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Monday, February 28, 2005

North Korea's Tiananmen that never was

I was told rather a funny North Korea story by a friend the other day. Haven't been able to scrape anything up from Google to back it up but I'm sure there's something out there on the internet somewhere... Anyway, you'll just have to take this as a secondhand anecdote and make of it what you will.

In 1991 North Korea's all-important film industry (see previous posts), set out to make a film of South Korea's Kwangju uprising of 1980. When it came to finding a suitable stand-in for the city of Kwangju the filmmakers were helped somewhat by the Japanese colonial regime's penchant for building near-identical city halls all over the country in the German colonial style. So the streets and city hall of Sinûiju up on the border with China could double for those of Kwangju way down in South Chôlla Province. They duly rounded up volunteers from among the local army and workplaces and had them dress like the student protesters of early 80s South Korea, re-enacting scenes from the actual event: demonstrations, pitched battles and so on. It happens, however, that Sinûiju is only separated from the Chinese city of Dandong by the river Yalu and by some coincidence a BBC reporter was in the city at the time. Looking across the river he saw the mass demonstrations with their pro-democracy placards and banners and immediately reported that a democratic uprising was taking place in North Korea. The story had spread around the world before the mistake was discovered.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

You say Takeshima, I say Tokto, let's call the whole thing off

It's good to see that the Japanese are dredging up the question of Tokto again as it gives me a chance to write a topical post on the subject rather than just a random rant. For those who want to know, Tokto (or the Liancourt Rocks as they are quaintly known in English) refers to a collection of rocky outcrops in the sea east of the Korean peninsula (thus between said peninsula and the Japanese archipelago) claimed by both Korea and Japan but occupied by Korean troops. Lost Nomad has a nice picture, which while making Tokto look as pretty as possible, shows the general uninhabitability of this collection of rocks.

So, we have some rocks in the middle of the sea with very little strategic significance (no harbour, no landing strip, little in the way of fresh water I assume) but for some reason they are important enough for the Japanese ambassador in Korea to say baldly:
"There exists a clear difference in views between South Korea and Japan over the issue of Takeshima [Tokto],’’ Ambassador Toshiyuki Takano was quoted as saying in a meeting with foreign reporters in Seoul. "It is historically and legally Japan’s territory."
They are also important enough for the response in Korea to be one of outrage, even in a left-leaning newspaper such as Hankyoreh:
They have essentially invaded our territory; they just haven't done it with gun and sword... Japan's doublefaced, shameless behavior should be tolerated no longer. Japan needs to be clearly warned that depending on the situation, Korean-Japanese relations could need a complete reevaluation.
So what is it that gets such a broad spectrum of people from the Korean [nationalist] left to Japanese government officials so excited about these rocks? Well, before I get to that I have to admit that the point of this post is really to plug an excellent article by Han Kyu-han (in Korean) that appeared in Ta Hamkke last August at the time of the last minor blow-up over Tokto.

The author does an excellent job of looking at the actual history of Tokto and the interest of Koreans in it. He shows that attempts by nationalist historians to claim that Tokto was considered to be 'Korean' territory back in the Silla period (668-935 AD) are highly spurious. The references cited from the Samguk sagi history do not refer to Tokto but to the much bigger island of Ullûngdo and even that wasn't considered part of the Silla kingdom but as a separate country (named Usan'guk, which bizarrely sounds like 'land of the umbrellas' in modern Korean). Later kingdoms on the Korean peninsula generally continued to show a lack of knowledge or interest in Tokto and at the end of the Chosôn dynasty when renowned patriot Min Yông-hwan saw the islets he called them "Japanese islands".

Han points out that the real interest in Tokto began in the 1950s under Syngman Rhee when a fierce fishing war developed between Japan and South Korea. Apparently, between 1947 and 1962 some 282 Japanese fishing boats were seized, around 3500 Japanese fishermen were detained and eight were killed. So the interest in Tokto has to be understood as part of the process of formation of South Korea's modern nation state. More precisely, the collection of rocks in the middle of the sea is important to the Korean ruling class as a nationalist symbol that can always be revived to turn people's attention toward old anti-Japanese feelings. Although the Japanese state is somewhat different to South Korea (as an erstwhile coloniser rather than a post-colonial nationalist regime), the Japanese ruling class seems to view Tokto in much the same way: as a means for mobilising nationalist sentiment. As Han puts it:
The rulers of both South Korea and Japan consistently use the Tokto problem as a means of expanding and reproducing nationalist feelings. South Korean leaders are constantly promoting the fear that Japan is about to attack Tokto at any moment. But this is nothing more than ideology.
Actually, as he points out, previous South Korean governments have not always shown that much patriotic love for Tokto - during negotiations with the Japanese in the 1960s, Kim Jong-pil apparently offered blow it up as a solution.

This is not, of course, to minimise the dangers of Japan's recent turn to the right and its attempts to rebuild itself as a major military power (particularly with its participation in the Iraq quagmire, outlined brilliantly by Gavan McCormack in NLR 29). But the only way for Koreans to fight this is to ignore the nationalist rhetoric peddled by politicians and commentators and practise solidarity with ordinary Japanese people who will also suffer at the hands of a new era of Japanese militarism.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Brothers in arms

According to an article in today's Guardian, one of the points of EU-US conflict lurking under the surface of Bush's recent PR visit to Europe is the arms embargo on China (a subject I've touched on before). European arms manufacturers obviously have the smell of fresh Chinese cashish in their noses and aren't going to let go until they get the embargo lifted. And the British government, as always a stalwart supporter of its arms industry, is at the forefront of the push:

Gordon Brown, the chancellor, was touting for business in Beijing and Shanghai while Mr Bush was in Brussels.

Strikingly, this is an issue on which Britain now stands firmly on the European side of the argument rather than in its traditional mid-Atlantic bridging mode. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has signalled that he wants the matter settled before July, when the UK takes over the EU's rotating presidency from Luxembourg.

Clearly, the developing confrontation between a rising superpower and a waning one is also having major repercussions for Europe's role in global geo-politics. The US obviously wants to keep Europe in line on this one and prevent countries like France and Germany from beginning to build some sort of 'counterbalancing' alliance to hold back what they perceive to be US 'hyperpower'.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

US on the ropes...

A piece by Kim Ha-yong in the latest issue of Ta Hamkke says some similar things on the North Korea nuclear issue to a post I wrote a week or two ago. In other words: we all knew Rumsfeld could be funny, but his reaction to the North Korean announcement is taking comedy to a new level. She goes further though, arguing that what this whole charade demonstrates more than anything is the weakness of the American imperial project at the moment:

I want to bring up an important point that the social / citizen’s movements haven’t really paid much attention to. Actually, this point is the most interesting aspect of North Korea’s nuclear declaration.

That is, the extent to which the US, the “world’s only superpower,” has lost face over this and is experiencing a huge loss of authority.

In the light of the United States’ image as a superpower, one would expect them, at the very least, to issue a fiery denunciation of the North’s declaration and increase economic sanctions or even to make military threats. This would be particularly in line with the expectations of those in the citizens and social movement camp who talked exaggeratedly about a ‘Korean peninsula crisis” after Bush’s reelection.

However, the White House, directly confounding these expectations, attempted to minimise the significance of the situation, announcing that this was just “rhetoric that has been around for a long time” and that “there was no crisis.”

Kim Ha-yong points out that the nuclear announcement, far from being a reaction to US military threats to the North and the increasing threat of a war on the peninsula as many on the Korean left have claimed, was only possible precisely because the US is not in a position to attack North Korea:

By making use of the fact that the US is currently in a weak position, with its feet tied in the Middle East, and announcing its possession of nuclear weapons, North Korea is attempting to pressure the US into changing its negotiating position (so far the Americans have only been playing for time) and urge it to enter into direct talks.

