North Korean Literary Theory

In three recent posts the Translator and I discussed the political impetus behind Korean fiction and its serialization. Now, in an interesting article in the Korea Herald, Choi Yearn-hong talks about North Korean Literary Theory, which is not only intensely political, but explicitly so:

North Korean literature promotes socialist ideology, new technology and Puritan communist culture. Kim Jong-il has been criticizing North Korean literature as lacking philosophic depth, aesthetic sense, sensitivity and artistic craftsmanship, and thus as mundane, mechanical, repetitive and “distant from life.” His different theories, “the seed theory,” “literature as a study of man,” and “Our Own Creative Works,” attempted to correct weaknesses in North Korean literature. I doubt his theories have achieved what they were supposed to accomplish.

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What is (or are) North Korea’s literary theory (or theories) which guide North Korean literary works?

The North Korean government continued to indoctrinate its people with socialism until the early 1960s. It justified its initiation of the Korean War, 1950-1953, as a national liberation struggle, mobilizing all resources toward building a socialist country. Under the direction of the Communist party, literature and art were used to propagate revolutionary socialism. From the mid-1960s, writers and artists were expected to advocate the Juche thought of Kim Il-sung. History was rewritten from the perspective of Kim’s Juche thought.

In the 1980s, North Korean literary critics started to discuss the “seed” theory, which originated from Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung. In one of his speeches, Kim made the statement; “All great writers should have good seed in their literary works.” It is a commonsensical word, but it has stirred up North Korean poets and writers. They spent the first five years of the 1980s extensively discussing the meaning of the seed theory.

One critic said, “Seed theory is searching for a balance between ideology and aesthetic sense or artistic craftsmanship.” Another said, “it is the philosophic depth of literary works.” In order to settle the dispute, the North Korean Writers’ Association attempted to find the seeds in their so-called classic literary works “Blood Sea,” “Fate of a Militia Man,” “Flower-selling Maid,” “Traditional Worshipping Place,” and “Ahn Jung-geun shot Ito Hirobumi.” The seeds, in their classic works are class struggle, national liberation, permanent revolution, Kim Il-sung’s fight against the Japanese army and the U.S. army, and his victories.

In the mid-1980s, North Korean critics started to say that “literature is a study of man,” which originally appeared in Kim Jong-il’s book, “On Cinema,” reported in the February 1992 issue of Chosun Munhak. Kim said, “literature is a study of man. Literature should not come from an empty sky; it should come from real human life experiences.” He emphasized that Kim Il-sung was the man who fought the Japanese Manchurian Army and defeated it, who fought the mighty U.S. army and defeated it, and who reconstructed the North Korean economy from the ashes of the Korean War. His speeches were made on the occasion of publishing a series of novels on the life of Kim Il-sung, his father, under the name of “Never-perishing Literature” series. “Literature as a study of man” includes stories about a lovely young woman who married a disabled veteran from the Korean War; the humble man who enjoyed equality under Kim Il-sung’s leadership; a teacher who could not leave her countryside school for her fiance in a city; a worker who produced more than his assignments; a scientist who invented a new sophisticated technology in a steel mill; a prisoner of war; and an employee who produced his works ahead of schedule among many others. All these people are small Kim Il-sungs.

In 1991, the North Korean Writers’ Association advocated “Our Way of Making Creative works” modeled after the party line, “Let’s Maintain our Own Socialism.” They recognized the fact that the Cold War was gone, that the USSR was dismantled, and East European communist nations were converting to free market economies. Our own style of socialism never knows defeatism, it only knows victories.

It’s worth checking out..

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