What does modernity represent? There are various kinds of societies in the world such as socialism, capitalism, and communism, so each society must have different goals to reach and different political systems and would have developed in different ways. Thus, it is difficult to determine if a country is modern or unmodern. This question is one of the agendas in Suzy Kim’s book Everyday Life in The North Korean Revolution. To find the definition of modernity, she gains a deep insight into history of North Korea. When it comes to history, many people may come up with historical events such as wars or political movements.
On the other hand, she doesn’t always look at these things, but mainly focuses on how everyday life in North Korea has changed through history, which is one of the characteristics of her book. By looking at how everyday life of women and peasants were modernized, it is understandable that Suzy Kim tries to persuade that North Korea achieves socialist modernity, but it seems that it isn’t sure if North Korea is an uniquely modern country because it is problematic to define what modernity actually means from the perspectives of comparing the circumstances in the past and the present in North Korea.
That women’s everyday life has changed remarkably represents one of the reasons why she thinks North Korea seems a modern country. The changes about literacy and election bring into clear interpretation of women’s everyday life. First, the number of literate women has dramatically increased. To be specific, out of ten, nine women were illiterate in 1945. Literacy Campaign helped them study even though they lived far away from school by giving them one-on-one instructor (Kim, 102). Thus, the number of illiterate people had decreased by approximately half in 1949 (Kim, 103).
Even though they used to be unable to write and read, they have acquired enough language skills and made it possible to express their opinions in public. This is one of the women’s greatest accomplishments in North Korean history. By contrast, there was also an issue in women’s life. It has been easier for women in North Korea to be elected and become members of government because of high literacy rate. At the same time, however, working outside of the house was criticized. The reason was that this situation made men have housework on behalf of their wives. This issue can relate to the present in North Korea.
Even now, men in North Korea are supposed to work early morning. Sometimes their works are unsalaried, but following the policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea by working in the morning is considered as a men’s optimal role (Lee, 2015). Thus, this situation pushes their wives in North Korea to their houses. Furthermore, women cannot have opportunities to work, so the number of male workers in factories is nine times bigger than the number of female workers (Lee, 2015). People are limited by stereotypes toward women and women and men have to be in charge of different roles. This circumstance hasn’t changed for a long time ago.
As a result, it seems hard to consider North Korea as a modern country because of inequality of gender. Peasant’s everyday life is deeply related to North Korea’s modernity because peasants could have more integrated lives than they used to have by carrying out land reform and reorganization of the electoral system. Through land reform, confiscated lands were distributed to peasants for free. It was banned to sell these lands so that they could avoid feudal society that had two classes such as owners and labors. This reform made the society that everyone had the relatively same level of living.
Moreover, rural committees played the role which gave peasants opportunities to participate in activities a society. However, reorganization of electoral system doesn’t prove that North Korea is a completely modern country. It is true that workers and peasants were able to have recommendations for election, but the number of recommendations from them was just one, whereas the number of people in upper class was two (Kim, 110). It is clear that peasants didn’t have the same right as other population, which was one problem of peasants and factor of unmodern country. They didn’t have equality, so it is not possible to say it’s modern.
North Korea of today also has an issue of inequality because of different statuses. The economic gap between upper and lower classes has been wider. To be specified, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, has three times bigger GDP than other areas (Shim, 2016). In addition, twelve percent of people who are 20-59 years old are unemployed (Shim, 2016). These facts make people in North Korea have inequality depending on the economic situations. To sum up, Even now people in North Korea have issues about the topic that was controversial in the past, so it is difficult to determine what modernity is and if North Korea has accomplished modernity.
Suzy Kim’s book makes me think about the true meaning of modernity, whereas Edward Said’s article Orientalism also seems to give people opportunities to search for what Orientalism is. He points out that Orientalism has several meanings. For example, Western people use Orientalism to control, reconstruct, and take over the Orient in many ways, such as political, social, military, ideological, scientific, and imaginative ways (Said, 3) Thus, Orientalism is not the word that can be easily represented by one definition.
Like Orientalism, modernity is also a complicated concept that has ambiguity even though we try to figure it out through history. In conclusion, seeing both of progresses and problems of everyday life of women, and peasants in North Korea and connecting them with the constant situations in the present make it understandable that modernity is a complicated concept that it is hard to describe still now. Suzy Kim tries to say that North Korea gets modernity by seeing that each citizen could be involved in their society through her book, but if North Korea is modern is not sure because they have struggling against inequality of gender and status.
As Charles Armstrong says that existence of North Korea can be described by the words “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or a fiction that they actually control and represent the entire peninsula” (Armstrong, 202), a concept or a certain thing cannot easily be represented by one definition. In addition, Suzy Kim’s book makes people think about their own everyday life. Her message could be that learning North Korean history is important because history gives them opportunities not only to learn the backgrounds of a country, but also to think about their existence by connecting history and their present lives.