Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950
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Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950

Suzy Kim

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Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950

Suzy Kim

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About This Book

During the founding of North Korea, competing visions of an ideal modern state proliferated. Independence and democracy were touted by all, but plans for the future of North Korea differed in their ideas about how everyday life should be organized. Daily life came under scrutiny as the primary arena for social change in public and private life. In Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950, Kim examines the revolutionary events that shaped people's lives in the development of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. By shifting the historical focus from the state and the Great Leader to how villagers experienced social revolution, Kim offers new insights into why North Korea insists on setting its own course.Kim's innovative use of documents seized by U.S. military forces during the Korean War and now stored in the National Archives—personnel files, autobiographies, minutes of organizational meetings, educational materials, women's magazines, and court documents—together with oral histories allows her to present the first social history of North Korea during its formative years. In an account that makes clear the leading role of women in these efforts, Kim examines how villagers experienced, understood, and later remembered such events as the first land reform and modern elections in Korea's history, as well as practices in literacy schools, communal halls, mass organizations, and study sessions that transformed daily routine.

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1. Revolutions in the Everyday

Even in a crowd, they know how to express their opinions, clap and raise their hands, and exclaim with bursting sincerity that women also need to learn. This must be the noble lesson taught to them by the era. In everyday life from liberation until today, they have personally experienced that without learning one cannot be useful as a person. They have become the valiant women of Korea supporting the radical development of a new Korea.
Soyŏn, Chosŏn Yŏsŏng, May 1947
Figure 1.1. Korean-Soviet friendship (n.p., n.d.). RG 242, SA 2012, box 5, item 139. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
During the North Korean Revolution, everyday life became at once the primary site of political struggle and the single most important arena for experiencing the revolution in progress. Publications were peppered with expressions that emphasized a particular aspect of everyday life, from more recognizable terms such as family life (kajŏng saenghwal) and social life (sahoejŏk saenghwal) to less familiar ones such as party life (tang saenghwal), organizational life (chojik saenghwal), collective life (tanch’e saenghwal), ideological life (sasang saenghwal), scientific life (kwahakchŏk saenghwal), life reform (saenghwal kaesŏn), and life skill (saenghwal kisul). Life after liberation was variously described as a new life (sinsaenghwal), a happy life (haengbokhan saenghwal), and ultimately a total “revolution in life” (saenghwal hyŏngmyŏng). Composed of two Chinese characters for life and living, saenghwal (
) denotes life in the act of living. Thus, the repeated references to saenghwal in these phrases refer more accurately to a way of living, a lifestyle for everyday life.
Indeed, an article calling on women to revolutionize their saenghwal advocated the following:1
1. Let’s work and learn.
2. Let’s overthrow superstition.
3. Let’s eliminate extravagance and gossip.
4. Let’s have a plan in daily life.
5. Let’s reform old habits and customs of the past (simplify the traditional rituals for capping, marriage, funeral, and ancestor worship).
6. Let’s have a scientific dietary life (maximize nutrition; shorten cooking time).
7. Let’s reform our clothes to suit productive activities (dark clothes; appropriate fabric).
8. Let’s fix our home so that we can work comfortably and live well (ventilation; heating).
9. Let’s strengthen our sense of hygiene in daily life.
No aspect of the everyday was left untouched, from undesirable habits to the appropriate housing, clothing, diet, and hygiene. Topping the list were the two most important elements to incorporate anew into one’s everyday life—work and education.
At first glance, however, such slogans and appeals may seem rather mundane and banal, reminiscent of other modernization projects, particularly under colonial Korea when various attempts had been made to mobilize peasants as well as women. Cultural reformers had advanced remarkably similar advice about leaving behind “traditional” customs, such as extended families, and “bad” habits, such as white clothing (which required extra laundering), as part of the life reform movement among urban intellectuals.2 Likewise, agrarian reformers in the 1920s and early 1930s from the Ch’ŏndogyo, an eclectic Korean religion founded in the mid-nineteenth century, and Christian organizations including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) had attempted, with limited success, to modernize the countryside through peasant participation in rural development projects that included literacy and other educational programs.3 In the 1930s and 1940s, the colonial government organized groups at the local level, including Councils for Rural Revitalization (nongch’on chinhŭng wiwŏnhoe), financial co-ops (kŭmyung chohap), and mutual-aid production associations (siksan’gye), to foster agricultural production and elevate the standard of living in the countryside.4 After the Japanese invasion of mainland China in 1937, Patriotic Units (aegukpan) and Village Leagues (purak yŏnmaeng) were organized all across Korea; they controlled the entire process of production and distribution of goods in order to increase productivity and extract resources for the war effort.5 All of these programs attempted to rid Korea of traditional customs that were thought to hinder its development, replacing them with a new set of practices defined by rational ordering, productivity, and hygiene that bore a striking similarity to the above list of advice for women in postliberation North Korea.
