Spaces of Leisure: A North Korean (Pre-) History

By | September 13, 2014 | No Comments


The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, a contemporary space of North Korean leisure with origins predating the DPRK. Image: KCNA/Reuters

Sino-NK imagines itself to be a forum for analysis of all sorts of Korean, Chinese and other East Asian spaces. These spaces range from the ghostly echoes of colonial narrative formation in Manchuria and Chosun, to the acutely militarised spaces of  North Korea’s borders with its estranged southern neighbour and, above all, to the liminal, diffuse terrains of the Chinese-North Korean border and the Tumen Triangle beyond. The desire of our research group to interpenetrate the frontier has been one defining feature of this project.

But when it comes to endeavoring to analyze North Korea, Sino-NK has not been immune from general trends. Practically every aspect of North Korea’s milieu is subject to determined, focused analysis at the hands of commentators, analysts and Pyongyangologists, from its emerging markets, to elite institutions, military installations and how the country treats ‘re-defectors’ upon their compromised return to the DPRK.

Apart from some writing on the militarized cultural output of the praised and problematic Moranbong Band, little serious work has been done on the subject North Korea’s entertainment spaces and places. Perhaps this lacuna exists because North Korea has largely been seen as a space without non-productive consumption, or leisure time, marking it out from other sovereign polities in the world as distinct and unique, apparently possessed of no socio-cultural spaces seperate and askance from the political realm. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, however, seems to disagree, and in a series of three essays our Director of Research investigates North Korean lesiure histories and spaces before considering Pyongyang’s leisure future. — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief

 Spaces of Leisure: A North Korean (Pre-) History

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In recent years, the North Korea watcher or analyst has been continuously presented with a number of apparently humorous images of Pyongyang residents reveling in the delights of the Rugna Aquarium and Munsu Waterpark, grappling with the icy slopes of Masik Pass or engaging in equestrian delight at the Mirim Riding Club. Excluding some nascent analysis of North Korea’s very own developing “fluorescent night-time economy” led by the Moranbong Band, these singular enterprises and pleasure terrains jar our conventional understanding of North Korea as a defiantly socialist, revolutionary, austere, anti-consumption entity.

Might these instances actually represent the emergence of a new category of spatial and social relation in North Korea, serving as a harbinger of societal and social upheaval, auguring a reconfiguration that would render the bleak rigor of socialist modernity redundant? Alternatively, might these seemingly contradictory approaches to development signal a previously unseen (or un-theorised) maturity in North Korean political structures, manifesting an ability to co-opt even the most oppositional modes of social being within its socio-political framework?

This series of essays, titled “Spaces of Leisure,” seeks to investigate the historical narratives of leisure and non-productive social spatiality in North Korea. I aim to consider and examine the nature of North Korea’s current form and typology and to suggest an analytical framework for its “emplacement” within contemporary North Korean charismatic political and social form. While this is essentially a formative exercise in what, it is hoped, will grow and evolve into a major stream of academic research with the potential to tie in various ephemeral (or even deviant) strands of investigation within North Korean studies, I hope by the final piece to have laid some analytic and investigative strands, enough at least to spark the reader’s imagination and present new conceptual possibilities.

Leisure under the Colonial master | The title of this essay — A (Pre-) History of North Korean Leisure — naturally begs two questions of category and conception. The first is the meaning of leisure, which, as it is an academic discipline by itself (leisure studies), I will leave to one side. However, for the purposes of this essay, the secondary question — “When does this (pre-) History begin?” — is highly important to this essay and those that will follow.

Son Ki-jong

Son Ki-jong receiving the gold medal for the Japanese Empire at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Image:

As inherited by the polity now known as North Korea, society and culture in the northern half of the Korean peninsula had encountered what we might categorize as “modern” conceptions of leisure time and leisure space during the Japanese colonial period. Professor Koen de Ceuster, for example, has reminded us of the fact that at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 Koreans, Son Kijong and Nam Sungjong were first and third in the Marathon competition respectively (though classed as Japanese competitors and known by their colonial era Japanese names).[1] Such athletic prowess and expertise suggests at least some depth to colonial Chosen’s traditions of leisure. De Ceuster’s narrative recounts the incorporation of sport and physical activity into the educational strategies of Chosen via the YMCA and its commitment to ‘muscular Christianity’ and the fact that “modern sport as a leisure activity was initially met with incredulity by Korea’s upper class.”[2]

YMCA Keijo

Keijo (Seoul) YMCA – Ground Zero of Korean leisure prior to 1945. Image: Skilman Library, Lafayette College

In financial terms the Japanese economist Mitsuhiko Kimura, in an act of fiduciary archaeology within his reconstruction of economic developments during Chosen’s colonial era, asserts an astonishing 5.37 percent annual increase in spending on the leisure services and the products of consumption (running ahead of general inflation for the period of an annual .97 percent).[3]

Early narratives of North Korean leisure | Along with redeveloped railway networks, bureaucratic universe, and a modern industrial infrastructure, the colonialist enemy bequeathed at least some development in the conception of leisure to the emergent institutions of Pyongyang’s sovereignty. While North Korea’s early historical narrative does not seem to give much space nor time for activities conventionally understood as leisure, Kim Il-sung and the Korean Worker’s Party now in power following the collapse of Japanese authority and apparent Soviet favor found it necessary to address at least some of the elements necessary for the development of leisure time or consumptive space.

