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.