Rainer Dormels Image transfers – Vienna/Pyongyang: Political and Cultural Background Afraid of the Unknown The words used to characterize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea by Western media are usually anything but flattering. The country is presented as inaccessible, as a rogue state, as nationalist, Stalinist, as a kingdom of hermits, is compared to Hollywood, and introduced as a realm of supposedly bizarre events. This might even be understandable considering that most articles deal with subjects such as nuclear bombs, rocket tests, famine, restricted freedom of the press, and oppression. Yet, the principle of depicting everything North Korean in terms of black and white has quite weird effects; some journalists regard it necessary to let their gentle readers know that North Koreans are “real people.” No wonder then that a textbook contribution on political systems in East Asia presents the statement that “North Koreans are human beings” as one of its crucial hypotheses. Beyond the comprehensible dread of nuclear weapons, descriptions of North Korea often reveal a fear of the foreign that may mainly be due to the fact that not many Europeans have personal contacts with North Koreans. This is why cultural relations are so important: not for covering up shortages but for gradually replacing current clichés with a precise and subtle view of things. Many aspects that may strike a foreigner as strange become understandable when you have a closer look at the country or talk to people in North Korea – which is possible to a certain degree contrary to different reports, provided you speak the language. Many circumstances informing the society and culture of North Korea are directly connected with the two thousand years of Korea’s history. A nation with a great cultural heritage Although Korea was under Chinese suzerainty for centuries, the small country succeeded in surviving as a kingdom of its own between its powerful neighbors Japan and China. Its inhabitants were aware of their special ethnic character although the country was under the cultural influence of its big western neighbor and classical Chinese was the preferred written standard language. The Koreans are proud to have invented an alphabetical script of their own in the mid-15th century with which they cannot only phonetically represent Chinese pronunciation but also transcribe their own language which is fundamentally different from the Chinese. In 1910, Korea fell victim to Japan’s imperialist ambitions and remained its colony until 1945. Japanese assimilation politics suppressed the use of the Korean language and script; Koreans were even forced to change their names and adopt Japanese ones. This is why the Koreans’ resistance against the imperialist rule and their commitment to a national and ethnic identity went hand in hand – which explains the definitely nationalist component in Korean culture and politics.
Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s strong man until his death in 1994, and his generation of politicians legitimized themselves largely through the resistance fight against Japan. The former Australian diplomat Adrian Buzo once referred to a “guerilla dynasty” in this context. North Korea’s cultural works and institutions are also determined by the years under Japanese rule. The most important revolutionary operas such as “The Flower Girl” and “Sea of Blood,” parts of which were filmed or are presented as ballets, deal with the resistance fight against the Japanese occupiers. One of the most popular North Korean musical formations, the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, derives its name from the Battle for Pochonbo on 4 July 1937 when, according to North Korean historiography, a guerilla unit under Kim Il-sung attacked facilities of the Japanese army and set them on fire. The liberation from Japanese imperialism in 1945 brought the division of the country in two along the 38th parallel. The reunification of the two parts became a crucial issue in the years to come. In the beginning, both South and North Korea banked on military means for achieving this goal as soon as possible. The first South Korean president Syngman Rhee’s policy was one of “advancing on the North.” After large North Korean units had crossed the 38th parallel on 26 June 1950, they occupied 90 percent of the South Korean territory by mid-September. After the intervention of the USA under a UN mandate and Chinese troops, a trench warfare developed near the 38th parallel from mid-1951 on before an armistice was signed. Officially, North Korea is still at war today. During the fights, Pyongyang was razed, with only three houses surviving the attacks unharmed. North Koreans are proud of the reconstruction of their capital which in its architecture reveals a lot of Korean elements of style besides features of a typically Socialist city. Kim Il-sungs position in North Korea has not always been undisputed. There were different movements within the Korean Workers’ Party until the 1960s which were partly supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. With the ideology of self-reliance or juche, Kim Il-sung emphasized the country’s distance from both powers in its foreign affairs on the one hand and reduced their influence on North Korea’s domestic affairs on the other. In the 1980s, Kim Jong-il, one of Kim Il’s sons, was able to consolidate his position as his father’s successor. Tendencies towards an economic opening became manifest in 1984 when a law concerning the conclusion of joint venture agreements between North Korean and foreign companies was enacted. But problems with Korea’s creditworthiness and the unstable political situation discouraged many potential investors. In 1991, a Special Economic Zone was created in the northeast. Yet, the remote location and the lack of infrastructure in the region impeded investments. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc had disastrous consequences for North Korea’s economy because the Soviet Union too began to insist on hard currency in exchange for its oil shipments, for example. The industrial production broke down in nearly all sectors which also affected farming. The situation worsened because of structural deficiencies, droughts, and floods so that large parts of North Korea were plunged into famine. This is why, following the example of the 100-day march of Korean resistance
