Othello in Pyongyang: Reading North Korea in the German Archives, circa 1950-1977

The relationship between East Germany and North Korea was not simply a curiosity of the Cold War; it was a relationship with tangible results, interactions, and ideals. Here are some of the more interesting documents I cycled through this past week in Berlin, in the order in which they were scribbled in my notebook. (No cameras are allowed in the archives, and photocopies of original documents, once ordered, take a few weeks to arrive.) All citations are from SAMPO, the Party and mass organizations archive within the Bundesarchiv in the quiet Lichterfelde in southwest Berlin, on the way to Wannsee.

DR 1/18776 [Ministry of Culture]. “Gastspiel des Deutschen Nationaltheaters Weimar in Nordkorea; Filmpremiere Nordkoreas in der DDR, ‘Blumenmaechen’ [Performance tour of the German National Theater of Weimar in North Korea; Film premiere of the North Korean Film, ‘The Flower Girl’]”

I was surprised at how ready East German cultural bureaucrats were in the 1970s to locate suitable content from socialist countries abroad that would be suitable for audiences in Germany. I spent very little time with the Weimar theater trip; there is a lot more in this folder that interested me.

DR 1/18777 [Ministry of Culture]. “Kulturpolitische Beiziehungen zu Nordkorea (KDVR); Bd. 1: Informationsmatieral zu Theater, Film, Musik und Literature in Nordkorea; Zeitungsausschnitte [Culture-Political relations with North Korea; Informational material about film, music and literature in DPRK; Newspaper clippings]”

This folder is absolute gold for the cultural historian — it is chock-full of very detailed debates in North Korean press on the arts in the 1960s, amid Sino-Soviet split and Chinese Cultural Revolution. It is fascinating to watch the North Koreans become ever more conservative with their socialist musical and literary forms in the face of China’s “left-wing opportunism” while at the same time holding the line vs. American jazz and popular culture in South Korea.

In “Eine Bermerkungen zur Haltung der KVDR zur ‘Kulturrevolution’ in China” written on 30 August 1966 and sent back to Berlin, one of the secretaries in the East German Embassy in Pyongyan wrote the following:

“While information on events in China has not been forthcoming from the [North Korean] press or radio, we anyway know that the greater part of the people have knowledge of events in China.”

A footnote in the report notes that this was confirmed in a conversation (presumably with a North Korean colleague) during “Spazierengang,” or a leisure trip, probably to a park, the coast, or the countryside. This can safely be called anecdotal data (or anecdata), but it is still good to have.

Bar none most fascinating is the performance of two scenes adapted from Shakespeare’s Othello by university drama students — a performance which is interpreted by North Korea’s arts orthodoxy leaders as a deepening of socialist tradition via Engles’ assertions that Shakespeare was good for revolutionaries. Paradoxically, Shakespeare was also as a way of resisting Chinese influence in the late 60s. I really must send something about this to the folks at the Globe Theatre!

Bild Y 12/A 345 [Photographs]. “Ueber die Zerstoerung Korea durch amerikanische Aggressoren und die solidariche Hilfe der DDR fuer das koreanische Volk, 1945-19”

There is one photograph of the Sinchon massacre in here. What a mess. But a very interesting collection, saw some things that were new to me. A textile factory in Sariwon (before it was bombed by the Americans, and then bombed again by the Americans), locomotive repair in Pyongyang, a huge border dam with China, the headquarters of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper (completed in 1949, blown up less than a year later by the Americans), and of course machine workers doing their work in tunnels.

Bild 183-B04613 [Photographs]. “Internationales Frauentreffen in Berlin an dem 13 Nationen teilnahmen. Frau Olga Bjone, Leandsleiterin d. norweigische NS-Frauenorganization, Reichsfrauenfuererin Frau Scholz-Klink, die Gattin des japanischen Botschafters Frau Oshima, die Spanische Frauenfuerhrerin Pilar Primo de Riviere and Marchesa Oiya Medici (Ital.)”

Fascist international women’s organizations in 1941! Totally unexpected convergence with East German Frauenorganizations ten years later.

Image: Verdi’s ‘Otello’, via Korea National Opera, Seoul. 


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