Elizabeth Grace reports on Dr Stephen Epstein’s talk at Cambridge earlier this week
We are all too familiar with the Western media’s portrayal of North Korea as a rogue communist state, complete with an evil dictator whose regime is seen as an unrepentant member of the “axis of evil.” Although these one-sided portrayals are increasingly the subject of criticism from Western scholars of Korean history, there has been little work in the West on the nature of South Korean representations of the North in cultural productions. Through his thorough and enlightening examination of the evolving image of the DPRK in South Korean popular culture over the past decade, Dr Stephen Epstein poses a crucial question: is the South Korean imagination growing to encompass what he terms, “an inclusive but heterogeneous identity that accepts both parts of the divided nation?”
To answer this question, Dr Epstein considered a wide range of sites where the South Korean imagination is expressed, ranging from advertisement campaigns and music to the frequently comical images of North Korean spies in South Korean popular cinema. Although he acknowledges a downturn in relations with the North since Lee Myung Bak’s inauguration, Dr Epstein notes that several key changes in South Korean demographics, such as increased labour migration and a rise in international marriages, as well as a decade of the Sunshine Policy, have had a considerable effect on southern representations of North Korea. Although prior to 1998 the DPRK was represented as a one-dimensional object of fear or disdain whose citizens were all villains brainwashed by an evil state, these negative, stereotypical portrayals have given way to a range of lighter images often produced through comedy or farce. In particular, Dr Epstein’s use of the liminal space of the DMZ as a fruitful site for artistic manipulation is effective in demonstrating just how far the South has come. The light-hearted depiction of the DMZ in music videos and film are part of a wider trend in South Korean popular culture, which leads Dr Epstein to suggest that freer representations of the North form part of a coping strategy that allows the DPRK to be seen as simply another country instead of as “an evil portion of the South Korean Self.”
The talk was both informative and entertaining, and as well as making us open our eyes to the images that surround us in popular culture, Dr Epstein left the audience with an interesting conundrum. If North Korea does become “just another country” in the psyche of the South, then what does this mean for Korean unity? What has “Korea” become in the southern imagination? As we surveyed the pained expression on the face of a North Korean official as he watched South Korean boy-band Shinhwa’s 2003 performance at the “Concert for Unification” (t’ongil ŭmakhoe) in Pyongyang (below), we realized that Dr Epstein was making an excellent point; perhaps the problem is not whether the South can ever fully accept North Korean identity, but rather, will the North ever be able to accept the South?
Shinhwa in Pyongyang
Dr Epstein spoke at the Cambridge Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies on 2 November. He will be talking at SOAS today, 6 November. The full version of his talk is available at The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 10-2-09, March 7, 2009