Exactly how relations between the US and North Korea will develop in the future will not be decided wholly on the basis of the power relations between the two states. As the circumstances surrounding the North’s nuclear announcement have shown, the ability of US imperialism to enforce its rule everywhere in the world will largely be settled in Iraq and the Middle East.

So, as Kim rightly says, Iraq and the broader situation in the Middle East, is now key to what happens on the Korean peninsula. In fact, it seems that Iran is particularly crucial, hence Condi Rice’s desperate attempts to paint Iran’s “peaceful nuclear power programme” as more dangerous than North Korea’s “actual possession of nuclear weapons”. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter has claimed that the orders for the bombing of Iran have already been signed by Bush and it will take place in June (let’s wait and see). But it does occur to me that one reason that Iran has suddenly become so important is that Iraq is rapidly becoming an Iranian possession rather than an American one (Shiite dominated government, intelligence assets in high places and so on).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

South Korean piracy on the high seas of literature

In amongst the usual stuff about floral baskets and flailing imperialists an article caught my eye yesterday on the KCNA (North Korean news agency) website. It concerns the matter of copyright and an apparent controversy over South Korean publishers reprinting books by writers from the north without getting permission or providing royalties.

The particular novel in question in this article is "Rim Kkok Jong" (North Korean spelling) by Hong Myông-hûi. An interesting aspect of this is that the novel was written in the 1920s, long before North Korea ever existed, so it is actually the author's grandson, also a writer, who is the injured party. Most of the article is filled with his indignation at the idea that these unscrupulous publishers could be making money out of his grandfather's book, but there are some interesting points too:
Human rights and right to property are strictly protected in the DPRK under the law on copyright recently adopted at the Supreme People's Assembly as they were in the past.

An infringement upon copyright means stealing other's intellectual creation. Therefore, such act can never evade public rebuff and denunciation for its immorality although "law" may connive at it.
Ok, so we can skip over the part about human rights... What interests me most is North Korea's interest in adhering to the norms of the international capitalist system. In fact, not only is there a deep concern with adhering to capitalist norms, but these appear to be of the free market variety as opposed to the state capitalist flavour - ie individual private property is sacred. I don't think this should really be very surprising, but it does perhaps indicate an increasing interest in North Korea in the market.

Reading this brought to mind an article I read by Eric Lee (of Labourstart) a few years ago concerning Napster. Unfortunately it seems to have fallen into the internet black hole from whence nothing returns, but by some miracle I saved a copy. He argued that peer-to-peer file sharing was a classic example of new technology outgrowing capitalist relations of production - this is a means of distribution of a product which can only really work in a socialist society. Actually, four years and a number of legal onslaughts down the line big business seems to be finding ways to make a decent profit out of mp3s after all. But Eric did make some good points about this whole business of intellectual copyright etc:
When we look at the revolution in digital music and the broader issues raised by peer-to-peer networking, which allows the free distribution not only of music but of books, articles, art works, software, and so on, we can begin to sketch out a socialist program for culture and the arts in the twenty-first century. That program would include a guaranteed income for musicians, writers and artists, based on state support, while also guaranteeing no state control over the arts.

In such a society it is unlikely that any individual musicians are going to become very rich, but with the way technology is heading now, they're not going to get rich under capitalism either. In fact, the vast majority of musicians (and writers and artists) are well aware of the fact that only a tiny fraction of them will ever earn the big bucks. The vast majority of them struggle like the rest of us to make ends meet.
Of course, this does not mean to say that while we live under capitalism (and North Koreans clearly do just as much as the rest of us) artists and their families are not entitled to recompense for their work. But, unlike North Korea, we should also be challenging the currently prevailing means by which artistic products are produced and distributed.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Who you calling progressive?

