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Expulsion for a Mistranslated Poem: The Diplomatic Aspects of North Korean Cultural Policies

Expulsion for a Mistranslated Poem: The Diplomatic Aspects of North Korean Cultural Policies

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This essay, which was published in Vu Tuong and Wasana Wongsurawat, eds., Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), describes how North Korea used cultural policies for diplomatic purposes during the Cold War, particularly in the field of Soviet-DPRK and inter-Korean relations.
This essay, which was published in Vu Tuong and Wasana Wongsurawat, eds., Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), describes how North Korea used cultural policies for diplomatic purposes during the Cold War, particularly in the field of Soviet-DPRK and inter-Korean relations.

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Published by: Balazs Alekszandrovics Szalontai on Dec 05, 2012
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Expulsion for a Mistranslated Poem:The Diplomatic Aspects of NorthKorean Cultural Policies
Balázs Szalontai, Mongolia International University 
In the so-called cultural Cold War, North Korea, officially known as theDemocratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), constituted a rather spe-cial, though not entirely unique, case. Korea, a nation divided into twocompeting states, was one of the most intensely contested battlegrounds of the Cold War. Since a real inter-Korean détente remained more or less outof the question until the 1990s, there was little, if any, legalized culturalexchange between Pyongyang and Seoul. As a consequence, the northernleadership could not pursue an effective cultural diplomacy with the Southin the same way as the Soviet, Chinese, and East European regimes soughtto extend their cultural influence to those capitalist and developing coun-tries whose governments showed at least a modicum of readiness for culturalexchange with the Communist countries.
While North Korean culturalpolicies were considerably influenced by the government’s desire to make a favorable impression on South Korean public opinion, the DPRK authori-ties faced formidable obstacles when they tried to reach the southern audi-ence. This did not mean, however, that the North Koreans were unfamiliar with the fine art of cultural diplomacy. On the contrary, they used thesetechniques with remarkable persistence and subtlety, but in a peculiar way.Namely, the most accessible targets of their operations were Pyongyang’sown Communist allies, rather than its South Korean and Americanenemies.1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041
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Balázs Szalontai
This unusual situation resulted from the maintenance by North Koreanleaders of more extensive cultural contacts with the Soviet Union and otherCommunist states than with non-Communist societies, yet at the same timethey doubted if their putative allies would wholeheartedly support Pyongyang’sinitiatives and fulfill its requests. For this reason, they often felt it expedi-ent to ensure the compliance of the “fraternal” countries through coaxing,pressure, or even outright deception. In the post−Korean War era, Soviet-DPRK cultural relations repeatedly took the shape of a “Cold War withinthe Cold War.”In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on this last topic, for variousreasons. Firstly, the use of cultural diplomacy in the relations betweenCommunist states has not yet been as extensively analyzed as the “culturalCold War” between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. Secondly,the best existing work on the international dimensions of North Koreancultural policies, “The Cultural Cold War in Korea, 1945−1950” by Charles Armstrong, is focused on the pre-1953 period, rather than the postwardecades. Moreover, Armstrong’s article, a detailed and colorful overview of the cultural scene in the two Koreas, concentrates on the institutions,strategic aims, and long-term trends of U.S., Soviet, and Korean culturalpolicies, rather than tactical changes.
 In contrast, this chapter seeks to demonstrate that tactical objectives, likeshort-term diplomatic considerations, could also shape North Korean culturalpolicies to a significant extent. Such secondary objectives sometimes inspiredcultural measures whose tone was markedly different from the supposed“general line” of North Korean cultural policies.
“They Inflexibly Abandoned the Progressive Traditions of thePast”: The Twists and Turns of Culturaland Economic Nationalism
The DPRK never underwent any extended period of intellectual “thaw.” Asearly as the Stalin era, the political control the North Korean regime main-tained over cultural life seems to have been even stricter than the methodspracticed in Moscow’s East European satellites. In 1951, a Hungarian corre-spondent named Tibor Méray, a playwright by profession, found the wartimeNorth Korean cultural scene quite depressing, even by Stalinist standards:
I have seen many one-act plays, and these are all schematic, without a singleexception. The stories are made largely after the same pattern. The charactersare also the same in almost every [play]: the heroic soldier, the self-sacrificing mother, and the evil American . . . The characters are unsophisticated, in most
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Diplomatic Aspects of N. Korean Cultural Policies
cases exactly alike (even in their physical appearance), and they mostly utterslogans.
In the post-1953 years, such critical comments, made not only by “sensi-tive” intellectuals but also by hard-bitten East European Communist diplo-mats, became increasingly numerous. Following the death of Stalin, the new Soviet leaders started to replace the repressive and confrontational style of his policies with a more flexible and cooperative approach. They also prod-ded their satellites to introduce a political and economic “New Course.” KimIl Sung, however, was highly reluctant to follow suit. Dependent on foreigneconomic aid, he had to take a step at a time, but as early as the mid-1950s,he was partly able to resist Soviet pressure for changes.The contrast between Hungarys gradually softening cultural policies andKim’s insistence on retaining a strict control over intellectual life soonbecame conspicuous enough to inspire the Hungarian diplomats to write a sharply critical report about the North Korean cultural scene:
One source of the errors is that in 1954, they inflexibly abandoned the pro-gressive traditions of the past. They wanted to create their new literature andart without taking advantage of the old experiences … In our opinion, thenew socialist realism should be rooted in the soil of classical Korean literature,and the writers should study the progressive traditions [of Korean literature]more intensely.
This temporary abandonment of Korean traditions in favor of foreignCommunist models should not be attributed solely to the “pernicious” influ-ence of those Soviet Koreans (Soviet citizens of Korean origin who movedto North Korea after liberation) whom Kim Il Sung later accused of having denationalized North Korean cultural life. First of all, in 1954, few, if any,Soviet Korean leaders were directly involved in cultural policy.
Secondly, theregime’s attitude toward Korean cultural traditions was considerably in flux during the two and a half years that preceded Kim Il Sung’s famous “
 speech” (December 28, 1955). In the second half of 1953, the authoritiespublished a substantial number of classical Korean literary works; in 1954,they pressured artists and writers to favor Soviet models over Korean tradi-tions; but in the first two months of 1955, they again displayed more tolerancetoward those painters who favored the classical Korean style.
 The repeated waxing and waning of tradition-oriented cultural activity during the period 1953−1955 cannot be wholly explained by the strugglebetween Kim Il Sung and his Soviet Korean opponents. Interestingly enough, North Korean economic policies also strongly fluctuated in these1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041
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