North Korean Calligraphy: Gender, Intimacy, and Political Incorporation, 1980s–2010s

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A ubiquitous part of everyday life, North Korean calligraphy is an easily overlooked and yet integral element of the country’s mass mobilization art. Under the curation of Kim Jong Il (Kim Chŏngil, 1941–2011), calligraphy was mobilized as a mechanism for the articulation of organistic national unity centered on the ruling Kim family and captured through the idea of the “social and political living body” (sahoe chŏngch’i chŏk saengmyŏngch’e), which mediated the familial transition of power. Cultivating penmanship identical to that of his father and expanding the hagiographic project around the revolutionary calligraphy of his parents, Kim Il Sung (Kim Ilsŏng, 1912–94) and Kim Jong Suk (Kim Chŏngsuk, 1917–49), Kim Jong Il worked out an image of charismatic familial embodiment by means of the script. In addition, calligraphy constitutes a disciplinary apparatus that coordinates performances of political intimacy, bodily training, and political interpretation within the space of everyday life. Drawing on the North Korean calligraphy textbooks, art periodicals, and visual archive, this article contextualizes the dichotomy of the idiosyncratic style of the male leaders and the feminized, ubiquitous Ch’ŏngbong style, connected with the figure of Kim Jong Suk. Special attention is given to the body symbolism and somatic discipline of North Korean calligraphy, which underlie its political efficacy as inscriptional and hermeneutic practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)275-304
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Korean Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


  • North Korean calligraphy
  • calligraphy and gender
  • historic calligraphic canon
  • mass mobilization art


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