The Flower Girl and the Japanese Annexation of Korea

The hero and her younger sister, from The Flower Girl

We're looking at the historical roots of North Korea's conflict with the rest of planet Earth. We'll be paying a lot of attention to the horrific human cost of the Korean War, which began in 1950 and has never actually ended (this explains a lot about why North Korea feels so threatened today).

But the war we know as the "Korean War" was actually the third Korean War of the last 120 years, as the roots of extreme tragedy and violence in Korea are usually traced back to 1895. This was the year that Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War and began exerting control over the geographically strategic peninsula of Korea.

Before this, Korea had spent many centuries in relative peace and prosperity under the Joseon Kingdom, which ruled by Confucian precepts. But Korea also lived in global seclusion, and did not strive to keep up with the cultural changes of its time. Before 1895, Korea's closest ally was its large land neighbor, China.

Perhaps it is because Korea was geographically surrounded by its strong three neighbors China, Russia and Japan that it tended to rely on its allies for military and diplomatic strength, rather than developing its own power base or foreign policy. This inaction during an era of major global change would lead to a series of disasters for the Korean people. The First Sino-Japanese War of 1895 was the first (but not the last) conflict in which other nations would fight proxy campaigns against each other by wrestling for control of the Korean peninsula. There were three major Korean Wars between 1895 and 1953, but none of the three were fought for the welfare of the Korean people.

After Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War, the island kingdom began insisting on a stronger Japanese orientation to Korea's trade and policies. Russia also began to compete with Japan for influence in Korea, and in 1905 Russia and Japan fought the Russo-Japanese War (which could be called the second of the three Korean Wars). This led to another great military victory by Japan, which destroyed Russia's navy. The victory in the Russo-Japanese War began a new era of aggressive Japanese domination over East Asia and the Pacific islands.

In 1910 Japan officially annexed the entire nation of Korea, and began to incorporate all of Korea's geographical and human resources into its own growing infrastructure. Korea had existed as a culture, a language and an identity for more than a thousand years, but Japan now exerted its strength (and enacted policies of cruel exploitation and suppression) to wipe Korea off the map.

Sadly, the United States of America was complicit in Japan's occupation and oppression of Korea. This is the subject of an excellent book called The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley, which describes the peace settlement to the Russo-Japanese War negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. This peace treaty was so popular at the time that Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for it.

But it was a careless and broad peace, and ultimately a destructive one. It awarded the entire nation of Korea to Japan as a prize of war.

The sadistic privations and dehumanizations inflicted upon the Korean people before the Japanese empire imploded in World War Two was similar to those suffered by the Jews and Poles and Ukranians of Central Europe during the same interwar decades. Korea remained completely under Japan's domination until the very end of the Second World War, and was forced to support Japan in this war with slave soldiers, slave laborers and, especially sadly, comfort women.

An unusual perspective on the trauma suffered by the Korean people under Japan's thumb can be gained by watching a surprisingly moving 1972 movie called The Flower Girl, which is widely known and celebrated within North Korea. A western viewer might expect this film to be a banal propagandistic sop, especially since the original opera the film is based on was allegedly written by North Korea's founder and first dictator Kim Il-Sung. The movie was also produced by Kim Jong-Il, son of North Korea's founder, who would eventually become the country's second leader as well as father of the current leader Kim Jong-un.

An opera or film script written by a Communist dictator and produced by that dictator's son may not seem to promise much. I only intended to give the film five minutes when I began watching it on YouTube ... and then I was captivated by the gentle photography, warm acting and bearably schmaltzy music, which was really no worse than Celine Dion or Idina Menzel. I was most struck by the story's somber and serious tone, and by a key plot similarity to the Hunger Games trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins (I've written about these excellent movies on my other blog). As I settled in to watch the whole film, allowing myself to get drawn into the intense and emotional setting, it occurred to me that The Flower Girl may express the same anthemic cultural solidarity and determination for North Koreans that Hunger Games expresses for western citizens today.

