Moral didactic literature and diversity in 1950s North Korea

(A sketchy write-up of the talk How does the rise of moral didactic literature fit into narratives of North Korean history? given by Andre Schmid (University of Toronto) at SOAS on 16 November 2012)

The new SOAS logoWhen we think of North Korea, we mostly look at it through a 21st Century lens, and are tempted to think that what we see now has always been the case: socialist realist art, uniformity, repression, leadership personality cult and all the rest of it. This talk reminded us that we should always seek contemporary sources to aid our understanding of a particular period – in this case the 1950s (after the end of the Korean War).

The lecture didn’t actually spend much time talking about moral didactic literature (basically, magazine articles about good manners), but talked more widely about the content of the 1950s North Korean magazines in which these articles appeared. At a time when we might imagine that all printed material would be exhorting the masses to ever greater efforts in building the socialist paradise, it certainly seems strange to have trivial articles on etiquette. But perhaps in the context of a 20th Century dominated by Japanese colonial repression an attempt to (re)define what it is to be Korean in a range of day-to-day aspects makes a certain amount of sense. Another surprising feature of these magazines was the cartoons, drawn in a very un-socialist-realist style and showing people dressing in a very modern way.

The cartoons reminded a member of the audience about her time in 1950s post-war Seoul. It was a time when North Korea used to drop leaflets in Seoul urging Southerners to come North to join the socialist paradise that was being built. As a child, she used to collect these leaflets and take them to the neighbourhood police station where she would be rewarded with some sweets. The style of drawing in the cartoons reminded her of those leaflets.

As an aside, the movie listings in the magazines advertised a wide range of film screenings from Communist block states. Not many North Korean ones though.

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