More on N Korean Literature – Politics as Literature, Literature as Politics

The Man in the Mirror

The Men in the Mirror

A super-interesting take on North-Korean-Literature from the “A Year of Reading the World” website. The first post talks a little bit about My Life and Faith, a memoir by Korean Army war correspondent and ardent DPRK patriot Ri In Mo.

Which North Korean mouthpiece Cao de Benos  (more about/from him later) says contains

a point of view completely unknown in the West…that of utter love and devotion and sacrifice for a country, political system, and especially leadership, that (most) of the rest of the world prefers to despise and hate.

londonchoirgirl (the blogger, who also writes for the Huffington Post under the unlikely nom de plume. “Ann Morgan!”) ultimately concludes that the book is interesting, but cliched and hypocritical, noting:

as Mr Cao de Benos confirmed to me, variations on this story – books ‘showing honour, loyalty and sacrifice for the motherland’ – are the only narratives allowed in the DPRK. Reading the world would not be an option there. And no amount of passion, rhetoric or idealism can make up for that.

 In a Huffington Post article londonchoirgirl (LCG) further explains Mr De Benes through his website:

Set up in 2000 by the pioneering Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos (the first, if not only, foreigner to be granted a North Korean passport and allowed to work for the government) the official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Korean Friendship Association proclaims its mission to be ‘building international ties in the fields of culture, friendship, diplomacy and business’.

LCG’s interaction with De Benos are pretty interesting as when she asks for North Korea fiction he responds:

“I am sorry but do not know of any adult fiction since the times of the creation of the Republic. All literature was politically oriented for setting the base of the new socialist country.

“Books, films or cartoon in DPRK must have the meaning, moral and ideology. There is no adult fiction because all books published are either poems or based in historical facts.”

This causes LCG to ponder, because she knows that she has read North Korean fiction (and not just in their often laughable official press releases) and as she thinks about these two things she comes to a clever conclusion:

Then it struck me that perhaps the word “fiction” was the problem. If you understood it in its negative sense, meaning “fabrication” or “lies”, then there was clearly no room for it in a country where all literature is believed to be “based in historical facts.”

Which seems like an accurate way of reconciling statements with reality. In fact, I’d argue that this analysis is good even if you take away the perjorative “fabrication” or “lies.” Even “made up” or even “fanciful” would work in this argument if you accept that literature is based in historical facts.

Another data point might be found in this description of one aspect of North Korean fiction from Open Doors:

The “regeneration” of a Korean Christian was another favorite topic of North Korean fiction of the late 1950s. A protagonist of such stories was initially misled by scheming missionaries and their willful collaborators and foolishly became a Christian, but then some incident or bitter personal experiences helped him or her to discover the depraved nature of Christian teaching. Of course, he or she rejected the “imperialist ideological poison” and led others to eventual enlightenment.

Because, of course this is fiction in the written sense, but fits into the Northern Korean model of fiction as historical fact supporting the regime.

In any case, as I mentioned in comments elsewhere, I have ordered Korean Short Stories: A Collection from North Korea, which should broaden my understanding, although the titles alone hint at a certain juche-alignment^^:

History of Iron Pyon Hui Gun
Happiness Sok Yun Gi Ogi Chon Se Bong
Fellow Travellers Kim Byong Hun
Everyone in Position! Om Dan Ung
Unfinished Sculpture Ko Byong Sam


2 thoughts on “More on N Korean Literature – Politics as Literature, Literature as Politics

  1. Well, you KNOW that I love this post, right? 8–)

    Great, great, great.

    Okay, I have met Alejandro Cao de Benos and I can say that I would place no regard whatsoever on his knowledge of DPRK literature.

    He is not fluent in Korean, and so could not read it in Korean and would be dependent on translations.

    And he is so oddly fixated on the whole DPRK anti-imperialist propaganda, that I saw no signs that any forms of culture hold much meaning for him.

    DPRK clearly has adult fiction.


    And, based on my rather strong knowledge of Russian lit from the Stalin period I would assert that it is likely that some of it will be good — works that focus on Jack London style adventures for example of a man in the wilderness, etc.

    Of course, most will be bad and unreadable, except to a specialist.

    As works become divorced from the potential for relevance to politics, the quality will likely be higher.

    So, poetry on the beauty of a pond can be quite good, whereas a book on the life of a WPK party employee will be awful.

    For example, the fact that they publish the poems of Byron

    lends credence to the notion that there is an appreciation of high quality literature, so long as there is no risk of such an appreciation being labeled as ‘harmful’ ideologically.

    I would note that works that DPRK itself has chosen for translation (like the book you will be purchasing) are disproportionately likely to be bad.

    They are likely to select for translation ideological works, so as to garner merit points for having made and distributed such works.

    I think it would be more likely to be fruitful if ROK people went through DPRK works (they are available for sale in China) and made their own selections of which works are good, rather than relying on the DPRK system.

    I would also have you think about talking to Gabroussenko and others who have a knowledge of DPRK lit to make suggestions as to better quality works.

    I would also add here that I think an even more fruitful opportunity may exist within ethnic Korean literature in China, given the far lower level of censorship in China.

    Which reminds me, it really is inconceivable that ROK — a modern liberal democracy — has censorship of DPRK literature to this day.

    What about a posting on that?

    Writing and literature are incompatible with censorship, and really no sane person could even be seduced by the propaganda of the DPRK.

    So, why not freely allow DPRK literature in ROK?

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