Like Katniss Everdeen, The Flower Girl's Kotpun is a morose adolescent girl who discovers the depth of her inner powers when she is called upon to protect her vulnerable younger sister during the era of the Japanese occupation. Her sister Sun-Hui, the Primrose of this story, was blinded by the selfish and vile landlady who exploits many of the Koreans whose lives they control. The landlady and her husband live in an elegant house decked out in Japanese style, and are obviously empowered and enriched by the Japanese usurpers of the Korean land. The Korean villagers live in humble poverty and strive for daily survival, avoiding contact with the cruel landowners — until they are pushed too far, at which point the symbolic revolutionary clash that ends The Flower Girl finally explodes.

It's fascinating that The Flower Girl embodies the spirit of North Korean resistance, anger and pride in the spirit of a quiet, vulnerable but powerful teenage girl, who finally gets in touch with her inner rage by the end of the movie (spoiler alert: the good Korean villagers do finally prevail). Katniss Everdeen has her quiver of arrows, and Kotpun has her basket of flowers. A young actress named Yong Hui Hong is quite effective in the title role, and certainly manages to embody her character completely and convincingly. Even a cynical western cinephile who might scoff at a North Korean propaganda movie written by a Communist dictator might melt a bit by the time this surprisingly elegant and well-designed film ends.

Perhaps the most surprising takeaway from this movie, other than the fact that North Korean melodrama can be just as emotionally powerful as Hollywood melodrama, is the extent of bottomless rage towards Japan that permeates its plot and events. We don't see actual Japanese characters in The Flower Girl, just evil landowners empowered by the Japanese. But the subtitles for the version of the film on YouTube refers often to "Japs", and no opportunity is wasted to remind the viewers that the landlords are empowered by the Japanese rulers, who have left all the Korean people landless and helpless in their own home.

What can we glean about North Korea's understanding of its own identity from this obviously symbolic and famous film? Here are a few more takeaways:

  • Korea is seen as unified in The Flower Girl. The enemy is not South Korea but Japan. We can see the inevitable villainous "imperialist running dogs" (a favorite North Korean phrase) represented in this film, but the villains are not characterized as representing a different national vision of Korea. They are simply corrupt and selfish neighbors who benefit by collaborating with Korea's occupiers.
  • North Korea sees itself as graceful, patient, long-suffering. Young actress Yong Hui Hong's expressive face radiates a graceful beauty and saintly goodness, though she appears significantly altered at a single moment towards the end of the film when she finally and briefly unleashes her rage.
  • North Korea sees itself as family-oriented. Kotpun and her blind sister and badly overworked mother are completely driven by love for each other and desire to help each other. Kotpun's brother is presented as a more worldly figure when he finally shows up, but even he is steadfast in his love of family above all else.
  • North Korea believes itself justified in violence and rage against the type of villainy embodied by Japan. The small and local battle that concludes this film is a microcosm of a violent revolution.

It's noteworthy that this film was made in 1972, long after Japan's annexation of Korea had been completely invalidated and reversed. By 1972 there were many other enemies for North Korea to propagandize against. And yet one of North Korea's proudest film productions is the story of an enemy that was defeated nearly three decades before.

In fact, North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung began his career not as a Communist doctrinaire but as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in Manchuria. How can non-Koreans who wish to understand the history and character of the troubled nation of North Korea better understand the ways in which forty years of Japanese oppression might have influenced the mindset that still grips North Korea today?

If we don't begin to better understand Korean history in its own terms, we may never be able to bridge the tremendous communication gap that currently exists between North Korea and the rest of the world. For anybody with two hours to spare, I'd suggest a bag of popcorn and a sympathetic viewing of The Flower Girl. Sure, it's Communist propaganda, but it's far from the worst movie many of us are likely to see this month.

All too often, we imagine North Korea as an alien capitol of cold terror. The Flower Girl helps us understand that North Koreans may view themselves simply as something more like the long-suffering citizens of District Twelve, and indeed that may be what they are.