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Book Review: Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 – Suzy Kim

Ford, G. (2014). Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 by Suzy Kim, Asian Review of Books, 27 July.

Suzy Kim uses as the foundation of her new study a mountain of documents captured during the Korean War from the north of Inje County that straddled the 38th parallel prior to the war. This material has to date been barely explored by academics, although a decade ago Charles Armstrong did a similar labor of love on a wider canvas with his The North Korean Revolution 1945-50 in which he made the convincing case that the resilience of North Korea owed much to the fact that its revolution was, unlike those in much of Central and Eastern Europe, not imposed but indigenous, cut with the grain of Korean culture, history and community.

It was a revolution nonetheless. Here in a lucid and detailed analysis, Kim explores the three central elements of that process: land reform, literacy and elections, each of which was both transformatory and incredibly popular. Land reform took the land from the feudal landowners and distributed it evenly amongst the landless and poor peasants. The result was a 50% leap in output and productivity. The gains in literacy were even more striking. In 1944, 80% of Koreans had had no of schooling of any kind; by March 1948, half-way through the three year literacy campaign, 92% of peasants in the North had learnt to read and write; the number continued to creep up towards an unattainable 100%.

There were elections in both 1946 and 1947. While the North Korean Workers Party—the Communist Party—was by far the largest party with over 30% of those elected, it was far from the only party represented. In 1946, about 20% of those elected were split evenly between the anti-western nationalism/nativism of the Chondogyo Young Friends Party and the Democratic Party; and just shy of 50% were independents. In the People’s Assembly elections of 1947, the figures were 36% Workers Party, 13% Chondoists, 13% Democratic Party and 38% independents.

Simultaneously—in a break with the Confucian tradition of male seniority—there were mass mobilizations into not only the Party itself but also women and youth organizations that changed forever Korea’s patriarchal, feudal and deferential society. Women were brought out of the kitchen into the frontline. These organizations served as transmission belts to deliver the new thinking. The new social system—unlike that in the Soviet Union—was epitomized more by motherhood than brotherhood. This, like so much in Korea, had its origins in the Japanese occupation: Korean mothers were told “sons are not your own but are the Imperial Majesty’s sons.” Now their responsibility was to nation rather than Empire.

Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution looks at the “autobiographies” crafted by all adults setting their life stories within the framework of Korean contemporary history and the revolution that helped to realign personal histories within the Party paradigm. She also adds interviews in the South with the long-term prisoners—male and female—who had fought in the South as guerrillas during and into the 1960s, after the official end of the Korean War—the last woman fighter was captured in 1963—looking at their histories and motivations that back her general thesis. (The South with the connivance of Washington was conducting a parallel guerrilla war in the North.) Some of these prisoners had served more than 30 years incommunicado after refusing to repent of their communism. The result are poignant stories of prisoners released and remarrying other guerrillas unaware until years later that their original spouses were still alive and languishing in prison. Not surprising the majority went North.

Kim’s thesis is supported by an unexpected source. In 1951, two Americans, John W. Riley and Wilbur Schramm who were working with the U.S. Army in Korea, published The Reds Take A City, a book which described and analysed the period of occupation during the War of Seoul by the Communists. For the context of the time, it was surprisingly balanced. Yes, the occupiers imprisoned and in many cases executed those at the top complicit with the Sygnman Rhee regime, but those lower down were treated reasonably well and recruited into the Youth and Women’s Groups and compelled to write their autobiographies just as Kim outlines. Those who were too enthusiastic paid the price after the War. In the final retreat from Seoul, the Communists failed to destroy all of the autobiographies and a vengeful Rhee Regime put them to an entirely different use in weeding out the last “leftists” from the Universities.

All in all, Kim makes the case that the five years after liberation on 15 August 1945 was a utopian period in the Korean revolution with an albeit imperfect but nonetheless unprecedented period of freedom and independence that boded well for the future. It was an era of hope and optimism as the shackles of the past were finally loosed for so many, helped in no small way by the political osmosis over the 38th parallel with disgruntled landowners, Japanese collaborators and right-wingers seeping South and leftist intellectuals and labor movement activists seeking refuge in the North.

What went wrong was the Southern insurrections—brutally put down by 1950—and growing military clashes across the 38th parallel that transformed into a civil war, where Kim Il Sung’s Fifth Column had pre-emptively perished, and that rapidly turned into a surrogate clash between Communism and Capitalism where the hopes, aspirations and lives of Koreans were sacrificed in their millions. War Communism came and never went. The consequence was that the space for freedom, innovation and a limited pluralism was inevitably squeezed and eventually annihilated in a garrison state with partisan generals at the helm. It might well have happened anyway, but the conflict between Washington and Moscow made sure.