Shout out to Antti for an excellent bitesized post on two rather overused Korean words - chinbo (progress) and sômin (ordinary people). These slippery words have a tricky life of their own in an ever-changing political and ideological context.

On the word sômin, I've always had the impression that it has something of a petit bourgeois ring about it. In other words, it refers to not only workers but also small businessmen and women (the sort of people who are sometimes referred to as 'ordinary hardworking people' in the UK). This seems to be somewhat in contrast to the word minjung (people, masses) which has more of a meaning of the dispossessed, or the classes in opposition to the ruling class, while carefully avoiding such a specific meaning as working class or proletariat. My impressions about the nuances of Korean words are often wrong, so Antti might correct me about this.

I'm also interested by the article that Antti quotes from referring to the criteria for being considered a 'progressive'. It is definitely the case that sections of the Korean left believe that one's attitude to North Korea determines whether one is progressive (진보적) or not. So one can only be progressive if one has an 'open minded' view of the north (ie is to some degree supportive) and supports unification (presumably with the North Korean regime to some extent intact).

Of course this is clearly nonsense, in fact in my view it is only possible to be progressive if you are opposed to the North Korean regime, that is, if you are on the side of workers and 'ordinary people' rather than the side of North Korea or South Korea or the US. Of course peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula would certainly be some form of progress and infinitely preferrable to whatever the warped brain of Rumsfeld might think up as a solution for the Korean people. But I don't think that such a unification will be achieved by throwing in one's lot with one of the least progressive regimes on the face of the earth.

On a side note, there are, it seems, people on the Korean left who don't support the idea of unification at all. A correspondent in the latest issue of Ta Hamkke argues that unification of the Korean peninsula would parallel the creation of nation states in western Europe in the late nineteenth century and could only benefit the capitalists. How can leftists (and internationalist leftists at that) call for the completion of a capitalist nation state? A very interesting point that may be problematic but certainly provides some food for thought.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

World still here: Official

Well, I've returned to civilisation and the world is still here.* It hasn't been blown away in a puff of nuclear smoke in my absence by a crazed man in a polyester suit, or a crazed man bearing more than a passing resemblance to a gorilla for that matter.

In the meantime, Counterpunch has produced a couple of interesting articles about the situation vis-a-vis North Korea, nuclear weapons etc. First was John Feffer's article, which offers some excellent analysis and background as well as healthy scepticism about many of the recent reported 'developments' both on the nuclear front and on North Korea's possible internal instability. Unfortunately, he falls into the good old-fashioned liberal position of offering some (rather modest) policy recommendations to the Bush administration, which is particularly amusing and unrealistic when you consider the nature of that government. But he does have some good points as well, eg:
With a quiescent public at home, regional allies pushing in different directions, and war off the agenda, the Bush administration is likely to choose the middle way of diplomatic stasis coupled with covert and nongovernmental destabilization. This "muddling through" approach is truly faith-based, for it relies on faith in the so-far-elusive collapse of North Korea.
The muddling through thing really does seem to summarise the Bush administration attitude to the DPRK. It might be somewhat better than outright aggression, but it does have the potential for an 'accidental outbreak' of hostilities, especially if, as Feffer believes, various covert operations are being pursued in the background. He also makes the important point in his conclusion that the US administration should not get too starry-eyed about the North Korean people being ready to welcome anything the neocons get up to. As we've seen with Iraq, hating a despot is one thing, loving US intervention is quite another.

Gregory Elich has produced an even more in depth piece for Counterpunch. He gives a detailed historical assessment of what exactly North Korea's nuclear deterrent is. It's a complex business, but worth reading if you're into that sort of technical stuff. Anyway, to cut a long story short, his conclusion is that the DPRK's February 10 announcement was a bluff and it is not able to produce nuclear weapons. What a shame, I thought it might have been the birth of another 'proletarian bomb' like those wielded for peaceful ends by the former USSR and China...

