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North Korea , public and private , theatricality , indoctrination , mind-heart

    Recently North Koreans, publicly mourning the death of their leader, Kim Jong Il, drew international media attention. As they had done upon the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, the people, this time again, abundantly and openly showed signs of deep grief and profound respect. Many outsiders were perplexed by these scenes. Were they “acts” demonstrating a correct political attitude? Or did they illustrate the success of political indoctrination? I myself have long been occupied with the dramaturgical outlook of the North Korean state and its people. North Koreans extravagantly proclaim their love for their leader (Martin 2006; Ryang 2012), but do they really love him? When they act out their love, do they have corresponding emotional feelings? In short, do they mean what they act? My answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes and no. But how and in what ways is it both? In the following pages, I explore how North Koreans might adapt to a world where surveillance governs every detail of life, at the same time that they might also retain some distance from the indoctrination of the state.

    While media images repeatedly convey an excess of the political in the lives of North Koreans, Andrei Lankov, a long-time observer of North Korea, commented that “[m]ost people’s lives [in North Korea] remain nearly untouched by high politics” (Lankov 2007: 2). Yet Lankov also argued that “the North Koreans’ world is remarkably political and politicized” (2007: 3). In fact, Lankov is not alone in making evident such contradictions about North Koreans and their life world. South Korean and international personnel with work experience in North Korea frequently point to the coexistence of a “public face (kongjŏgin ŏlgul)” of ritualized formality and a “pure heart (chinsim)” of guileless sincerity. In a typical outsiders’ view, North Koreans tend to act in highly rigid and politicized ways in the public context, while they may strip off their public face and engage in surprisingly intimate interactions in other settings. Some even employ such expressions as “split personality” or “two-faced” to convey the contrast they perceive in North Koreans.

    I take these observations of North Koreans’ affective behaviors as a starting point. I examine how each of the two modes of self-presentation is manifest in social encounters, but the focal point of my inquiry lies in the nature of the apparent bifurcation in self-presentation among North Koreans. A common interpretation by outside observers is that North Koreans keep up their public face for political performance, but their private self may reveal otherwise; whereas one’s public face is a mask, one’s private self can be the locus of sincerity or a pure heart (cf. Goffman 1959, 1967). In this interpretation, public face and pure heart are contrasted, and pure heart belongs to private self. In my view, in North Korea pure heart is not exclusively the property of a private self. Rather, it normatively undergirds the communal social space, a space that mediates the penetration of the state into the mind-heart2 of individuals.3 In other words, pure heart functions as the affective currency of the communal social space to nurture intimate sociability, which then is drafted to help envision the nation-state as one big family. At the same time, each individual ought to have a “pure heart” for the leader and state, which is to be properly expressed on public occasions. My argument is that however contrasting they may seem, the two modes of selfpresentation, public face and pure heart, are in support of, rather than in opposition to, each other for the purposes of the state.

    The North Korean state propaganda is that North Korea represents the “real” or “authentic” Korea vis-à-vis South Korea, and a popular belief among South Koreans is likewise that North Korea has remained “more traditional” or “quintessentially Korean” in terms of the cultural ideal of affective relationality, having a “purer” heart. My argument is that the very “Korean-ness” of North Korean society and its people is a consequence of the creative appropriation and exploitation of certain cultural conceptions by the modern nation-state, rather than a legacy of pre-modern or traditional Korea. By examining the interlocking of public order, communal sociability, and private self, I demonstrate how some focal psychocultural elements are drawn into the state apparatus, resulting in the uniform image of North Koreans expressing reverence for their leader.

    Yet I am not claiming that North Koreans do not have “private selves.” Individual North Koreans testify to a broader and more realistic picture of their life world and mind-heart. Their views and accounts, though inferred and delivered through third parties, invite us to seriously consider the value they place on inner autonomy equally in the name of pure heart, amid the extraordinary performative demand of public face. I show that the cultural conceptions of the public and mind-heart have crucially underpinned the political crusade by the North Korean state, yet the very cultural conceptions nevertheless allow stances and behaviors that do disservice to the state effort. In order to access their life world as alluded to by North Koreans themselves, I pay particular attention to the complexities of mind-heart in relation to the public and private distinction. My aim through this study is to step into the underexplored terrain of the interrelationship among state propaganda work, its psychocultural underpinnings, and life world of the people in North Korea.

    2I use the term “mind-heart” to refer to the psychic reality as well as self-agency in line with the Korean folk term maŭm that has meanings for both mind and heart in English usage.  3See Lankov and Kwak (2011) for the surveillance institution called “neighborhood group (inminban)” that operates in the communal social space.


    This is, inevitably, a “study of culture at a distance,” an attempt to examine the “cultural regularities in the characters of individuals who are members of societies which are inaccessible to direct observation” (Mead and Métraux 2000: 3). As such, it is derived from two research projects, one in 2002–2003 and the other in 2008–2009, with intermittent research efforts in the intervening years and thereafter. The overall research process involved North Korean refugees,4 South Koreans working for North Korean refugees, and South Korean and international personnel with work experience in the North.

