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  • Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry by Sonia Ryang
  • Jin-Heon Jung
Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 244pp.

As the title Reading North Korea implies, Sonia Ryang invites readers to approach North Korea as if it were a text. Yet, as Ryang boldly posits, less effort has been made to recognize North Korea as a land of human beings, and more effort has been made to advocate for, accuse, or ridicule the country (4). Anthropologists, in general, pride themselves on their scientific and ethical commitment to years of ethnographic fieldwork in order to interpret societies and people from a native viewpoint. Therefore, why not direct these approaches toward North Korea? It is in this sense that Ryang calls for general readers, anthropological scholars, and students in particular to humanize or, in the author’s term, (re)anthropologize “the faceless Koreans” (8) by employing ethnological approaches, just as Ruth Benedict did among the Japanese during World War II. The purpose of the book is to comprehend North Korean “cultural logic, structure, and the operative mode of everyday life” (3). Ryang’s methods include reading and analyzing select novels and films that develop the themes of love, war, and a sense of self that, she suggests, ground North Korean human relations.

The book consists of five interconnected chapters that develop the project of humanizing what is often infamously described as the world’s most isolated country. In the introduction, “A Journey into the Abyss,” Ryang stresses how her stance diverges from existing popular opinions that figure North Korea as either a neo-Confucian or a guerilla state (cf. Lee 1976, Kwon and Chung 2012, Wada 2002, Cumings 2004). Instead of labeling the country with concepts already familiar to outsiders, Ryang stresses the critical transformation of Kim Il Sung, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, in the symbolic topology of the 1970s and 1980s. The shift “from [End Page 589] a theoretico-ideological leader into an ethico-spiritual one” (25) is essential to understanding the relationship between the leaders and the people. The leaders, from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il and to Kim Jong Un, cannot be compared or interchanged. In particular, Kim Il Sung’s position as the Supreme Leader is permanent, while the position of his successor Kim Jong Il as the Leader is not. This point is reminiscent of that raised by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung (2012) on the resilience of charismatic leadership in North Korea. Namely, Kwon and Chung investigate not the characteristics of the charismatic leadership per se, but the ways by which charisma carries over decades and is further inherited by the next generations. Using Clifford Geertz’s concept of the theater state, Kwon and Chung pay attention to the varied yet coherent state-run cultural performances, products, and practices that are ritualized and serve to routinize Kim Il Sung’s personal charismatic power in the form of hereditary succession. Returning to Ryang’s standpoint, however, Kim Il Sung’s supreme power is not transferred to his successors but remains solely in him and with the people eternally. In other words, Ryang asserts that Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un cannot replace Kim Il Sung’s image and power but can only replicate it (or pretend to). Sanctification of Kim Il Sung is thus seen as a politico-cultural project and historical process accentuated in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s by which “the Great Leader” came to be embedded in, and thus determine, the people’s everyday human relations. The subsequent chapters continue to explore love, war, and a sense of self that Ryang claims are essential aspects of North Korean society.

Chapter 1, “Love,” examines how North Korean exemplary love is animated in an eternal triangle between men and women (i.e., the people) and the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, whose position is at the apex of the triangle. Readers will enjoy the main storylines of selected novels that Ryang succinctly describes and then further analyzes to show how they demonstrate the nature of North Korean love, which includes a core revolutionary spirit and sensitivity for a...


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pp. 589-594
Launched on MUSE
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