Some Questions About North Korean Children’s Culture in the KJU Era

Some Questions About North Korean Children’s Culture in the KJU Era

Last week I had the plea­sure of answer­ing a short Q&A for Eliz­a­beth Shim about North Kore­an chil­dren’s cul­ture in the Kim Jong Un era, along­side Mar­tin Petersen from the Nation­al Muse­um of Den­mark. As usu­al, my enthu­si­asm ran over and I wrote more than could be includ­ed in the fin­ished arti­cle for UPI. 

With thanks to Eliz­a­beth Shim, here are her ques­tions and my answers in full. 

1. Child­hood in North Korea comes with its own set of rit­u­als and prac­tices. Have these rit­u­als (i.e. mil­i­tary play, mark­ing Amer­i­cans as the ene­my) changed at all under Kim Jong Un, and since you com­plet­ed your thesis?

Despite mate­r­i­al inno­va­tions, the children’s cul­ture of the Kim Jong Un era remains fun­da­men­tal­ly ortho­dox: old wine in new bot­tles. For instance, Kim Jong Un ordered the revival of long-run­ning ani­mat­ed series The Boy Gen­er­al with state-of-the-art ani­ma­tion tech­niques. Like­wise, he ordered the replace­ment of weary anti-Amer­i­can pro­pa­gan­da paint­ings in the Sin­chon Muse­um of Amer­i­can Atroc­i­ties with star­tling new Madame Tus­sauds-style wax­work dio­ra­mas. Telling­ly, both – and many oth­ers like them – depict ortho­dox North Kore­an images and pro­pa­gan­da tropes, albeit more vivid­ly and cre­ative­ly than ever. The state’s pro­pa­gan­da gam­ble is that com­pet­ing with the lure of South Kore­an het­ero­doxy requires keep­ing apace with rapid­ly evolv­ing media, rather than adjust­ing the message.

Mean­while, the Kore­an Children’s Union has nev­er been more impor­tant. Kim Jong Un has revived this civic organ­i­sa­tion as a key means to strength­en youth edu­ca­tion and bind the younger gen­er­a­tion of North Kore­ans to his Cult of Per­son­al­i­ty. Mil­i­tary games and anti-Amer­i­can­ism remain foun­da­tion­al. At the height of Trumpian sum­mit­ry, there was a notable mut­ing of anti-Amer­i­can rhetoric in Pyongyang, yet it did not last long. Chil­dren con­tin­ue to be parad­ed through the Sin­chon Muse­um of Amer­i­can Atroc­i­ties to wit­ness depic­tions of Kore­an War crimes com­mit­ted with porno­graph­ic inten­si­ty. There was a lull in the hos­til­i­ties, not a cessation.

2. North Kore­an lit­er­a­ture often stress­es “defend­ing the Father­land.” In your inter­views with defec­tors, does this moti­va­tion still hold, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing? Is there evi­dence the sum­mit­ry of 2018–19 have changed North Kore­an per­cep­tions of the “ene­my”?

North Kore­an chil­dren con­tin­ue to be taught that they must be pre­pared to die to pro­tect the Supreme Leader, even the sym­bols of his pow­er, such as por­traits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Chil­dren con­tin­ue to be taught that the prin­ci­pal ene­my of the repub­lic is the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, if not Pres­i­dent Trump him­self. How­ev­er, just as we have seen a steady drum­beat of mis­sile tests as the Covid-19 cri­sis esca­lates, we will like­ly see an esca­la­tion of anti-Amer­i­can pro­pa­gan­da, per­haps large­ly for inter­nal North Kore­an con­sump­tion, until the US elec­tions point the way towards the next round of the old game. If Don­ald Trump is not re-elect­ed in Novem­ber, it seems like­ly that any remain­ing illu­sions of progress will be dis­card­ed in state media. Mean­while, as sanc­tions bite and Covid-19 spreads through­out the coun­try, I expect we will see a return to the lan­guage of aus­ter­i­ty that char­ac­ter­ized North Kore­an children’s pro­pa­gan­da in the 1990s. As ever, it will be the ordi­nary men, women, and chil­dren of North Korea who will be called upon to make sac­ri­fices to uphold the pow­er of the rul­ing family.

3. When you study North Kore­an car­toons and graph­ic nov­els, do you see for­eign influ­ences? Do, for exam­ple, U.S.-style or Japan­ese-styles of ani­ma­tion appear to res­onate in North Kore­an illustrations?

North Kore­an children’s cul­ture has nev­er been as estranged from for­eign influ­ence as often imag­ined. One rea­son is because the course of mod­ern Kore­an children’s cul­ture was large­ly set out in the first half of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, when Korea was unit­ed, albeit as a colony of the Empire of Japan. Dr Daf­na Zur has writ­ten bril­liant­ly about this era in Fig­ur­ing Kore­an Futures: Children’s Lit­er­a­ture in Mod­ern Korea (Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017). Dur­ing this peri­od, there was an influx of Japan­ese and West­ern influ­ences on the children’s cul­ture of the Kore­an Penin­su­la, as well as an efflo­res­cence of local cre­ativ­i­ty and tal­ent. The key fig­ure of this era was Pang Chong-hwan, founder of Children’s Day. His lega­cy is still felt on both halves of the Kore­an peninsula. 

In the North after divi­sion, pro­le­tar­i­an children’s cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture pre­vailed, deeply influ­enced by the children’s cul­ture of the Sovi­et Union and Chi­na, yet oth­er influ­ences remained. Pre-mod­ern Kore­an tales sur­vived, like Ondal the Idiot, as did an inter­est in West­ern fairy tales, albeit in Bowd­ler­ized forms suit­able for social­ist con­sump­tion. In the years since, Japan­ese ani­me and Man­ga assert­ed a strong influ­ence over North Kore­an comics and ani­ma­tion. Dis­ney is a huge cul­tur­al force in North Korea, despite its Amer­i­can prove­nance. Sury­on, the child pro­tag­o­nist of The Schoolgirl’s Diary, an influ­en­tial North Kore­an film from 2007, is depict­ed with a Mick­ey Mouse back­pack on her shoul­ders, and a cor­nu­copia of Dis­ney char­ac­ters appeared on stage in the pres­ence of Kim Jong Un him­self at the inau­gur­al per­for­mance of the Moran­bong Band in 2012.

The influ­ence of Pixar can be seen in the rise of 3‑D ani­ma­tion. On the one hand, such inno­va­tions reflect the state’s need to com­pete with the for­eign media in wide cir­cu­la­tion inside North Korea. Yet they also reflect the tal­ent and inno­va­tion of North Korea’s local artists. North Kore­an ani­ma­tors have long col­lab­o­rat­ed with for­eign stu­dios. A post-Kimist North Korea is bound to enjoy a cul­tur­al renaissance.

4. You quote Jang Jin-sung in your the­sis. Jang sug­gests the ‘Kid War­rior,’ a pop­u­lar ani­ma­tion on North Kore­an tele­vi­sion, was used to mock Kim Jong Un ( ‘We have a Somae but we don’t have a Hobi … when will Hobi appear?’). Are there oth­er exam­ples of North Kore­an pop­u­lar media being used to crit­i­cize the state, or when the media is sub­vert­ed through pop­u­lar discourse?

In The Aquar­i­ums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol-hwan remem­bers liken­ing the North Kore­an prison camps to the Japan­ese pris­ons depict­ed in North Kore­an rev­o­lu­tion­ary cin­e­ma. Kang was nine years old at the time, sug­gest­ing that even a life­time of pro­pa­gan­da was not suf­fi­cient to dis­place his innate child­hood cre­ativ­i­ty and crit­i­cal thinking.

For most North Kore­ans, the key means of sub­vert­ing state media is sim­ply to ignore it. A child with a mem­o­ry card full of for­eign media is unlike­ly to tune in to The Flower Girl. I once showed my col­lec­tion of North Kore­an graph­ic nov­els to three young women who had left dur­ing the last decade. They laughed and sim­ply said that they had always hat­ed mil­i­tary tales and found them deeply bor­ing. The lure of cul­tur­al het­ero­doxy is a threat to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary state, even if chil­dren and young peo­ple mere­ly tune out the drum­beat of old messages.

Per­haps even more impor­tant­ly, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of het­ero­dox cul­tur­al mate­r­i­al cre­ates new lines of trust with­in soci­ety that exclude the state. Because the penal­ty for con­sum­ing for­eign media remains high – if arbi­trar­i­ly enforced – a savvy North Kore­an will only break the law with trust­ed con­fi­dantes. This is, in itself, quite rev­o­lu­tion­ary. One young man told me of his father com­ing home with James Bond DVDs that they would watch togeth­er as a child. Years lat­er, he recalled their con­ver­sa­tions with nos­tal­gia. The con­tent of the films had a deep pull. Deep­er still was the inti­ma­cy the act of com­mu­nal watch­ing forged with­in the fam­i­ly. James Bond became a scaf­fold for long con­ver­sa­tions about his­to­ry and pol­i­tics that ran con­trary to state narratives. 

5. North Korea in the 2010s launched a num­ber of urban projects, includ­ing depart­ment stores, restau­rants and theme parks that reflect cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture in South Korea. Why has this been nec­es­sary, if at all?

There have been three key build­ing sprees in North Korea in recent mem­o­ry. The first was in the lead up to the World Fes­ti­val of Youth and Stu­dents in 1989, the sec­ond in the after­math of Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, and most recent­ly in the 2010s. The recent spree in Pyongyang most mir­rors the urban projects that hasti­ly mate­ri­al­ized before the World Fes­ti­val of Youth and Stu­dents in 1989, dri­ven both – in large part – by North Korea’s need to com­pete with the increas­ing­ly seduc­tive cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture of South Korea. As South Korea’s tri­umphant Sum­mer Olympics loomed, an Olympian build­ing project offered a means of express­ing strength in Pyongyang, just as the fes­ti­val itself expressed (a last gasp of) North Kore­an inter­na­tion­al­ism. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this con­struc­tion spree also helped bank­rupt the impov­er­ished state and fur­ther open the gates to famine.

Like the spend­ing spree in the lead up to 1989, the urban projects of the 2010s were most­ly aimed at youth and stu­dents. Indeed, the Kim Jong Un era has seen mas­sive invest­ment in mod­ern fam­i­ly enter­tain­ment, includ­ing addi­tions to the Kae­son Fun­fair, new water parks, roller-skat­ing rinks, a rid­ing club, ski resort, dol­phi­nar­i­um and 4D cin­e­ma, as well as long over­due ren­o­va­tions for the Song­dowon Children’s Camp and var­i­ous Children’s Palaces around the coun­try. After the Ardu­ous March and its long after­math, in which state pro­pa­gan­da urged youth and chil­dren to accept an aus­tere guer­ril­la lifestyle, the Kim Jong Un era pro­ject­ed a North Kore­an “pros­per­i­ty Gospel” in which loy­al­ty to the Supreme Leader would be reward­ed with mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits, as well as the tra­di­tion­al spir­i­tu­al rewards. Mean­while, the state was forced to com­pete with the mate­r­i­al temp­ta­tions of the south, as cul­tur­al het­ero­doxy rapid­ly pro­lif­er­at­ed via new media technologies.

Yet we must be care­ful not to per­ceive this as too rad­i­cal a rein­ven­tion of the state’s pri­or­i­ties. In speech­es and trea­tis­es, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had long insist­ed that plea­sure grounds and leisure facil­i­ties were no less impor­tant than homes and fac­to­ries, all sym­bols of the benev­o­lence and pros­per­i­ty of a thriv­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary state. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Kim Jong Un, con­tin­ued UN and US sanc­tions, now the “black swan” of a Covid-19 out­break, will test the effec­tive­ness and dura­bil­i­ty of his pros­per­i­ty gospel. Already, the Supreme Leader has warned that North Kore­an belts need be tight­ened once again. It may yet prove that the North Kore­an build­ing spree of the 2010s, like the build­ing sprees of the 1990s and the 1980s, proves a har­bin­ger of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic ruin. Unlike then, how­ev­er, North Kore­ans are more aware than ever of the world beyond their bor­ders. If the state is not care­ful, Kim Jong Un risks los­ing the loy­al­ty of a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren and youth that the dura­bil­i­ty of his rule depends upon.

Christo­pher Richard­son received his PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Syd­ney in 2016 for a the­sis enti­tled ‘Child­hood Poli­cies and Prac­tices in the DPRK : A Chal­lenge to Kore­an Uni­fi­ca­tion’. Mean­while, Dr Richard­son is fin­ish­ing his sec­ond nov­el (and first for adults) which also explores the lives of chil­dren in NK.