In Team America: World Police, the puppet-film satire of the global war on terrorism made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame), North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is gleefully depicted as an oddball Bond villain: outsized glasses, Elmer Fudd lisp, a streak of maudlin solipsism, and a team of lackeys including al-Qaeda and Alec Baldwin. He even lures United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix into a shark tank straight out of Thunderball.
This skewering of Kim as pure evil grinding comically along its axis elicits guffaws because it spoofs what little we know about the “Dear Leader,” a vainglorious and wretched dictator who starves his nation and stockpiles nukes. North Korea's gates are kept largely shut, impeding tourism and cultural exchange. The train that the odd foreigner is permitted to take to Pyongyang has high cement walls on either side of the tracks. The barriers extend even to language. As State Department translator Tong Kim observed in The Washington Post in September, even skilled negotiators at the six-party sessions tend to talk past one another. “Interpreting North Korea and its intentions is not merely a matter of translating words,” Kim wrote, “but of understanding gestures and symbols.”
Many writers have tried to pry open North Korea's shell, and most with limited success. But two new works -- one a book, the other a compact disc -- that examine the country's art, architecture, archeology, and culture for clues about its leaders and people do so with vigor and immediacy. Jane Portal's concise and brilliant Art Under Control in North Korea (Reaktion Books) and Christiaan Virant's compilation sonic collage Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom (Sublime Frequencies) allow Western audiences to see and hear how North Korea became what it is -- and where it may be headed.
Fortress North Korea has deep historical roots. Overrun in earlier centuries by Mongols, Manchu, and the Japanese, Korea's dynastic rulers effectively warded off foreigners well into the late 19th century, when the peninsula won its “Hermit Kingdom” moniker.
The first half of the 20th century proved no kinder. After a brutal 30-year occupation by Japan (which ended in 1945), Korea became the first bloody front in the Cold War, when North Korean Communist troops under “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung attacked South Korea in June 1950. After a war filled with atrocities and mass devastation, a truce cemented the uneasy division along a demilitarized zone that exists to this day. The human toll of that war was immense, including more than 2 million military and civilian casualties. But as Portal, who works in the Department of Asia at the British Museum, notes in her study, North Korea's infrastructure and culture were also ruined. “By the time of the Panmunjom truce that marked the end of the war in July 1953,” she writes, “there was hardly a building standing in North Korea.”
The animating force behind reconstruction was Kim-Il Sung's juche, a concept usually translated as “self-reliance” and rooted in the nation's misfortunes at the hands of others. Portal observes that while juche had clear economic goals (growth of industry and agriculture) and a political model (Korean nationalism revolving around a personality cult), its cultural implications were less clear-cut. “In terms of culture,” she writes, “Juche is a muddle … . In practice, the policy handed down to North Korean artists is to produce works heavily influenced by Socialist Realism from the Soviet Union, combined with traditional East Asian technique, such as ink painting and woodblock printing.”
Portal's book demonstrates how both Kims have employed art with brutal efficiency to prop up juche's other two pillars. As is true in many other socialist nations, North Korean art hypes the potential of workers to make advances in industrial and agricultural achievement. One colorful poster places a resolute miner against a backdrop of artillery and mounds of coal with the slogan “Let's Follow the Spirit of the Great General! Let's Enter a New Phase in Coal Production!”
Portal also demonstrates how North Korean art has embraced the personality cult of juche with even greater fanaticism than it has the economic aspect. An entire chapter of Portal's book is devoted to “The Kim Cult,” cataloging the ubiquity of Kim Il-Sung in North Korean life (official portraits in every home and office) and the variety of his image's manifestations, both large and small. An apotheosis of the cult can be found in a 1980 painting of both Kims in a spacious public room in Pyongyang with models of two massive architectural monuments. Titled The Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il Discussing the Plans for the Construction of the Juche Tower and the Arch of Triumph, the painting gathers many strands of the Kim personality cult -- dynastic succession, the conquest of public space as personal fiefdom, a mask of benevolence -- together on a single canvas that is stunning in its sheer banality.
