Spaces of Leisure: From Cinematic Birth to Physical Culture

By | September 27, 2014 | No Comments

pansori vs flower girl

Pansori vs The Flower Girl | Images: Wikipedia

Only a few short months after his father’s snowy funeral procession, Kim Jong-un became the center of an unrelenting campaign to present the North Korean successor as a kind of superintendant of North Korea’s culture of leisure. Rewards from the center for the political and physical loyalties of Pyongyangites have been dispensed ever since, from wading pools for the general citizenry to new apartment blocks for those involved in science.

No one has been watching these developments with sharper eyes than Robert Winstanley-Chesters, whose essays for Sino-NK have ranged over the gamut of institutional development in and around the North Korean capitol city. Dr. Winstanley-Chesters has illuminated the North Korean fixation with mushrooms, turf, tideland reclamation, and forestry, and today turns his attention to the cultures of leisure being promoted in Pyongyang, arguing that we perceive Kim Jong-un’s activities in the realm of leisure as being part of a rather deep strand of Kimist continuity.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief

Spaces of Leisure: From Cinematic Birth to Physical Culture 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Pansori lacks interest since it is too old-fashioned. The ballads of the southern provinces are what nobles would chant over their wine cups in the days when they used to wear horse-hair hats and ride about on donkeys[1]

As asserted in the first essay in this series, I identified the pre-history of Korean leisure as having revolved around physicality and sport. Colonial Chosen’s engagement with the wider world of sports and sporting competition, as at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, might be conceptualized as the route through which modernist visions of entertainment or frivolity entered the Korean peninsula. David Rowe asserts that “sport in modernity is conventionally written as a process of cultural diffusion…with rationalized and regulated physical play either directly exported as part of the apparatus of imperialism and/or absorbed through the unfolding process of (post)colonialism,”[2] a notion that lays the ground for conceiving of sporting leisure as one of the fruits of the colonial period. However as the reader will be aware, while the physical pursuits may well have been modernity’s category wedge opening for citizens of Chosen (or, later, of both Koreas), it was not where the essay found leisure and leisure activities in the early years of North Korea.

Music of Leisure or Rigour| Before Pyongyang’s institutions had developed to a structural level capable of managing the rigours and narrative prat and pit falls of elite sporting endeavor, Party and community groups were capable of organising ideologically acceptable and popular or semi-leisurely musical events. Kim Il-sung’s denunciation of the musical styles of “Pansori” songs strongly connects with leisure activities as presented in 1961’s “A Happy and Cheerful Life for the Working People.”[3] Amateur singing and performance activities were closely rooted in working and family traditions, yet distinctly and determinedly connected to the needs of Party politics and ideology. Kim Il-sung’s “On Creating Revolutionary Literature and Art” outlines a musical repertoire for these productions and for more general popular consumption. In a sense Kim conceives of this musical milieu as being very much one of leisurely interaction and consumption, while at the same time fitting the needs of Party ideology, revolution and unification:

Writers and artists engaged in such fields as literature, the cinema, music and dance have a very great part to play in inspiring people with revolutionary spirit… our literature and art should serve not only socialist construction in the north, but also the struggle of the whole Korean people for the south Korean revolution and the unification of the fatherland.[4]

Perhaps this determined revolutionary, urgent musical, theatric or cinematic form does not sound conventionally leisurely, but similar political forms have produced similar revolutionary forms in occupying the leisure times and leisure spaces of its citizenry. Soviet Socialist artistic production in the USSR and the German Democratic Republic, for instance, resulted in the production of an enormous body of graphic and filmic work, meant not only to educate a politically conscious populace, but also to entertain, to consume and to reproduce.[5] Using somewhat more radical examples, self-criticism sessions were used to directly co-opt and occupy the leisure space and time of citizens of the People’s Republic of China during the Great Leap Forward[6] and under the Khmer Rouge regime of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.[7] While Kim Il-sung’s approach is of course rigorous in its denunciative tone, it is not entirely astringent, leaving grudgingly, some spaces of acceptability that are not entirely ideologically sound:

There are quite a few crooning tunes amongst the songs composed by our people at the time of Japanese imperialist rule. Of course decadent crooning tunes are bad. But we can continue to sing those songs which are not degenerate but are fairly cheerful…[8]

The Leisurely Charisma of the Cinematic| Musical and song-based entertainment or leisure of course has the advantage that it is in no way restricted by site or infrastructure: People, citizens, and revolutionaries can engage in such activity anywhere, so any space can be a place of leisure. In a sense this is the justification for early North Korean focus on film and cinema. Kim Il-sung called the cinema “in many respects… superior to other forms of literature and art.” Kim noted the site-based advantages of film: “Plays or a chorus of 3000 people, for instance can be performed only on theatre stages…. Films, however can be screened anywhere, both in towns and villages, and can be shown simultaneously throughout the country.”[9]

This mobility and flexibility of form of course supports the co-option by Party and ideological interests of the more liminal and diffuse artistic or leisure forms of the cinematic. In part perhaps this explains Kim Jong-il’s later near obsession with film production [10] and the occasional harnessing of wider national strategies towards the generation of greater, more artistic, more impactful, cinematic production.[11]

Kim jong-il man with a movie camera

Kim Jong-Il – Man with a movie camera | Image: Foreign Languages Publishing House

While cinematic production and the viability of North Korean filmic output continued to be vital and key to Pyongyang’s leisure strategies during the remainder of the 1960s, it is interesting to note how Kim Il-sung offered such little commitment to the generation of built leisure environments centered around film. Of course, as I have asserted in the previous paragraph, this is part of the point. Kim Il-sung’s focus on musical and cinematic primacy so far as the consumable output of North Korea’s socio-cultural production leaves little physical trace, requires little tangible investment outside of its own production and can be utilized in as flexible a form as politics, ideology and situation demand. In another sense there is little sense of the development of physical spaces for leisurely interaction, nor leisure spaces disconnected from the realm of ideological or political appropriateness.

