Socialist Construction in Korea: Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950

Few countries on earth have been subjected to a propaganda campaign as relentless and far-reaching as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although demonization of the DPRK can be traced back to its founding in 1948, “North Korea” has occupied an unenviable position of regular vilification in contemporary western media since George W. Bush denounced it as part of the “Axis of Evil” in 2003.  The anglophone archive on the DPRK is a bleak record of imperialist slander, replete with the most lurid and theatrical tales of passively suffering masses and the flamboyant pseudo-socialist “regime” that supposedly keeps them in a state of total servitude. Between hypocritical fears of its nuclear power and conscience-rattling anxieties over the alleged condition of human rights within, the DPRK looms as a symbol of the negation of liberal freedoms. It is within this context that Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 must be considered.

The figure of the “North Korean” in English-language scholarship is marked by contradiction; she is, at once, overrepresented, and yet she cannot speak. Driven by the demands of U.S. geostrategic interests, 21st century anglophone knowledge production on Korea can be located along two poles. On one end, national security think tanks and human rights organizations, in collusion with the US and Republic of Korea (south Korean) governments, generate a ceaseless deluge of material on the barbarity of the Kim “regime.” On the other, a smattering of historians and journalists attempt to shift the focus towards the originating brutality of the ongoing US war on Korea, often acquiescing to, or at least not contesting, the right’s characterization of the DPRK as a fundamentally totalitarian project. Speaking in the most general terms, Koreans themselves (notable exceptions notwithstanding) often occupy subordinate positions across this spectrum. They contribute as junior associates, research assistants, lesser-known scholars, rarely-acknowledged spouses, and most significantly, as primary sources, whether as defector “activists” or survivors of US and ROK state terror. While Koreans are the subjects of the story (or perhaps more honestly, its objects), they are rarely its narrators, and certainly not the architects of the terms on which these stories are told.

Published in 2013, Kim’s book offers an important intervention in the field described above. Drawing primarily on DPRK documents captured by the US Army in the early 1950s from Inje County, an area just north of the 38th parallel which is now mostly under ROK administration,  Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution offers a rare glimpse into socialist construction as a mass project in north Korea. Eschewing a “top-down” historical account, Suzy Kim emphasizes the role of the masses in the actual construction of the DPRK and the implementation of the revolution in “everyday” life by “everyday” people. What follows is a mosaic representation of the revolution as it was experienced—and enacted—by the men and women, peasants and workers, elderly and youth of Inje County and beyond. Rather than giving “voice to the voiceless,” Kim’s project peels back the layers of silence imposed by imperialist academic, media, and state interests, demonstrating that the “voiceless,” are, in fact, per Arundhati Roy’s observation, actually just the “deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”1Arundhati Roy, “Peace and the New Corporate Liberation Theology.” 2004 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture. In doing so, Kim presents her readers with an opportunity to engage the origins of the DPRK on its own terms.

Revolutions in the “Everyday”

What is missing… from most studies on North Korea, is the everyday life of local villages undergoing a major transformation, instituting hands-on the radical changes in a revolution that no Soviet official could have orchestrated.2Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), 7.

Kim’s book is neither polemical nor evangelical, and this is evident from the outset. An historian by training, Kim frames her text by flipping the script on the Foucauldian critique of modernity as a disciplinary project of state power undifferentiated by the class character of government. In contrasting Korea’s experience of colonial modernity under Japan, along with socialist construction in the north after WWII, Kim poses the north Korean revolution as a self-determined project of the Korean masses to build an alternative, socialist modernity to overcome their material dispossession under Japanese colonial-capitalist modernity. In doing so, she establishes the “everyday” as a framework through which the agency of “everyday” people enacting revolutionary change in the time and space of their own lives can be reclaimed. By recentering the north Korean masses as historical and revolutionary subjects, Kim breaks with dominant academic narratives that render the people of the DPRK as bystanders in their own story.

Kim begins with a detailed look at the development of class society and consciousness under Japanese colonialism, while paying special attention to how Japanese land and agricultural policies shaped peasant life and peasant resistance. While some industrialization did take place, particularly in the north beginning in the 1930s, Korea’s greatest value to Japan was in the production of rice and the export of labor power and consequently it remained a predominantly agrarian society throughout the colonial period. Immediately after annexation in 1910, the Japanese colonial authorities conducted a land survey of the peninsula that solidified the power of the landlord class while appropriating lands that were once owned by the palace (Joseon Korea’s largest landowner) for state management through the monopolist Oriental Development Company. Tenant-farming or sharecropping, a phenomenon that became increasingly common throughout the 19th century, formed a key component of the colonial matrix of control. The precarity of Korean peasants not only facilitated the seizure of virtually all Korean rice for the Japanese market, but also enabled colonial control of production down to the level of what plant varieties should be planted per square foot. The crises of hunger and poverty manufactured by the nexus of colonial and landlord domination resulted in the separation of masses of people from their means of subsistence and production. The emigration of one in seven Koreans to Japan and Manchuria following their expulsion from their lands is a powerful illustration of the devastation wrought in the countryside by colonialism.

