North Korean Childhood? An Interview with Dr. Christoper Richardson
Pictured on both national propaganda and the human rights posters of Western media, the children of North Korea fulfill an important political role. Human rights NGOs frequently reproduce images of dirty, poor, and emaciated children in need of help, while other children are captured uniformed, performing or cheering for the great leader. In both circumstances, it is easy to deem the North Korean state as an oppressor, depriving children of a childhood in play and innocence. However, such a conclusion overlooks the ways in which childhood is a social construction and concept that has constantly evolved through time and space. Scholars of childhood studies note how children are a social category central to maintaining the social order and hegemony of those in power. The boundaries and meanings given to the social category shift according to culture, national values, and time frame (Cunningham, 1998; Malkki, 2010; Fruhstuck, 2017). Gill Valentine emphasizes, “The experiences of childhood ha[ve] never been universal; rather, what it means to be a particular age intersects with other identities so that experiences of poverty, disability, ill health, being orphaned, taken into care, or having to look after a sick parent have all denied many children this idealized time of innocence and dependence” (1996).
Indeed, the issue of childhood and state mobilization in North Korea must be understood contextually. The complexity of experiences in North Korean childhood go beyond narratives of oppression and human rights. In order to explore this topic further, North Korean Review spoke to author and researcher of children’s culture in North Korea, Dr. Christopher Richardson.
1) I understand childhood to be very much a social construction – age groups are segmented to permit the functions of ruling structures, and the segmentation and construction of this age group varies according to culture, national values, and time frame. In the case of North Korea, what are some key values that children must be socialized in? What are some common rites children must be initiated into as they grow up?
This is exactly right. Childhood is a social construction. In the case of modern Korea, we can go further than that, and argue that Korean childhood is the construction of one man in particular, Pang Chong-hwan. A prodigious talent, Pang was the most influential figure in the development of Twentieth Century Korean children’s culture. Pang founded Children’s Day in 1923 and coined the word eorini (어린이).
During the Japanese colonial era, there was a break – at least in part – from conceptions of childhood that had prevailed under the Joseon Dynasty. Often this was top down, via diktat from Tokyo, at other times this was because Korean writers admired Japan’s imperial children’s culture. In many more cases, however, Korean children’s culture evolved in reaction against Japanese imperialism. Whether progressive, conservative, Christian, Communist, Chondoist, collaborationist or revolutionary, Korean authors understood that children’s culture was a battleground for the future of Korean culture and therefore the future of Korea. A sense of political urgency energized Korean writers and this led to an array of diverse and dynamic children’s literature: novels, short stories, poems and – most prolifically – magazines. Dafna Zur’s magnificent study of Korean children’s literature Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea captures this period perfectly.
In North Korea post-liberation from Japan, the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung ensured that one strand of Korean children’s literature prevailed, namely, the proletarian tradition. The diversity of children’s literature in colonial Korea was replaced with a strictly enforced orthodoxy that has endured in the DPRK to this day. All three generations of North Korean leadership have devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to cultivating children’s literature and culture. For instance, as Kim Jong Il opines in On Juche Literature, “writers must develop children’s literature into our style of literature that conforms with our Party’s policy and our children’s characteristics. Only our style of children’s literature can contribute to bringing up our children into pillars of Korean revolution.” The North Korean state understands that the revolutionary social contract is first signed in childhood. Kim Jong Un has made children’s culture a pillar of his rule, seeking to renew this contract with his fellow North Korean millennials and those who will follow. His political survival – and the durability of the North Korean state – depends upon it.
Nevertheless, North Korean literature, and North Korean children’s literature in particular, is more diverse than outside observers might assume – spanning a variety of genres and styles – and yet remains fundamentally didactic. Indeed, regardless of genre – historical, science fiction, fable, or comic – North Korean children’s literature rehearses the same key themes: fear and loathing of Japan and the USA, and veneration for the ruling family. Beyond that, however, there remains scope for invention.
Closely modeled on Robert Baden-Powell’s scouting movement and the Young Pioneer Movement of the Soviet Union, the Korean Children’s Union is the principal civic organization for North Korea’s children. The Sonyeondan and World Organization of the Scout Movement even share the same motto: “be prepared!” And yet, whilst Baden-Powell’s Scouting For Boys was de-militarized after the horrors of the First World War, North Korean children’s culture remains profoundly militarized. The state exhorts its children to turn their bodies into bullets, bombs, and bayonets, to always “be prepared” to die to protect the ruling family. Tales of children who perished protecting portraits of Kim Il Sung, or were martyred during the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle, remain central to the canon of North Korean children’s culture.
2) Brian Myers advances a theory of North Koreans as a “child race” in need of a “parental leader.” How would you picture child-state relations in North Korea? Does the apparent subsuming of childhood for state and political means negate the existence of a childhood? In particular, what might the emphasis on excellence in performing arts for children mean?
