How N. Korea Perceives Foxes in Cultural
A North Korean animation titled Victory over the Oppressor Demon aired on local TV early this year to create a sensation. Covering this story, the Associated Press said that the Korean traditional legend about a nine-tailed fox called “gumiho” was made into a high-quality 3D animation.
It seems North Korea put a great deal of effort into the animation, Victory over the Oppressor Demon, which uses 3D computer graphics. The demon here is gumiho that harasses village people and forces them to offer a sacrifice. The villagers have no choice but to obey it. But the protagonist defeats the evil creature and brings peace back to the village.
North Korea made the animation for about 15 months, starting May 2019. The story seems to show North Korea’s determination to overcome various difficulties plaguing the country, including international sanctions, which are represented as gumiho in the animation.
Gumiho is an imaginary fox with nine tails that appear in myths and legends in East Asian countries, including Korea. In South Korea, it comprises one of the main themes of special horror programs during the hot summer.
Today, we’ll learn about how North Korea perceives the fox in its cultural content from Dr. Yee Jisun at the Korea Institute for National Unification. First, Dr. Yee explains the image of the fox in East Asia.
The oldest record about the fox is probably found in an ancient Chinese text titled The Classics of the Mountains and Seas. In the book, the fox has divine power. As its superhuman strength grows, it gets more tails. When it obtains nine tails, it ascends to heaven and becomes the assistant of the Great Jade Emperor. The mystical animal with golden shining fur was believed to bring good fortune and prosperity. But the image of the fox changed gradually with the emergence of the legend about Daji, a woman who caused the downfall of the Shang Dynasty in ancient China. In the legend, she is suspected as a nine-tailed fox or gumiho. Afterwards, gumiho was associated with a beautiful but dangerous woman.
In Korea, gumiho has diverse images. Some have a humble wish to become human. Others feed on animal livers or absorb men’s spirit as a femme fatale. In Japan, there are temples that worship gumiho that retains divinity. In East Asia, the fox connotes multiple meanings--an attractive but dangerous creature that takes human lives, something cunning or something divine and mysterious.
South Koreans are probably familiar with some old stories about the fox. In the folktale called The Fox Sister, a wife who only had three sons finally gives birth to a baby girl after praying sincerely. The parents cherish their beloved daughter, who turns out to be a fox that pulls out the livers of cows to eat them. Another tale The Fox Bead portrays a cunning fox that swallows the spirits of people with a strange bead. Due to this negative image of the fox, South and North Korea once called each other a fox.
A South Korean movie entitled General Ttori(똘이) from the 1970s describes North Korean military officers as red foxes. The color red symbolizes communism. North Korean soldiers and espionage agents dispatched to South Korea are portrayed as wolves in the anti-communist film. The foxes and wolves are very wicked and sly, and this radical image aims to increase South Koreans’ antagonism toward North Korea. On a similar note, North Korea brands South Korea’s capitalism as a fox, and Japan’s imperialism, as a wild dog or wolf. So, both South and North Korea called each other a fox.
Many records about the fox are found in The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. The Annals of King Danjong (단종), for example, explains someone who is cunning and says that he is like a fox. In The Annals of King Myeongjong(명종), it is written that a man who is small, quick, wily and crafty is called by people a fox. Based on the long, traditional belief and image about the fox, South and North Korea labeled each other as a fox.
In modern society, media content reflects people’s viewpoints and values of the time. So, classic tales or old stories could be altered or embellished to feature various interesting themes that are different from the original ones.
The fox that appears in old stories is a very attractive animal that can transform itself into other beings. South Korean movies or animations add diverse fanciful ideas to original folktales to recreate them as completely different cultural content.
Gumiho in Korean folktales possesses a special charm. The nine-tailed fox transforms into a beautiful woman to eat human livers or wish to become a human. The wish is also found in the myth of Dangun(단군), the founding father of ancient Korea. In the myth, a bear and a tiger have to stay in a cave for 21 days, only eating garlic and mugwort. Likewise, there are certain things that gumiho should not do in order to become a human. But the fox breaks the taboo in the last stage of its long and grueling discipline, all because of a human that it hopes to become so dearly. People feel pity for the ill-fated fox that sees its ardent hope of becoming a human dashed in the last minute and dies. When adapted into a TV program, movie or animation, gumiho stories like this can be recreated as interesting, imaginative and multilayered content.
North Korean cultural content, in contrast, focuses on the original and typical trait of the fox.
In North Korean dramas or films, the fox mostly represents capitalism, imperialism, egoists or mischief-makers. North Korean cultural content has the purpose of ideological cultivation for the public. The country refrains from producing content that is open to interpretation, whether it is literature, movie or animation. Rather, the message should be simple and clear. If a character contains diverse images, the people might be confused. So, once the fox symbolizes hostile forces that should be rejected, it should maintain the same connotation.
Fox tales that chill a person’s blood or emotional stories about a fox wishing to become a human are never found in North Korean literature. The Collection of Korean Folktales consisting of 26 volumes shows North Korea’s unique, special standards and methods of appreciating classical literary content.
North Korea compiled The Collection of Korean Folktales over the span of 30 years from the 1980s. In the process, the country instilled class conflict and socialist ideology to the book and excluded all the stories that are too fantastic, unreal or horrible. North Korea does not recognize a feeling of horror at all. In North Korea, fantasy is only allowed for stories that might sound unreal for now but can come true sooner or later. Sci-fi in North Korea is not about a far distant future that is unimaginable but about something humans can achieve in the near future.
In the folk story of The Fox Sister, readers generally feel a mixture of horror, suspense and thrills when the last brother kills the fox sister. When the brother survives eventually, they are very relieved and feel satisfied. But the stories that may thrill or frighten readers were all excluded from the North Korean collection of folktales. It only contains stories about good, moral people, stories that deserve to be inherited from a socialist perspective and those about conflict stemming from evil landowners. Stories that evoke people’s basic and honest feelings are not found. That’s a shame.
It is unfortunate that traditional folktales in North Korea do not remain the way they originally were. It is hoped that South and North Korea can enjoy the interesting old stories together and share the wisdom of ancestors found in the tales.