Theses Doctoral

The Thread of Juche: Vinalon and Materially-Embodied Interdependencies in North Korea, 1930-2018

Cho, Eunsung

This dissertation examines how North Korea’s version of nationalism was constructed by taking a material thing as my point of departure. Vinalon is a kind of synthetic fiber developed by a Korean scientist during the Japanese colonial era. North Korea succeeded in the industrial production of vinalon in 1961. The construction of the Vinalon Factory in Hamhŭng was completed by North Koreans using their own resources and manpower. Unlike nylon, which uses oil as the main raw material, vinalon uses locally-mined anthracite and limestone as the main raw materials. For these reasons, North Korea was proud of the industrialization of vinalon, eventually giving it the title of “Juche [self-reliance] fiber.”

Although North Korea emphasizes solely its self-reliant aspect, vinalon has had a global history from the colonial period to the post-war era. I argue that the global network of technological knowledge made the industrial production of vinalon possible and that the industrialization of vinalon was a historically contingent process of experimentation. Uncovering the global history behind the industrialization of vinalon and probing vinalon as a material produced in the dynamics between Juche and the global, my work contributes to the rethinking of U.S.-Soviet-centered Cold War scholarship by investigating Second World-Second World and Second World-Third World relationships. Furthermore, focusing on the agency of the vinalon products in people’s everyday lives, my project explores how vinalon threaded North Korea’s Juche discourse through a variety of products that penetrated into the everyday and the gendering of those products. By analyzing the interaction between the scientific and the socio-political realms on the one hand and by exploring how the Mother Party discourse became embodied in the form of the material vinalon on the other hand, my dissertation goes beyond the politics-centered narrative that has dominated scholarly work on North Korean ideology.

In this dissertation, I utilize diverse sets of textual, material, and visual sources, as well as interviews, while combining methods from social and global history, material culture studies, history of science and technology, gender studies, and STS studies. Each chapter of the dissertation explores different aspects of the social life of vinalon in North Korea. Chapter 1 investigates how the industrialization of vinalon allowed North Korea to promote its legitimacy as a postcolonial independent nation-state while contributing to the expansion of the Juche discourse, providing background on the processes through which vinalon was invented and industrialized. This chapter shows that the successful industrialization of vinalon and subsequent fetishization of Juche science facilitated the formulation of Juche ideology in middle to late 1960s North Korea.

Chapter 2 uncovers the global history that enabled vinalon to be industrialized, focusing on the global circulation of technological knowledge from the colonial period to the 1960s. This chapter also traces how the vinalon industry developed differently in Japan and China in response to changes in the world chemical industry. Chapter 3 explores the social conditioning processes in which people’s perceptions of vinalon were constructed through their interactions with the state’s promotion of science, particularly in the form of literature. Taking a look at how the popularization of science and vinalon products consumed in the everyday lives of the people were connected to the construction of North Korean national identity, this chapter uses the case study of vinalon to examine the crossroads where science, the masses, and national identity intersect.

Chapter 4 deals with how vinalon played the role of a maternal artifact that embodies the leader’s love for the people as well as the discourse of the Mother Party. Here I probe how the affective aspects of the fiber based on its materiality and representation contributed to the process of making the Mother Party discourse stronger and more pervasive. Chapter 5 addresses how the uses of vinalon in the realm of the everyday have changed over time, what role vinalon played in the process by which North Korea reinforced nationalism in response to social crises, and how vinalon has been consumed in the process of constructing an ideological fabric of North Korea today. Clothes, socks, blankets, scarfs, bags, and other products made from vinalon became the objects by which people directly experienced Juche in their daily lives. By looking at vinalon as a thread that played a pivotal role in weaving the Juche discourse into North Korean society, my dissertation shows that vinalon acted as an effective vehicle to project North Korea’s Juche materially and discursively in the people’s everyday lives.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia
Kim, Jungwon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 21, 2020