Tuesday, September 6, 2011

North Korean 만화

Jacco Zwetsloot gave a powerfully interesting presentation on the genre of 만화 or "comic books" in North Korea. North Korean comic books "have been in publication since at least the early 1980s, despite paper shortages at times. Some of them are barely more than illustrated storybooks for children, others are caricature-filled horror stories, while still others are finely crafted graphic novels - with barely believable plotlines. The content of these "comic books" vary, but many seem to fall into three broad categories:
1. warnings against spies and how to spot them
2. cautionary tales about the evils of the world
3. heroic tales set during the Korean War or pre-1910 Korean history"

The comic books target various ages, even well-educated adults. Unfortunately, they are hard to find outside of the DPRK, but they can be similarly hard to find within it too. An interesting few points of the North Korean comic book are the interminable long sentences, repetitive passages about juche [North Korean "self reliance"] and seongun [North Korea's "military first policy"] and imperious injunctions by the Great and/or Dear Leader. North Korean comic books, therefore, are not for pure entertainment purposes but to be used as propaganda tools and social and/or political weapons.

Comic Book Trends

Some trends that Jacco was able to point out are the shifts in comic book themes over time. In the 1960s to early 1980s, Kim Il Sung was frequently portrayed as the leader of the anti-Japanese struggle. In the early 1980s to early 1990s the emphasis was placed on ideology (with Kim Il Sung dead, of course there would have to be a change in theme). Art remained ossified through the decades as it appears with the closing of the borders to imports, lack of foreign artistic expression limits the creative imagination and results in stagnation. Characters are predictable based on nationality, class, and political position. Bad guys never reflect on their evil ways and the good guys never waver. North Koreans who follow the political viewpoints of juche are "good", and keeping that in mind, the antogonists are quite predictably bad. Primary antagonists are:

spies (anti-regime North Koreans)
US soldiers
feadal landlords
lusty women
Koreans who have lived in America or who work for Americans
Japanese who return (to Korea) to help Americans

It must be said that when the North Koreans are writing or talking about Americans, Americans are always labeled as ~놈 (bastard) and ~년 (worse than "bitch"). [Many tourists have reported this strange phenomenon, even the NK children are raised refering to Americans as such and do not recognize such language as vulgar or socially wrong. In fact, such vulgar language is seen as socially correct.

Common conflicts are centered on (1) feudal Korea (landlord bastards and the hard-working peasant conflict), (2) North Korea at present (pro vs. anti-regime struggles) (3) South Korea (pro-Korean vs. racial traitors, meaning particularly Koreans who work with Americans), and (4) Korean War (all possible character types as Korea was a mish-mash of terror on multiple levels during that time).

And some common themes for today are (1) kids as spy-hunters to help the nation, (2) kids as agents of violence, (3) re-writing Korean War incidents (North Korea realistically still loses the war, but some battles lost were rewritten as won; real names, places and incidents are referred to, but truth is wildly distorted), (4) evil bastard Americans, (4) the world outside of North Korea is a scary place. (Now is that the reverse ideology of what "we outside of North Korea" say about living IN the North!)

The comics aimed at kids seem pretty standard within North Korea as well as "outside". Those comics are often anthropomorphised with animals, they are morality tales and speak against laziness. They also emphasize loyalty and a following of the rules, which is good, but the North Korean comics books do not allow for deviation of juche principles, the rules are very restrictive and absolute loyalty is demanded. And then perhaps most different is kids are spy hunters - from the time they are young, they are taught (brainwashed, depending on your perspective) to aggressively eradicate the evil of the "foreign". An example of this type is the comic, 총을 쥐소년등 or "Kids with Guns". The story is set during the Korean War, and kids in the village start up their own resistance group to fight occupying South Korean/US forces. They raid an armory, steal guns and uniforms, and kill lots of soldiers.

Consistent to the North Korean comic books is that Americans are capital imperialists and they are evil. Missionaries are not seen favorably in North Korea but one particular comic book even attacked the Underwoods, a most famous missionary family who even in our lecture had a fourth generation Underwood present. The protestant Underwoods were portrayed in the book as dressed like Catholics, translating texts in a picture very reminiscent of John Wycliffe and then the family members were referred to in the most vulgar manner. (Again, perspective on who is speaking determines politically correct language. The follow translation to English cannot give the justice to the vulgarity of the terms used.)

Jacco gave many examples of portrayal, imagery - both visual and linguistic, and theme and plot. The last one I'll give an example from his many examples is the comic book "A Sick and Twisted World", a series of books that teaches life outside of North Korea as evil. In the series are 13 stories of terrible deeds from around the world although many of them take place in South Korea. Book 7 has an exemplary quote from the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il himself, "Capitalist society is, basically a sick and twisted society, one without a sense of what's right, and one that is nearing collapse." And in that section the picture portrayals are of super-obese Americans [well, well more than 50% are in fact overweight], eating prodigious amounts of food [well, truth again], cramming the food and all sorts of unidentifiable garbage in their mouths [hmmm] ... maybe only the quote is incorrect here.

One would think that after reading the above samples of North Korean comic books that they are all political. That would be a very incorrect assumption, but the point emphasized in the lecture is that many of the comic books are for glorifying the juche regime and used as propaganda tools.

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