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Illusive Utopia

Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea

Suk-Young Kim

Publication Year: 2010

North Korea is not just a security or human rights problem (although it is those things) but a real society. This book gets us closer to understanding North Korea beyond the usual headlines, and does so in a richly detailed, well-researched, and theoretically contextualized way. ---Charles K. Armstrong, Director, Center for Korean Research, Columbia University "One of this book's strengths is how it deals at the same time with historical, geographical, political, artistic, and cultural materials. Film and theatre are not the only arts Kim studies---she also offers an excellent analysis of paintings, fashion, and what she calls 'everyday performance.' Her analysis is brilliant, her insights amazing, and her discoveries and conclusions always illuminating." ---Patrice Pavis, University of Kent, Canterbury No nation stages massive parades and collective performances on the scale of North Korea. Even amid a series of intense political/economic crises and international conflicts, the financially troubled country continues to invest massive amounts of resources to sponsor unflinching displays of patriotism, glorifying its leaders and revolutionary history through state rituals that can involve hundreds of thousands of performers. Author Suk-Young Kim explores how sixty years of state-sponsored propaganda performances---including public spectacles, theater, film, and other visual media such as posters---shape everyday practice such as education, the mobilization of labor, the gendering of social interactions, the organization of national space, tourism, and transnational human rights. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, Illusive Utopia shows how the country's visual culture and performing arts set the course for the illusionary formation of a distinctive national identity and state legitimacy, illuminating deep-rooted cultural explanations as to why socialism has survived in North Korea despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China's continuing march toward economic prosperity. With over fifty striking color illustrations, Illusive Utopia captures the spectacular illusion within a country where the arts are not only a means of entertainment but also a forceful institution used to regulate, educate, and mobilize the population. Suk-Young Kim is Associate Professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and coauthor with Kim Yong of Long Road Home: A Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance


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pp. xi-xi

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A Note on Translation, Transliteration, and the Order of Names

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pp. xii-xii

All translations not otherwise credited are my own. All Korean terms are transliterated according to the Offcial Romanization of Korean (also referred to as Revised Romanization of Korean) system released by SouthKorea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2000. Exceptions are made forproper names (e.g., Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il, and Yoduk) and surnames...

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pp. 1-32

The central square in Pyongyang (Pyeongyang) buzzes with patriotic commotion as millions of legs are lifted in one unanimous step. The procession of soldiers, workers, farmers, students, and ordinary citizens, all in immaculately organized regiments, turns around the gloomy corners of the gargantuan Stalinist buildings and heads straight toward the sacred center of...

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1. Hybridization of Performance Genres

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pp. 33-59

The North Korean leader’s fascination with and special treatment of film raises questions about how the genre evolved from or had a formative infuence on its parallel genre—theater. Michelle Mills Smith has shown that there are two ways of looking at the relationship between film and theater: “either as a ‘to the death’ struggle between competing performance...

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2. Time and Space in North Korean Performance

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pp. 60-128

In the 1993 feature film The Story of On-dal, set in the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, a lachrymose song accompanies the reluctant steps of young men who embark on a heartbreaking exile: “Who wants to leave their dear homeland behind? Only firm resolution can sustain us in this hardship. Who wants to experience the tragedy of not having a country? No one...

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3. Revival of the State Patriarchs

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pp. 129-165

Can there be eternal and unconditional love between the citizen and the state? Can a citizen’s love survive the passing of its object into oblivion andcontinue to worship only one person forever? Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994, but the majority of North Koreans still pledge unflinching love and loyalty for the deceased leader with an intensity that is often incomprehensible...

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4. Model Citizens of the Family-Nation

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pp. 166-204

The foundation of North Korea in 1948 signaled the birth of a nation operating on the system of a socialist political economy, unprecedented in Korean history. Equally significant was the new nation’s invention of its citizens, which was an idealistic projection rather than a realistic reflection.

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5. Acting Like Women in North Korea

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pp. 205-259

The rapid political shift from colonialism to socialism in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the middle of the twentieth century inevitably brought about transformations in the social and cultural sectors that were manifested in everyday life. This political shift was more palpable in women’s lives, since women were by and large not an integral part of public...

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6. Performing Paradoxes: Staging Utopia, Upstaging Dystopia

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pp. 260-308

Since the North Korea opened Geumgang Mountain to outside tourists in1998, more than 860,000 South Koreans and other foreign nationals have visited the famous scenic site.1 Even though there were occasional obstaclesthat brought the tourist operation to a halt, both Koreas hailed the tourist project as a successful effort to increase mutual understanding via human...

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Conclusion: Looking Back, Moving Forward

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pp. 309-318

If we were to look back from a distant future, North Korea in the early twenty-first century will most likely be remembered as having traversed across roads where dark nightmares of the past intersected with cautious dreams for the future. Although no stranger to hardship, the North Korean people at the turn of the millennium went through suffering of such magnitude...

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Appendix: Notes on Sources

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pp. 319-322

During my research process, many people have raised questions about how I obtained my research materials on North Korean visual culture, performance, and media...


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pp. 323-364


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pp. 365-376


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pp. 377-387

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026890
E-ISBN-10: 0472026895
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117086
Print-ISBN-10: 0472117084

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 57 Color Illustrations
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance
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OCLC Number: 743201138
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Illusive Utopia

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Subject Headings

  • Theater and society -- Korea (North).
  • Theater -- Political aspects -- Korea (North).
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects -- Korea (North).
  • Motion pictures -- Political aspects -- Korea (North).
  • Performing arts -- Political aspects -- Korea (North).
  • Performing arts -- Social aspects -- Korea (North).
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