Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Military Propaganda in North Korea

Yeongye kunin - "disabled / honorable veterans" - and North Korean national identity 

Through "military games" North Korea is projecting themselves to be mighty and valorous. And there seems within propaganda - media like books, comics, cartoons, movies, TV programs and other broadcasts - that there is a "desperate readiness to die [for the leader, the country, the party]".

(pretty rude! something like "the military plays with the f~~ American" ... but have to say
my translation is pretty lame although I certainly got the "f~~ American" part right)
The lauding of the soldier and his greatness targets even the young and tender of age. For example, a piece of North Korean children's poetry reads:
The whole world envies us
The whole world is afraid of us
We are the nation of the sun
The nation which shines under the slogan of juche (self-reliance)
We are the sons and daughters of guns and bombs.
And as one observant analytical mind of the North Korean society wrote: "The North Korean military is an embodiment of North Korea's national identity. Without the military, the regime is simply not viable." John (???)

Some observers tend to link contemporary North Korean passion for arms and bellicose international rhetoric with the official announcement of seongun or "military first" era, making its nationwide debut in 1996-1998. Seongun is often perceived as a departure from the previous juche course.

Constant features of NK society and propaganda

  • Prioritization of the military in all aspects of DPRK life
  • Preferential allocation of resources to the army
  • Constant call for involvement and support from the public for the army, rhetoric of "mutual love" of the army and the people

State militarism in 1950s - late 1980s relied upon:

  • recent memories of the Korean War
  • real episodes of military confrontation with the enemy
  • genuine endeavors of the government to keep the DPRK's armed forces mobilized for another offensive
  • militarism was an essential part of official ideology which had not yet exhausted its credibility
  • relative material stability was ascribed to efforts of the Korean People's Army
  • efficient isolationist policy barred citizens from access to any contesting information

In the 1950s - 1980s, the enormous standing Korean People's Army had not been involved in any military activity. However, since the late 1980s, changes have been clearly noted:

  • attrition of the state distribution system and decrease of living and material standards
  • North Koreans naturally became more concerned with personal welfare, rather than with reciprocal protection of their state
  • the gradual erosion of the iron curtain
  • North Koreans exposed to challenging discourses

  • There followed a creation of a quasi-military society. Women were given rankings and participated in military activities. And the military was given a softer, more sentimental overtone - in propaganda smiles and joy were on the faces of soldiers and soldiers were provided with much vied for creature comforts. 

Since the late 1980s the major goals of the militarist propaganda became:

  • a stimulation of North Korean society by creating a sense of false urgency
  • an illusion of common goals
  • a distraction of popular attention from the faults of the economic and political strategy promoted by the ruling elite
  • a justification of material deficiencies and harsh anti-democratic policies of the state leadership
  • stimulation of national pride in moments of actual national disgrace

and at the center:

  • the idea of the innate self-sacrificial spirit of military people, as the best part of the NK society
  • counterbalance to the unwanted spread of consumerism and mercenary spirit among the "overtly liberalized" civilians
  • reciprocal pattern of self-sacrifice relationships between the military and the civilians

Yeongye kunin "honorable / disabled veterans"

With a push for military expansionism and the driving need to have soldiers in the army, the soldiers who have been disabled - the yeongye kunin - are lauded for the commendable sacrifice to nation building.

The yeongye kunin are officially revered as heroes - in contrast to non-military handicapped people who are widely discriminated against and ignored. Civilians, therefore, are summoned to commit reciprocal self-sacrifice - to similarly join the army and fill the place of the injured or to become the "honorable veteran's" spouse cum nurse, basically turning one's self into his or her legs/eyes/arms and at the same time receiving the blessings of the government.

Romances of yeongye kunin proliferate - they are a popular theme of North Korean culture. Films such as "Traces of Life" (1987) and "Girls in My Hometown" (1991) by playwright Ri Ch'un-gu are wildly popular. Literary fiction like "Mirror" (2009) written by Cho Hyang-mi and based on actual events is also widely read.

