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Soldiers on the Cultural Front

Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the Early History of North Korean Literature and Literary Policy

Tatiana Gabroussenko
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Soldiers on the Cultural Front
    Book Description:

    An understanding of contemporary North Korea’s literature is virtually impossible without an investigation of its formative period, 1945–1960, which saw a gradual transformation from the initial "Soviet era" to a Korean version of "national Stalinism." This turbulent epoch established a long-lasting framework for North Korean literature and set up an elaborate system of political control over literary matters, as well as over the people who served in this field. In 1946 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leader Kim Il Sung described the country’s writers as "soldiers on the cultural front," thus clearly defining what the nascent Communist regime expected from its intellectuals. As a result, many literary nonentities were rewarded with fame and success (often only to be relegated once again to obscurity within a few years) while many outstanding luminaries of the past were erased from the pages of official publications or even lost their lives. The Soviet cultural impact brought new tropes, artistic images, and rhetoric, which were quickly absorbed into the North Korean discourse. However, the cultural politics of the DPRK and the USSR revealed profound and irreconcilable disparities that were rooted in the different political conditions and traditions of each country. Soldiers on the Cultural Front presents the first consistent research on the early history of North Korea’s literature and literary policy in Western scholarship. It traces the introduction and development of Soviet-organized conventions in North Korean literary propaganda and investigates why the "romance with Moscow" was destined to be short lived. It reconstructs the biographies and worldviews of major personalities who shaped North Korean literature and teases these historical figures out of popular scholarly myth and misconception. The book also investigates the specific forms of control over intellectuals and literary matters in North Korea. Considering the unique phenomenon of North Korean literary critique, the author analyzes the political campaigns and purges of 1947–1960 and investigates the role of North Korean critics as "political executioners" in these events. She draws on an impressive variety and number of sources—ranging from interviews with Korean and Soviet participants, public and family archives, and memoirs to original literary and critical texts—to present a balanced and eye-opening work that will benefit those interested in not only understanding North Korean literature and society, but also rethinking forms of socialist modernity elsewhere in the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6078-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The authors of the classic studyCommunism in Korea, by Robert A. Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee, once claimed that “the cultural life of North Korea (outside the realms of science, technology and purely folk art) is a great desert of unalleviated mediocrity and monotony.”¹ This comment may sound extremely dismissive, but as a reader of North Korean fiction with more than twenty years’ experience, I am forced to agree that North Korean literature has indeed been a field of exceptional uniformity, unchallenged by any alternatives. Dissenting views might exist, but they have so far remained unheard of. North Korean literary...

  4. 1 “Let Us Learn from the Soviets”
    (pp. 13-45)

    The first steps in the development of North Korea’s literary policy were marked by a wholesale imitation of the Soviet Stalinist models. It is easy to ascribe this process exclusively to Soviet political domination since, predictably, such a policy was actively promoted by the Soviet administration. However, at the time, the DPRK leader Kim Il Sung had his own reasons for encouraging thorough Sovietization of North Korean culture. Kim, whose aim was to create a Stalinist society in Korea, appeared to understand that the Soviet patterns of socialist realism, being necessarily imbued with Stalinist content, could equip Korean intellectuals with...

  5. 2 Soviet Koreans in North Korean Literature: The Case of Cho Ki-ch’ŏn
    (pp. 46-70)

    The Soviet influence upon North Korea’s literature, as on other spheres of life in the DPRK, was conducted through a unique and efficient living channel, namely through Russianized or Soviet Koreans.¹ For the Soviet administration, these people, who combined a Soviet upbringing and mentality with a strong sense of belonging to the Korean ethnic community, were invaluable intermediaries in dealing with North Korean society. Among many other political missions in the DPRK, Soviet Koreans were also entrusted with assisting in the transformation of North Korean literature and the arts into crucial propaganda tools of the nascent Communist state.

    A majority...

  6. 3 Yi Ki-yŏng: A Successful Literary Cadre
    (pp. 71-104)

    In North Korean literature, Yi Ki-yŏng and Yi T’fae-jun occupy special places. These two writers are symbolic figures whose activities both before and after Liberation are perceived as cornerstones in the North Korean literary and historical discourse. They occupy opposite corners of this discourse, however. While Yi Ki-yŏng is extolled as an “unbending hero of proletarian literature,” a voice of the revolutionary class struggle, and “the pillar of North Korean socialist realism,”¹ Yi T’ae-jun is portrayed as an antihero, a “pure artist” (and thus a natural opponent of socialist realism) who was swept aside by the victorious march of Communist...

  7. 4 Yi T’ae-jun: The Failure of a “Soldier on the Cultural Front”
    (pp. 105-133)

    If the post-Liberation life of Yi Ki-yŏng correlated closely with his earlier experiences and views, Yi T’ae-jun’s fate left many questions unanswered. How was it that Yi T’ae-jun, a member of the apolitical Nine Members Club and an implacable enemy of the KAPF before Liberation, chose the Communist North? Why did “the most unadulteratedsŏnbi” (learned gentleman) of Korean literature¹ and “the extoller of pure art”² suddenly change direction, becoming a “soldier on the cultural front” and eulogizing bloody scenes of “class struggle” and Communist virtues?

    The most popular argument is that Yi T’ae-jun’s move to North Korea was, first...

  8. 5 North Korean Critics as Political Executioners
    (pp. 134-166)

    In 1947—1960 the North Korean intellectual world was beset by recurrent political campaigns and purges whose victims often included famous writers. The campaigns were conducted by the leading North Korean critics, and the victims of these campaigns (of whom Yi T’ae-jun, Yim Hwa, and Kim Nam-ch’ŏn were the most prominent) were formally accused, among other crimes, of deviating from the Party line of socialist realism and of promoting “bourgeois ideology.”

    It comes as little surprise that official DPRK historians present the events of 1947—1960 as crusades by socialist realist warriors (mostly ex-KAPF writers) who fought for the ideological...

  9. Conclusion: Soldiers on the Cultural Front versus Engineers of the Human Soul
    (pp. 167-174)

    From its inception, North Korean literature demonstrated not only obvious similarities with its acknowledged Soviet prototype but also a number of particular traits that set it apart from the practice and traditions accepted in the Soviet Union. Let us reconsider these commonalties and specifics of North Korea’s literature in comparison with the Soviet model.

    When the Communist regime was inaugurated in North Korea, Korea had no established Communist intellectual tradition. Though the colonial period was marked by the emergence of leftist rhetoric in Korean literature and the arts, leftist Korean intellectuals could hardly be defined as orthodox Communist. Rather, the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 175-214)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-232)
  12. Index
    (pp. 233-240)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-242)