The material conditions of Korea’s peasantry provided the social basis for anticolonial movements, and eventually the north Korean revolution. Kim recounts the radical history of the Red Peasant Unions in 1930s northern Korea—alliances of tenant farmers and owner-cultivators that organized hundreds of night schools for the politicization of the peasantry, and led fierce and often violent struggles against colonial agrarian policies. While most organized resistance was driven underground or overseas by 1940, the radical political experience of peasants themselves informed developments in Korea following WWII.

Constructing Socialism, Enacting Decolonization

As the Japanese colonial order crumbled, the Korean masses established self-governing People’s Committees across the peninsula. Initially organized through the liberal nationalist Lyuh Woon-hyung (Yuh Un-hyung)’s Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, the People’s Committees served as the basis for a sovereign Korean state, the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), founded on September 6, 1945. With the arrival of the US military in southern Korea on September 8, the PRK was dissolved, and the US outlawed and violently disbanded the People’s Committees. In the south, the new US military government absorbed the old Japanese colonial bureaucracy, and ruled through terror in alliance with local bourgeois and landlord elements; in the north, the People’s Committees continued as the foundation of a state-building project enacted by the people themselves. The titular “north Korean Revolution” began with an agenda for decolonization determined and realized by the masses themselves.

Kim examines the character of this revolution by focusing on three major aspects of the social transformation that took place: land reform, literacy campaigns, and women’s equality. Although peasants in some areas wasted no time expropriating land from Japanese colonizers, no centralized apparatus existed in August 1945 to ensure a consistent redistribution of land across the whole society. A Provisional People’s Committee (PPC) was established as a temporary national structure representing all local People’s Committees. The following spring, the PPC responded to a three million-strong peasant mobilization in support of agrarian reform by passing a land reform law. Within a mere 25 days, local People’s Committees seized over 2 million acres of land from landlord and colonial control and redistributed it to over 700,000 peasant families. Prior to land reform, some 75% of Korean peasants were tenant farmers with less than 2.5 acres of land to produce adequate subsistence for their families. For them, the revolution was not an abstract concern imposed from above, but a material process that engaged them as subjects in the actual transformation of feudal and colonial property relations.

Beyond satisfying the peasants’ centuries-old hunger for land, the revolution universalized education and transformed gender relations, arguably as part of a singular process. Some 80% of the Korean population had no formal schooling by the end of the Japanese colonial period, and 90% of women could not read. Women’s participation in society was curtailed by the dominance of patriarchal ideology, in addition to the material exploitation of their productive and reproductive labor. In addition to Korea’s first public education system, some 12,000 literacy schools were established across the north, with corresponding literacy eradication teams in each locale tasked with democratizing knowledge. By 1948, literacy rates stood at 92%. A series of gender equality laws passed in 1946 and 1947, sought to raise the status of women and simultaneously eliminate social practices that prevented their full participation in society. Women’s equal political rights were enshrined for the first time, including their right to equal pay and suffrage. Women were guaranteed parental leave and nursing breaks across all industries. Child and forced marriage, polygamy, and prostitution were outlawed; in Korea, these practices had been connected in a matrix of gendered oppression established by and for the perpetuation of feudalism and colonialism, most infamously in the Japanese system of wartime sexual slavery in which some 200,000 Korean women were conscripted. By the end of 1946, over 1 million women had joined the Democratic Women’s League, a mass organization that represented a third of all adult women in the north between the ages of 18 and 61. In a chapter titled “Revolutionary Motherhood,” Kim examines how motherhood itself was enshrined as an ideal for both men and women to aspire towards, and in doing so elaborates on women’s mass and heterodox participation in politics within the specific construction of gender in socialist Korea.

While refusing to understate the significance of these transformations, Kim is also careful to illustrate how contradictions persisted in this new society. Adult learners often struggled to retain their newfound literacy. Peasants sometimes coddled their former landlords—at least one person in Inje County continued paying rent to their landlord out of pity. Although the land reform reduced rents from 50-70% of peasants’ crops to an agricultural tax-in-kind of 25%, some remained dissatisfied. Many women were initially reluctant to take on greater public roles, already burdened by work in the home, and sometimes held back by internalized oppression. Criticisms of men in positions of power’s failure to adequately recruit women into politics (and later, only their wives) abounded, as did denunciations of men’s continued habits of ignoring their childrearing and housekeeping responsibilities. Critics might seize on such details as evidence of the revolution’s failures or limitations; in reality, these facts only reflect that the new society of the north Korean Revolution is a living and dialectically developing one like any other. In their everyday acts of building a socialist future, everyday people perpetuated the contradictions of the colonial and feudal past. They reflected on and wrestled with these contradictions, as Kim demonstrates in a chapter analyzing the autobiographies of various rank-and-file party members. The present society was no utopia, but that was precisely because of its mass character—an aspect neither any previous Korean society nor the contemporaneous south could ever claim.

Democracy for the Masses, by the Masses

The mass character of the north Korean Revolution would not have been possible without democratic participation. The first People’s Committees organized after the end of WWII were hastily constructed. Most representatives had been locally determined on an ad-hoc basis. In light of this, the People’s Committees were reconstituted through Korea’s first free elections, operated on the principles of the secret ballot and universal suffrage. With election days treated as holidays, over 99% of the electorate participated. Lt. Col. Walter F. Choinski, a US Army liaison stationed in Pyongyang at the time of the village and township elections, offers a rare eyewitness account of procedures:

[After receiving a ballot] The voter then retired to a table in another room, where he indicated his choice, folded the ballot and deposited the ballot in one of two boxes…. In order to guarantee secrecy and protect the voter many polls placed low fences in front of the two boxes and cut an arm-size hole in the fence midway between the two boxes. This permitted the voter to stick his arm into the hole… and observe, without being observed, the hole into which he was casting his lot.3Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), 83.

Prior to the elections themselves, the People’s Committees undertook public education campaigns to ensure the equal participation of all members of society. Candidates for each position were selected by the three parties of the Democratic National United Front through a public participatory process in which workers and peasants nominated and debated the merits of their peers. As one woman miner explained it to Anna Louise Strong, the only US journalist that reported from the DPRK prior to the Korean War, candidates were nominated on the basis of their existing relationships to their communities. Those who failed to achieve at least 50% voter turnout would not be elected, and candidates who could not secure at least 90% of the vote usually resigned in shame. When Strong asked her interviewee whether such a process could truly be democratic if the elections were not competitive, the woman retorted, “I don’t see what the Americans have to say about it, anyway!”4Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), 89.

Village, township, county, city and provisional People’s Committees were directly elected. The provincial People’s Committees convened in 1947 to elect among themselves a national 237-member People’s Assembly endowed with the authority to enact laws, and appoint the cabinet and Supreme Court. Although Workers Party members were represented among the candidates, they did not hold a monopoly on elected positions. Independent candidates and candidates from other parties constituted the majority of those elected to the People’s Assembly and all People’s Committees, with the exception of those at the village level — where the popularity of land reform among the peasantry resulted in a Workers Party majority.

Impressive as these electoral achievements were, mass participation in politics was not limited to the ballot box. Following land reform, enthusiastic peasants swelled the ranks of the Workers Party to more than 700,000 members by 1948. Those who were not full-fledged party members participated in determining and constructing socialism through the mass organizations. In addition to the aforementioned Democratic Women’s League, similar organizations existed for youth, peasants, workers, artists, intellectuals, and numerous other social configurations. These mass organizations took an active role in governance, the best example being the Peasants’ League, which by early 1948 counted 2.5 million peasants out of a total of 6 million among its membership. The Peasants’ League provided the vehicle for the political transformation of the peasantry, not only through their engagement with national politics, but also through their collective management of agriculture. In contrast to the bourgeois democratic tradition, which claims mass participation on the basis of votes alone, the north Korean Revolution constructed a new system in which everyday people could transform their everyday lives through multiple avenues, both within and beyond the state apparatus proper.

Reclaiming History

 Though Kim limits her text to the years 1945-1950, providing little information on events following the Korean War, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution is nevertheless an indispensable study. By focusing on a period neglected in most accounts of Korea’s recent history, Kim provides crucial contextual information for contemporary events, and in doing so claims the “North Korean” as an historical actor. The imperialist narrative seeks to deny Koreans a place in history. Kim counters this—not through didactic refutations, but by letting real people’s stories speak for themselves. Whether through autobiographies of the party’s rank-and-file, testimonies recorded in historical documents, or interviews with living former political prisoners of the ROK, Kim has curated a vibrant account of the revolution from those who made it real.

In recent years, the reality of the U.S.’s unfinished war on Korea has awakened a few conscientious persons to the anti-imperialist necessity of defending the DPRK. This development has progressed alongside the return of a semblance of socialist politics to the countries of the imperial core. A reader in search of a definitive guide to the DPRK will not find one here; what Kim offers instead is something perhaps more significant—a chance to see history as something “North Koreans,” too, have made. The importance of this lies not in “humanizing” Koreans; our humanity is prior to any attempts to degrade us. Rather, what Kim has done in reclaiming history for north Koreans is given her readers the chance to rediscover their own humanity. As James Baldwin once observed, “anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” This book offers no deliverance, only the opportunity to betray one’s own monstrosity, and maybe reclaim the future as the collective effort of everyday people. Perhaps this is the final table Kim turns—in the end, it may just be the north Koreans who save you.

Ju-Hyun Park (they/them) is a writer. Their work has previously appeared in The Funambulist, Truthout, The New Inquiry, and other publications. They reside in Lenape lands also known as Brooklyn, NY.