It is instead a return to the leisure past, to the modes of colonial or early modernity’s leisure production and interaction that would herald the arrival and generation of the impetus for un-imagined, real spaces of leisure and consumption in North Korea.

Returning to Physical Culture | In a sense, Kim Il-sung’s landmark speech of the early 1970s “On Developing Physical Culture” identifies missed opportunities and pines for the lost, if acknowledged, past of colonial sporting prowess represented by Son Ki-jong and 1936. The speech also outlines a future institutional agenda and imperative that serves as the progenitor of future events, such as the World Table Tennis Championships (1979) and the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students (1989), both held in Pyongyang.

13 world festival of youth and students

Worlds of sporting possibility | Image: Wikipedia

The Great Leader of course does not outline as of yet a leisure or leisurely space focused or connected to paradigms of consumption, sport and physical culture is still very much to be harnessed to the needs of politics and ideology:

In our conditions, we can develop physical culture on a mass basis without difficulty. In a capitalist society or in the south Korean society, only rich people can go in for sports for amusement, but under the socialists system in our country everyone is provided with conditions for taking part on physical culture.[13]

I wonder however whether, the necessary incorporation of leisurely or sporting activity within this structure entirely precludes the participant or sporting actor for amusing themselves at all? What it certainly does not preclude is the investment in facilities in which sporting activity can be undertaken and this physical culture created: “It is necessary for the state to develop sports equipment factories and provide the necessary sports equipment and facilities. Balls, nets, backboards and baskets and their supports and all other equipment and facilities must be produced.”[14] Or, earlier: “At present, the state of physical culture is not satisfactory. Nowadays… it is lifeless and enthusiasm is cooling… no sport, not even football is making good progress. Almost all sports have dropped to a lower level than in the past and players records in international contests are not good.”[12]

In short what Kim Il-sung here demands in 1972 is the creation of the first real sporting spaces and terrains in North Korea, the first directly focused geographical spaces of leisure. From this imperative will spring both some of the obnoxious, overbearing sporting infrastructure of modern Pyongyang (such as the 1st of May Stadium and the Yanggakdo Stadium) and more local, community based leisure architecture. North Korea’s sporting diplomacy of recent years (both focused on football and basketball), would be impossible but for the resultant infrastructure. And as for the less savory, assertive ethno-nationalism of strength, blood and power negotiated by B. R. Myers, it, too, can be drawn into this Kimist imperative to physical improvement.

Of primary and concluding importance however for this essay series is the nature of infrastructural development unleashed by “On Developing Physical Culture.” Bridging the gap in developmental terms between the era in which North Korean landscapes were almost entirely regenerated to serve production capacity, generation or risk needs, such as those within early field of hydrological improvement (the Potong River Improvement project for example), and modern spaces of apparent frivolity and play (the afore-mentioned Munsu Water Park), it seems the connector from one era to the next.

In the concluding essay to this series, I will examine this modern era of leisure and consumptive space in North Korea, considering whether finally the importance and primacy of the playful (if only for the Party and institutional elite) has begun to supplant the imperatives of ideology and politics in their creation. After all, it needs to be determined whether or not in 2014 we can truly see the birth of not only local and indigenous North Korean spaces of leisure, but also space for pure consumption and accumulation.

[1] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 389.

[2] David Rowe,“Sport and the Repudiation of the Global,” International Review of the Sociology of Sport 38, no. 3 (2003): 6.

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

[4] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18  (Pyongyang” Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 381.

[5] Evgeny Dobrenko, The Political Economy of Socialist Realism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[6] Ezra Vogel, “From Friendship to Comradeship: The Change in Personal Relationships in Communist China,” China Quarterly 46 (1964): 46.

[7] Thomas Clayton, “Building the New Cambodia: Educational Destruction and Construction under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979,” History of Education Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1988): 1-16.

[8] Kim Il-sung, “On creating Revolutionary Literature and Art,” Works. Vol 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964), 388.

[9] Kim Il-sung, “Let us Produce More Films Which are Profound and Rich in Content,” Works. Vol 20 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966), 232.

[10] Charles Armstrong, “The Origins of North Korean Cinema: Art and Propaganda in the Democratic People’s Republic,” Acta Koreana 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-19.

[11] Kim Suk-young, “‘Guests’ of the Dear Leader: Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and North Korea’s Cultural Crisis,” Joint US-Korea Academic Studies (2008).

[12] Kim Il-sung, “On Developing Physical Culture,” Works Vol 27 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), 312.

[13] Ibid., 315.

[14] Ibid., 317.

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