Tropes of yeongye kunin paradigm:

  • yeongye kunin as canonized saints and therefore entitled to public admiration 
  • yeongye kunin entitled to loyalty of the trophy spouse
  • yeongye kunin entitled to a bright future

No matter what the yeongye kunin did or how they achieved their status, they are to be honored. The sensibility, or human and material costs, of their exploits are never debated. And yet to the non-North Korean, some of the cases of their being honored seem rather dubious:

Example 1: "Mirror"

In 1998 17 male and female soldiers saved "sacred" trees on Baekdu Mountain from a fire. The trees' bark was presumably covered by indigenous sayings of the Kim Il Sung's guerrilla troops, and as personal troops of the Great Leader, the sayings were considered "sacred". In saving the illustrious trees, however, some soldiers perished while others received severe burns. The injured and departed soldiers were instantly transformed into heroes. They became highly praised yeongye kunin. In the picture below, the saved "sacred" trees have been encased in glass to protect them from further harm. These "sacred" trees (as can be seen by North Korean tourism to the "holy site") as well as the yeongye kunin are highly idolized within North Korean society.

Example 2: Exploit of yeongye kunin in "Girls in My Hometown"

A handsome squad officer Shin Song-chol loses his sight during an industrial accident. He is extolled as a hero. Evidently wearing a uniform and working for the party is what is deserving of the honor of public recognition and esteem, not apparently what he was doing at the time of the event.

Theme: Yeongye kunin are entitled to trophy spouses

The "honorable veterans" are deserving of trophy spouses in payment for their sacrifice. The trophy spouses, who are physically and spiritually perfect, are to make reciprocal sacrifice as "romantic partners". The not so subtle message is that a "prince" or "princess"  appreciates the moral perfection of the yeongye kunin and are broadminded and accepting in regards to his or her disability.

The trophy spouses, therefore, can be seen not only as lovers but as "forced heroes". Any retreat in the course of loyalty to yeongye kunin is treated as political misconduct and betrayal of the lover's revolutionary status. Rejection of the yeongye kunin is shameful, and "traitors" are socially ostracized and permanently unhappy. Therefore, the lovers or trophy spouses have little choice - either they are a hero for marrying and being faithful and self-sacrificing to the yeongye kunin or they become a criminal.

Example 1: "Traces of Life"

P'ilsuni abandons Kilnam who has lost his leg during some unspecified incident. Shinju, the chairperson of the collective farm convenes a meeting where she condemns the disloyal P'ilsuni and proposes that she be expelled from the collective farm. P'ilsuni regrets her behavior. Together with Chinju, she goes to ask Kilnam's forgiveness. The entire village celebrates their wedding party.

Example 2: "Girls in My Hometown"

Eunha is dating a handsome squad officer Shin Song-chol whose troops are helping farmers with the construction of an irrigation channel. When Shin loses his sight during an industrial accident, she abandons him, and people are outraged by this "selfish" act. Eunha's best friend Sinae proposes to the blinded officer and is extolled as a heroine by everybody, and most particularly by a high officer who says, "Comrade Sinae! Your true and noble comradely love set a fine example for Korean women to all of us officers and men. Women like you encourage us to give our lives unhesitatingly for the country and the revolution!" Sinae's response, "I will love him with a sincere heart. This is my vow to the Party."

Betrayal is portrayed as an act of selfishness and material greed which are incompatible with the spirit of socialism, not as an act of self-defense and endeavor to avoid life-long ordeal. Eunha has remorse for her abandonment. "I betrayed my love and friendship for my own self. Girls like me can betray a Party and the country. I thought you'll never forgive me. I make a vow to you. Like Sinae and her husband I'll give my all to the country and the revolution. If occasion calls, I'll dedicate my whole life to a disabled soldier. I swear before you."

In North Korean rhetoric, the yeongye kunin are entitled to a bright future. Marriage is the outcome, and the narrative to such an end is heavily idealized. There is no mention of material or physical challenges which care-giving implies. The romanticized, fairy tale picture of the yeongye kunin is contrasted to the allegedly gloomy, ostracized existence of those with consumerist and individualistic tendencies. Heroism is obligatory - the soldier is obliged to be a hero, and in the event that he or she is hurt, a trophy spouse is obliged to be equally self-sacrificing. In the narrative the heroes life is full of appreciation and support of the entire society - beautiful men and women hurry to propose to them out of the appreciation of the nobility of their acts. In North Korean paradise, duty and self-sacrifice are obligatory; they are portrayed as aesthetically attractive, socially appreciated and free of pain, sweat and blood.

Professor Tatiana Gabroussenko, PhD in East Asian Studies, presented this insightful lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society. She is a highly knowledgeable presenter as well as the author of a number of article devoted to contemporary North Korean culture, literature and propaganda.

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