In responding to a very insightful comment on a previous post, this morning I whipped out my folder full of North Korean pamphlets and short books on ancient Korean history. I find the DPRK’s identification with Koguryo particularly interesting, as this kind of ur-nationalism, replete with regional emphasis, is likely to undergird notions of northern separateness for decades (hell, centuries!) to come, irrespective of any unification. We already know that North Hamgyong and especially North Pyong’an provinces have their own distinctive regional cultures, and the prison camps that cluster up there only add to their distinctiveness. Identification with the Koguryo and its warrior-kings is like a big inexhaustible orange Gatorade cooler on the football pitch that is North Korean politics, even if the pitch is half-dirt due to the starving spectators sneaking on at intermission to pluck up edible grasses for the winter ahead.
In an pamphlet/paperback by Pang Hwan Ju entitled National Culture of Korea (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Press, 1988), the Koguryo is praised to the skies. One of the final chapters “Folk Tales, Legends, Poems and Fiction” is a mash-up of Korean poetry from the Koguryo era until today. (Come to think of it, “Folk Tales, Legends, Poems and Fiction” would itself be an appropriate title about the historiography of the Kim regime!)
And speaking of fiction, check out the book’s little insert of corrections. The past is a battlefield!
In describing “Ondal,” who won the heart of a Koguryo princess at a hunting contest (the ancient equivilent of Kim Jong-il having met a beautiful Kim Il Song University co-ed after having won the university’s ping-pong tournament, which he did not) , the chapter praises Ondal as having “worked his way up to generalship,” and for having “displayed valour and selflessness in the fights against foreign invaders.” The text then goes on to praise “the lyrical poems of the Koryo period [which] breathe sweet national flavours expressing the humble desire of the people.”
But then we hit the patriotic poems of the Righteous Volunteers’ Army, from which, of course, “emanate a strong determination to defend the country and the people with their very lives against the foreing invaders.” And here is one stalwart example by Nam I, entitled “Defending the Frontiers,” and, as the editor wrote before he stubbed out his Paektusan cigarette into a nice glass bauble in a Pyongyang office building and went home to play with the kids, “ablaze with patriotism”:
I will use up the rocks of Mt. Paektu
For sharpening my swords.
I will have the water of the Tuman River
Drunk by my war horses.
A man of twenty,
Still unable to rule his country,
Will never be remembered
As a hero by posterity.
Who says history, or historical poetry, isn’t a weapon? I can only imagine the knock-down drag-out debates in the Revolutionary Writers’ Union when they are asked to mythologize the next great North Korean leader, particularly if he is any one of Kim Jong Il’s sons. How does a kid who was educated at an elite boarding school in Switzerland stand up to a poem like this? These days, the truly defiant heroes in the DPRK are the resisters who go up in flames in the labor camps.