North Korean National Identity, Expressed Through Postage Stamps, 1948-1970 (Chapter 3)

Science / Archives

[David Hall’s undergraduate thesis “North Korean National Identity, Expressed Through Postage Stamps, 1948-1970” is published in full on the KSS website. This is “Chapter Three – North Korea and the Changing Nature of East Asia, 1963-1970”.] Due to North Korea’s successful economic recovery and Kim Il-sung’s consolidation of power through Juche and purges, North Korea became economically and politically stable to face changes in East Asia. North Korea was politically stable enough to resist influence from China’s Cultural Revolution, using nationalism as a shield. 

North Korea escaped the threat of historical and cultural destruction that China experienced, allowing it to maintain its historical legitimacy as the rightful Korea. In addition, South Korean General Park Chung-hee’s military coup and subsequent government in South Korea allowed for the development of North Korean anti-American/imperialist identity. This resulted in physical attacks against South Korea and America by North Korea.

Once the tensions of the 1956 Plenum Incident wore off, China and North Korea resumed amicable relations. They were observed by East German ambassador to North Korea Kurt Schneidewind in 1963 as being close, due to their historic ties, North Korea’s economic reliance on its communist allies, and their expressions of un-Marxist, Stalinist-style policies.70 By this, Schneidewind meant both China and North Korea resisted Khrushchevian revisionism that aimed to remove personality cults from communist leaderships.

However, once the decade long Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966, relations between China and North Korea worsened. The aims of the revolution were to remove the four olds; old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.71 This meant cultural artefacts such as antiques, books, and structures were targeted by the Red Guards for destruction. This led to a worsening of relations between China and North Korea and a resurgence of North Korean nationalist identity because Kim Il-sung relied on Korean history for legitimacy. Therefore, Kim Il-sung was unwilling to implement the Cultural Revolution in North Korea which led to a series of verbal attacks between Chinese and North Korean leaders.

In 1966, Kim Il-sung made his first public criticism against the Chinese leadership, arguing against their ‘nihilistic attitude towards national cultural heritage’.72 This shows that preservation of national heritage remained important to Kim Il-sung. The desire to preserve Korean culture and heritage is further shown by Kim Il-sung severing cultural exchanges with China.73 By doing this, Kim Il-sung reduced Chinese ideology surrounding the Cultural Revolution in North Korea.

Figure 14 – [set of 3] ‘Art Treasures of the Silla Dynasty’, 30 April 1966, APC.
However, before Kim Il-sung made his first public criticism against China, a resurgence of North Korean nationalism was present in philately. Figure 14 shows a selection of Korean celadon, known as cheongja, from the late Silla Dynasty, a pre-unified Korean kingdom 668-935 AD. These depictions of ancient Korean pottery, ‘long regarded as the finest pottery in the world’,74 shows a resurgence of nationalism in North Korean identity because it represents an appreciation and recognition of history. This is important because placing these images on stamps, North Korea showed respect for its national history, unlike in China where they probably would have been destroyed. Furthermore, this showed a top-down resurgence of nationalism because these stamps acted as non-verbal commands to North Koreans, not to engage in cultural destruction.

Kim Il-sung’s verbal attacks on the Chinese leadership did not go without response. Red Guards launched verbal counter-attacks on the North Korean leadership, criticising Kim Il-sung’s leadership during the Korean War. They argued he waged the war to fulfil his personal ambitions rather than to aid the struggle of global socialism.75 This shows that if Cultural Revolution ideology spilled into North Korea, the masses could have revolted against Kim Il-sung’s leadership and Korean cultural history, a vital pillar on which Kim Il-sung legitimised his government over the supposed puppet government in South Korea.

Figure 15 – ‘The 56th Anniversary of the Birth of Kim Il Sung’, 15 April 1968, APC.

However, after physical attacks on South Korea in 1968, China-North Korea relations normalised. Zhou Enlai wrote to Kim Il-sung in March 1968, two months after the attacks on South Korea, that the previous criticisms made by the Red Guards did not reflect the attitudes of the Chinese leadership towards Korea.76 Zhou Enlai also stated trade and cultural exchanges would resume between the two countries.77 This is important because it affected Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality, altering how his veneration was incorporated into North Korea’s national identity. The month after Zhou Enlai’s letter, North Korea issued Figure 15, a stamp depicting Kim Il-sung in a pose resembling that of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square, showing the impact of resumed cultural exchanges between the two countries on Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality.

The series of physical attacks against South Korea in 1968 demonstrated the return of anti-imperialism/Americanism to North Korean identity. The return of this factor to the forefront of North Korean identity came after General Park Chung-hee’s seizure of power in South Korea following a military coup on 17 December 1963.

Kim Il-sung declared America ‘aligned the forces of Japanese militarism with the south Korean puppets’,78 referring to the fact that Park Chung-hee was a former officer in the Japanese army during their occupation of Korea. This was significant because there was a direct and visible link that could be made between the South Korean government and historic imperial oppression of Koreans, something Kim Il-sung used to his political advantage.

Figure 16 – ‘Uprising of 1919’, 10 February 1964, APC.

Two months after Park’s seizure of power, North Korea issued Figure 16, a stamp commemorating the March 1919 uprising, a mass protest against Japanese rule in Korea. This stamp served as a statement of anti-imperialism, showing North Korea would fight against the return of Japanese imperialism, Park Chung-hee was seen as the enabler of Japanese imperialism returning to Korea.

Sentiments of anti-Americanism further intensified after Park’s coup and were also beneficial to Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality. The year after Park’s coup, North Korea issued Figure 17, a stamp commemorating the 1866 General Sherman Incident, where Koreans attacked and destroyed the American ship General Sherman for illegally entering and refusing to leave Korean waters. This shows the return of anti-American identity because it celebrates the repelling of American forces, suggesting Koreans would not hesitate to do the same again to drive American influence out of the peninsula. On the other hand, the commemoration of this incident bolstered Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality because North Koreans are taught it was Kim’s paternal great-grandfather, Kim Ung-u, who led the attack,79 showing Kim Il-sung had a familial legacy of successful anti-American activity. This, coupled with the idea that South Korea was ruled by an American backed Japanese imperialist set the stage perfectly for the January 1968 incidents.

Figure 17 – ‘The “General Sherman” Incident, 1866’, 28 September 1964, APC.

The culmination of these anti-imperialist/American sentiments resulted in two physical attacks on South Korea and America in January 1968; the USS Pueblo Incident, and the Blue House Raid. The year before these incidents, Kim Il-sung declared the ‘dying hour of imperialism draws closer’, 80 showing his desire to once again liberate South Korea by force.

The first incident occurred 5 January, the USS Pueblo Incident. North Korea captured the American spy ship and detained its crew of eighty-three, who were collecting data on North Korean water depths and coastal defences.81 This incident helped to solidify North Korea’s anti-American identity because it demonstrated a successful North Korean defence of its country. This also helped to strengthen Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality in North Korean identity because, like Kim Ung-u, he attacked an American ship, showing a continuation of anti-American tradition.

Even though this incident helped build anti-American sentiments and Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality, it was not immediately commemorated in postage stamps. The reason for this was probably because America placed immense international pressure on North Korea to release the crew and return the ship,82 Kim Il-sung did not want to provoke an armed response or take his allies into another armed conflict. However, the incident was later commemorated, as shown by Figure 18.

Figure 18 – ‘Month of Struggle Against the USA’, 25 June 2008, APC.

The second incident occurred on 21 January, the Blue House Raid. This was an attempted assassination of Park Chung-hee by North Koreans.83 Although the attempt failed, it presented North Korean identity as violently anti-imperialist/Americanist. This is because the attempted assassination of a former Japanese officer and American backed president of South Korea, demonstrated North Korea was willing to forcibly reunify the country.

Although this event was not commemorated on postage stamps, probably because it failed, the anti-American backdrop to it was. Following the failed assassination attempt, Kim Il-sung declared consumerism and jazz, elements of Americanism, were part of South Korean culture and formed a cult of American worship there.84 In response to this, he ordered ‘this practice of hindering the development of our national culture, as well as that of distorting the history of our nation’ should be fought against.85 This is significant in the development of North Korea’s anti-American identity because it recognised American culture had deeply permeated South Korean culture, showing reunification would be harder than ever.

Figure 19 – ‘Anti-US Imperialism Journalists Conference, Pyongyang’, 18 September 1969, APC.

The year after this speech, North Korea issued Figure 19, a stamp showing five pens, representing the five continents, stabbing Richard Nixon. This shows anti-Americanism because it identifies and attacks the enemy, Richard Nixon represented America and Americanism. However, this also shows a regression from physical attacks, showing that Americanism would be defeated through socialist intellectualism rather than physical force. This coincides with Kim Il-sung’s 1968 speech, as he required intellectuals to combat Americanism though teaching and writing.

By 1970, North Korean history had remained intact following the Chinese Cultural Revolution, whose objectives had failed to take root in North Korea. By using nationalist identity, Kim Il-sung preserved Korean artefacts through venerating them in propaganda. Furthermore, although China-North Korean relations worsened at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, they were normalised after North Korea’s attacks on South Korea and America in 1968. These attacks show North Korea resumed its policy of forceful reunification. However, after a failed assassination attempt of South Korea’s president, this was brought back to verbal and written attacks.

Footnotes

(Numbering continued from Chapter 2)

  1. Kurt Schneidewind, ‘The Influence of the Chinese Communist Party on the Policy of the Korean Workers’ Party’, 8 April 1963, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/110111> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  2. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), p. 575.
  3. Memo by A. Borunkov, 2 December 1966, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/114591> [accessed 8 February 2018].
  4. Memo by A. Borunkov, 30 December 1966, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/1166692> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  5. Melanie Guile, Culture in North and South Korea (Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 2003), p. 29.
  6. Report from the HE-C to HFM, 20 November 1967, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/116664> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  7. Report by EGE-P, 3 March 1968, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/116655> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  8. Ibid.
  9. ‘The Present Situation and the Tasks of Our Party’, 5 October 1966, Works IV, p. 335.
  10. Baek Man Gyong, Victory of Juche (1972), pp. 14-18.
  11. ‘Let us Intensify the Anti-Imperialist, Anti-US Struggle’, 12 August 1967, Works IV, pp. 538-539.
  12. Czechoslovak Government, ‘Information about the Situation in Korea’, 4 February 1968, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/114572> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  13. Record of conversation between Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko and Kang Cheol-geon, 31 January 1968, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/110506> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  14. Telegram from RE-P to RFM, 22 January 1968, WCDA <http://digitalarchive.wilsoncentre.org/document/113939> [accessed 7 February 2018].
  15. ‘On Correctly Implementing our Party’s Policy Towards Intellectuals’, 14 June 1968, Works V, p. 125.
  16. Ibid.
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David Hall
MA History and Korean student at SOAS. Collecting interests are North Korea 1945-present. Undergraduate dissertation written on North Korean postage stamps, 1948-1970.

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