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    Korea
     Dec 22, 2012


North Korea a culture of warriors
By Tatiana Gabroussenko

" ... Young guerrilla girl Kumsuni delivers letters to comrades, and one day is caught by the police. When the policemen demand the girl disclose information about the guerillas, she spits into the faces of her interrogators. As the policemen drag Kumsuni to her execution, the heroic girl cries out 'Long Live General Kim Il Sung!'"
...Pre-teen boy Ri Kwang-ch'un is a member of a secret anti-Japanese children's organization. Along with others, he helps the "Red Guard uncles". However, one day policemen apprehend the boy. When the "bastards" torture the young patriot, Ri cuts off his own tongue in defiance. His last words are "Long Live the Korean Revolution!"
Even if one supports patriotic education of the younger generation, one is still likely to find such notions of slicing off one's own

 
tongue, torture or execution to be much too disturbing and complicated to present to children. Yet the plots cited above are from comics published in Kkotpongori (Flower bud), a North Korean monthly magazine for kindergarden-aged children. The designated audience of the publication may be deduced by the types of logic puzzles included in each issue, such as: "Look at the pictures of a pig, a tractor and a bike. Which one moves faster?"

Welcome to the world of North Korean childhood. In this world, cartoons such as "Pencil artillery shells", by Cha Kye-ok, call on children to study well. Unlike in South Korea, where the same imperative is justified by intellectual fun and social success of the students, the North Korean educational paradigm suggests another lucrative objective: good students are better prepared for the defence of their country against invaders.

In the constantly emphasized potential war, North Korean children are summoned to prepare for the worst. Verses of their songs widely employ idioms such as kyolsaongwi (desperate readiness to die [for the leader, the country, the party]) orch' ongp' at 'anadulttal, (sons and daughters of guns and bombs/living guns and bombs). See, for example, a typical children's poem by Kim Ch'angmu, They Envy Us, They Are Afraid of Us:
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.
Kunsanori, or military games, constitute an essential part of physical activity of young North Korean children. Traditionally, the target of such games has been a dummy of a US soldier, with the archetypal reference of "American bastard", which North Korean kindergardeners are taught to shoot or beat.

Recently, the list of targets has been expanded. For example, the back cover of a magazine that informs us about the exploits of Ri Kwang-ch'un (Kkotbonori, May-June 2012) depicts a group of North Korean kindergarteners, including a girl in a pretty yellow dress, pounding dummies of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Jeong Sung-Jo with wooden clubs. The expressive image carries the title "Let us crush the clique of Lee Myung-bak".
This bacchanalia of militarist imagination in North Korean kindergarteners reflects a general North Korean passion for arms, which some observers tend to link with the official announcement of songun, or "military first" era. Songun made its nationwide debut in 1996-1998. However, as North Korean history demonstrates, prioritization of the military in all aspects of life in the North has factually existed since the very inception of the "Guerrilla State". Militarism was an integral part of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's founding mythology.

Warriors versus learned gentlemen
A comparison of North and South Korean paradigms demonstrates that the major rupture between two halves of a once homogeneous culture which has been occurring over the last 60 years lies not in their respective attitudes to communism. In many aspects, purely communist messages of North Korean discourse are congruent with communal values of patriarchal Korea and may be quite appealing to a regular South Korean.

What in fact differentiates the North Korean spiritual world from the South Korean one is it's radical departure from civil traditions of the Confucian learned gentlemen, which traditionally despise brute force and military violence.

North Korean ideology has significantly redefined Korea's past, present and future. When depicting traditional Korea, North Korean media tend to downplay its Confucian legacy and falsely represent old Korea as an essentially martial state. According to a popular ideological myth, obligatory military service allegedly enjoyed such a high prestige in old Korea that it was widely considered a kind of initiation process for young men, without passing of which they were not allowed to marry.

When describing present events in both fictional and documentary reports, North Korean media do so in such a way that they leave the audience with an impression that the country is participating in actual combat operations. "On the spot guidance" by deceased Leader Kim Jong - il would be portrayed as "the Leader's inspections of the front line and state borders".

North Korean journalists place particular emphasis on the personal inconveniences and dangers such inspections allegedly pose for the precious leader. Contemporary North Korean romantic songs lament over a separation of lovers, one going to the front line to take part in non-existant combat. Without being involved in a war, North Koreans have managed to create a warriors' culture which nurtures an indomitable marshal spirit, self-discipline and toughness with relation to both the world and themselves.

Of course it may be argued that, firstly, contemporary North Korean militarism justifies the use of force only on behalf of "good" causes and secondly that it "barks but not bites", thus fulfilling merely a morale-increasing function. However, the army-centrism of the DPRK has given birth to an educational philosophy that permits and encourages children to hit and punch, and moreover suggests that they can be the object of someone else's punches, and this can be regarded as a significant social outcome.

