North Korea, Caught in Time: Images of War and Reconstruction
Kane, Daniel C., Korean Studies
North Korea, Caught in Time: Images of War and Reconstruction, by Chris Springer (with an essay by Balazs Szalontai). Reading, U.K.: Garnet Publishing, 2010. xxviii, 148 pages, illustrations, map, index. $49.95 cloth.
As Balazs Szalontai, the author of the background essay to this slim but very engaging volume, notes, little has been written on how average North Koreans lived through the perilous period of the Korean War (1950-1953) and the years of intense reconstruction that followed its devastation. This has largely to do with that country's mania for secretiveness. Until the unprecedented--though still highly stilted--access to North Korea afforded by the information revolution of latter days, it is perhaps the period of 1948-1956, before Kim Il Sung had solidified his hold on power and sequestered his country within its own reality, that offered the outside observer the best chance of understanding the lives of average North Koreans. Even for this earlier period, however, studies are rare. Though in no way claiming to be such a study, Chris Springer's volume of black-and-white photos (culled from two unlikely sources, the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum History Institute and Museum of that country's Ministry of Defense) does its bit to address this shortage and offers a valuable, fascinating, but also frustrating glimpse into the lives of the North Korean people during those watershed years.
North Korea, Caught in Time comprises two primary elements--a twenty-page essay by Balazs Szalontai ("The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Forgotten Side of a Not-so-forgotten War") followed by the photographs themselves, divided broadly into five categories: War, Reconstruction, Politics, Agriculture Industry, and Culture Education. This is supplemented by a map, index, and postscript on further sources.
Balaazs Szalontai (currently a professor at Mongolian International University) offers what can only be called a gem of an essay that provides the reader--and viewer--a succinct but eloquent overview of the conditions average North Koreans faced just before, during, and in the wake of the Korean War (i.e., the Great Fatherland Liberation War). As the title reveals, Szalontai frames the popular North Korean experience in terms of the Biblical four horsemen--purveyors of famine, conquest/persecution, war, and death. This certainly works on some levels (combined North Korean civilian/military casualties as a result of the war may have numbered as high as two million), but clashes in tone with the more hopeful thematic organization of the collection itself. Nevertheless, the author makes a noble effort to paint a picture of the life of average North Koreans during and following the conflict based on what few sources and secondary studies are available. However, rather than a portrait of the average North Korean, the essay may more accurately be described as an overview of the conditions and events that most affected the average North Korean between approximately 1950 and 1956. As is the case with the photographs themselves, the "average North Korean" remains a shadowy figure.
Since so much of the introductory essay is based on Hungarian sources--a fact that contributes to rather than diminishes its value--this reader felt it would have been more meaningful had these important witnesses been engaged more fully. Who were these Hungarian officials, what were their backgrounds, what brought them to North Korea, and what was their fate? Such questions were not addressed, understandably perhaps, in light of the book's primary topic. Yet considering the archival source of the photographs, there is another story that could have been more fully related here. Finally, the essay, engaging as it is, rarely refers to the photographs themselves, resulting in a slight disconnect. Save for a few references to photos likely taken by the Hungarian diplomatic staff, one could read this opening essay separately and hardly realize it constituted an introduction to a collection of photographs. Any realization of Szalontai's hope that his essay might "inspire further research by providing some glimpses into wartime living conditions in North Korea" (p. xi) will likely have to wait until the Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean archives finally give up their dead, but the reader should not neglect this very articulate and informative opening narrative.
This point aside, it is the photos themselves that occupy the central stage. Regarding the photographs, many--though certainly not all--are seeing publication for the first time, a fact alone which justifies their inclusion in a book. One very large caveat, and one fully addressed by Chris Springer, is the fact that a great many of these images likely have their origins with China's Xinhua News Agency or North Korea's Central News Agency--the latter being the primary media mouthpiece of the North Korean Workers' Party. At least a third of the photos included are labeled to indicate such provenance. As to how they made their way to Hungary, Springer notes how such photographs were published in the media throughout the communist bloc to engender sympathy for North Korea by displaying in photographic terms "the devastation wreaked upon North Korea, the indomitability of its people, and the resilience of the socialist system ..." (p. 4). This means that a great many of the photos in North Korea, Caught in Time depict scenes either posed, recreated, or downright doctored. Considering this specious aspect, the author-editor's expressed hope that such a book of photographs might show the North Korean people's "humanity" (p. 10) seems a misplaced one. Rather, the final word would seem to be the author's earlier assessment, that "whatever the veracity of the images themselves, the authenticity of the photos as propaganda artifacts is not in dispute" (p. 8). On this point, the annotations to the photos' captions, providing them with a contextual background, is a very helpful--indeed necessary--aspect to the book. Such annotations could have been expounded upon.
Only a handful of the volume's more than 150 photographs were taken by unofficial photographers--most likely members of the Hungarian diplomatic staff. Not surprisingly, it is these images that best capture and hold the viewer's attention. These photographs do succeed in depicting the unfiltered humanity of average North Koreans. Standing out in particular are images no. 52, an unscripted snapshot of five female members of the North Korean army as they walk through a village in winter, one apparently enjoying the feeling of the sun on her face in what one imagines is a quiet respite from the hardships of military life, and no. 72, of a young uniformed North Korean woman caught looking shyly into the camera lens amidst a frenzied street scene in a ramshackle Pyongyang. Most photos, however, depict those scenes of wartime struggle (civilian and military), factory and farm production, political gatherings, and classroom education familiar enough to anyone who has gazed upon the output of Party public relations. Yet these too hold interest. One of their greatest values is that they depict a North Korea not yet come under the full control of Kim Il Sung. These may prove important evidence in the study of pre-1956 North Korean politics. For instance, one photo depicts Kim Il Sung signing the 1953 armistice with Kim Tu-bong in the background. Following his purge, Kim Tu-bong would be airbrushed out of all later versions. Many others provide ample documentary evidence of a North Korea where Lenin and Stalin still had pride of place. It does bear noting that the large majority of the photographs were taken in Pyongyang, further suggesting their official provenance and detracting from the book's claim to represent the North Korean people as a whole.
Chris Springer is to be commended for bringing these largely unknown photographs to publication. As ultimately a book of photographs, reaction to the collection will largely be personal and subjective. The official nature of most of these photographs detracts from their power to move. However, the book makes an important--and frequently forgotten--point: although for the United Nations forces (and South Koreans) the Korean conflict after 1951 devolved into a slugfest along what became the demilitarized zone, for North Koreans the 1951-53 phase of the war was a far different experience. For North Koreans, 1951 to 1953 were years that saw major North Korean cities decimated by bombing raids that killed untold thousands. Considering this, even official photos retain some emotive power. Images of North Koreans living out of crude dugout homes or collecting bricks from a bombed-out Pyongyang or Wonsan still carry weight. Considering contemporary images of North Korean poverty and dearth, one reaction may be wonder--at how much the human spirit will suffer yet go on suffering. Dostoevsky was right when he defined a human being as a creature that can grow accustomed to anything.
Daniel C. Kane
Vancouver, British Columbia…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: North Korea, Caught in Time: Images of War and Reconstruction. Contributors: Kane, Daniel C. - Author. Journal title: Korean Studies. Volume: 35. Publication date: Annual 2011. Page number: 162+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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