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  • Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea
  • Perry Miller
Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea. By Suk-Young Kim. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. x + 387 pp. Cloth $65.00.

In the filmic universe orchestrated by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, it is North Korea who blazes the trail to a reunified Korea and socialist utopia on earth. For world audiences, such a vision may contrast starkly with the reality of mass famine, totalitarian rule, and garrison statehood. Yet North Korea’s state-manufactured popular imaginary insists on this ideal vision as a matter of course. From the inception of the two Koreas, American scholarship has tended to maintain North Korea in otherness or outright enmity. Yet the reductive military-, policy-, and economy-based approaches neglect its vibrant cultural tradition. Suk-Young Kim’s Illusive Utopia presents a critical intervention into the field of North Korea studies, using performance theory to inventory North [End Page 605] Korea’s unique cultural hybrid of East Asian traditions with Soviet-based socialism.

As life in North Korea is continual, collective, and coercive performance, performativity is a fitting analytic. Illusive Utopia surveys performative elements, texts, and spaces in North Korean artistic life to investigate formations of nationhood and subjectivity. Propaganda is meticulously cultivated to make the state’s illusive vision palatable to the public. Kim describes North Korean social life as hyper-theatrical to a point where community activities are little more than inscriptions of state control onto individual body and consciousness. Illusive Utopia reveals critical insights into the interactions among art, life, and governance, showing how North Koreans themselves are implicated in the enactment and dissemination of ideology.

One of the author’s key contributions is the concept of the imagined family (6). Reformulating Benedict Anderson’s theory of the imagined political community, Suk-Young Kim explains how North Korean art co-opts and supersedes Confucian familial relations of father, wife-mother, and child. In this way, the North Korean subject lives in perpetual childhood under the benevolent surveillance of the late patriarch Kim Il-sung (1912–1994), also known as the Great Leader. Imagined family is axiomatic to all state-sponsored creative expression. The state’s systematic blending of Soviet socialist values with Confucian ideology allowed for the revolution’s enduring success. The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s (b. 1941) deft use of film to consolidate political capital and popular consent enabled him to succeed his father. From the 1960s onward, Kim Jong-il expanded the institution significantly through bureaucratic reorganization and massive resource input. He went so far as to install South Korean talent at the helm with abductees (or defectors) director Sin Sang-ok and his wife, actor Choe Eun-hui. North Korean cinema metamorphosed from an adaptation of Soviet film to an immense complex of nationalist cultural production.

The chapters of Illusive Utopia navigate various points of encounter along the North Korean performative landscape, giving a comprehensive portrait of the state’s utopian vision that writes over everyday social reality. “Hybridization of Performance Genres” analyzes tropes of national belonging that produce the subject as an instance of the state’s total power and presence. Kim Jong-il implemented the transition from staged performance to film as the primary genre for state art. Under his direction, the state produced hybrid performance genres by borrowing even from sources officially deemed unsavory. Readers may be fascinated by conversations with Kim Jong-il that Sin Sang-ok and Choe Eun-hui secretly recorded, which suggest that Kim was willing to adapt Western, South Korean, and Japanese theatrical styles in order to develop North Korean state art in advancement of the socialist utopian agenda.

As performance is systematically integrated throughout all aspects of social life, the North Korean subject is complicit in the reproduction of state power. To illustrate this key insight, Suk-Young Kim analyzes the meticulously choreographed military parades: with soldier formations at the head, thousands of civilians follow behind, waving and saluting the leader. Importantly, [End Page 606] it is the civilians’ participation in the subordinate role behind the military parade that creates both the illusion and the reality...