In reading about North Korea, you are bound to at some point heard of a story described as “The Flower Girl“. Written by Kim Il Sung in 1930s Manchuria, the Flower Girl is a theatrical play and later a film (1972) which symbolizes the Korean revolution. It tells the story of a young girl living in 1930s Korea under the hand of Japanese occupation, known as Kot-pun, who sells red flowers on the streets on a commitment to buy medicine for her ailing mother who is subjugated as a housemaid for a cruel landlord family. Her father having passed away, her younger brother is imprisoned by the Japanese for standing up to the family. The film version of the story would go on to become arguably North Korea’s most famous production. Although as foreign observers we may have a temptation to dismiss anything anything produced by the country as simplistic propaganda with no value within it whatsoever, if one watches The Flower Girl with an open mind one will discover that it has strong literary value in its representation of Korean culture, society and of course the political sentiment of North Korea itself. It’s not to be taken for granted.
The Flower Girl is a metaphorical representation of revolution and patriotism in Korea. The idea of a girl selling flowers on the streets is a symbolism of the country itself. How so? As Jagger (1996) notes, the conceptualization of a “virtuous young woman” derived from Neo-Confucianism, was a theme in pre-modern Korean literature. As the article notes, “The Great works of Korea’s romantic fiction are all about suffering women who nevertheless remain true to the conjugal bond and are rewarded for their loyalty and steadfastness”. In the light of colonialism, this extended to become a representation of Korea as a whole, because the idealistic portrayal of a woman who was true, faithful and of course “pure” represented what Jagger goes on to describe as the “spiritual core” of the nation itself, not least in resistance to corrosive foreign oppressors.
In the backdrop of such feminine symbolism, the Flower Girl further reinforces this point through its representation of the Korean Nation within the paradigm of the family, illustrating patriotism as parallel to the moral virtues of filial piety, parental obligation and self-sacrifice. The young girl in the film endeavors selflessly to the cause of mother, as well as her younger sister and brother, showing love, determination and even suffering humiliation. Whilst this of course reflects the very moral expectations of Korean culture in regards to the family, Suzy Kim (2010) helps us understand that the ideal of the family itself became reflective of the nation itself and obligation to it. As she notes “In North Korea, rather than the family being faulted for women’s oppression, the family and the home came to symbolize the Korean nation”. Thus within the Flower Girl, the Family is portrayed with this imagery; the landlords are the foreign oppressors and the red flowers she sells are of course symbolic of the revolution to liberate them, enabled through her self-sacrifice to a morally true cause.
This in turn pre-empts what we understand now as “The Family State” in North Korea. The North Korean regime subsequently comprehends the nation as an extended family, oversaw by the “benevolent parenting” of the supreme leader himself. In turn, it requires of its citizens great loyalty and obligation accordingly. This, as noted by Kwon & Chung (2012) distinctively sets it apart from other socialist states due to the immensely personalized and intimidate way which its politics connects with its citizens. In analyzing such family state dynamics, Bruce Cummings Kim Il Sung as a “benevolent Stalin”, for his legacy is not simply presented in the light of power or masculine force (as we might imagine it to be in practice) but in the light of a loving, all benevolent family.
Given this, the Flower Girl is a film truly worth seeing in order to comprehend North Korea in a literary, cultural and objective light. The full movie with English subtitles adjoined is available luckily on youtube, probably because a socialist country more interested in the political message isn’t so aggressive concerning copyright! Either way, it gets a lot less credit than what it truly deserves.