    More specifically, in 2002–2003, I came to interact with North Korean refugees living in South Korea through participant observation and in-depth interviews.5 During this time, I also had opportunities to hear from South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers and government officials regarding their experiences with and views on North Korean refugees.6 Both North Korean refugees and South Koreans working for them had many stories to tell about felt differences between self and other, particularly in terms of sincerity and propriety. A persistently common observation by both sides was that North Koreans were “emotional and genuine,” in comparison to South Koreans (Jung 2005). The people from and in the North were “more humane” or had a “purer” heart, which rendered them “more Korean.” This is not just an instance of what Richard Grinker (1995: 192) considers “the colonial character” of South Korean discourses on North Koreans. North Korean refugees made similar claims about themselves and their fellows in the North if only to assert their moral superiority over South Koreans.

    In my own encounters with refugees, I perceived an intriguing combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity in their affective orientation. On the one hand, the discourse of difference between the two Koreas seemed exaggerated. On the other hand, however, I too was experiencing, at least occasionally, a subtle yet undeniable sense of my own incompetence in affective communication with North Korean refugees. I grew increasingly drawn to the possibility that the felt differences in affective orientation displayed in social encounter were significantly grounded in the differing features in the contour and affective texture of the general social space of each Korea. Yet I could not simply regard the refugees as “North Koreans in South Korea.” For one, the majority of them had spent many years in third countries, most often in China, prior to coming to South Korea, experiencing varying degrees of acculturation to the host society accompanied by traumatic human rights violations (Jeon et al. 2005; Kim 2012). It is also noted that their accounts of North Korea are inevitably influenced by their positioning in South Korean society (see Chung 2008; Fahy 2011).

    Notwithstanding the invaluable information from the refugees, I needed an additional channel for access to North Koreans in North Korea. In 2008–2009, I therefore conducted interviews with international and South Korean personnel who had had work experience in the North for an extended period and had thereby gained observations, anecdotes, and other first-hand accounts of the people.7 Considering their diverse backgrounds in nationality and kind of work, it was remarkable that they shared many similar stories or incidents. Most notably, this group of informants added a critical new dimension to the affective range of North Koreans: “public face.” In a sense, it was not new at all, for the public face is the North Korean represented in the global media. However, many of these outsiders put “public face” and “pure heart” side by side in such a way that the contrast between the two affective modes was starkly presented in their recounting of North Koreans’ modes of behavior.8 To me, even more than the contrast itself, the relationship between the two was baffling, and this has become the key point of my analysis.

    The outsider informants, nonetheless, helped me understand North Korean refugees’ claim of “pure heart” in the broader affective context of North Korean society. I juxtaposed observations made regarding North Koreans in North Korea with the ones made by and about North Korean refugees in South Korea. From this process, I discerned a patterning of self-presentation involving both “public face” and “pure heart” among North Koreans. The co-existence of “public face” and “pure heart” was sufficiently consistent across different regional and social backgrounds so as to be readily noticeable to outsiders and to North Koreans themselves once they acquired a comparative perspective through their transformation to refugee status in South Korea. In 2008–2009, I also went back to the refugee community to further recruit refugee informants with professional backgrounds.9 Having been situated in the relatively less political yet elite stratum of the society, the former professionals added reflective insights and deep knowledge about North Korea.10

    4An increasing number of North Koreans have defected to South Korea by way of third countries, since North Korea suffered from food shortages in the late 1990s. As of December, 2012, the total number of North Korean refugees reached 24,604 (T’onggyech’ŏng 2013).  5Participant observation was conducted for over a six-month period, first at a government facility for refugees (hanawŏn), and later at a youth center run by a civic group and in the home of a refugee family, all in the capacity of an English teacher for young refugees.  6Most of these opportunities were provided by the Hanyang University research team for the sociocultural integration of North and South Korea, by inviting NGO workers and government officials to our seminars as guest speakers. I conducted additional interviews with several individuals. See Jung (2005) for the data and analysis mainly derived from the intercultural encounters between the South Korean personnel and North Korean refugees.  7These outsiders were mostly high-profile nongovernmental organization workers or corporate employees. Typically, their destinations or residency areas were P’yŏngyang (the capital city), Kaesŏng (a North-South joint industrial complex), or Mt. Kŭmgang (a special resort area managed by a South Korean corporation, now closed for years due to South-North political tension). The duration of their work in North Korea, which ranged from two years to more than a decade, consisted mostly of monthly or more frequent visits; in the case of those South Koreans working in the designated areas in the North, they typically resided for several years in close contact with their North Korean counterparts.  8Some of these outsider informants, of international backgrounds in particular, keenly observed that South Koreans essentially share the contrast between “public face” and “pure heart,” though to a much lesser degree. Notwithstanding their “cultural homogeneity,” South Korean informants tended to perceive the North Korean contrast just as sharply as or at times even more so than international informants. Perhaps the very assumption of cultural homogeneity paradoxically betrays to South Koreans the cultural and political divergence the two Koreas have experienced since the national divide.  9While the refugee community is mostly comprised of those from the lower stratum and border region, North Koreans who meet with international and South Korean personnel are most often from the upper-middle strata in the politbureau. With this demographic in mind, I purposefully recruited former professionals (e.g., a writer, doctor, engineer) from P’yŏngyang and other urban areas in order to complement the data obtained from South Koreans working for the refugee community and international and South Korean personnel with work experience in the North.  10The whole research process involved a diffuse number of informants, but the narrative data specifically used for this study were collected from ten North Korean refugees, thirteen South Koreans with experiences with North Korean refugees, and seven international persons and five South Koreans with work experience in North Korea.