The North Korean state enters the life of every citizen from birth. In fact, the state enters into the life of every citizen earlier than that, in the very act of imagination that brings a new Korean child into the world. In the DPRK, procreation is symbolically linked to the renewal of the revolution. Women are thus lauded in state propaganda for their fertility. One stouthearted soul, who reared eight sons and daughters, was lauded for producing “eight cannonballs.” Despite this valorization of parenthood, the true parent of every North Korean child is the Supreme Leader. Propaganda abounds in imagery of the Kim Family as paternal and – as Brian Myers rightly points out – maternal leaders. In portraits of children with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, children cling to the Suryong and General like iron filings to a magnet.
In one sense, this is no different to other cultures that see children as biologically and ritually bound to a shared vision of the future of a tribe or nation. Most states and cultures and religions retain an idealized vision of childhood that they seek to inscribe through text and praxis, including South Korea and the West. What is distinctive in North Korea is the extent to which the state’s political leaders are themselves deemed the supreme embodiment of this idealized childhood. The key texts in North Korean children’s culture are those tales derived from the hagiographies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, now Kim Jong Un as well. Through storytelling, song, game and ritual, the childhood lives and teachings of the Kim Family are inscribed on the hearts and minds of North Korean children.
The role of the performing arts in North Korea’s idealized self-portrait is clear, most famously in the Mass Games, but also in the Schoolchildren’s Palaces, kindergartens and schools. Almost every visitor to Pyongyang will be taken to some form of kindergarten or primary school or children’s palace to demonstrate the youthful vitality of the revolution. Of course, no child succeeds in the arts without rote learning and years of discipline and practice, so we should not lazily Orientalize North Korean cultural production. Nevertheless, the purpose of such cultivation does set North Korean arts apart from cultural production elsewhere. There is no art for art’s sake in North Korea. Physical and mental cultivation is to honor the Suryong and heirs, not for personal expression or experimentation. All art is perceived as a gift for the Supreme Leader. Perhaps the closest analogue is the self-discipline of the religious artist seeking to create for the glory of God alone.
Does this negate the existence of childhood in North Korea? As the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Abuses in North Korea concluded in 2014, most North Korean children are denied the rights Pyongyang vows to provision as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This offers another stark reminder that childhood is indeed a political and cultural construction. The children who work in deadly mines in developing countries to retrieve minerals to make first world digital products will attest to this, as will those South Korean children who pass their childhood years at cram schools. Yet the stark fact remains, there are few places in the world where children’s lives are so hard as North Korea. The famine killed thousands of Korean children, and far too many remain malnourished today. There is no legal redress for institutionalized violence and sexual abuse, and children are subject to torture and slavery. Even amongst the privileged, North Korean children are not free to leave their country, to pursue the education of their choice, to use the Internet, or enjoy heterodox children’s culture, except in rare and circumscribed cases.
3) What is the role of the family/parents vis-à-vis the state in bringing up children then?
North Korean parents love their children and North Korean children love their parents. That is an immutable fact of human nature, regardless of politics and culture. Still, the nature of North Korean political indoctrination and surveillance may alter the ways this love can safely be expressed. From a very early age, North Korean children learn to act as antibodies in the immune system of state. Sadly, this proves a barrier to intimacy and trust in many cases. North Korean parents may be cautious around their children, lest a son or daughter betray them, deliberately or not, to a teacher or peer. Nevertheless, North Koreans cherish family values, and many North Korean exiles retain happy memories of childhood, in most cases in spite of their state, not because of it.
4) Are there instances where children are seen to have agency?
Children exercise agency everyday in North Korea. The scale of surveillance and propaganda in North Korea is equal to the amount of agency Koreans seek to exercise in their lives. In some cases, such agency will only be expressed in the inner life or imagination of a child, yet increasingly we know that children are testing the limits of revolutionary orthodoxy, often to breaking point. In many cases, the very act of consuming illegal media is opening the minds of North Korean children to new ways of thinking and being. Since illegal media may only be safely shared in the company of trusted family and friends, the very act of transgression opens up new space for intimacy and the cultivation of a private life separate from the state. One day illegal movies will be shared along these lines of trust, the next day those very channels will be used for sharing so much more. The writers of the Korean colonial era were right. The battle for the future of the peninsula is waged in the arena of children’s culture. The success of a post-Kim North Korea – either independently or in some form of unification with South Korea – rests in the evolution of a new Korean children’s culture.
The North Korean Review thanks Dr Christopher Richardson for holding this interview with us. Dr Richardson’s PhD thesis was entitled Childhood Policies and Practices in the DPRK: A Challenge to Korean Unification. Dr Richardson's debut novel, Empire of the Waves, was published in 2015 by Penguin. His next novel is about North Korean childhood. For more information and related commentary on North Korean childhood, visit his website here.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Cunningham, Hugh. 1998. “Review Essay: Histories of Childhood.” American Historical Review 103(4), 1195-1208.
Frühstück, Sabine. 2017. Playing war: Children and the paradoxes of militarization in modern Japan. Oakland: University of California Press.
Malkki, Liisa. 2010. “Children, humanity, and the infantilization of peace.” In the name of humanity: The government of threat and care, eds. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin. Durham: Duke University Press.
Valentine, Gill. 1996. “Angels and devils: moral landscapes of childhood.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14(5), 581-599.