North Korean Literature: A Diaspora in a Mirror

The Man in the Mirror

The Men in the Mirror

On Facebook, that most academic of sites, in a discussion with a famous author about North Korean diasporic fiction. Famous author asks the question what North Korean diasporic literature am I aware of? My answer and the conversation is quite brief as I wrack my brains to try to come up with examples of it. We both note Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You and Jia: A Novel of North Korea, by Kim Hyejin. Then their is Krys Lee’s short story Drifting House(in the collection of the same name), which is a brilliant example of North Korean diasporic fiction. More names pop into my head as the days go by.

Jia: A Novel of North Korea, is described on Amazon:

The first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in the West.
A moving and true-to-life tale of courage in the face of oppression and exile.
Hyejin Kim’s Jia follows the adventures of an orphaned young woman, Jia, who has the grace of a dancer but the misfortune of coming from a politically suspect family. In the isolated mining village of her childhood, Jia’s father, a science teacher, questions government intrusion into his classroom and is taken away by police, never to be heard from again. Now Jia must leave the village where her family has been sent as punishment to carve a path for herself. Her journey takes her first to Pyongyang, and finally to Shenyang in northeast China. Along the way, she falls in love with a soldier, befriends beggars, is kidnapped, beaten, and sold, negotiates Chinese culture, and learns to balance cruel necessity with the possibilities of kindness and love. Above all, Jia must remain wary, always ready to adapt to the “capricious political winds” of modern North Korea and China.

And Kim Young-ha’s work is described:

A foreign film importer, Gi-yeong is a family man with a wife and daughter. An aficionado of Heineken, soccer, and sushi, he is also a North Korean spy who has been living among his enemies for twenty-one years.
Suddenly he receives a mysterious email, a directive seemingly from the home office. He has one day to return to headquarters. He hasn’t heard from anyone in over ten years. Why is he being called back now? Is this message really from Pyongyang? Is he returning to receive new orders or to be executed for a lack of diligence? Has someone in the South discovered his secret identity? Is this a trap?
Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s. A lament for the fate of a certain kind of man and a certain kind of manhood, it is ultimately a searing study of the long and insidious effects of dividing a nation in two.

But neither of these authors is actually from North Korea, instead they are South Korean.
And it gets odder. Google phrases similar to “North Korean Diasporic Fiction” and one of the top, if not first, books that will come up is Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son which is frequently referred to in reviews as something like “North Korean Fiction.” Adam Johnson, although apparently a writer who has done substantial research on North Korea, is a United States citizen.

There seems to be no such thing as a native North Korean diasporic fiction. This is partly, I suppose, because there are few potential authors and amongst the potential even fewer willing ones.

North Koreans in some practical senses cannot become technically diasporic. Watch, for instance, the ongoing struggle to attempt to keep China from forcibly repatriating North Korea refugees. This struggle indicates how difficult it is for North Koreans become a diasporic at all. These few refugees, perhaps about to be repatriated, are the ones who did make it out of North Korea and now that status is in doubt. Even if the struggle to enter diaspora is achieved (i.e. someone escapes North Korea and isn’t tossed back by the Chinese), there are social realities that mitigate against diasporic literature. Consider refugees in South Korea. One of the last thing that successful North Korean refugees in South Korea attempt to do is to draw attention to their refugee status, for reasons both good and bad.

The interesting outcome of this is that the current North Korean diaspora can be described, in two senses, as internal to Korea itself. This seems on the face of it contradictory, but is actually quite descriptive. This blog is not generally given to political musings, but there is a diaspora within North Korea that can be described variously: Party vs. non-Party, capital versus outlying regions, military vs. non military, the dichotomies abound. The second diaspora is that created by the separation of Korea into two states, and it is reflected in the de-facto separation of families by the war and the 38th parallel as well as the community of escaped North Koreans who live in diaspora in South Korea, paradoxically diasporic in their own country.

For a sociologist, somewhere, there is an entire Ph.D. in describing the unusual nature of the North Korean diaspora – it is certainly not yet at the point where return seems to be sought after, and it is one of those diasporas which seems to be actively sought after (although this is often true of economic diaspora.. see Goose Fathers… as well).
What this all adds up to is this: If one attempts to view the North Korean diaspora through fiction, one is inevitably forced to view it through the eyes of South Korean fiction.

Next post, with the second humor piece still in the mental hopper, we will take a look at some of the emblematic South Korean fiction that focuses on the North Korean diaspora, including some of the pieces mentioned here.


5 thoughts on “North Korean Literature: A Diaspora in a Mirror

  1. Hmmmmm….

    “If one attempts to view the North Korean diaspora through fiction, one is inevitably forced to view it through the eyes of South Korean fiction.”

    What about through Chinese Korean-language-literature, or through Russian Korean-language literature?

    Plenty of ethnic Koreans in China, and quite a few in Russia and the former USSR.

    But, to take your point, there are many efforts to assist survivors of difficult situations to cope with their memories through writing.

    Many DPRK refugees fall into that category.

  2. And also plenty of Ko-Ams out there.. but South Korea is the closest (in several senses) and most literarily prolific amongst the group.

    Plus, you know… I’m into the South Korean lit.^^

  3. Yes, you are into South Korean lit, but it raises the issue of whether and to what extent all Korean language lit is one.

    A similar issue was raised about Russian language lit, and still is raised about Chinese-language lit.

    Do the various Korean language inform one another (as is true for French or German language literatures), or is South Korean lit an island that cares nothing about non-ROK Korean language literatures?

    I think the issue calls for some analytical thinking.

    If ROK lit essentially ignores all others, why and what does that say about ROK lit?

    If ROK lit ignores even other Korean language literatures (which are at least linguistically accessible), what does that say about ROK lit’s relationship with foreign language literatures?

    What is the relationship of ROK lit with other North East Asian lit, such as Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian?

    And, do the other Korean-language literatures take the same approach?

    I see that this prominent Korean Language literary magazine from China exists:

    And, here is an article from a Chinese professor of Korean literature who references Korean-language literature in China.

    Do Chinese Korean-language writers

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