restricted access North Korean Aesthetic Theory: Aesthetics, Beauty, and "Man"
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North Korean Aesthetic Theory:
Aesthetics, Beauty, and "Man"


Aesthetics is not a subject usually associated with North Korea in Western scholarship, the usual tropes being autocracy, counterfeiting, drugs, human-rights abuse, famine, nuclear weapons, party-military dictatorship, Stalinism, and totalitarianism. Where the arts are concerned, they are typically seen as crude political propaganda. One British museum specialist writes that North Korean visual art is an "art under control," and one Russian historian insists that North Korean literature is devoid of the "beauty of language."1 As the short turns of phrase and value judgments indicate, there has been no real attempt in English to engage the North Korean aesthetic on descriptive terms.

North Korea is not a liberal democracy, and art in the country is beholden to party-state policy through the authority of the government-run General Federation of the Unions of Literature and the Arts of Korea. But besides "purely" political prerequisites, official policy also requires that aesthetics be factored into state-overseen artistic creation. As understood in the Western tradition descending from the Greeks and Alexander Baumgarten, aesthetics is a concept that deals firstly with sensate perception, not art or beauty. On the other hand, there are the influential eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions that aesthetics is primarily about individual subjectivity, the beautiful, and art for art's sake.

Western aesthetics, however, cannot be arbitrarily imposed in the North Korean case, which is historically conditioned by 518 years of feudal Neo-Confucian rule (1392-1910), thirty-five years of Japanese colonialism [End Page 104] (1910-1945), five years of a Soviet Army-overseen Stalinist "revolution" (1945-1950), and national Stalinism.2 Moreover, the Korean terms for aesthetics, art, and beauty—mihak (beautiful learning), misul (beautiful technique/method), and arŭmdaum (beautifulness)—do not regard beauty in itself as primary. Rather, in North Korean aesthetic theory, the concept of the beautiful depends on the ideological integration of the moral and political.3


The importance accorded to aesthetics in North Korea is seen in the fact that the country holds annual aesthetics symposia such as the Aesthetics Forum on the Current Era and Ethnic-Racial Art (Hyon shidae wa minjok yesŭl-e kwanhan mihak t'oronhoe) and the Architectural Aesthetics Forum (Konch'ok mihak t'oronhoe). Aesthetics is also discussed in the official Art Treatise (Misullon, 1991), a work credited to the late Kim Jong Il, that addresses architecture, calligraphy, cinema and stage art, costume, craft, decoration, drawing, graphic and industrial design, painting, and printmaking in terms of the "Juche-oriented aesthetic view" (chuch'e-ŭi mihak kwan, literally, aesthetic view of the subject).4

Despite the circular and ritualistic style in which North Korean texts are written, there is an aesthetic theory to consider. But first, what is Juche, what is the "subject," in the ruling ideology of the aesthetic? There are three basic definitions: (1) the subject is the Korean revolution (1955); (2) the subject is the spirit of political self-reliance (1965); and (3) the subject is a "man-centered" philosophy (1974). The subject, in short, is a political program and a political anthropology premised on nationalism and anthropocentrism.5 Juche aesthetics, for that matter, rejects Marxist aesthetics because the latter does not assume the "man-centered world outlook" in relation to cognition of the beautiful.6

Aesthetics in North Korea involves more than beauty, however. According to Art Treatise, the aesthetic encompasses appraisal, appreciation, aspirations, attitude, categories, change in space, charm, characteristics of structures, cognition, demands of the people, desires, education, emotions, features of nature, feelings, grasp of reality, ideals, intention of the painter, life, phenomena, principles, quality of a work of art, relations with human life, relations with reality, repercussions among the people, requirements, sense of the people, sentiments of brushwork, significance, stimulation for deep thought, tastes, understanding, value of the product, values of a structure, views, viewpoint, and so forth.

North Korean aesthetic theory attempts to organize the complex and manifold aesthetic in Juche political anthropology, which has a subjective idealist and voluntarist orientation, but also posits the existence of an objective world in which the subjective interaction of independence-striving human beings with the objective...