Cheehyung Harrison Kim
(Columbia University Press, 2018)
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In North Korea in the decade following the Korean War, labor became the defining means of state control and national unity. In pursuit of rapid industrial growth, the North Korean state stressed order and consistency in everyday life, at both work and home. In Heroes and Toilers, Cheehyung Harrison Kim offers an unprecedented account of life and labor in postwar North Korea that looks at both governance and popular resistance.
Kim traces the state’s pursuit of progress through industrialism and examines how ordinary people challenged the state every step of the way. More than coercion or violence, he argues, work was crucial to state control. Industrial labor was both mode of production and mode of governance, characterized by repetitive work, mass mobilization, labor heroes, and the insistence on convergence between living and working. At the same time, workers challenged and reconfigured state power to accommodate their circumstances—coming late to work, switching jobs, fighting with bosses, and profiting from the black market, as well as following approved paths to secure their livelihood, resolve conflict, and find happiness. Heroes and Toilers is a groundbreaking analysis of postwar North Korea that avoids the pitfalls of exoticism and exceptionalism to offer a new answer to the fundamental question of North Korea’s historical development.
“North Korea really comes alive in this book, as a place inhabited by real human beings with the same problems we all have—a rare achievement in the literature. The author is objective in the best sense—he gives North Korea its due, unlike most authors, but also reserves a serious critique. Heroes and Toilers is by far the best book to appear on North Korea recently and is one of the best books ever written on contemporary Korea.”
– Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago
Cheehyung Harrison Kim is assistant professor of history at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa