Constructing the North Korean Revolution

Suzy Kim.  Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  Cloth, 45.00, pp 307.

With Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, Suzy Kim has filled a major gap in the history of North Korea.  In the West, it has become customary to fixate on the top leadership in historical coverage of the subject.  That approach stems partly from lack of access to North Korean archives, but perhaps more strongly from an inclination to smooth over complexities in order to supply a simplified narrative that is easily digestible and harmonious with the imperatives of Western policy.

Kim has drawn upon North Korean materials captured by the U.S. military during the Korean War, housed at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland.  These documents have enabled her to provide a unique perspective on the early years of the North Korean revolution.

After liberation from Japanese Imperial rule, people’s committees formed throughout the Korean Peninsula, as the Korean people took control of local governments.  Largely peasant-led, the people’s committees were viewed with suspicion by U.S. forces for their tendency to advocate land reform and nationalization.  By late 1946, American occupation forces had succeeded in disbanding the people’s committees throughout the south.  Conservative and right-wing politicians were installed in power, many of whom had collaborated with Japanese colonial rulers.

In contrast, Soviet forces in the north supported the people’s committees and for the most part left local administration in the hands of the Koreans.

At the time of liberation, most peasants were land tenants, obligated to turn over a significant portion of their yields to landlords.  Peasants comprised the majority of the population, and there was an urgent need for change.  On March 1, 1946, three million peasants demonstrated across the north demanding land reform.  Four days later, the Land Reform Law was announced.  All land owned by Japanese nationals and Korean collaborators was confiscated.  In addition, land that was rented out and land exceeding about 12 acres in area was also taken.

Within one month, land was distributed cost-free to 710,000 peasants.  The landlord power that had controlled much of Korea for centuries vanished in one fell swoop.

North Korea’s land reform was administered by local rural committees, with peasants acting as agents of change.  The land reform was met with such enthusiasm that peasants swelled the ranks of the Communist Party (later named the Workers Party), as it grew from little more than 4,500 at the time of liberation to 750,000 members by March 1948.

Local elections in 1946-7 led to the institutionalization of the people’s committees, which “effectively began the process of centralizing North Korea’s political structure establishing central control down to the villages.”

One of the primary aims of the revolution was to bring literacy to a population in which nearly eighty percent had no formal schooling whatsoever, and the majority of the remainder had only varying degrees of primary school education.  Women in particular were excluded from educational opportunities during the pre-liberation period.

Illiteracy eradication teams formed in each village, and classes were held each day.  “As women’s enrollment posed the greatest challenge, if a woman failed to attend school regularly, members of the women’s league were called on to look into her family situation to see whether her husband or parents-in-law were prohibiting her from attending school.”  Where a woman was unable to attend due to household chores or infant care, the women’s league sent a member to provide one-on-one instruction in the woman’s home.

Despite difficulties, by the midpoint of the three-year literacy campaign, 92 percent of illiterate peasants had learned to read and write.

Social organizations played an important role in building the revolution.  The Peasant League, which rapidly grew to 2.5 million members by its third year, organized social life in the villages and engaged in agricultural planning.

The Democratic Women’s League was established near the end of 1945 and could count 1.5 members after just two years.  The League’s activities “were a source of tension, reflecting the conservatism that dominated the countryside.”  Public activities “clashed with women’s traditional roles and their confinement to domestic space.”  Among the League’s members, new ways of thinking struggled against old engrained attitudes, not always with success.  Kim relates several interesting examples of conflict that reflected “the changes that were taking place, radical enough to make some people uneasy and others indignant.”

Through the establishment of the Youth League, young people for the first time began to play an active role in society.  This development particularly irritated those who remained attached to Confucian traditional values.

The priorities of local party branches and people’s committees “competed for hegemony, giving rise to tensions.”  The party’s focus on class struggle did not always mesh with the people’s committees’ goal of building a united front.  Despite these struggles, efforts were made to maintain the autonomy of the people’s committees.

In an especially fascinating chapter, Kim analyzes autobiographies and résumés written in the process of defining a collective class identity.  These documents revealed the experience of ordinary people under Japanese colonial rule and their participation and hopes in the revolution.  “Extended to society as a whole, mass autobiographical practice in North Korea was a collective exercise in writing the history of liberation, linking the individual’s fate to that of the revolution.”

It was one of the primary goals of the revolution to transform gender relations, and in 1946, the Gender Equality Law prohibited feudal practices such as forced marriage and polygamy and specified a legal minimum age that ruled out child marriages.  The law specified that women would have equal rights “in all areas of life of the nation.”

As women began to play an active role in the workplace and social organizations, they had to cope with the strain of overwork and lack of free time, as men’s role in assisting in housework lagged behind due to habits from the past.  The book quotes from North Korean articles and meetings that indicated that women were insisting on greater cooperation from their spouses.  On the level of national policy, the state began to establish daycare centers, on a limited basis at first due to limited financial resources.

Nevertheless, despite “major strides enabling women to be economically independent and politically active . . . childcare and housework remained largely the duties of women.”  The extent of change fell short of ideals “because gender roles within the family were simply reproduced in public institutions” and women tended to work in occupations that were lower paid.

These are only a few of the topics covered in Kim’s endlessly intriguing book.  Space precludes giving proper attention to the amount of detail and the author’s range of thought and subtlety of argument.

There is an interesting convergence between the North Korean narrative of the revolution and that of its Western detractors, both groups portraying the transformation of society as emanating from the revolution’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung.  As the author puts it, “North Korean history cannot be reduced to that of one man despite attempts to do so, ironically by both propagandists and critics.”

Suzy Kim’s book explodes that simplistic notion, demonstrating how the revolution was constructed through “numerous reforms that involved mass participation at an unprecedented scale.”  Women had the most to gain from social change, and the book emphasizes their role in building socialism.  Despite a number of challenges, the first five years of the revolution made “a definitive break” with Korea’s feudal past and Japanese colonial rule.

Change was realized through the efforts of an array of social and political organizations.  Quoting from articles, memoirs, organizational meeting notes and transcripts, Kim demonstrates that decisions were not always merely handed down.  Policies were often established through debate and struggle in social and political organizations, and differing interests competed with each other and new ways of thinking battled traditional notions.

The freewheeling promise of the early days of the revolution was brought to an early end with the devastation wrought by the Korean War, which has since become “the single most defining national experience.”  The war, Kim points out, “left long-term physical and psychological damage that continues to shape North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy down to the present day.”  In her conclusion, Kim covers some of the ways the revolution has changed since the war.  “The novel revolutionary organs of self-governance in the form of people’s committees as a platform for a new kind of everyday were in the end subsumed under centralized state power, resulting in the ossification of the everyday as a creative and revolutionary potential in North Korea.”

Kim calls for an open sharing and understanding of collective historical memories between North and South Korea, and between the North and the United States, in the process of reconciliation and creation of an awareness that “all parties ‘belong’ in this world.”  This gem of a book establishes a first step in that direction, and it is hoped that others will soon follow.

Gregory Elich is on the board of directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the advisory board of the Korea Policy Institute.

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