1945-1950, there would seem to be a danger that using North Korean state documents lead to a bias towards official North Korean interpretations rather than, for example, the ordinary people’s real perspectives which were the object of your study. How conscious were you aware of such a risk in your research, and what methods did you take to mitigate against this?

SK: Record Group 242 at the National Archives II, which is the archive that contains the North Korean Captured Documents, doesn’t just include state documents, but includes a wide variety of documents. The American soldiers on the ground literally carted off whatever they found in offices, homes, schools, courts, and other locations because they weren’t able to read Korean to decide what was of military value. This means that we have family photo albums, personal notebooks, and such, in addition to official documents. And even among official documents, personnel files contain autobiographies, which I use in chapter 5; no doubt, these are within the domain of official documents too, but through the diversity of narratives contained within them, we can glean ordinary people’s perspectives.

SD: In reading ordinary North Korea perspectives found in the captured documents, what was most eye opening? What was most challenging?

SK: The most eye opening was the amount of documents written by people that had recently become literate indicated by the crude penmanship and the spelling/grammar errors. The attempt to include the vast majority peasant population into the revolutionary process was visible in the physical texts themselves even beyond the content of the documents. In the same vein, the most challenging was trying to make sense of the scribbled handwriting.

SD: There seems to be an understanding that the period 1945-1950 was a time of great potential, optimism, and hope in North Korea. It’s hard to say the same nowadays. Some historians have asked how we can recover the positive qualities of North Korea’s history fruitfully. As an historian, what is to be done? Do those who study the past have a responsibility to the present? 

SK: It’s interesting that you should ask this question in light of my earlier answer about the influence of Bruce Cumings on my work…[M]y research into the 1945-1950 period shows quite clearly the manner in which the “liberated” space opened up in the post-liberation period closed as a result of the Korean War. Since we know how this period of hope was foreclosed by war, one immediate step that can be taken is to bring the war to an official end by replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.

To recover what came before the war requires a true mourning so as to understand what was lost (by all sides including North Korea) and acknowledge that the Korean War was not a “victory” as everyone seems to claim, including President Obama this past July on the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice. The war was a terrible tragedy with enough blame to go around to all leaders for failing to prevent it. And yet, the Korean War is still relatively unknown in the US.

The prevailing narrative about the Korean War as a heroic crusade that “saved” the southern half needs to be challenged by scholarship and education on the complexity of the origins of the Korean War that date back to the cleavages resulting from the colonial period. The popular revolutionary momentum that was unleashed in its aftermath was the context in which the North Korean Revolution took place, and without knowing this history, it is impossible to understand what was lost and what might be restored when the war is finally laid to rest.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of changes we might see if a genuine peace is brought to the Korean peninsula, but what is certain is that the national security logic that justifies hardline repressive policies in both Koreas will no longer have any ground to stand upon, and that space—now emptied of the security logic—will open up entirely different possibilities from what has existed for the last 60 years.


[1] A special thanks to the Sino-NK team, especially Matthew Bates, Robert Winstanley-Chesters, and Adam Cathcart, for their help in generating questions for Dr. Kim.

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