The power of North Korean art resides not in any craft or feeling but in its stunning capacity for stasis. It is as far from the smashing of icons of revolution as one can get. Whether it be the North Korean versions of what passes for Socialist Realism (tractors blasting smoke as they plow a hellish landscape, or depictions of the Great Leader and Dear Leader gently instructing children) or contemporary variations on the ancient arts of ink painting and calligraphy (which still retain a place of honor), the sole function of art is to cement the status quo and mask the nation's grim reality.
This powerful stasis complicates matters significantly. The retrograde element in Korean art cannot be reversed simply by elimination of the Kim cult or the infusion of new influences. Rather, art in the service of the Kim dynasty is nourished by the nation's traditions, and by its past and present isolation.
As he put together Radio Pyongyang, Virant, a Beijing-based composer and disc jockey, was inspired by that isolation, and by the strangeness of what he heard on the shortwave radio emanating from North Korea. There were “spy numbers,” broadcasts of women reading series of coded numerals, which he describes in his liner notes as a “sound equal parts haunting and fascinating,” and grandly banal musical production numbers that he refers to as “revolutionary pomp.”
Yet the aural document he has fashioned from snippets of North Korean media, field recordings, performances, and shortwave-radio intercepts does more than catalog the isolation of the country. It also points out how inexorably the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is being pulled slowly into the larger orbit of global culture and undermining the hermetic nature of the regime. There are, of course, moments of sheer juche on Radio Pyongyang -- snippets of English-language praise for the Dear Leader (“modeling the entire army on the juche ideal”) that fade into opera sung by massed socialist choirs that bear an eerie resemblance to Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.
But listen more closely. It is the cultural collisions on these recordings that really astound the listener. At a number of moments, the outside world is reprocessed by North Korean media and shot back out onto the airwaves: synthesizer-driven pop music stolen from Hong Kong is made more tinny and shrill; twee electronica swiped from Japan is utterly transmogrified and shorn of its Hello Kittyish charm; bits of Italian and Mexican pop are squeezed into electrified and dainty Korean folk. The inferior quality of the cultural recycling and diminution on Radio Pyongyang is almost beside the point. What the record proves is that global influences do penetrate Fortress North Korea. Someone in the DPRK is listening to the radio signals that are riding the world's airwaves. In their own way, they are also trying to imitate it.
It's an aural confirmation of a cultural opening that is already under way on other, more official fronts. Take, for instance, North Korea's recent moves to participate in the World Heritage List maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The DPRK became a party to the international treaty that governs world heritage in 1998, and last year it placed its first sites on the list -- a series of 30 tombs from the Koguryo Kingdom, which ruled a vast swath of contiguous territory in the north of both Korea and China from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. Nationalism played an important role in this cultural opening: A battle over whether Korea or China should claim the historical legacy of that kingdom has been fought bitterly in the last few decades, and it led UNESCO to split the baby by designating Koguryo sites in the DPRK and the People's Republic of China.
But the practical results of this crucial cultural designation also cannot be ignored. It required strong North Korean cooperation with an international organization. It also provided the DPRK with $600,000 for costs associated with the preservation of the tombs and their uniquely valuable wall paintings.
Just where this slow march of cultural openness in North Korea will lead is difficult to predict. Famine or conflict could roll back the small steps taken very quickly. The rapid cultural reinvention witnessed in the post-1989 Soviet bloc is most likely not in the cards. A change in the cultural scene akin to the astonishing boom in China -- now nurturing the seeds of a burgeoning artistic underground -- also seems unlikely.
The internal politics of North Korea are likewise difficult to read. The parties to the recent nuclear agreement brokered with the DPRK already can't agree on what it means. So if we are to recognize the stirrings of change as they happen, keeping an eye and an ear to what's going on in North Korea's art and culture may be a crucial early indicator as to whether the world's most closed society will indeed open up. If you look and listen carefully, past the comedy and conventional wisdom, those signs and sounds are already coming through. What they are telling us is that however tightly the Dear Leader grips the country, something is squeezing through the cracks.
Richard Byrne is an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Biblioteka Alexandria, and on Time.com.