2018 has seen the world turn what appears to be a new page on interactions and relations with North Korea. There have been moments of inter-Korean interaction that might never have been imagined. Rituals and practices of friendship, connection and relationship grown through centuries of shared cultural development and growth. Some exchanges have seemed almost parodically Korean, tangibly of the peninsula in a way which is difficult to quite fathom. At the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, North Korea’s extraordinary cultural gift of 250 colourful cheerleaders confounded the world’s media and attention. 250 energetic, brightly coloured, snappily dressed North Korean females moving with a synchronicity that seemed both impressive and anachronistically confusing at the same time. Surely the only 250 North Korean women together in one place that many people watching would have ever seen, they were both present and unreachable at the same time. This is of course one of the truisms of the moment about North Korea, just as it seems to become accessible and knowable, its people and politics confound the outside world. Writing on North Korea is much the same, so much at the present that is of the past, so much grasping at straws, even with the great opportunity available, so little creativity. How much readers and thinkers would welcome its rewriting anew for our changing situation.
Immanuel Kim’s Rewriting Revolution: Women, Sexuality and Memory in North Korean Fiction is nothing therefore if not ambitious in its aims to offer something new on North Korea, and specifically on the place of women in that nation’s revolution. Of course, just as North Koreans in North Korea, even at this historical moment, are difficult to access, so Rewriting Revolution encounters the nation’s women in a context in which they have become easier to connect to and encounter, its literary products. Kim’s work essentially explores the place of women in North Korean revolutionary society and politics through elements of the nation’s cultural production. It must be said at the outside that the book primarily does so through literature produced in North Korea during the 1980s, though it does look backwards to work from earlier decades. So readers looking for a particularly current review of North Korean literature which reflects or mirrors the era of the post-Arduous March, byungjin ('parallel development'), donju (‘masters of money’), and Kim Jong-un might be disappointed. Aside from the work of Sonja Ryang, Suzy Kim, Ruth Barraclough, Hyaeweol Choi, and Sandra Fahy, few authors have really sought to unpick or uncover the lives and experiences of women in North Korea and the activist and paramilitary communities before it which are claimed to have birthed its politics. Kim’s Rewriting Revolution therefore is surely one of the first works which seeks to consider, at least even in passing, female sexuality, women’s role in marriage and family and divorce in North Korea.
For most readers North Korean writing and literature is primarily the work of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, or is about them. There is a voluminous body of material claiming to be written by North Korea’s leaders, written on their behalf, or written about them. This writing of course has North Korea’s politics, and its social, cultural, and historical messaging writ loudly and boldly through it. North Korea’s politics, its charismatic politics as Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung have termed it, is inescapable within the country and is certainly seemingly omnipresent in its cultural production. This has led to a widely held opinion within academia that this is so much the case that in fact there is no cultural production in North Korea, it is only political production by other means. Essentially there is no art or culture in North Korea, only politics. Scholarly work that has focused on North Korean literature such as the feisty B. R. Myers’s writing on Han Sorya suggests that, unlike other dictatorships and autarkies like the Soviet Union under Stalin, North Korea has not even been able to produce a recognisable or authentic socialist or autocratic realism in its cultural products. In a nation where the only reality is politics, how can there even be the reflection necessary to create a cultural product, at least one removed from that politics.
In Rewriting Revolution, Immanuel Kim suggests that not only are authentic cultural products possible in North Korea, but in its literature, what externally we term ‘subaltern’ experiences, opinions and possibilities can be found. These experiences and possibilities can even run counter or be disruptive to the needs, ambitions and directions of North Korea’s politics. A very careful parsing of works such as Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend, Kim Kyo-sŏp’s Heights of Life, Ch’oe Sang-sun’s Morning Star and Ri Hui-nam’s Eight Hours, Rewriting Revolution, is replete with gaps, fissures, and potential ‘lines of flight’ (as Deleuze would understand them) for women and female experience in North Korea. The reader must bear in mind that since this is North Korean literature we are talking about, passed by its authorities and institutions of control and censorship generally, these experiences cannot be as explicit as South Korean writing such as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. If the reader is looking for an exploration of the outer reaches of female sexuality in North Korea, or earthy experiences of female donju, they will be disappointed. It is worth saying that for the most part Kim’s focus is on female roles which are deeply embedded in conventional North Korean political, social, and cultural practice. The women of these works are good North Korean women as Pyongyang would understand what that means.
Rewriting Revolution thus encounters female partners living and struggling under the political and cultural weight of North Korean expectation. Frustrated at their husbands’ dreams of research success and other futures, yet constrained in potential critiques by both their social role and the political demands upon individuals to contribute to the greater socialist good. Like all regular North Korean’s they are expected to give up things, to subjugate desires for the collective and for the wider success of the nation, yet Kim’s analysis of their narratives, demonstrates the cognitive dissonance, psychological dislocations, and emotional trouble experienced by the nation’s women. It is not easy being a woman of North Korean literature and it is acceptable to Pyongyang’s authorities and the wider framework of the nation’s politics, that that unease is at least visible or knowable to the careful reader.
A careful reader of Rewriting Revolution might also note the unease within the book itself, perhaps the unease of the author. Given its well organised and well edited structure and form, Kim’s work on occasion, seems to encounter its own struggle with politics, strain to break its own tight reins. In particular Chapter Five of Rewriting Revolution includes some of the most erudite and considered writing on the industries of North Korean defector narratives and publishing this reviewer has yet read, but which emerges in the middle of a chapter focused on redefinitions of motherhood in the North Korean context. There is a work, influenced by the great Norman Finkelstein perhaps hidden in these ideas, but perhaps just as the North Korean women of the literature Kim is primarily tasked to write about, the politics and cultural expectations of the audience, commissioner, and other authorities demand that writing about such an industry or the potential for one is restricted and made difficult to write. These strains are held in common with the characters and stories Kim uncovers in Rewriting Revolution, a careful work of uncovering and encountering in North Korean cultural production, a welcome contribution to a growing body of writing which really seeks to know the nation, and not just by its fissures, ruptures, and collapses.