Work & Everyday Life in North Korea, 1953-61


A review of The Furnace is Breathing: Work and the Everyday Life in North Korea, 1953-1961, by Cheehyung Kim.

In February 2013, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test, following the successful launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 satellite the previous year. Many observers in the Western world – including its sibling state in the south – proposed various theories to make sense of how the most secluded and isolated country in the world, with an oppressive regime allegedly hated by most of its own people, could manage to complete such sophisticated technological projects.

The familiar keywords often associated with North Korea – oppression, coercion, despotism, mobilization – do not suffice to explain it. Another historical factor, too often ignored or underestimated, should be considered to understand the current North Korea: as early as the 1960s, North Korea industrialized to a considerably high degree, a development which was highly regarded by Third World nations, and the epic narrative of the nation’s early success still governs the people’s everyday life. Western observers who emphasize previous Japanese investment during the colonial era often underestimate North Korea’s early industrialization. However, it was the postwar reconstruction period and the subsequent rapid industrialization from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s that profoundly changed North Korea from an agricultural society to an industrialized one, characterized by its unique “socialist” culture of work and life.

Cheehyung Kim’s dissertation deals with the issue of how the newly conjoined forms of work and everyday life in North Korea were minted during a decade of reconstruction following the Korean War. Rather than depicting North Korea as a country of coercive rulers and oppressed people, the author focuses on everyday life as a space where contending ideologies continuously clash with each other.  The concept of work itself changed over time, as Kim Il Sung and his Manchurian partisan faction consolidated their political power and the state penetrated into factories and farms.  Everyday life was redefined in accordance with the changing conception of work.

The first chapter traces the gradual domination of work by state ideology. From the post-liberation period to the Korean War and the postwar reconstruction with foreign assistance, the North Korean state gradually seized control over production. All means of industrial and agricultural production were nationalized in the course of socialist reforms. The party-state secured control over labor unions and factory management, and eventually redefined the concept of work to be something voluntarily undertaken for the sake of the postwar rebuilding of the nation. The author reviews various discourses on production, work, and everyday life – by great thinkers, from Aristotle to Henri Lefebvre – to provide a wider context.

Chapter 2 begins by summarizing political struggles in 1950s North Korea, which eventually led to the monopoly of political world by Kim Il Sung and the Manchurian partisans. The monopoly of political power in turn resulted in the monopoly of labor and production by the state. The production regime began controlling labor power, when the ruling party incorporated trade unions and other state and social organizations. With a monopoly both in politics and in production, everyday life became modes of production and administration. The author also points out, however, the inherent tension within the representation of heroic and extraordinary achievements: through the state’s recognition and representation, accompanied by repetition and mass mobilization, the extraordinary becomes the ordinary and an exception becomes a new standard. Thus, inevitably, everyday life became a space of contention and the negotiation of individuals versus state power.

The third chapter is a study of North Korea’s everyday life in the decade following the Korean War. The author analyzes fiction, poetry, paintings, documentary and narrative films, and a memoir, to illustrate such themes of everyday life in North Korea as representation, choice, resistance, appropriation, aesthetics, contention, and ideology. Specifically, Yonggwangnonŭn sumshinda [The Furnace is Breathing] (1957), the “quintessential novel of the Chŏllima Movement period,” is analyzed as an example of the representation and redefinition of everyday life during the late 1950s. The novel is especially important because it reveals fissures within the system and individuals’ struggles and negotiations surrounding them, which one might not easily expect from a tightly controlled society like North Korea at the time.

The last chapter deals with another case study, the Vinalon Factory of Hamhŭng. This chapter distinguishes itself from the previous one in that it highlights how state ideology was embodied in a specific material and penetrated into people’s everyday life. Vinalon, a polyvinylalcohol synthetic fiber, was (and still is) praised in North Korea as a symbol of North Korea’s independence and ingenuity for several reasons: it was invented by Korean chemists (Ri Sŭng-gi and his colleagues) in Japan; its raw materials – coal and limestone – were abundant in North Korea; its traits were close to those of cotton, Korean’s favorite fiber throughout history. Heroic episodes of workers devoted to reconstruction of the Vinalon Factory, along with foreign (mainly East Germany’s) assistance, also added luster to the factory and the fiber. As much as Vinalon and its inventor were honored, however, the transnational nature of Vinalon and the Vinalon Factory was overwritten by the Vinalon myth, which is still appropriated by the North Korean state.

In the last paragraph of the dissertation, the author adds that the problems we usually attribute to North Korea are actually “universal problems of our contemporary world,” and thus problematizing the regime itself would be less helpful than “facing reality as it is” in understanding North Korea, and in eventually proposing more constructive solutions. This is one, among the many contributions of Cheehyung Kim’s work: this dissertation would help readers to make better sense of North Korea by tracing back the historical roots of its state ideology. Rather than imposing Soviet or Stalinist frames and assumptions, the author’s meticulous approach encourages readers to understand North Korea in the way North Koreans themselves have done.

Tae-Ho Kim
Institute of Medical History and Culture
Seoul National University Hospital

Primary Sources

North Korean magazines: Kŭlloja, Ch’ŏllima, Rodong Sinmun
North Korean official publications, including Kim Il Sung’s works (Kim Il-sŏng chŏjakchip, vols. 1-47; Selected writings of Kim Il Sung: Revolution and socialist construction in Korea) and official statistics
North Korean literatures (poems, songs, and films)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2010. 354 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Armstrong.


Image: An engraving titled Talbam (Moonlit Night) by the North Korean artist Yi Ilbok in 1975.

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