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  • High Among the People:Social Distinction, Aesthetic Hierarchies, and Workers' Poetry in North Korea
  • Benoit Berthelier (bio)

Compiled by the Centre for Juch'e literature of the National Institute of Social Sciences, the History of Korean Literature (Chosŏn Munhaksa) is North Korea's most authoritative and comprehensive literary history. Its tenth volume is dedicated to the period of "peaceful democratic construction" (1945–1950), the few years between the end of the Pacific War and the beginning of the Korean War that saw the birth of North Korean literature. The volume contains discussions of the period's most famous novels as well as lengthy reviews of poems about Kim Il Sung, such as Lee Ch'an's Song of General Kim Il Sung or Cho Ki-ch'ŏn's Paektusan. Then, at the very end of a section on "new literary developments," after a comprehensive catalogue of the country's poetic output, the authors also mention a new type of literary production:

And everywhere one went, our people now fully enjoyed arts and literature, of which they had become the creators. Starting with books such as Workers' Songs (1949), the Hŭngnam factory literary circle's anthology Victory (1948), the seventh volume of the Mass Literature collection (1948) and Anthology of Workers' Literature (1949) many anthologies of texts written by working people were published, all a clear [End Page 289] testament as to how actively literary creation was practiced among the working people.1

The discrepancy between what the authors say about the ubiquity of working people's (kŭlloja) literature and the mere two sentences they allocate to it in their account of the country's literary history provides an adequate, if somewhat paradoxical, illustration of the problematic status of this new form of cultural production in post-Liberation North Korea.

In the aftermath of the August 1945 Liberation, the northern half of the Korean peninsula embarked on a revolution that would entirely transform its political system, economy, and social structure.2 Culture, too, would have to break away from a history of colonial capitalism and feudal exploitation in order to find its true roots in the "culture of the propertyless classes (musan kyegŭp)."3 As Kim Ch'ang-man—the head of the Korean Workers' Party's agitation and propaganda department—put it, Korea needed a "cultural revolution" that would "be the conceptual reflection of our political and economic revolution." This new culture would be a "culture of the masses (taejung) and common people (p'yŏngmin)" and "necessarily the possession of the masses."4 [End Page 290]

But the exact nature of this relationship between the people and the new national and revolutionary culture remained unclear. Did it simply mean to increase the consumption of ideological art among working people? Did it aim to realize the old ideal of the socialist new man, a strong laborer with intellectual pursuits, who could, as Mayakovsky once wrote, "plow the fields and then write a poem"5 for his own personal enjoyment? Or, going further, did it mean incorporating workers and peasants to literary institutions by promoting the careers of "newcomers" (sinin) coming from proletarian backgrounds, as Kim Il Sung would request in 1947?6 This last possibility might seem natural: If literary works were to "accurately and vividly reflect the real life of the people"7—few would be better informed than the "people" themselves. This option, however, was perhaps also the most revolutionary, for it questioned the privileged position8 of intellectuals in Korean society and their traditional monopoly on cultural production. The issue of what constituted "popular culture" or the "culture of the masses" went beyond debates on literature or arts per se and became a site of struggle for social distinction and the power to produce and legitimize the representations of the country's new social order.

Through an analysis of factory workers' poetic works and their reception, this article explores how the emergence of the "people" as both a fundamental theoretical category and a material [End Page 291] force redrew the limits of literature as an art and a field in North Korea.9 In so doing, it highlights the antagonistic interests and latent...


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