When the crucial years after the Korean War are remembered today, histories about North Korea largely recount a grand epic of revolution centering on the ascent of Kim Il Sung to absolute power. Often overshadowed in this storyline, however, are the myriad ways the Korean population participated in party-state projects to rebuild their lives and country after the devastation of the war. North Korea’s Mundane Revolution traces the origins of the country’s long-term durability in the questions that Korean women and men raised about the modern individual, housing, family life, and consumption. Using a wide range of overlooked sources, Andre Schmid examines the formation of a gendered socialist lifestyle in North Korea by focusing on the localized processes of socioeconomic and cultural change. This style of “New Living” replaced radical definitions of gender and class revolution with the politics of individual self-reform and cultural elevation, leading to a depoliticization of the country’s political culture in the very years that Kim Il Sung rose to power.

Andre Schmid is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.

What motivated you to write this topic?

Frustration. There is so little history written about North Korea that gets outside the usual over-emphasis on the Kim family, nuclear weapons, and human rights – and even these three subjects are usually written about in an ahistorical, often cartoonish manner.

This also meant I had little in the way of alternatives to offer my students. It is easy to critique but much less easy to do the work to get outside received narratives. For me, the book was a process of unlearning as a way of getting answers for all the questions my students were asking me for which I had no answers. The book only got me partially there!

What do many histories about North Korea overlook or get wrong about the years that Kim II Sung rose to power?

One of the major problems is that Kim’s rise to power is often simply reduced to a jockeying for power with his rivals. That’s certainly part of the story. Yet it leaves out the complexity of the political economy, the rebuilding of the state apparatus after its destruction during the war, and the depoliticization of two of the key categories for contemporary critique: class and gender. There is also a tendency to except Kim Il Sung from the era’s discursive environment as if he was able to build a unique guiding ideology – what he called Juche — all on his own. He was, in fact, very much a product of his times and, like everyone else, immersed in the discourse of the moment.

What was one of the most surprising insights from your research?

The humor and political satire of cartoonists in this era! That’s why I couldn’t help but include illustrations in the book, especially the ones that made me laugh or pushed boundaries.

What sources do you draw on for the book?

My goal was to pull as much as possible from what urban residents would read in the course of their daily lives. When I began the project, I never thought there would be more available than I could possibly read. That meant cutting corners – leaving out literature was one cost – while foregrounding newspapers, magazines, monographs. In the end, the book makes references to over 30 serials and ranges through worker memoirs, university law textbooks, and etiquette guides to name a few.

Can you describe your “New Living”?

The ‘New Living’ as a term was not unique to North Korea. It had a prehistory in the colonial era, appeared widely in early 20th century China and Japan, and was even for a short time used in South Korea. In each of these cases it was mobilized differently, yet always in the sense of the need to reform the ways people lived for some greater, usually national(ist), goal. Just what directions those reforms would go – that was one of the big political questions of the day.

In North Korea, this preexisting term took on an especially powerful position in defining the content of what would be seen as socialist living. Yet precisely because of this prehistory, the New Living was not always so new. Ironically, it became a vehicle through which received forms of living where conjoined and sublimated within socialist living, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

What is the key insight you hope Asian studies scholars and students will take away from your book?

North Korea was and is a complex society that doesn’t need a special Cold War style of investigation. It can be studied through the mountains of materials available to us with the regular disciplinary methodologies of the humanities and social sciences. Whatever you want to say about the cult of personality, the history of the country rests squarely within the flows of 20th century peninsular, regional, and global histories. We only need to draw these connections out rather that repeat the ahistorical stories about its unique, out-of-history bizarreness. This is especially important to remember given how often North Korea appears in the media and how many crucial decisions relating to the country are taken in the United States.