* Not that I'm implying that Wales is uncivilised... far from it. Just a turn of phrase, you know.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Heading for the hills

Heading up into the hills for a few days so no blogging until the end of next week.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Known unknowns and known knowns

It's almost hilarious to see the pantomime of Rumsfeld going "out of his way to say he still did not know with any certainty if North Korea possessed a working, deliverable nuclear weapon or not." So we have a country telling the US to its face that it has a nuclear weapons capability and the most hawkish of hawks is treating this as (in his own nomenclature) a known unknown, whereas only a couple of short years ago we had the massed ranks of the Bush administration declaring that Saddam Hussein's supposed imminent possession of a nuclear capability was a known known and using this as a pretext for war. As Bush put it in his 2003 State of the Union address:

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

Apparently, according to the now fully-discredited Iraqi defector Khidir Hamza, speaking in August 2002, Saddam would have had nuclear weapons by now (2005). Obviously this all turned out to be 24 carat horseshit.

The only conclusion to draw from Rummy's current attitude can be that the US doesn't particularly want a war with North Korea at the moment as it thinks that Iran looks like a much tastier target (if only things would quieten down a bit in Iraq). But what exactly the US administration's plan for North Korea is, is still a mystery, as it has been for the last four years.

Lest we all get too excited about North Korea's self-declaration of nuclear manhood, Jeffrey St. Clair has a good article on the current nuclear ambitions of the US. Apparently most of its stockpile of 10,000 nuclear warheads are too old and potentially 'unhealthy' and they need to build a new generation of bigger and better nukes. Meanwhile, the tactical mini-nukes and 'nuclear earth penetrators' may have suffered a bit of a setback but Rumsfeld is finding ways to bring their development back online.

I'll leave you with a small gem I found while browsing Bush's 2003 State of the Union (if we ignore Condi it's just about perfect):
Throughout the 20th century, small groups of men seized control of great nations, built armies and arsenals, and set out to dominate the weak and intimidate the world.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Cock-a-doodle-doo / 꼬끼오

Well the year of the rooster (or chicken, take your pick) has begun and I feel I should offer some sort of poultry-themed post or at the very least a deep and meaningful new year's message. Perhaps something along the lines of: Happy Rooster Year, peace and chickens for all!

In other news: some jokers in Sydney seem to have been marking the occasion by catapulting frozen chickens at people's houses. Apparently rooster years can be bloody and unpleasant but they are good for the gold market (so that's alright then). The health prognosis isn't great either:
A local feng shui master is warning that problems with the respiratory tract and the intestines will dominate the first three lunar months, until early May, and will peak in the period from August to November.

In Hong Kong people are already nervous about a possible return of Sars and fear the rooster - the bird that's supposed to bring good fortune - may this year bring bird flu instead.

In the 60-year cycle 2005 is the Ûlyu (乙酉) year. The last was in 1945, which of course saw the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. Previous to that, the Ûlyu year of 1885 was not exactly one to remember in Korean history, but it was noteworthy for Britain's one imperialist adventure on the Korean peninsula. Actually, Britain never quite made it onto the peninsula itself but made do with occupying Komundo island (고문도), renaming it in typical British style Port Hamilton, a measure apparently designed to foil Russian ambitions in East Asia (all part of the 'Great Game' I believe).

Unfortunately, the omens for this Ûlyu year are not good as North Korea has decided to mark it by announcing that it will not attend talks on the nuclear issue 'indefinitely', and has apparently also affirmed that it has nuclear weapons. So it looks like another year of brinkmanship-style fun for all the family.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Wanted: one million wage labourers

A couple of new articles on labour and labour struggles in China. One from AP provides a good overview of the current situation and gives a good sense of the full throttle capitalist exploitation taking place in the Pearl River delta region. Apparently there were 5 million migrant workers in the Guangdong region in 1995 whereas now there are something like 30 million. In earlier posts I've linked to some good articles about the rising unrest in the area as workers' struggles begin to take on a more militant tone.

