2013 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Young Adult third place tie
Structuring the Class: Hierarchy in Om Sokdae's Classroom and Kims' North Korea

Yi Munyol’s Our Twisted Hero was published in 1987, a momentous year in South Korea’s struggle to achieve democracy. The year saw a popular uprising against military dictatorship, which ultimately succeeded in achieving the desired reforms. Writing during that crucial transition, Yi fittingly ponders questions of governance in his allegorical work. Today, South Korea is a full-fledged democracy, but North Korea is still under the iron grip of the dynastic Kim family, and the themes of authoritarianism in Our Twisted Hero remain very much relevant. A comparison of Kim’s North Korea to Om’s allegorical classroom uncovers striking structural similarities in hierarchical composition – an insight which can help explain the Kim regime’s longevity.

Kim and Om implement a similar hierarchical structure: they are at the center of all privilege, and the further one is from their good graces, the less fortunate one becomes. North Koreans are divided into three classes: Core, Wavering and Hostile. These classes determine “where you live, how much food you eat, and whether you are assigned to sit in a comfortable office or toil in a dangerous mineshaft” (Byman and Lind, 61). The hierarchy can be envisioned as a series of concentric circles. At the center is the Kim family, from whom emanates all good. The three generations of Kim dictators are worshipped as supreme providers and saviors of the nation: their pictures are displayed in every home and badges of Kim Il Sung’s likeness worn by every North Korean (Oberdorfer 20).

Core class members are deemed loyal, and are allowed to live in Pyongyang with the Kims; they are given safer and easier jobs, and more and better food. The Wavering and the Hostile are banished to impoverished regions outside the capital. Many are sentenced to remote political prison camps, where about 200,000 prisoners “routinely malnutrition, disease, overwork, beatings, or execution” (Byman and Lind 57). Closeness – in both physical and figurative sense – to the quasi-divine Kim family determines a North Korean’s destiny.

Om controls a similar structure: he is the center of all privilege and those closest to him enjoy the most, whereas those furthest suffer the most. Although no formal division is made, Om’s class can be divided into three distinct groups. Like the Kims, Om plays “the role of savior or problem-solver” (23), inspiring not only adoration but also “an instinctual terror” (25). Om tightly controls the material resources by collecting tariffs from children of shopkeepers, farmers, and peddlers (98), as well as the more figurative resource of classroom activities and games.

Om’s equivalent of the Core class comprises of the physically strong – the “three or four boys, all about the same size as Sokdae, who sat in the back of the class” (24) – and the intellectual elite, such as Pak Wonha who takes Om’s arithmetic exams and is counted among his “ten closest friends” (75). In return for physical and intellectual assistance, the Core enjoys Om’s friendship and its benefits. The Wavering in Om’s kingdom may be those “distressed by an unfair burden or pressure imposed by Sokdae” (73) but who are spared the persecution meted out to the Hostile, such as Han Pyongt’ae. Han’s defiance places him outside of Om’s favors and into persecution. Han suffers ostracization from all activities and games (54), unfairly strict application of school rules and their punishments (57-59), and demotion in fighting rank (53), which determines one’s standing in class. Eventually, these measures break Han’s resistant spirit and Han submits to Om’s rule.

Han then experiences a dizzying elevation in his rank from the Hostile to the Core. Han is rewarded with sweet privileges, such as the elaborate banquet that Han suspects is thrown especially for him (84), and an “exemption from burdens and duties” (73) imposed on the lower ranks. Soon, Han’s heart is won and he ruefully wishes, “I hoped and believed that order, his kingdom, and the special benefits I enjoyed, would last forever” (85). Om’s effective class system eliminates opposition and creates fervent adherers to his rule; Om is the source of all privilege, and Han learns that rebellion means deprivation while obedience means comfort.

The North Korean system, of course, is much harsher than Om’s. The kind of upward mobility that Han achieves is unavailable, whereas demotion looms threateningly close; one can be condemned to prison for as little cause as “inadvertently defacing or sitting on a newspaper photograph of the Great Leader” (Oberdorfer 21). Moreover, class is not determined by loyalty and ability – as it is in Om’s classroom – but by ancestral socio-economic status; if one’s great-grandparents owned land or were South Korean sympathizers, he is condemned to the lower classes from birth (Byman and Lind 61). The stakes are much higher as well; death is the wages of defiance. These factors reinforce the regime’s brutal stability; North Koreans are forced to rely on the Kims for daily necessities and to fear devastating consequences for the slightest misdemeanor.

Despite these differences, Our Twisted Hero is still very much pertinent. The value of comparing an allegory with real tragedies lies in its accessibility. Yi’s work makes grand, high-stakes political systems more tangible, intimate and understandable; readers that have never suffered authoritarianism can still identify with Han’s outrage, struggle, and break down. The readers then can translate that sympathy to the millions languishing under North Korea’s tyrannical yoke. Comparison also sheds new insight into the source of the strength of that yoke: the three-class system. By controlling the resources, the rulers portray themselves as the source of all good, inspiring loyalty. The hierarchy further reinforces loyalty with promises of privilege and threats of deprivation and persecution. These exacting measures can partly explain how Kims’ regime survives to this day, despite the people’s extreme impoverishment and suffering.

Works Cited:

Byman, Daniel, and Jennifer Lind. "Pyongyang's Survival Strategy." International Security 35.1 (2010): 44-74. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Jan. 2013. .

Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A contemporary History. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Yi, Munyol. Our Twisted Hero. New York: Hyperion, 2001.