Some might question whether anything new was going on in North Korea, not only due to ostensible parallels with the colonial period but also because North Korea was seen as a Soviet satellite throughout much of the Cold War.6 Although colonial and Soviet legacies were certainly instrumental after liberation, exactly how they were influential is either not made clear or the reputed influence is off the mark. The colonial period, for example, can hardly be lumped into one uniform experience: the more liberal 1920s operated in a mood substantially different from the 1930s and 1940s war mobilization, which curbed the already limited gains. In short, the colonial antecedent and Soviet influence help situate the North Korean Revolution within the history of modernity by highlighting the North Korean Revolution as a simultaneous critique of colonial modernity and capitalist modernity. The dual critique allowed a repudiation of Korea’s colonial past while also rejecting a capitalist modernity for Korea’s future, pointing toward an alternative modernity modeled on the Soviet Union. The North Korean Revolution sought to bring a new kind of everyday life, free of colonial and capitalist subjugation. But how was everyday life experienced differently as something new?
Those living through the colonial to the postcolonial period articulated what was felt to be so different. In September 1948, some three years after liberation, a poor peasant named Sŏ Yŏng-jun from Sŏnch’ŏn County in North P’yŏngan Province, wrote a short autobiography attached to his resume as required for his admission into the Youth League.7 The full text read:
As a poor peasant family since before my grandparents, we lived (saenghwal) as tenant farmers to Mr. Kim Un-pu in Sŏkhwadong for 13 years and in 1925 lived (saenghwal) as Mr. Pak Pyŏng-ŭp’s farmhand in Sŏkhodong, not only oppressed and exploited but also bitterly suffering a wretched life (pich’amhan saenghwal), not able to go to school, caring for my younger siblings until I was 12, and then in order to support my siblings, I started farming at 13 until liberation when we were allotted land, and I was able to farm freely and live a life of freedom (chayusŭrŏun saenghwal). Before liberation, I couldn’t even read, but after liberation in 1946, I started attending Korean School until 1947, learning to read and participate in organizational life (chojik saenghwal) and beginning a collective life (tanch’e saenghwal), joining the Youth League on May 26, 1946 and the Peasant League on February 10, 1946, and then I took charge of physical education for the Youth League in our village, training the league members every morning and having fun with this work, and then I wanted to have an organizational life (chojik saenghwal) and joined the Workers Party in January 1947, beginning my organizational life (chojik saenghwal) and taking charge of the party cell on January 6, 1948 and carrying on the cell life (sep’o saenghwal) to this day.8
Born on December 15, 1926, Sŏ Yŏng-jun had not learned to read and write until 1946, when he was twenty years old. This fact was inscribed into the very pages of his handwritten autobiography, which was composed only a couple of years after he became literate, as indicated in the repeated spelling errors and lack of punctuation that are lost in translation. Nonetheless, the differences in his work life and educational life before and after liberation are quite clearly marked throughout the short autobiography: he uses the term saenghwal nine times within a text no longer than a paragraph. His “wretched life” of tenancy and suffering had turned into a “life of freedom” supported by the seven thousand p’yŏng (just over two hectares or almost six acres) of land he had received in the land reform of 1946, an important detail noted in his resume. Moreover, he was eager to embrace a collective lifestyle, joining one organization after another in quick succession. This changed his daily routine, as signaled by the morning exercises he notes in his autobiography. The two most important components of everyday life—work and education—had fundamentally changed for this poor peasant, who was no longer destitute and illiterate but now tilled his own land, living a full collective life.
Making a similar distinction in women’s lives before and after liberation, an editorial in a women’s journal, dated August 13, 1947, argued that Korean women in the past had been relegated to the private realm solely to live a “family life,” whereas men lived “social lives,” dominating the public realm.9 Admittedly, the number of women finding work outside the home had been increasing throughout the colonial period. However, the editorial claimed that this kind of work did not constitute an authentic social life because women worked to support their families, rather than to foster an “independent productive life.” The social life, thus entered through work, was an extension of family life to aid the social life of men. Moreover, responding to the claim that women had increasingly become consumers, participating in public life in the process of consumption if not production, the editorial argued that their consumption of fashion and cosmetics was not for their own sake but in order to fulfill the desires and tastes of men. Thus, the editorial reasoned, “Korean women did not have a life of their own, and could not have an independent life as a human being, living subjugated under men. A life of domination, always being dragged around, this was the totality of the life of past Korean women.” However, after liberation, North Korean women now had the right to vote and be elected to public office; they could participate in the full range of public life: political, economic, and cultural. The editorial triumphantly concluded, “The life of a North Korean woman today has been completely freed from subordination, domination, subservience and exploitation so that she can live a social life of her own, an economic life of her own, for a socially productive life from a position of equality with men.” Although the editorial was intended for women readers, a “socially productive life” was expected of everyone as part of the general reconstitution of everyday life.
The everyday, thus, became the chief arena for revolutionary change in North Korea, situating it broadly within the history of modernity and more specifically within the history of socialist modernity.

What Is the Everyday?

