The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

By | May 07, 2015 | No Comments

kIm Jong-suk warrior

A recent state-produced rendering of Kim Jong-suk | Image: KCNA

Travelers tend to have a destination in mind. Some are achievable; others fantastical. According to state myth, the men and women that surrounded Kim Il-sung in the 1930s had one overriding goal: to efface forever the impact of Japanese empire in Korea and to create a socialist utopia in its place. While their dreams were said to span the entire peninsula, and their intelligence network allegedly reached all the way down to Jeju Island, in reality, the daily life of resistance of these Korean nationalists in Manchuria was far from some inevitable walk over the Tumen. Hunger, ethnic conflict, and betrayal from within the ranks were perennial concerns, and to the extent they planned their utopia at all, the dreams must have seemed distant and diffuse in the face of overwhelming imperial force.

In parts one and two of this essay series, the geographer Robert Winstanley-Chesters considered the journeys of contemporary and current (North) Korean nationalist pilgrims to the very banks of the Tumen, where children reenacted Kim Il-sung’s legendary footsteps as interpreted by Kim Jong-il. Legacy and charismatic politics are thus made manifest in North Korea. In this, his final “Ancient Times” piece, Robert looks at the journey itself in the construction of the definitive woman of Mt. Baekdu, Kim Il-sung’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk. — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief.

The Legendary Women of Baekdu: “And did those feet in ancient times…”

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Wonderful Natural Fortress: Theater of Struggle | Kim Jong-suk was semi-mythic even before she became intrinsically connected to the territory at the place of her eventual immortalization. Kim and the guerrillas did not reach the terrain of Mt. Baekdu until the summer of 1936, having crossed “boundless primeval forest” and (once more) the narrow span of the upper Yalu River. Her official biography, published in 2002, announces the moment in portentous, dramatic terms, evoking “[t]he grand spectacle of the snow-capped ancestral mountain, the symbol of the long history of Korea.” Naturally Kim Il-sung is there to set the narrative terrain in conversation with his future wife, explaining that this “wonderful natural fortress stretching from the summit of Mt. Baekdu… will provide us with a theater of our sacred future struggle.”[1]

Kim Jong-suk, in response, appears to already consider the physicality of the recent past as a topography of difficulty for the guerrilla revolutionaries. It is a space which she sees as being ripe for transformation and future territorializations, deterritorializings, and charismatic theatric presentations.

Bearing his teachings in mind, she looked back upon the road the Korean revolution had traversed to Mt. Paektu. It was indeed a course of a bloody struggle, which had to break through a forest of bayonets.[2]

Having made an assortment of physical and conceptual crossings to arrive at the sacred Mt. Baekdu terrain, Kim embeds her revolutionary femininity and political commitment through performative acts in interaction with what would later become “the secret guerrilla camp.” The camp and the physical manifestation of her interaction with its “constructed remains” are key to the contemporary North Korean touristic experience of revolutionary space at Mt. Baekdu, and provide further evidence for Kwon and Chung’s charismatic political thesis:[3]

When the construction [of the camp] was complete, Kim Jong-suk peeled bark from trees in the surrounding area and wrote meaningful slogans on them: “A General Star has risen on Mt. Paektu,” [and] “Oppose the predominance of men over women. Long live the emancipation of women! Humiliated Korean women, wise up in the struggle against the Japanese!”[4]

Dualistic Femininity: Becoming a Human Fortress | Kim Jong-suk’s behaviour and personal interaction in the “natural fortress” exhibit a dualism of feminine and militaristic qualities, sometimes merging the two to construct an image of “militaristic femininity.” One key example is her maternal support for the guerrilla Ma Tong-hui. Described in semi-comic tone, Ma apparently “had flat feet… [which] made it difficult for him to act in concert with the other guerrillas…. [H]e was too exhausted to notice that his trousers were falling down.”[5]

In-spite of this obvious lack of utility to a band of revolutionary guerrillas, Kim Jong-suk seems determined to nurse the inept soldier to usefulness: “Kim Jong-suk walked together with him on marches, to encourage him, and helped improve his marksmanship.”[6] In addition to helping him learn to shoot straight, she also mended his clothes.[7] Such maternal support is fundamental to the narrative of Baekdu, and of primarily importance to her contemporary transformation into a militaristic saint. In engaging in pedagogical practice toward the unlikely young soldier, encouraging and teaching him to fight and providing him with a role model, Kim functions as father and mother. In this sense, she shows androgynous qualities of both female and male.

Beyond the mountain but in similar topography, North Korea’s narratives recount an important event in March 1940. This moment is categorized in hagiographies of Kim Jong-suk as the moment of “becoming a human fortress and a shield,” echoing the status of Mt. Baekdu as a “natural fortress.”[9] This is another vital moment in her semi-deification, without which moments of deterritorialization and reterritorialization would not be possible. Having, counter to conventional military strategy, attacked uphill and engaged Japanese forces high in the mountains, the guerrilla band was subject to a challenging counter attack.

The narrative describes the events:

Kim Il-sung commanded the battle from a rock on the ridge of the mountain. Mindful of his safety, Kim Jong-suk kept a close watch on the surroundings. Noticing reeds swaying strangely, she turned her eyes and saw half a dozen enemy soldiers hiding in a reed field, taking aim at Kim Il-sung on the ridge… at the hair-raising moment, Kim Jong-suk raced to Kim Il-song, shouting “Comrade Commander!” and shielding him with her body. Then she pulled the trigger of her Mauser. The enemy soldier in the front fell down, dropping his gun. A gunshot followed. Kim Il-sung had shot over her shoulder. In this way they both shot all the enemy soldiers in the reed field dead….[10]

pedagogy and violence

North Korean soldiers living out Kim Jong-suk’s militant legacy. Via KCNA.