    As previously noted, South Korean and international informants frequently spoke of “public face,” to point to a related set of verbal and affective behaviors of North Koreans, such as formality and reservedness in facial expressions and bodily demeanor, stereotypical expressions of loyalty and fierceness, keeping to a predetermined stance with little compromise or flexibility, and quoting from or referring to the Great Father or Dear Leader. Their view was that for public occasions, North Koreans put on a mask, which is uniform and extremely difficult to transcend. Many saw the public face as a “political performance,” alluding to what they perceived as the theatrical nature of a certain act. “[In North Korea] people could be friendly one minute and then suddenly vehemently attacking the next” is a comment that was repeated by several informants almost word for word. Here is an example of the performance of public face, from Tom Anderson,11 an NGO worker in North Korea.

    Did the person mean it, when he uttered the condemnation in a passionate tone? Tom Anderson himself implied that the North Korean had done so less to convey literal meaning than to show off his political stance to his senior.

    Many outsider informants, including Tom Anderson, called the public face a “mask” in the sense that one puts it on to “disjoin a personal identity from the actions being performed” (Honigmann 1977: 277). Although it does not have the physicality of a mask, the affective features of the public face have a stylistic rigidity that functions much like the physical apparatus of a mask. With the mask, one is there but not quite. One is acting, but the action may feel “external” to the self. To those dealing with outsiders, the problem of political appropriateness is extremely serious. Recalling their life in the North, however, refugees offered similar instances of “political acting” that all the involved parties would recognize as such, but still could not help but act in this way. By adopting the public face, North Koreans may strive to reduce their political vulnerability to others and ultimately to the state.

    If one purpose of the public face is to cover, the other is to direct. The public face is not just to profess but more importantly to shape the very mind-heart in accordance with what it professes. It entails performative efforts on the part of its wearer. From the perspective of the North Korean state, this would be the purpose of the public face. The state obliges and commands one to make efforts to “make the outward appearance elicit a desired inner state” (Lindholm 1988: 242). By wearing the public face or following a ritualized code of conduct, one is thus able to craft the “revolutionary mind-heart.” Of course, one can make an appearance without a “desired inner state,” that is, pretend to have certain feelings by acting in a certain way. In a significant sense, the durability of the North Korean state is contingent on the efficacy of the public face as a ritual mask in the continuous shaping and reshaping of the mind-heart of North Koreans.

    When I asked a former military officer and refugee, Yi Hye-soon (Yi Hyesun), of her opinion about the truthfulness of North Koreans’ professed love for their leader, she called my attention to a much-publicized episode during the 2003 Universiade12 held in Daegu (Taegu), South Korea. The then visiting North Korean cheerleaders spotted a welcome banner with the photo of Kim Jong Il, while on a bus. The problem was that it had gotten wet due to the rain. They immediately stopped the bus, ran to the banner, and gingerly rolled it up to carry it into the bus, wiping their tears (Seoul sinmun 2003). Reminding me of the episode, Yi assured me that “it is not a show.” “They are true feelings. I would’ve been even more [upset],” she added. She confided that in her own case, even after having defected to South Korea and become a Christian, she felt a defensive urge when hearing negative comments about the North Korean leaders, though more for Kim Il Sung than for Kim Jong Il.

    Public face is then more for making than for faking. Susanna Johnson, an NGO worker in North Korea, indeed pointed to the performative efforts of the public face:

    Johnson saw as the objective of the public face the delivery of “ritual truth,” which refers to what ought to be, instead of what is, in the service of the face, an ideal, or propaganda. She continued by recounting the following episode:

    Johnson’s understanding was that the North Korean hospital personnel wished to present their patients with a proper and tidy look. It was not an act of deception, but one of respect. What is most notable in Johnson’s accounts is that she perceived a cultural logic running throughout the public face behavior, whether with a foreign benefactor, with the Dear Leader, or with one’s parents: out of reverence, things are presented as they should be.