But a major contradiction is also raising its head within the economy of southern China: a huge labour shortage resulting from an increase in rural incomes on the one hand and over-exploitation in the factories of Guangdong on the other. There is no longer the same motivation for immigrant workers to flood in and accept whatever conditions they have to. The manufacturing boom in southern China, which means that European and US shops are stuffed full of £30 DVD players, is based on paying workers incredibly low wages. But this is clearly not sustainable:

A sample survey on migrant workers in the province's Pearl River Delta, conducted by the provincial statistics bureau, showed that the labor shortage had been been getting worse since it first appeared in 2004, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Since the first half of last year, about 72.9 percent of companies questioned had difficulties recruiting workers.

``If a company can provide a monthly salary of 1,000 yuan [HK$943] or above, it will not have difficulty in recruiting workers,'' the report quoted Fang Chaogui, director of the provincial labor and social security department, as saying. The average monthly salary for a migrant worker in Guangdong is 500-1,000 yuan, it said.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Strange goings on in Irbil

After last month's apparent false alarm over the abduction of two Korean nationals in Iraq, it appears something odd is happening in northern Iraq once again. This time an arabic website has claimed that three Korean soldiers of the brigade based near Irbil have suffered a grenade attack leaving one dead and two injured, but the Korean government has quickly denied that anything has happened. Apparently this is part of a 'psychological war' being waged against the Korean troop presence in Iraq. Perhaps the reason that no Korean soldiers have been killed or injured (aside from the fact that they are stationed in the safest place the Korean government could find in the heart of Kurdish territory) is that they (like the Japanese soldiers further south) are rarely venturing out of their base. Oh My News also has a report on the inspection team which is being sent to Iraq to investigate alleged irregularities at the Korean base. It seems that anonymous documents have been turning up accusing a senior officer of corrupt practises in the procurement of food supplies for the Irbil base. The political sensitivity of the whole enterprise in Korea is such that seemingly small problems can take on great importance and it is difficult to say what might happen if there was really to be a major incident involving the soldiers based there. It is clear that the Iraqi guerillas are well aware of this sensitivity and are trying hard to exploit it, even if they are unable to launch an actual attack.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Organic intellectuals... in North Korea?! (pt. 2)

So, what about the application of Gramsci’s ideas to North Korean history and art? I thought the idea of the North Korean 'revolution' being a 'passive revolution' was certainly useful in some senses. Of course there have been a number of sophisticated attempts to analyse the sort of transformation that happened in North Korea and Eastern Europe after the World War II. Kim Ha-yong's book 'The Korean Peninsula from an Internationalist Perspective' (국제주의 시각에서 본 한반도), for example, looks at how the North Korean ruling elite imposed its 'people's democratic revolution' on the country. I'm not much of an expert on Gramsci's ideas but I suppose this could be interpreted as something similar to his concept of passive revolution. It might also be designated a 'bourgeois revolution from above' (minus a bourgeoisie) - in other words the formation of an independent national centre of capital accumulation, as Neil Davidson might put it. Gramsci wrote of a situation where "a state replaces the local social groups in leading a struggle of renewal." That is, in the North Korean case neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie played an active role in the national renewal - the former was forced to make huge sacrifices for the sake of high speed industrialisation while the latter was destroyed or disappeared back to Japan - it was instead a new class of party/state bureaucrats that carried through the 'revolution'.

I have more of a problem with Dr Lee's use of the term 'organic intellectuals'. She argued that the North Korean films on the KAPF depicted the formation of a group of organic intellectuals who would direct their artistic work toward the education and emancipation of the masses and the establishment of a socialist society (I hope this is a fair summary of her argument). But what the film clips we saw showed me was rather the appropriation and manipulation of a group of artists / intellectuals for the propaganda purposes of the new post-1945 ruling elite.