The everyday as a privileged site for theorists of social change gained prominence mostly through such postwar European thinkers as Fernand Braudel, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau.10 Less studied but no less important were the intellectuals outside Western Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century who were preoccupied with the everyday as they attempted to come to terms with the modern. Harry Harootunian’s study of Tosaka Jun is just one example, showing how everydayness became “a philosophic concept in order to understand the ‘modern life’ of the present” in Japan.11 Indeed, modernity may be defined by the birth of the everyday as an experiential and temporal category. There was no everyday as such before modernity precisely because each day lacked the objective continuity of clockwork. Time was attached to space, unique to each locality, and each day had yet to be encompassed within a universal homogeneous temporality. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) became a means to standardize time worldwide only in the late nineteenth century.
As Japan became the first nation to modernize in East Asia, its formal colonization of Korea in 1910 happened to coincide with the beginnings of a qualitative shift in the way people experienced the world, which was evidenced by paradigmatic changes in fields as varied as music and physics.12 The debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 resulted in riots as people reacted to the unsettling sound of atonal music. Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralism threw out the idea that the meaning of words had anything to do with the objects they represented. At the pinnacle of this paradigm shift was Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which signaled the end to any sense of fixity in time and space. Such cultural and intellectual transformations in Europe were accompanied by concrete technological changes in everyday life across the globe. The expansion of railway networks, together with the telegraph, radio communication, steamships, and automobiles, led to dramatic time-space compressions, while advances in photography and motion pictures further revolutionized the way people experienced space and time. The practices of listening to music, looking at images, traveling to distant places, and hearing the latest news had fundamentally changed daily life.
Likewise, Korea witnessed a boom in road construction between 1907 and 1912, and by the end of 1938 over twenty-eight thousand kilometers of road had been laid under the supervision of Japanese colonial authorities.13 Moreover, the expansion of railways, with 5,411 kilometers of rail laid by 1939, not only connected Korea domestically but with China and Russia on the South Manchurian Railway. Streetcars rattled on the streets of Seoul, which were lined with modern shops and department stores. Increasing numbers of urban residents were drawn to the novelties of modern life with “talkies and taxies, modern girls and modern boys…mini-skirts and bell-bottomed trousers, as well as revue girls, jazz and radio.”14 If, as Raymond Williams argues, “the key cultural factor of the modernist shift is the character of the metropolis,” which brings together individuals, “lonely and isolated,” in the “crowd of strangers” as part of the seemingly “impenetrable city,” then the changes in Seoul brought about by colonial modernity certainly marked the beginnings of that shift.15
Rather than taking such changes as a sign of “progress,” however, it is worth asking what was driving such titanic shifts. The dynamic engine of capitalism itself made “efficiency” and “productivity” cornerstones of everyday life, making it necessary to compress time and space in order to maximize profit. Walter Benjamin elegantly formulated the way in which capitalist logic compressed time in the rationalization of labor so that time became “homogeneous empty time.” Time was detached from socially meaningful activities and events, making each day equivalent to another and thus emptied of singular significance. Partha Chatterjee elaborates:
Empty homogeneous time is the time of capital. Within its domain, capital allows for no resistance to its free movement. When it encounters an impediment, it thinks it has encountered another time—something out of pre-capital, something that belongs to the pre-modern. Such resistances to capital (or to modernity) are therefore understood as coming out of humanity’s past, something people should have left behind but somehow haven’t. But by imagining capital (or modernity) as an attribute of time itself, this view succeeds not only in branding the resistances to it as archaic and backward, but also securing for capital and modernity their ultimate triumph, regardless of what some people may believe or hope, because after all, as everyone knows, time does not stand still.16
The everyday, then, functioned not as a duration of actual lived time, but as a concept, a commodified form of time in the age of capital. In other words, time equaled money. This idea of the everyday as mundane and repetitious, tied to the rhythm of production, existed side by side with the spectacle and novelty of consumption, which gave modernity its dazzling image. The deadening, monotonous routine of industrial work had to be mitigated by leisure time. For the first time in history, leisure as part of private life was available to large numbers of people as a time of “rest and relaxation” away from the daily grind of urban life and industrial work. It is no wonder that the everyday came to be identified with private life and conflated with “authentic” experience set against the discipline of work. But the everyday must be understood as a distinctly modern idea, a product of capitalist modernity in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the eventful.
It is therefore no accident that social revolutions have focused on the everyday as both a stage on which the extraordinary eventfulness of the revolution itself is fully displayed and as the very fabric of old structures that must be transformed into new ones, representing the radical departure of the revolution from the past. Some theorists, represented by de Certeau and Mikhail Bakhtin, have imbued the everyday with far-reaching potentials for resistance, looking into facets of life that are spontaneous, sensuous, heterogeneous, playful, and effervescent. Others, such as Lefebvre and Braudel, who focus on the material conditions, have viewed everyday life as the oppressive temporal fabric to which we have been subjugated. For the latter, the everyday set modern life apart from traditional life, which had encompassed a unity and c...

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