    As the above quote suggests, not all of the public face behavior would concern the North Korean state per se. I note that South Koreans would recognize in the above episode a ch’emyŏn charida behavior, ch’emyŏn meaning a presentable face by way of dignified conduct. The cultural conceptions of self and public that entail such presentations are certainly shared among people in both Koreas. Yet the North Korean public face so visible in the outsiders’ eyes significantly indexes a “symbiosis between state interests and institutions on one hand, and local understandings of ‘the public’” (Errington 1995: 219) among the people on the other hand. I suspect that political education and surveillance have played a decisive role in the development of the public face, especially in its expression of passionate commitment to the Party and the leader, wrapped in ritualistic formality. By performing the ritualized and formalized code of conduct, one ensures and enhances one’s political worthiness. Thus even at the peak of a food shortage, the statement in a mimetic intonation that “we are being cared for by the Party and Dear Leader” becomes possible. Han Young-sook (Han Yŏngsuk), a former professor from the North, recollected an example of ritual truth delivered in a college lecture room. Here the “Arduous March” period refers to the late 1990s, when food shortage claimed the lives of as many as one million (see Haggard and Noland 2007).

    What mattered in Han’s class was not the reality but the ritual truth, which had to be imparted in a highly stylized and formalized manner. “Local understandings of the public” as the locus of virtue and morality, are drafted to serve the ritual truth of the North Korean state. As a ritual mask, the public face is there to direct and reform North Koreans’ affect and behavior in line with what the North Korean state desires to purport. It is there for the making of the revolutionary mind-heart within each self, but the possibility of faking and its political ramifications lurk behind every instance of the making, a point to which I shall return later.

    11The names of informants are pseudonyms. In addition to using pseudonyms, other identifying features of individuals and organizations are either omitted or altered, to ensure the anonymity of the informants. Note that background information of the quoted informants is provided only minimally, as the issue of confidentiality has potentially serious ramifications in this case.  12An international sports event for university athletes.


    To many of the outsider informants, the public face behavior was even more remarkable in its radical contrast to what they perceived as expressions of chinsim (pure heart, sincere mind, true feeling). Especially those with long-term engagement in the North had things to tell about the “other side” of North Koreans, in the forms of humble gifts, ingenuous gestures, and other poignant acts. These informants seemed to have taken as a heartening reward the rare occasions of “humane” contact. If the public face was the impenetrable and political face, pure heart represented an “unmasked” face of, to some, the “real North Korea.” In the accounts of the “unmasked” behaviors, however, I discerned two distinct varieties of pure heart: intimate sociability and revelation of one’s mind-heart. This distinction is critical, for the former concerns an affective foundation of the North Korean state, and the latter creates a crack in that very affective foundation. Predictably, examples of the former were relatively numerous, whereas instances of the latter were more limited. I point out here that the cultural conception of mind-heart (maŭm, sim) makes possible both aspects of pure heart, which I discuss in more detail in the next section.

    Before I tackle the “hidden” part of mind-heart, I first illustrate what is meant by pure heart in the case of intimate sociability. This “legitimate” kind of pure heart stood out to the outsider informants for its non-theatricality, that is, nonformality, un-ritual-likeness, and, above all, affectionate relationality. For these features, my informants seemed to have experienced pure heart as an antithesis of and an antidote to public face. Below is an episode with rich nuances of a pure heart. Shin Young-soo (Sin Yŏngsu), a South Korean NGO worker, had visited a farm in the North for his aid work.

    The above incident is revealing in several ways. The fact that Shin became tearful shows that Shin was able to understand key features and subtleties of the affective interaction in which he took part. Out of his appreciation for the outside help, the farm supervisor presented a small gift. The gift was soon augmented by the guide, who sympathized with Shin’s friend for his reported longing for his homeland and with Shin for his kindness to a friend. She would have known what such things as roasted chestnuts could mean to those who had spent their childhood in the now forbidden land. For his part, Shin was all too well aware of the dire condition of the food crisis, for which he had visited the farm. That the guide had saved the chestnuts for her children was telling enough, but that she gave them up for an unknown person in the South, on Shin’s behalf, was a generous and genuine act.

    During the entire episode, not one utterance was made to verbalize the sentiments about and mutual understandings of the national division, food crisis, or thankfulness. All the sentiments and understandings were being mediated by the roasted chestnuts as an affective token, although non-verbal signs would have been amply employed during the interaction, as evidenced by Shin’s tears. This is characteristically a chŏng event, in which one ought not (or only minimally) verbalize emotions and thoughts, but at the same time one ought to be in tune with the other in feelings and thoughts. Chŏng (jeong), meaning affection, compassion or loving care, is a fundamental cultural category of affect and relationality to Koreans (see Alford 1999; Kim 1992). It is of “the highest value” among Koreans (Alford 1999: 71). As such, it deeply involves chinsim for the latter is a principal foundation on which to communicate one’s chŏng for the other. From the observational reports of both North Koreans and North Korean refugees, I infer that North Koreans share the cultural models of chŏng and chinsim with South Koreans. What is pronounced in the case of North Koreans is primarily the way in which these cultural models are conjoined with the public and private distinction and drawn on by the state for propaganda.13

    The outsiders’ experiences of North Koreans’ “unmasked” behaviors were more limited to the kind of warmhearted reception that respected guests would receive. But in case of refugees, a wider range of their affective behaviors were noted and attributed to their acting out of pure heart or being “authentic.” A good many comments from South Koreans were that the refugees were delightfully “genuine” and “sincere” on the one hand, and embarrassingly “rude” and “unappreciative” on the other hand, both indicators of pure heart (Jung 2005). From the South Koreans’ perspective, North Koreans may be deeply imbued with chŏng, but their social manners often caused problems. In my experiences with North Korean refugees, I noted that they tended to rely more on affective signs than on a recognizable dramaturgical frame (“manners”) for our encounters. When this communicative mode was coupled with direct (“blunt”) speech, I would feel anxiety as to what I had done to cause it. In such instances, my interlocutor seemed to assume that I had shared with them a certain emotional closeness and embodied understanding about the affective frame of communication. The former professor Han Young-sook explicated the “nontheatricality” of North Koreans’ affective behavior among intimate others, as follows:

    An example of “opening up completely” among friends was offered by Yi Hye- soon: when asked for her opinion, she said to her new South Korean friend that the friend’s hair style was “awful and disgusting,” a forthright response in keeping with the North Korean ethic of pure heart but that nonetheless shocked the new friend. Pure heart or authenticity conceived and practiced in this way is as much about emotional closeness among different selves as about one’s own self. It rests on a communal social space in which selves are conceived as interdependent psychosocial entities, so that affective states flow through selves rather than being contained within each self. To North Korean refugees, pure heart was the defining feature of their affective behavior, with which they differentiated themselves from South Koreans, whom they perceived as “diplomatic” or even “two-faced.”

    There is a temptation to say that public face is political and politicized, but pure heart is not, to suggest that there exists a non-political realm where North Koreans bare their souls. Perhaps such is the case. At the very least, North Koreans certainly seem to have a communal social space in which they enjoy intimacy, candor, and belonging, while they at once rigorously and vigorously observe the code of public and political conduct when it is called for. Yet “pure” as it may be, pure heart bears out the state politics, no less than public face does. At the center of the intimate sociability of North Koreans, the essence of which is summed up as pure heart, lie culturally and politically valorized notions of authenticity, person, and community, which together set up a “non-theatrical” theater of social and political life. I call the intimate social space a non-theatrical theater in order to emphasize the intertwined relationship between the political and the ostensibly non-political. In the next section, I attend to how the nontheatrical helps shape and is shaped by the theatrical. I also discuss the other, “illegitimate” kind of pure heart, in relation to the theatricality of face.

    13The political co-optation appears to have intensified the felt emotions of chŏng among North Koreans whether in a political context or otherwise.


    The point I wish to make here is not that every instance of affection or intimacy is political or politicized, but that communalism in which intimate sociability flourishes has been strengthened and mobilized by the state for ideological purposes. With a caste-like sŏngbun (family background) system and rigid rules for residency rights, North Koreans are extremely limited in their physical and social mobility. They are then likely to live in what Alfred Schutz calls “a community of space and time” as “consociates” rather than as anonymous co-citizens (Errington 1995: 219). Consociates refer to persons who come to have “overlapping, resonating, sometimes conflicting lifeworlds,” from “direct, mutual experience through more or less enduring, more or less dense networks of interaction” (Errington 1995: 219). In the case of North Korea, consociateship involves a strong form of intimate sociability, backed up by the cultural model of affect and human relationality, and promoted by the socialist agenda of the state. It normalizes and embellishes in the “non-theatrical” theater of everyday life, communal processing of affects and direct speech in the name of community, preparing a ground for the theater proper of political life in which the same affective quality of pure heart becomes the political asset of one’s public face.

    Notably, the North Korean “community of space and time” is thoroughly organized for political education and mobilization. It is compulsory for all North Koreans over age 7 to belong to some organizations and to attend a weekly political meeting (saenghwal chonghwa)14 held by a sub-unit of their organization (Cha 2010; Yi and Yi 2010). Refugee informants witnessed that in such political meetings, direct speech with high affectivity prevails, for self-presentation is decisive for one’s political welfare (Jung 2005: 97–98; Lee and Hwang 2008). In each meeting, one is asked to scrutinize one’s deeds of the past week and confess one’s “anti-revolutionary” tendencies, in order to reform one’s mind-heart in the “benevolent bosom of the Mother Party.” One is also asked to point out someone else’s wrong doings, in the name of helping the person reform likewise. Refugee informants testified that in these meetings, participants are told to speak “honestly (soljikhage) and authentically (chinsiltoege).” In being honest and authentic, they are likely to exhibit a high degree of emotionality expressed in confrontational speech and other bodily signs in order to prove their pure heart for the North Korean state.

    Note that in this public arena of political education, pure heart is simultaneously the means and the goal of the education. That is, direct speech and communal processing of affects, which are valued and nurtured as essential elements of intimate sociability among consociates, make up the normative mode of public self-presentation, now to form one’s pure heart for the state.15 This is an illustration of the “ritualization of social intimacy […] and confrontational style typical of the breach and crisis phases of social dramas” (Katriel 2004: 15). In the zealous quest for the authenticity of the statehood and its people, in North Korea communitas is “routinized into the normative structure of social life” (Katriel 2004: 15). In the routine politicizing and ritualizing of intimate sociability in a public arena, the non-theatrical feeds the theatrical, which in turn channels the non-theatrical for the state’s purposes.

    If pure heart serves and is served by the socialist dictates of the state, however, it may also contain elements that undermine these very dictates. In the cultural conception held by South Koreans, chinsim (pure heart) connotes that the public face may not necessarily match one’s true feelings. Sim or maŭm (mindheart), of which chinsim is a sub-category, is malleable and interdependent, but its ultimate agency belongs to the person (Yoo and Choi 2003). Maŭm can be coopted to social, ethical, or political causes, but it may also be separated out and reserved for one’s inner self. Still maŭm ought to be disciplined to orient oneself to the public as the moral order, lest it be left to the private, the lowly dimension of being. It is an ethical imperative to learn to be public, yet the private may claim its place in certain settings and acquire legitimacy, even if it is perceived as lowly. This cultural model of mind-heart and public-private leaves room for the dramaturgical performance of public self: if co-optation is imposed overly or against one’s maŭm, one may resort to the face for a theatrical self-presentation.

    North Koreans appear to share this cultural conception of the complexity of mind-heart and the public-private distinction. Several outsider informants reported that their North Korean acquaintances had confided to them their own (politically dangerous) views or opinions that defied the uprightness of their public face.16 In one exceptional case, the North Korean person made an effort to convey his maŭm to a South Korean counterpart through a secret bodily gesture, in the presence of his colleagues. Especially instructive is that there exists a folk term for acting the public face for political appropriateness: doing ssŏk’ŭl. Ssŏk’ŭl, the word originating from the English word circle, refers to “small grassroots organizations at each workplace functioning for workers’ political education and socialization” in the 1950s and 1960s (Kim 2010: 112). A prime instrument of the political education in such organizations was drama. I infer that from this statesponsored theatrical program a folk behavioral category of doing ssŏk’ŭl is derived to mean performing or feigning to be politically appropriate. This term makes plain the potential for dissonance between face and heart. It points to both the high theatricality of public face and keen awareness, possibly with sarcasm, among North Koreans of the theatrical nature of their public life.

    Kim Cheol-ho (Kim Ch’ŏlho), a refugee and former engineer, maintained that North Koreans’ enthusiasm observed in public rallies is not necessarily about loyalty for the government and leader. In his participation in ceremonial parades, he had experienced intense feelings of pride, exuberance, and awe, but his contention was that they were a “staged effect” of “being together with all those people” with a certain set of props and devices. He claimed that the publicly demonstrated fervor “does not have political content.” “[Everyone], even Kim Jong Il, is like an actor playing his role on the stage,” he said, to underscore the theatricality of the socio-political life and possible gap between stage and life in North Korea.17 Perhaps something like what Alexei Yurchak called “performative shift” in his study of the Soviet period is happening in North Korea as well, such that “diverse, multiple, and unpredictable meanings” are emerging out of the ritualized acts of authoritative discourse (Yurchak 2005: 25).

    More significantly, in light of the persistent food crisis and its political implications, the private appears to have increasingly claimed the mind-heart of the people. Surely the private has long been the “internal enemy” of the North Korean state and its “revolutionary” people. Jae Jean Suh (1995), in his pioneering work on the “social consciousness” of North Koreans, showed that one of the themes most frequently dealt with in North Korean novels is “individualistic” attitudes and behaviors, ranging from tardiness, absenteeism, idleness, and making up excuses, to felt resistance to performing model behavior. Deriving also from North Korean refugees, Suh claimed that North Koreans have developed a “second society” of the private world of bribery, black market, and profit-making enterprises, while trying to keep themselves safe under the state’s watchful surveillance. My refugee informants likewise confirmed that a classic theme of the weekly political meeting is egoistic deeds. Yet the onset of the food crisis in the mid-1990s seems to have brought a new significance to the private, registering it as a mode of survival (Haggard and Noland 2011; Jeong 2009). The private may be still dubbed the spring of egoism and thus reactionary tendencies, but the thriving and de facto legitimatization of private enterprises in recent years is telling enough about its changing position in the mind-heart of the people18 (Park 2010).

    14The cycle of the political meeting varies from two days to ten days, depending on the political significance of the group (the more significant the group is, the more frequently the meetings occur), but a week is the norm (Lee and Hwang 2008). Saenghwal ch’onghwa can be translated as “daily life review meeting.”  15I note that not all the affective features of pure heart are politically utilized. As the example of chŏng event involving roasted chestnuts shows, in intimate interactions pure heart may not be verbalized at all but be indexed otherwise. In contrast, when pure heart is utilized for political purposes, it is likely to be explicitly verbalized and referred to by ritualized language and bodily gestures (for the indexical and referential use of language, see Silverstein 1976).  16It appears in some cases that the North Koreans used their “pure heart” as a strategic act to win the heart of their counterpart and thus accomplish their public task.  17As illustrated earlier, the former military officer, Yi Hye-soon, had asserted deep seated-feelings of loyalty to the leader. To her, face and heart seemed to have matched each other. I view that the efficacy of public face as a ritual mask likely differs along the lines of social standing and access to information about the outside world.  18It is interesting to note that women have formed major actors of private enterprises after the economic crisis in the 1990s (Lee 2006; Park 2010), implying the significance of gender in utilizing the private.


    Perhaps then it is not news that in North Korea there is virtually no public sphere in the Habermasian sense. In North Korea, the public does not exist as “the sphere of private people coming together as a public […] to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor” (Habermas 1989: 27). Rather the public to North Koreans is a sociopolitical domain derived from the state, a code of conduct, and a state of mind-heart, all at once. As a domain, it belongs to the North Korean state. As such, it involves a moral and political code of conduct that dictates behavior and affect. Most importantly, the public entails a state of mind-heart that is materialized in and achieved through one’s conduct. The public functions as a symbolic order through which statehood is embodied in and enacted by individual North Koreans. In a nutshell, the public constitutes the ideal mode of being in the world vis-à-vis the North Korean state and leader.

    I consider that the public as conceived and practiced in North Korea is significantly founded on the Confucian notions of public and holy rite, which are further articulated as well as circumscribed by the conditions of the socialist polity.19 In the Confucian tradition of East Asia, the nature of the public has long been intensely debated and richly articulated, in the center of which lies the public’s relationship to the private (see Kim 2002; Mizoguchi 2004a, 2004b; Rankin 1993; Rowe 1990, 1993). In the case of Korea, during the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), the public (kong) referred to the common good, fairness, or heavenly way, on the one hand, and office, political authority, or the state, on the other, while the private (sa) pertained to the individual and personal (Kim 2002). This conception of the public is in turn based on the Confucian conception of community as the locus of human virtue and holiness, in contrast to the egoistic tendencies of the individual (Fingarette 1998; Hall and Ames 1987). It is noted that family as the primary human community was regarded as the starting point in which to realize the public (Kim 2002: 65–67). In the modern trajectory of the concept in North Korea, however, it appears that the former dimension (the common good, fairness, heavenly way) has been submerged by the latter (office, political authority, the state).20 I infer that this totalized conception of the public still sees family as its starting point, and encompasses a range of social units from family to the state ultimately creating a “family-state” (for the thesis of family-state, see Cumings 2005; Kang 2001; Lee 1976; also Armstrong 2005).

    In approaching the theatricality of the public behavior of North Koreans, noted by outsiders time and again, it is critical to understand the sacredness of the public in their society. To North Koreans, public behavior is a statement of reverence and loyalty to their nation-state and the leader, the holy and its personified emblem, much in a Durkheimian fashion (Durkheim 1995).21 The public in North Korea necessitates what Catherine Bell calls “ritualization” as a strategic way of acting for “creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’” (Bell 1992: 74). The public-cum-state is fervently marked, sustained, and bolstered by the ritual apparatus, ranging from bodily manners to ceremonies, parades, and mass gymnastics. My discussion of North Koreans’ affective behavior illuminates “[t]he strategies of ritualization [that] are particularly rooted in the body, specifically, the interaction of the social body within a symbolically constituted spatial and temporal environment” (Bell 1992: 93). The Confucian emphasis on achieving “through ritual, gesture and incantation” spiritual nobility and becoming a worthy member of the sacred order of the community (Fingarette 1998: 3) is not only alive and well but also maximally exploited by the North Korean state.

    There have been attempts to take theatricality as a key to understanding North Korea. Most notably, Haruki Wada (2002) cautiously applied Geertz’s conception of theater state (Geertz 1980) in his explication of the North Korean statecraft, for its disproportionate reliance on ceremonials and rituals. Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung (2012) went further to define North Korea as a modern theater state, in their attempt to explain the consolidation of the hereditary leadership by Kim Jong Il (see also Medlicott 2005). Suk-Young Kim, in her study of propaganda theater arts, similarly called North Korea “a theatrical state par excellence” for the preoccupation with presenting an idealized self-assessment (Kim 2010: 14). While pointing out theatricality as a prima facie feature of North Korea, these studies commonly treat it as a creative, even if oppressive, work by the North Korean state. The excessive appropriation of theater arts for governance by the North Korean state surely comes in part from the socialist affinity to popular arts and propaganda efforts (Shin 2001). Yet theatricality in North Korea needs to be seen more in light of the “behavioral environment” of the self (Hallowell 1955), of the affective-behavioral context of the everyday social field. My contention is that the cultural notions and social practices, including pure heart, that are drawn upon to create the public sphere constitute an important foundation upon which the state crafts its governing art. The outcome of a fit between the cultural notion of the public and the state’s interests is the amplification in volume and extension in reach of theatricality in North Korea.

    19I note that for the socialist political conditions, the public life in North Korea shares certain features with the one in the USSR (see Crowley and Reid 2002; Oswald and Voronkov 2004; Siegelbaum 2006; Yurchak 2005).  20In contemporary South Korea, it appears that the potential tension between the two aspects of the public has been increasingly recognized and mobilized by a growing civil society.  21It is noted that the North Korean statehood operates as a political religion (Armstrong 2005; Jung 2012; Shin 2007), in which the leader is rendered “holy” as an object of religious worship (for the case of Mao Zedong in China, see Barmé 1996; Landsberger 1996).


    I started this article with perhaps the most pressing question about the people of North Korea. Is their public face only a “mask”? Or are they living in a “utopian union” between their leader and themselves so that what their face shows is also their psychic reality? This question of course invites many further questions, particularly about the role of human agency in North Korea. I have addressed these issues by examining the modes of behavior of North Koreans as embedded in the social space in which they live their everyday lives, including their political lives. “The social space” in this case goes only as far as could be inferred at a distance, relying on ethnographic interviews with North Korean refugees and outsiders with work experience in North Korea, as well as my own interactions with refugees. In examining the social field of North Korean life, my focus was on its affective quality and constructing of the public, in particular reference to the political dictate of the North Korean state.

    My entry point to North Korean society and its people was a bifurcation in the mode of self-presentation of North Koreans: a “masked” presentation for those contexts deemed political and public and an “un-masked” one for acting outside these designated public arenas. This bifurcation incorporates a high degree of theatricality via ritualistic formality in the public contexts and a high degree of non-theatricality via intimate sociability in the latter; in sum, “public face” and “pure heart.” To many outsiders, if public face exhibited the grip of iron rule, pure heart evinced the “real,” “non-political” North Korea, somehow untouched by state politics. Yet I have demonstrated that pure heart as the embodiment of intimate sociability hinges on the political crusade of the state no less than public face does, despite its humane appeal. As such it is as much a culturally patterned and politically valorized mode of self-presentation as public face is.

    The two modes of self-presentation, “masked” face and “unmasked” face, are then not so much in opposition to as in support of each other. Normatively, the purpose of the public face is to shape a pure heart for the public-cum-state by way of ritualized acts and thus to mark the sanctity of the public-cum-state, while the authenticity of a pure heart provides an affective foundation for public order. The public grows out of and is abstracted from the general social field, where intimate sociability pervades with such cultural categories as chŏng and chinsim as its affective-behavioral currency. Notwithstanding the apparent difference in theatricality in the mode of self-presentation, the theater proper of political life derives both its goals and means from the “non-theatrical” theater of intimate sociability, as well as from the cultural repertoire involving the public as the sacred order. That is, the public domain takes the promoting of pure heart for the state as its primary goal, for which some of the affective-behavioral characteristics of pure heart are endorsed and encouraged as the means of revolutionizing (purifying) one’s heart.

    The case of North Korea, as I have discussed, illustrates the interweaving of public order, communal sociability, and private self into the tapestry of a familial state and thus the mutual constituting of the political structure of a society and the mind-heart of its people. Of course, that the public order is founded on the performance of certain affective behaviors or that one’s identity is shaped by political structure is not unique to North Korea. What is unique in the case of North Korea concerns the particular local character of the drama staged between human agency and political structure, which centers on the cultural notions of public and private and mind-heart as well as the reality of political repression.

    To North Koreans, to whom theatrical self-presentation is not just a concern of propriety but crucially one of political safety, human agency presents a profoundly existential question. From the state’s perspective, it is for the people’s benefit that they make their face and their mind-heart one and the same, believe in the utopian vision of the state, and thus live “happily.” Instances of high theatricality of face and hence the disparity between face and mind-heart, however, allude to the workings of human agency in conflict with political dictates. Interestingly, if the cultural notions of public and private and mind-heart are exploited by the state for its utopian vision, the same notions can be appropriated for at least deflecting the state’s efforts. The creativity of the modern state may then prove precarious in proportion to the degree of co-optation it requires in its heavy reliance on theatricality. The North Korean state has carried the human capacity of theatricality to such an extreme that the issue of human agency ironically stands out to its purported actors. A possibility is that the public face is increasingly trapped in a closed circuit of endless representations of the public as the sacred, with an ever widening distance from the mind-heart.

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