While many of these artists (despite accusations of elitism) may genuinely have attempted to connect with the nascent Korean working class and deepen its understanding of itself and the world around it in the 1920s and 30s, this was certainly not their role under Kim Il-sông in the 40s and 50s. In fact the film shows precisely the process of their co-option by the regime through the use of both stick (guilt and fear associated with their supposed unreliability dating from the latter years of the colonial period) and carrot (Kim Il-sông's generous bestowal of gifts such as houses and cars).

So in one sense these artists did conform to Gramsci's conception of a strata of organic intellectuals having a "connection with a fundamental social group", it's just that in this case the social group in question was the new bureaucratic ruling class rather than the working class. However, unless this is spelled out, the use of the term could be misleading. These people were not organic intellectuals like those that Gramsci hoped would develop as part ofworking class political movements, but mass producers of the new ' common sense' of North Korean society. That common sense included blind belief in the wisdom of one man and sacrifice on a mass scale for the sake of rapid industrial development, all wrapped up perversely in the labels of 'socialism' and 'people's democracy'. Unless we stop taking at face value all the North Korean nonsense about 'socialism' and so on we'll never get any where with understanding the reality of North Korean society.

For more on North Korean cinema this article is worth a read.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Organic intellectuals... in North Korea?! (pt. 1)

SOAS is hosting three very interesting Korea-related seminars in quick succession this week and next. I attended the first last night, given by Dr Lee Hyang-jin of Sheffield University and entitled, tantalisingly, "State Cinema and the Passive Revolution in North Korea" (or something approximating that - my notes were a little haphazard).

Dr Lee's paper was really very interesting - I've never heard anyone apply Gramsci to North Korean society before so it was refreshing and I think she was on to something, up to a point at least. Specifically, her presentation centred on part of an absolutely mammoth film cycle which has been in production since 1993 called "The Nation and Destiny" (민족과운명 - you can buy all of the 58 parts made so far here, if you're really keen) and which, as you might have guessed, concerns the struggle against Japanese colonialism and the forrmation of North Korea's socialist paradise [sic]. More specifically still, Dr Lee looked at a part of the series that deals with the KAPF (Korean Proletarian Artists Federation) and hence is important for getting to grips with the current North Korean understanding of the orgins of 'Juch'e* art'.

So briefly, the salient points of Dr Lee's paper (as I see them) and then (in pt. 2) some criticisms:

1. Kim Jông-il has long been very concerned with propaganda and the arts and he has used the arts as his base and a way of promoting himself as an 'intellectual'. He is portrayed as continuing his father's tradition, but of course it has not been possible for him to use any involvement in the anti-Japanese struggle to legitimise his authority as he was a mere twinkle in his mother's eyes at that point.

2. Kim Jông-il has used these films and the theme of Korean leftist artists in the Japanese colonial period (the KAPF) to promote the idea that he and his father were have been continuing a tradition that began at that time.

3. Korean cinema in general and these films in particular put forward the principal ideas of Juch'e, which (she says) combine Marxism-Leninism and traditional Confucian ideas - ie that the great leader must command the party and the masses. Lee uses Gramsci's idea of 'passive revolution' to analyse this - so the films encourage the passivity of the audience in accordance with their role as followers of the great leader.

4. Dr Lee also analysed the film's depiction of the KAPF artists as showing the formation of a group of organic intellectuals - ie using Gramsci's idea of intellectuals who are deeply and actively connected to a particular social group.

5. Kim Il-sông is shown as having played an almost god-like role in purifying these intellectuals in the early years of the North Korean state. Many had undesirable associations with nationalists or were deemed to have capitulated to the Japanese colonialists in the later years of the colonial period. However, in the KAPF film, they are forgiven and given a chance to live a fulfilling life by Kim Il-sông.