A consistent injection of this idea into generations cannot pass without consequences. Warriors who are trained to fight against named enemies, the South Korean president among them, will search for their battlefield and are likely eventually to find it.

Meanwhile, South Korean upbringing is rapidly moving towards the opposite direction. On the one hand, it largely continues Confucian traditions of the prevalence of intellectual development over the body. On the other hand, this Confucian legacy has been augmented by the educational trend of contemporary Western democracies, with their emphasis on pacifism, tolerance and leniency to human weaknesses.

One of the recent mantras of South Korean pedagogy is curbing children's aggression and discouraging violent games and toys. A range of parental books on the shelves of the largest Seoul bookshop, Kyobomungo, calls on South Korean fathers to refrain from any aggression, both physical and verbal, when dealing with their children and to inspire their offspring to do the same at schools and playgrounds.

The nationwide campaign encourages South Korean schoolchildren to solve the issue of bullying by way of complaints to teachers and by calling particular help-line numbers. In the contemporary South Korean context, it is actions like these that constitute standing up for one's self.

It can be fairly stated that a regular North Korean boy would hardly sympathize with this course of action. In his juche world, "standing up for himself" implies mastering his own body and bravery and physically retaliating against his aggressor, as a soldier should do. In the case when the aggressor is overwhelming, "standing up for one's self" would mean creating a network of friends and striking back with one's coterie, similar to a platoon of soldiers.

Political indoctrination can only partially be blamed for this attitude of North Korean youngsters; the major reason is materialist. Harsh reality, where regular malnutrition, material shortages and social injustices are the facts of life and where legal actions are fiction, makes it impossible for North Koreans to raise their children to be overly delicate and sentimental. The "People's Paradise" is not a place where a whiner would survive.

In a prosperous, humane and caring world of South Korean children, everyday violence is hidden from the public eye; this is a world with an increasing number of vegans, animal shelters, and a thriving pet industry. For a young South Korean child today, a rabbit, for instance, is associated with a fluffy toy or a cute domestic companion. In the harsh reality of North Korean children, rabbits are domestic animals that are valued for their skin, meat and fur.

Nation-wide campaigns encourage North Korean kindergarteners to raise rabbits and children "to make food and clothes for the brave uncle soldiers of the Korean People's Army".

Are South Koreans prepared to deal with their brothers in the North?

As it was mentioned above, pedagogical philosophy of contemporary South Koreans largely reflects the tendencies in contemporary Western world. As a mother of two Australian children with a large age gap, I would testify that this world is rapidly approaching a softer mantra. In Australian kindergartens today, toy guns are strictly prohibited; the pool of toys that the children are encouraged to play with include essentially peaceful trams, boats and cars, along with prams, dolls, teddy bears and kitchen utensils (the toys are not separated by gender). A heavily supervised football game is often the most violent form of entertainment permitted.

The growing sensitivity of Western parents is making it increasingly difficult to read to our youngsters once seemingly innocent fairy-tales such as Little Red Riding Hood. The narratives, filled with images of irresponsible mothers, cunning predators and happy endings that imply slicing open the wolf's belly, seem too disturbing for the comfortable world of contemporary childhood. Old tales that are presented to contemporary Western children are often heavily edited to exclude any hints of violence, death and suffering of the characters.

While humanization of public mores can surely be regarded as a positive social development, one thing should not be omitted from consideration. Most Western countries, such as Australia, owe the luxury of bringing up their younger generations in this manner primarily due to the fact that these countries have no direct enemies and no conscription system.

In the unlikely case of an emergency, the kangaroo-loving Australian civilians, for example, will be able to hide behind the broad reliable backs of professionals from the Australian Defence Force who have been properly taught to not be overly sentimental in dealing with big bad wolves.

My concern, however, is whether South Korean society can afford to bring up it's offspring in a similarly pacifist and cotton-wool way. After all, Korea is still technically at war, with all capable men to be enlisted at the time of conflict. There is no doubt that logistically and economically the South Korean military is strong enough to defend itself. However, wars are won not only with good equipment, but with appropriate spirit and psychological preparedness as well.

In combat with the North Korean army, the South Korea would face foes who have been taught since kindergarten not to be too squeamish about crushing the heads of the enemy with a club and to be prepared to cut off their own tongues in case of danger for their comrades.

Tatiana Gabroussenko obtained her PhD in East Asian Studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book,Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy, was selected for the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012. Gabroussenko is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales and is currently teaching North Korean culture at Korea University, Seoul.

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