fighters against the Japanese occupation forces in 1938/9, the years from 1996 to 1999 are referred to as the Hard or Painful March. Nuclear Crisis and “Sunshine” The first North Korean nuclear crisis occurred in 1993 when the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after international inspections had hinted at certain inconsistencies. In 1994, an Agreed Framework was signed in Geneva between the USA and North Korea which stipulated that the latter would give up its plutonium production and that two light water reactors would be made available to the country instead of it. The rapprochement culminated in the meeting of Korea’s two heads of state Kim Dae-jung (South) and Kim Jong-il (North) from 13 to 15 June 2000. South Korea now intensified its contacts with the North as part of its Sunshine Policy. An industrial area for South Korean investors has been created in Kaesong, North Korea, close to the Demilitarized Zone. Numerous South Koreans have visited the North Korean Kumgang Mountains. Relations with the United States have improved. In October 2000, US Secretary of State Albright visited North Korea, and a visit by President Clinton was considered. When the Bush administration came into office, relations between the US and North Korea deteriorated abruptly. In January 2002, North Korea found itself to be one of the powers constituting an “axis of evil.” The agreement signed in Geneva in 1994 was broken by both sides. Serious disagreements arose between South Korea and the United States concerning the policy towards North Korea. The rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea had brought some life into the discussion on the reduction of US troops on the Korean peninsula. These troops had officially been stationed there to protect South Korea against an attack from the North. Considering South Korea’s own military strength, this is seen as an excuse by many people. The US seem to be interested in a long-term military presence in South Korea to contain the emerging great power China. This is why experts differ in their assessment of North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006: while one group regards them as a failure of the Bush administration that has not been able to stop North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons, others think that the Bush administration tries to undermine the successfully initiated process of détente on the Korean peninsula to legitimize US military presence in South Korea even at the price of risking a nuclear test by the North. The European Union has backed South Korea’s Sunshine Policy. In the wake of the rapprochement between the two Korean states and between the US and North Korea, numerous Western European countries established diplomatic relations with North Korea. In May 2001, high-ranking EU representatives visited Pyongyang. Diplomatic relations were also established between the European Union and North Korea which stimulated the contacts between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and EU countries. “Bridge of Culture” or The Role of “Immaterial” Things
The exhibition “Bridge of Culture” presented in Pyongyang, which was part of the project Image transfers – Vienna/Pyongyang, was prepared together with the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. The show was one of a series of other joint projects with European countries realized by North Korea, usually involving the said Committee. The German conductor Alexander Liebreich stayed in North Korea in 2002, 2003, and 2005, holding a DAAD guest professorship in conducting at the University of Music and Dance in Pyongyang. The DAAD also sent Bärbel Gutzat and Armin Herdegen to Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University as German language lecturers. In 2004, a hub for German scientific and technological literature was founded at the Goethe Information Center in Pyongyang. Since political and economic contacts between EU countries and North Korea have been quite restricted because of the nuclear crisis and the lack of foreign currency in the country, cultural exchange has become a cornerstone of intergovernmental relations. When realizing a cultural project in other parts of the world, different attitudes towards culture have to be taken into account. As regards North Korea, one is confronted with the fact that culture is primarily seen as a means to an end. The people does not read works of literature “out of boredom,” says Kim Il-sung. Writers and artists are regarded as “engineers of human souls.” Their works should be suited to serve as “textbooks of life.” They should not be abstract. “Works of art that the people does not understand and appreciate,” says Kim, “cannot be good.” Culture is seen as something that can be morally appraised and classified as either desirable or undesirable. Thus, cultural education falls into the category of ethical or political education. North Korea’s criticism of Luca Faccio’s photographs as “immaterial” reflects the described understanding of culture. The word “immaterial” here means that it is impossible to say which desirable objective is to be achieved with the artworks. A positive result of the project was certainly the final agreement reached with the Korean partners. Talking to each other, searching and finding solutions together when problems arose, and proving one’s willingness to communicate made the venture a confidencebuilding measure. North Korean media, such as the official organ of the Workers’ Party “Rodong Sinmun,” reported on the opening of the exhibition in a factual and objective manner. North Korea emphasized its great interest in further science and culture projects. This thread should definitely be picked up. The project Image transfers – Vienna/Pyongyang has accomplished a true pioneering feat thanks to its participants’ self-conscious and open approach and their argumentative spirit.