*The Wikipedia entry on Juch'e is ok, but I think Mi Park's definition is good and succinct: "Jucheism is a mixture of extreme voluntarism, positivism, idealism and nationalism." So broadly speaking then, all the worst aspects of bourgeois ideology wrapped up in a neat little bundle.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Never mind the Oscars

North Korea may be a ‘failed state’ in other ways but it is definitely a ‘circus power’. At the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival last week the P’yôngyang circus carried away a ‘Golden Clown’ for their aerial work, one of two top prizes in what is apparently the world's top circus festival. This blogger has posted a picture of the team smiling away with Monte Carlan monarchy. Here is how KCNA saw the event:

Best Prize Awarded to DPRK's Aerial Stunt

Pyongyang, January 29 (KCNA) -- An aerial stunt "Diverse Flight" presented by the Pyongyang Circus was highly appreciated as the best performance at the 29th Monte Carlo International Circus Festival held in Monaco to receive the gold prize, the best prize, on Jan. 25. Acrobats of the Pyongyang Circus flawlessly performed high technical movements, thus emerging the only group to get the full mark of 120 points from the festival jury.
The festival drew at least 150 excellent acrobats from 14 countries including China, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France and Britain who presented 40 circus pieces.
The aerial stunt completely enchanted the festival jury and the spectators and created a great sensation in every performance.
A director of the festival organizing committee said that "Diverse Flight" is a great masterpiece as it represents the acme of aerial acrobatics.
It is something unbelievable to perform at one time such difficult movements as quadruple pirouette in the air and treble flip-flap with a simultaneous pirouette from a mental and physical point of view, he noted.
The director of an international circus company in Netherlands said that the aerial stunts of Europe have not yet gotten rid of the old framework but new aerial stunts are being created and performed in the DPRK. Its acrobats are the best ones in the world, he noted.
The chairman of the European Circus Association who is a member of the festival jury praised the DPRK as a circus power, saying that the more he watches "Diverse Flight" the more it looks fantastic.
The head of a Chinese circus who is a member of the festival jury said that the DPRK's aerial stunt is something beyond human imagination. It is a pity that I cannot find other word than fascinating, he added.

So there you have it. I’ve heard that Korea actually has quite a long history of circusing going back to the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) and this tradition has been kept alive mainly in the North. I’d be fascinated to know more about this history, but I think I’ll have to save that research for another time.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Hitting the self-destruct button

A devastating scandal in one of Korea’s major unions has been rumbling on for a couple of weeks now. Basically, union leaders at Kia’s massive car plant in Kwangju, Chôlla Province were found to have been doing deals with management over who should be employed in the plant with the usual envelopes of money changing hands all round. Quite a bit has been written about this at Oh My News and elsewhere, which, to be absolutely honest I haven’t had time to read yet, but you can if you like. (other articles in English: Joongang Ilbo, Hankyoreh editorial)

Antti has said that he will write something about this and so I will await his (much better-informed) post with baited breath…

In the meantime I'll make one or two observations. More than anything else, this scandal seems to demonstrate the dangers that face the workers’ movement (and social movements in general) in a country like Korea where petty corruption and clientilism are the norm. The important issue for organisations like unions, NGOs and of course, perhaps most importantly, parties like the Democratic Labour Party (민노당) is how to avoid getting sucked into this world, because the pull must be very strong. Getting co-opted into the existing system, either officially and legally, or unofficially and illegally (as in this case) must really spell the beginning of the end for progressive unions.

Fortunately, on a slightly more positive note I am confident that the vast majority of ordinary rank and file unionists in South Korea are upstanding types who know where their priorities lie. I’m also sure that the workers’ movement as a whole there is robust enough to withstand the odd storm. Let's remember that it has a lot of work to do - a recent report found that South Korean workers do the longest hours of any OECD nation and despite advances they still get paid wages at the lower end of the scale (Koreans apparently work an average of 2390 hours per year as compared to European averages of between 1300 and 1700).