Part One of this series is here and now that she has published her piece the ‘famous author’ I mentioned there was Krys Lee.
If there is one thing the West does know about Korea, it is North Korea. From cliché bad-guy leadership to some kind of nuclear threat, North Korea pops up regularly on TVs and in magazines. But North Korea has been largely absent in fiction, at least in English. What has come through has had a tendency to be political and didactic, just not very much fun to read. I’ve edited some of these lesser works and they are stories of revolutionary fervor, and thus quite unrealistic and boring to western eyes. The story of a boy sticking his finger in a dike, or a dedicated worker raising the production of rabbit-tail based doilies, .03% is perhaps inspiring in North Korea, but falls flat outside of it.
In general, what is best known about North Korean fiction in English is, well, not really North Korean fiction, rather it is fiction about North Korea written from far outside. The latest of these is is Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son and before that was the four-novel series of James Church’s Inspector O novels.
Church, at least, is well respected. His name is the pseudonym of the author who is described (from Amazon) as:
“a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia”. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the United States and was over 60 years old in 2009. His “Inspector O” novels have been well-received, being noted by Asia specialists for offering “an unusually nuanced and detailed portrait” of North Korean society. A Korea Society panel praised the first book in the series for its realism and its ability to convey “the suffocating atmosphere of a totalitarian state”.
Johnson has also been reviewed relatively well, although there has been some blowback, which seems to increase the more the reader has experience of Korea (The LKL review was particularly unkind) . Also, like many South Korean books I won’t mention here, Johnson adopts that kind of pundan munhak approach, piling atrocity on atrocity. It may be accurate, but it can also be a chore to read. The story is also told in a rather convoluted way, and some percentage of readers have been put off by that.
A reader needs to get closer to the source. A far better start would be the title short story of Krys Lee’s brilliant new collection, which we have discussed here, Drifting House. In this short story, only 15 pages, Lee does a masterful, sometimes nearly hallucinatory, job of describing North Korea in the context of three siblings attempting to escape.
Kim Young-ha’s work, Your Republic is Calling You is also great. It recounts the experience of a long underground spy who is now, suddenly, being called back to North Korea. During the course of one day the spy meditates on his past, and potential futures. His meditations include flashbacks to his training in North Korea, and particularly in a scene in an underground Seoul re-created in North Korea, Kim tries to work out what about North and Korea are real, and what are façade.
These works are better because the authors, as Koreans, are more attuned to the ongoing realities of North Korea. In fact, both Kim Young-ha and Krys Lee have had substantial experience with North Korea, at least from the perspective of refugees. Lee has regularly volunteered time and money to support defectors, and has shepherded at least one of them from China to Seoul
Kim Young-ha achieved his contact in a slightly different way; he actually advertised in Seoul that he would pay North Korean defectors for interviews. But by doing this kind of thing both authors seem better able to cojoin a Korean sensibility to North Korean reality, and that just seems to work better for me when I am reading their fiction.
Here’s a quote by Krys Lee (from her excellent PEN article about this same topic) about Kim Young-ha:
The reader becomes intimate with his neither here nor there status, and with the sense of being an outsider that has shaped Ki-yong’s life. Young-ha’s intimacy with the details of North Korean life as well as his deep understanding of Korean culture, help readers vividly feel and understand the troubled modern history of the Koreas.
There are some other good books as well. First there is Jia: A Novel of North Korea, by Kim Hye-jin.
Jia grows up in a North Korean gulag where her sister and grandparents have also been imprisoned because the crimes of their son. Jia gets smuggled out, but then lives the next 15 years of her life in Pyong-yang, worried that her history will catch up with her.
This is a common theme between South and North Korea, the taint of familial sin, and it is one that goes back in history, including the story of Kim Sakkat, the wandering rain-hat poet – a story we will discuss in depth later. In fact, Yi mun-yol, the author of that story, had a very similar experience in his personal life, with his father defecting to the North, and that defection affected Yi’s life for a very long time.
Kim Hye-jin, like Lee and Kim has worked with refugees. The writing is a bit choppy in places – there is no listed translator, so maybe Kim wrote it in English?
Another book to consider is An Appointment With My Brother, by the aforementioned Yi Mun-yol. Two separated brothers, one from North Korea and one from the South, meet in China after their father has died. There is some quite funny and poignant to and fro between the brothers, as they attempt to re-establish a personal relationship although they live in states that are at war. Within this personal context, Yi also does a good job of explaining some of the various political and ideological strains between and within the countries. This and Kim Young-ha’s book are both really quite good at that.
Similar stories include The Rainy Season, and With Her Oil Lamp on that night, both of which are available in the Jimmondang/LTI Korea Portable Library of Korean Fiction. A similar kind of story is Obaltan (A Stray Bullet, by Yi Pom-son) – the story of retired South Korean soldier who cannot live successfully in the new South Korea. You’ll need to find this one in a collection. The same is true of a great cross-cultural story of a weaselly survivor, Kapitan ri (Captain Lee) is a good story about someone who has survived several different governments and whose personal “abilities” render beyond the effects of diaspora… This one is just plain funny
However, if you don’t mind reading a pdf, these last two stories are available from the Korea Journal website, here: