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The depiction of famine in North Korean comics

A reminder of this Friday’s talk at SOAS:

A New Deal: comic story representations of food issues in post-famine North Korea

Speaker: Martin Petersen (University of Copenhagen)
Date: 25 November 2011, 5:00 – 7:00 PM
Venue: Russell Square, College Building, Room G50

In the mid to late 1990s North Korea went through a famine with devastating social consequences, and huge loss of human life. Already by late 1998, the North Korean regime started signalling that the worst crisis was over, and referred to the preceding period as the ‘Arduous March’ in allusion to the Kim Il-Sung’s 1938-9 anti-colonial guerrilla movements. An ensuing trend in the literary and arts production of the 2000s was an engagement with themes related with social issues stemming from the Arduous March. This – by relative terms – more critical literature also included an engagement with food issues. The comic story A Strange Letter from 2001 published by the Kumsong Youth General Publishing House is one such narrative. It depicts the unravelling of a foreign attempt at poisoning North Korean military food reserves, but notably, it also indicates the internal reasons why the scheme almost succeeded.

On the basis of a close reading, this paper argues that A Strange Letter may be viewed as the regime’s attempt to strike a new deal with its citizens. More than merely a model of how citizens ideally should behave in times of crisis, A Strange Letter presents a variety of explanations as to what went wrong in the mid- to late 1990s, and what the regime expects of its citizens to better the circumstances. More interestingly, however, the comic also seems to imply what its citizens can expect of the regime. This latter feature conveys the impression of a more dialogic aspect to North Korean literature and arts than commonly acknowledged.
In exploring these features, the paper draws on international studies on the humanitarian catastrophe, defector studies and the growing body of work on North Korean literature and arts.

Martin Petersen, PhD, is an assistant professor in Korean Studies at the Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies of the University of Copenhagen.

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