27 July 2014 — Suzy Kim uses as the foundation of her new study a mountain of documents captured during the Korean War from the north of Inje County that straddled the 38th parallel prior to the war. This material has to date been barely explored by academics, although a decade ago Charles Armstrong did a similar labor of love on a wider canvas with his The North Korean Revolution 1945-50 in which he made the convincing case that the resilience of North Korea owed much to the fact that its revolution was, unlike those in much of Central and Eastern Europe, notimposed but indigenous, cut with the grain of Korean culture, history and community.
It was a revolution nonetheless. Here in a lucid and detailed analysis, Kim explores the three central elements of that process: land reform, literacy and elections, each of which was both transformatory and incredibly popular. Land reform took the land from the feudal landowners and distributed it evenly amongst the landless and poor peasants. The result was a 50% leap in output and productivity. The gains in literacy were even more striking. In 1944, 80% of Koreans had had no of schooling of any kind; by March 1948, half-way through the three year literacy campaign, 92% of peasants in the North had learnt to read and write; the number continued to creep up towards an unattainable 100%.
There were elections in both 1946 and 1947. While the North Korean Workers Party—the Communist Party—was by far the largest party with over 30% of those elected, it was far from the only party represented. In 1946, about 20% of those elected were split evenly between the anti-western nationalism/nativism of the Chondogyo Young Friends Party and the Democratic Party;and just shy of 50% were independents. In the People’s Assembly elections of 1947, the figures were 36% Workers Party, 13% Chondoists, 13% Democratic Party and 38% independents.
Simultaneously—in a break with the Confucian tradition of male seniority—there were mass mobilizations into not only the Party itself but also women and youth organizations that changed forever Korea’s patriarchal, feudal and deferential society. Women were brought out of the kitchen into the frontline. These organizations served as transmission belts to deliver the new thinking. The new social system—unlike that in the Soviet Union—was epitomized more by motherhood than brotherhood. This, like so much in Korea, had its origins in the Japanese occupation: Korean mothers were told “sons are not your own but are the Imperial Majesty’s sons.” Now their responsibility was to nation rather than Empire.