Artistic and creative activity now firmly and determinedly commodified or co-opted by capitalist endeavor in these early revolutionary days was harnessed primarily to support political intent and necessity. While one day artistic productions might serve the priorities and prerogatives of entertainment and frivolity, Kim Il-sung’s “On Some Questions of Our Literature and Art” from 1951 asserts that “Our writers and artists are entrusted with very important tasks today when the Korean people are fighting a sacred war of liberation.” These artists were then portrayed as “engineers of the human soul” who” should vividly represent in their works the lofty patriotism and staunch fighting spirit of our people and their unshakeable conviction of final victory.”[4]

Given these rather urgent, assertive, and intense conceptions, practices of entertainment, practices of cultural commemoration, and frivolity disconnected from the imperatives of revolution or liberation seem impossible, excluded, or forbidden. However even at this ‘ur-moment’ of North Korean cultural endeavor, activities which one day might be categorized as leisurely, that would birth skiing activities at Masik Pass, the artistry of the Sea of Blood opera troupe, and various Moranbong Band performances are not only perceived as possible, but conceptualized through that distinctly North Korean lens of assertive revolutionary nationalism:

It is necessary to preserve the fine features peculiar to our nation in all spheres of folk song, music, dance, etc., and at the same time, create new rhythms, new melodies and new rhythmic forms demanded by the new life and learn to put new content in the rich, varied, artistic forms possessed by our people.[5]

As a geographer of course the simple existence of the possibility of future cultural production directed at entertainment or leisure activity (no matter how political in form), is not enough for this author and for this series. Conceptual, theoretic, imagined space is no space at all if it does not occupy physical terrain. However, just as often in later governmental narratives from North Korea, the physical realization of Kim Il-sung or the structures of the central party committees would be the responsibility of more practical, more local institutions.

Kim Il-sung in a characteristically didactic moment. | Image: Queen's University, Belfast

Kim Il-sung in a characteristically didactic moment. | Image: Queen’s University, Belfast

Leisure, the People, and Politics | Kim Il-sung’s 1958 work “On Some Immediate Tasks of City and County People’s Committees” contains the first available and extant instructions as to the locale in which entertainment or leisurely activity would be undertaken. As one might expect given the intense “politicality” of the period, this first physical leisure space would be closely entwined with Party politics, ideological socialization, and educational development:

While raising the people’s level of knowledge, the amateur circle activities in physical culture, dance, music should be developed… In this respect, the democratic publicity hall should play an important role as the centre of cultural life.[6]

The democratic publicity hall, it seems, was to be the cave wall in North Korean leisure or cultural terms. Within three years the focus on cultural or artistic production had developed to the extent that Kim Il-sung in the intriguingly named “A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People” could assert that it “is desirable that every house has a musical instrument,” that “it would be really fine if family choruses, for instance were organized by workers’ families”, and that “one of the most important duties of all Party organizations and functionaries is to lead the working people in making their labour and life cheerful and cultured.”[7]

In a tendency to retrospective connection we will see many, many times in the future of North Korean political and narrative production, this inclination to the cultural or the leisurely is read backwards onto the narratology of guerrilla struggle and pre-revolution: “In former days, the anti-Japanese guerrillas were never dispirited even though they were poorly clad and went hungry for days in the biting cold of raging snowstorms.… When arriving at a village our guerrillas would immediately dry their shoes and come out to sing and dance.”[8]

Perhaps the veracity or reality of this narrative in which a wind and frost-beaten, exhausted Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk might strike up the nights entertainment at their mountain camp or rural hamlet, instantly creating a space of revolutionarily minded leisure or entertainment is doubtful or a conceptual stretch? What is not difficult to conceive of in our era is the importance of cultural or leisure production and spatiality to North Korean narratives and Pyongyang’s sphere of governmentality.

Producing a distinctly revolutionary or ideologically sound leisure or culturally productive space or spaces has become vitality important to these narratives and the performative element almost the focal point to the charismatic politics of contemporary Kimism. While such current performance spaces and productions will be the ultimate destination of this essay series, following review and uncovering of this genesis of revolutionary leisure and productive space in the village, family, or publicity hall, the following essay will review the development of entertaining or ephemeral spaces and places in North Korea from the era of the Sino-Soviet split to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991: a period in which the production of leisure and entertainment, its procedures, structures, and terrains were vital to North Korea’s navigation of the geo-political spaces of the mid-twentieth Century.

[1] Koen De Ceuster, “Wholesome Education and Sound Leisure: The YMCA Sports Programme in Colonial Korea,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 2, no. 1 (2003): 53-88.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kimura Mitsuhiko, “Standards of Living in Colonial Korea: Did the Masses Become Better or Worse Off Under Japanese Rule,” The Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 629-652.

[4] Kim Il-sung, On Some Questions of Our Literature and Art, Selected Works Vol. 1 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), 305.

[5] Ibid., 310.

[6] Kim Il-sung, On the Immediate Tasks of City and Country People’s Committees, Selected Works Vol. 2 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958), 183.

[7] Kim Il-sung, A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People, Selected Works Vol. 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 250.

[8] Ibid., 251.

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