Maternal Strength: Pedagogy and Violence | Kim Jong-suk’s selfless moment of sacrificial charismatic intent denotes a moral obligation towards the physical person of the leader, Kim Il-sung; one that goes beyond simple protection. Equally, it co-opts the difficult, fractious terrain of the mountainscape into the realm of Kim Jong-suk’s commitment and obligatory sensibility. North Korean landscapes in which these moral obligations were dramatically put into practice by Kim Jong-suk are now further marked by the institutional utilization of that drama and authority .

The ridge on which Kim Il-sung was nearly killed now forms part of an educational program for civil servants at Mt. Baekdu; these “study tours” of the revolutionary topography are meant to underpin their own ideological commitment. The birch trees at Lake Samji, under which the female guerrillas led by Kim Jong-suk rested, and under which the Kims’ relationship was abstractly confirmed and consummated, are now a site of revolutionary reflection and pilgrimage; a place of reterritorialization.

Leaning on a birch tree on which spring tints were emerging, he [Kim Il-sung] posed with the commanding officers…. One of them suggested to him that he should have his photo taken with Kim Jong-suk. Hearing this, Kim Jong-suk grew shy and hid behind the backs of the women guerrillas. They pushed her forward to his side. In order not to miss the moment, the “cameraman” clicked the shutter. For Kim Jong-suk, it was as good as a wedding photo….[11]

The role of other female guerrillas pushing forward this shy, almost coy Kim Jong-suk echoes another gentle moment in which a fellow female guerrilla and Kim convey a jar of hot water up an icy hill:

One night while the battle was still raging, she [Kim Jong-suk] was climbing a mountain with a woman guerrilla carrying a jar of hot water for the combatants when she slipped on some ice and tumbled down a slope. The woman guerrilla hurried down, and found that though she had lost consciousness, she was holding the water jar tightly. Her affection for her revolutionary comrades and fighting spirit encouraged the guerrillas to endure cold and fatigue in the battle….[12]

While other female protagonists are not frequently mentioned, they play a narrative role as Kim’s “ladies in waiting” and create a background territory upon which Kim’s revolutionary glory shines and can be reterritorialized. Their stories are sometimes directly told. The primary vehicle for female participation in the struggle was a group known as the Anti-Japanese Women’s Association, which served as a logistics and operational support unit for the main guerrilla group. While not directly involved in fighting, they did cross front lines and engage in dangerous activities. Their capture and harassment by Japanese forces is recounted in very distinct terms:

The Japanese aggressors ran amuck in an attempt to hamper the people’s support to the guerrilla army. The bestial aggressors recklessly arrested and slaughtered those people who purveyed provisions and commodities to the guerrilla army….[13]

KIm Jong-suk and statue

A recent artistic depiction of Kim Jong-suk’s post-liberation activities prior to her death include endorsement of Kim Il-sung statuary in Pyongyang. Image via Mansudae Arts Studio.

This passage describes resistance to torture and sometimes death. Similar instances play a part in the stories of particular female guerrillas. For example, fellow female guerrilla Kim Myong-hwa recounts Kim Jong-suk’s own torture: “The enemy locked her up in the house of a peasant there and put her to severe torture, threatening to kill her.”[14]

While Kim Jong-suk survived this ordeal, the same could not be said for Chang Gil-bu, mother to a number of revolutionaries. Not only was Chang’s son Ma Dong-hui tortured so severely that he “bit off his own tongue” rather than reveal anything and was then killed “viciously in a police station;” also, her daughter and daughter in law, Ma Guk-hwa and Kim Yong-kum, both reportedly died “a heroic death in battle.” Chang is portrayed as also undergoing torture, wherein “clubs and leather whips struck her until she was badly smeared with blood.”[15] Thus we can see that the action on the field of battle and violent deaths of some of the women following Kim Jong-suk are important elements in the story. A narrative element of their own, they are not just a supplement to bolster the fame of Kim Jong-suk.

Kim’s apparently selfless actions in collaboration with the topography allow future generations to access the charisma of her militaristic, transcendental femininity. Within the narrative, Kim Jong-suk emerges as a demiurge, the text of her biography explicitly mentioning that she barely sleeps or eats; indeed, “many times she only had water for her meal.”[16] Through her reported actions, Kim Jong-suk depersonalizes and de-materializes herself into the realm of the saintly, the mythic and the immortal.

[1] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002), 61.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung, Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[4] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 62.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Brian Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters (New York City: Melville House, 2012), 48.

[9]Kim Il-Sung, Reminiscences With the Century, Vol. 3 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992).

[10] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 165.

[11] Ibid., p.132.

[12] Ibid., p.49.

[13] “Anti-Japanese Women’s Association and its Assistance to Guerrillas,” Women of Korea 91 no. 3 (1991).

[14] “In Memory of Comrade Kim Jŏng-suk,” Women of Korea 63 no. 3 (1974).

[15] “You Must Follow the Leader with All Devotion,” Women of Korea, Vol. 63 no. 3 (1974).

[16] Kim Jong-suk: A Biography, 51.

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