- Red Love and Betrayal in the Making of North Korea: Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk
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This story begins with a death notice. On 6 June, 1991, the Nodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily) published an obituary for Comrade Hŏ Jŏng-suk.1 In the brief sketch of her life which recorded all the high offices she had held – Founding Head of the Democratic Women’s League from 1946, first [End Page 86] Minister for Culture 1948–57, Minister for Justice 1957–9 – and the accolades poured upon her, only one sentence hints at her life before the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) in 1948. She was, they write, born in Seoul to the family of a lawyer who loved his country. Compressed in this terse sentence is a flicker of generosity to her father, Hŏ Hŏn, one of the great nationalist lawyers of the colonial period. Trained at Meiji University in Japan, but proficient also in German and English, Hŏ Hŏn was an internationalist who became an ardent and active patriot when Japan colonized Korea in 1910. He laboured in the colonial court system throughout the 1910s and 1920s trying to keep nationalists and communists out of jail, and came to meet everyone across the political spectrum whose goal was to throw out the colonizers. Hŏ Hŏn would come to be pitied for the disgrace heaped upon him by his beloved, wayward daughter. This daughter, whose face looks out of her obituary, her eyes obscured by thick dark glasses and her hair dyed a glossy black in the style of North Korea’s celebrity-bureaucrats, would in her lifetime become Korea’s greatest and to some most notorious communist feminist.
In anti-communist South Korea Hŏ Jŏng-suk’s story is a tale of how one becomes complicit with a murdering state. In this reading her love affairs and elopements, that thrilled and horrified colonial Korea in the 1920s and ’30s, culminated during 1957–8 in the denunciation of her former husband, Chae Ch’ang-ik, an indictment that completed his purge. To these observers Hŏ Jŏng-suk displayed throughout her life a consistent ruthlessness in her intimate relationships. She was brilliant at love affairs and politics, and always managed to shuck off an old allegiance in time to embrace the winning faction or partner. But her story has many layers, and she was not in control of them all. To feminist historians she is a powerful and troubling figure. In her own times she was a model of what a female socialist could do in the world: she travelled, wrote influential articles for the colony’s major daily newspaper, and appeared at ease with leadership roles. Investigating her early life leads to a re-examination of the early socialists in colonial Korea and the gender politics of their organizations that produced female leaders as prominent, as quoted, and as hunted as the men. But because she lived her life in the public eye, she was watched carefully over the course of her life both by critics and admirers, in the South as well as the North. As she left a literary trail – she wrote, gave interviews, and inspired fictional accounts – she is available to historians in a way that others of her contemporaries are not. She lived through colonial Korea’s garrulous 1920s and ’30s and her great age, the very longevity of her career, allows us to read through her life story an intimate tale of the making of North Korea.
This article is a feminist history of this intriguing ‘Madame Revolutionary’ – one of her titles in North Korea (the Korean is Noyŏryu Hyŏngmyŏng-ga). Many parts of her life are still obscure, including her birth date. The historian Shin Yŏng-suk gives her birth year as 1902,2 but her obituaries in both South and North Korea [End Page 87] carried the date 16 July 1908, thus paying her the final compliment of concealing her true age...