starlady: (akidzuki)
I'm going to Seoul for a week on Tuesday. If anyone has any suggestions for things I absolutely must see/do/eat, lay 'em on me. I was in Seoul for a week almost five years ago, but I obviously didn't see everything, and obviously things will have changed.
starlady: (orihime)
I first heard about this oral epic Korean poem in my premodern Korea class last semester; our professor recounted the details of the ballad, which is first attested in the later Chosŏn period (i.e. 17thC), as an example of the incorporation of Buddhist and Daoist elements into commoner popular culture, which was much less neo-Confucian than aristocratic culture and thus allowed comparably expanded gender roles for women.

The epic is still performed today by mudang (shamans, often female) during funeral rites in South Korea. The excerpt that follows is from the translation that appears in Hyun-key Kim Hogarth's book Syncretism of Buddhism and Shamanism in Korea, working from contemporary transcriptions of the text; as far as I know, it's the only one of the few translations of this poem into English (for others, see [personal profile] thistleingrey's comment below).

The story goes that Princess Pari is the seventh daughter of the King and Queen of the realm, and that in rage at her not being a son her father the King orders her to be sacrificed to the West Sea Dragon King (a Daoist deity) immediately after her birth. But the infant Pari is saved by the Lord Buddha (Sakyamuni | Sŏkka) and brought up by a virtuous old couple as their daughter. But when Pari is fifteen both the King and the Queen fall ill and are told by a diviner that they will die on the same day unless they find their abandoned daughter, for their illness is a punishment for the King's sin. The Queen goes on a quest to find Pari and does so, who is brought back to her parents' palace in honor but finds that neither the King's scholar-officials (whose duty to the King is supposed to be like that of sons to fathers) nor her six older sisters (who say they are too clueless, since they've been raised to be proper court ladies) are willing to undertake the journey to the Netherworld to obtain the medicinal water that is guarded by Mujangsŭng.

Pari Kongju says:
"The obligation that I owe my parents
Stems from the nine months that I was inside my mother.
I will go."
She then asks for a warrior's costume
Made of silk and steel to disguise herself as a man,
and also a walking stick and shoes made of steel.
Alas, Pari Kongju! )
starlady: One World, One Dream: Beijing 2008 (more in the breach)
Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

This is a harrowing but compulsively readable book, and everyone ought to read it.

Barbara Demick has spent the better part of a decade covering the two Koreas from Seoul, and for most of that time she's been interviewing North Korean defectors, who've made it out of their country at great personal and financial cost. In Nothing to Envy Demick focuses on six particular North Koreans, all living in and around the northeastern industrial city of Chongjin, and through their lives tells the story of the DPRK and in particular the story of the famine of the 1990s, which killed at least one million people, possibly more--it's impossible to know, but most estimates go as high as 20% of the country's population, which would be two million people.

Mass death on this scale simply doesn't happen without state action, or in this case inaction, and Demick and the North Koreans in the book lay the blame for the deaths of their families and countrymen squarely where it belongs, with the totalitarian regime begun by Kim Il-Sung and perpetuated by his son Kim Jong-Il, who is now preparing to hand power over to Kim Jong-Un, his son. Everyone who died in the famine--which hasn't really ever stopped, it's just been alleviated by the deaths of so many people and by the development of a rudimentary market economy--was murdered by their government.

In the United States and in the world at large we have the image of North Korea as a "rogue state," as a member of the "Axis of Evil," but essentially of a pathetic, backward regime whose people are fundamentally deluded at best or laughably ignorant at worst, and Kim Jong-Il is seen as more of a risible figure (cf. Team America: World Police) than as the oppressive dictator that he is. Also, when the famine is mentioned, and for instance I write that "up to two million people died," there are implications of some element of passivity on the part of those people, who naively depended on their government to save them and were betrayed. Nothing to Envy provides an essential corrective to both perspectives; Demick documents the ideological indoctrination that begins literally at birth (the only birthdays celebrated in the DPRK are those of the Kims) and which permeates every aspect of daily life. She also documents the extraordinary measures to which people in North Korea went to save themselves and their families from starvation; that so many failed does not represent their passivity in the face of death, but rather how high the odds were stacked against them.

What will happen in North Korea in the future is a crucial but still unanswerable question--everyone thought the regime was on its last legs in the 1990s, and fifteen years later it's still here. But the "currency revaluation" (aka: the regime stealing cash from its citizens) last fall set off actual public protests of some sort, to the extent that the regime apologized (!) and executed a senior official on whom blame was pinned, and no one has high hopes for Kim Jong-Un; reading Demick's reportage on current conditions, it's hard to believe that the regime can stagger along until 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-Sung's birth. In a way Nothing to Envy leaves it hard to imagine how things could get worse; what already happened is horrible enough.

Further viewing:
  • Dear Pyongyang, a documentary by a zainichi Korean (resident in Japan) filmmaker whose father sent her three older brothers to live in the DPRK;
  • Seoul Train, a documentary about North Korean defectors fleeing to China and trying to get out from there--the PRC claims North Korean refugees are "economic migrants" and deports them back to the DPRK, where leaving the country is high treason, punishable by time in the labor camps.


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