North Korean Literature (Notes for TBS eFM): A Diaspora in a Mirror – Pt. II

The Man in the Mirror

The Men in the Mirror

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:

5 thoughts on “North Korean Literature (Notes for TBS eFM): A Diaspora in a Mirror – Pt. II

  1. Your critique of DPRK literature is too harsh.

    Sure, in a rigidly totalitarian state, much of it is unreadable love stories in which a young man falls in love with a tractor and the teachings of the Eternal President.

    But, not all of it is.

    Here is a piece in English translation that is readable:

    And what about the novel Hwangjini, by Hong Seok-jung referred to in this interview: ??


    This work won in 2004 an ROK literary prize:

    And this:

    references some works as well.

    Additionally, what about graphic novels in the DPRK, like this one:

    I would also suggest that the DPRK leading literary magazine Choson Munhak [] I am sure has some good stuff, even if much of it is propagandistic drivel.

    Finally, I read some DPRK works in Russian translation, and they were not all bad.

    I would note that some works like military action novels, certain mysteries, science fiction are need not necessarily be that different the world round.

    Yes, of course the DPRK can ruin any work through the insertion of endless turgid prose, but not every work is like that.

    For a list of some works in Russian translation:

    Жили такие люди. Новеллы корейских писателей. М.:ГРВЛ, 1971 (сост. А.А. Артемьева) 그런 사람들이 사랐다. 조선작가 단편집 Из содержания: На До Хян (나도향), Ли Ги Ён (리기영), Сон Ён (송영), Хан Ин Тхэк (한인택), Ом Хын Соп (엄흥섭), Хван Гон (황건), Ли Ден Сук (리정숙), Ли Ён Гю (리영규), Ким Ён Сок (김영석), Ким Со Ёп (김서엽), Чхон Се Бон (천세봉) в переводах Д. Елисеева, Г. Рачкова, А. Артемьевой, В Мокляка, В. Бердниковой, Л. Люгай

    Кан Гён Э. Проблемы человечества. Роман. М.: ХЛ, 1955 (пер. А.А. Артемьева, ред. А.А. Холодович) 강경애. 인간 문제. 장편소설

    Ким Чжэгю. Счастье. Роман. М.: «Радуга», 1985 (пер. Вал. Ли, В. Мокляк) 김재규. 행복. 장편소설.

    Корея борется. Повести, рассказы, очерки. М.: ИЛ, 1952 (сост. Д. Усатов; ред. Н. Ким) 조선은 투쟁한다. 중편소설, 단편소설, 오체르크
    Включены повести и рассказы Хан Сер Я (한설야), Ли Тхэ Дюна (리태준), Хан Бон Сик (한봉식), Ким Са Ряна (김사량) и др. в переводах Е. Тё, Б. Емельянова, Ю. Карасева, Д. Усатова.

    Ли Ги Ён. Земля. Роман. М.: ИЛ, 1953 (пер. Е. Тё и Ю. Карасев; ред. А. Костицын, Д. Усатов) 리기영. 땅. 장편소설.

    Ли Ги Ён. Земля. Роман. Ч. 1–2. М.: ХЛ, 1953 (пер. Е. Тё и Ю. Карасев; ред. А. Костицын, Д. Усатов) 리기영. 땅. 장편소설.

    Ли Ги Ён. Земля. Роман. Кн. 1–9. Для слепых. М.: Учпедгиз, 1953 (пер. Е. Тё и Ю. Карасев) 리기영. 땅. 장편소설. 맹학교용.

    Ли Ги Ён. Родная сторона. Роман. М.: ХЛ, 1967 (пер. А. Хан и Д. Приемский) 리기영. 고향. 장편소설.

    Ли Ги Ён. Судьба одной женщины. Повесть. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. яз., 1964 (пер. Хван Чан Сик, Хван Сон Сан) 리기영. 한 녀성의 운명. 중편소설.

    Ли Ги Ён. Ченлима корейского народа. Очерк. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. яз., 1959. 조선 인민의 천리마. 수필집.

    Ли Чан Сун, Цой Ген. Довольно так жить. Киев: Гослитиздат Украины, 1959 (пер. на укр. яз. Кан Сон Хан и А. Герасимов) 리장순, 최건. 그렇게 살 수 없다.

    Мангёндэ. Роман. Лит. творческая группа «15 апреля» при Центр. правлении Союза кор. писателей. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1981 만경대. 장편소설.

    Молодость в пути. Сб. рассказов. М.: ИЛ, 1961 (пер. В. Ли, ред. А. Гольдман) 도중에서의 청춘. 단편집.
    Море крови. Роман. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1975 피바다. 장편소설.

    На переправе. Рассказы. М.: Воениздат, 1960 나루터. 단편집.
    Авторы рассказов: Пак Ун Голь (박운걸), Ким Ман Сон (김 만성), Ким Бук Хян (김북향), Пён Хи Гын (병희근), Хон Пха (홍파), Ким Чэ Гю (김재규).

    На повороте истории. Роман. Лит. творческая группа «15 апреля» при Центр. правлении Союза кор. писателей. Т. 1. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1974 력사의 전환에서. 장편소설. I.

    Пак Ун Гер. Телефонист. Рассказы. М.: Воениздат, 1963 박웅걸. 교환원. 단편집.

    Пак Ун Голь. Отечество. Роман. М.: ИЛ, 1962 (пер. Д. Усатов) 박웅걸. 조국. 장편소설.

    Пак Ын Хо. Ожившая тень. Повесть. Для среднего возраста. М.: ДЛ, 1971 (сокр. пер. Е. Катасонова) 박응호. 되살린 그늘. 중학교학생용 중편소설.

    Победа. Сб. рассказов. [Б.м.]: Мин-во культуры и пропаганды КНДР, 1955 승리. 단편집.

    Рассказы героев Кореи. М.: Воениздат, 1951 (ред.-сост. Н. Денисов) 조선 영웅들의 단편집.

    Рождение мира. Рассказы. М.: ИЛ, 1956 (пер. Е. Берман) 개벽. 단편집.

    Авторы: Ли Ги Ен (이기영), Ден Дзя Ген (정자경), Ли Бук Мен (리북명), Квон Дзон Лён (권정룡), Хван Ген (황건), Чон Се Бон (천세봉), Юн Си Чер (윤시철), Пак Ун Гер (박웅걸), Бён Хи Гын (변희근), Ю Хан Лим (유한림).

    Самые любимые. Рассказы и очерки китайских писателей о китайских народных добровольцах в Корее. М., 1957 (пер. с кит. и ред. В.В. Юрзанов) 가장 사랑하는… 조선에서의 중국 인민 지원병들에 대한 중국 작가들의 단편 소설과 오체르크.

    Современная восточная новелла. Сборник переводов. Вып. 2. М.: ГРВЛ, 1975 현대 동방 소설 번역문집.
    Из содержания: Ли Ден Сук. История Ён Чхана (리정숙. 영창기; пер. А. Артемьева).

    Судьба охранника. Роман. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1978 수위대원의 운명. 장편소설.

    Тайное письмо. Рассказы корейских писателей. Для среднего и старшего возраста. М.: ДЛ, 1960 비밀 편지. 중학교학생용 조선 작가 단편집.
    Авторы: Пен Хи Гын (변희근), Пак Ын Хо (박응호), Нам Ын Сон (남은성), Ли Дин Хва (리진화), Пак Ун Гор (박운걸), Ли Ден Сук (리 정숙), Ли Вон У(리원우), Ким Гын О (김근오), Ли Ги Ён (리기영).

    Тё Мён Хи. Нактонган. Рассказы. М.: «Сов. писатель», 1966 조명희. 락동강. 단편집.
    Из содержания: Нактонган (락동강), Иппыни и Рённи (이쁘니와 령리), Сердце сына (아들의 마음), Новые нищие (새거지), Товарищ (동지), Из жизни одного интеллигента (박군의 로맨스), Однажды ночью (한 여름밤), Чхун Сун (춘순이).

    Хан Сер Я. Сборник рассказов. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1967한설야. 단편집.

    Хан Сер Я. Сумерки. Роман. М.: Гослитиздат, 1958 (авториз. пер. Е. Берман) 한설야. 황혼. 장편소설.

    Хан Сер Я. Сумерки. Роман. М.: ИЛ, 1959 (пер. Е. Тё) 한설야. 황혼. 장편소설.

    Хан Сер Я. Сумерки. Роман. М.: Гослитиздат, 1961 (пер. Д. Приемский) 한설야. 황혼. 장편소설.

    Хан Сер Я. Тэдонган. Роман. М.: ИЛ, 1959, 1961 (пер. Е. Тё) 한설야. 대동강. 장편소설.

    Хван Ген. Остров в огне. Рассказы. М.: Воениздат, 1960 (пер. Л.В. Журавлевой) 황건. 불타는 섬. 단편집.

    Хван Ген. Счастье. Роман. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1955 황건. 행복. 장편소설.

    Хён Хыгюн. Родина юности. Роман. М.: «Прогресс», 1974 (пер. В. Ли, ред. И. Клычкова) 현희균. 청춘의 고향. 장편소설.

    Цветочница. Роман. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1986 꽃 파는 처자. 장편소설.

    Цой Се Хя. Сб. рассказов. Пхеньян: Изд-во лит-ры на иностр. языках, 1957 최서해. 단편집.

    Цой Со Хэ. Исповедь беглеца. Рассказы. М.: ХЛ, 1960 (Сост. Хван Юндюн; пер. Л. Еременко, Хван Юндюн, В. Ли, Ф. Мальков, А. Хан; 17 рассказов) 최서해. 탈출기. 단편집.

    Чен Се Бон. Люди борющейся деревни. Повесть. Благовещенск: Амурское книжное изд-во, 1958 (пер. с англ.) 천세봉/ 싸우는 마을 사람들. 중편소설.

    Юн Се Дюн. Испытание. Роман. М.: «Молодая гвардия», 1960 (пер. Д. Усатов) 윤세중. 시련속에서. 장편소설.

  2. Similarly, It is interesting to see what foreign literature the DPRK makes available to its citizens.

    Works like “Diary of Anne Frank” for example are available in translation in the DPRK

    “안네 프랑크의 일기 (외국소설)

    저자: 안네프랑크

    출판사: 교육도서출판사 등록일 :2002-7-15

    2차세계대전의 참화속에서 어린 나이에 고향을 떠나 암스테르담의 비좁고 어둠침침한 에 숨어살면서 전쟁의 불행과 고통을 라고 이름 지은 자기의 일기장에 꾸밈없이 쓴 안내프랑크에 대한 책이다.
    – 안네 프랑크의 일기를 내면서 / – 1942년 6월12일(금요일)부터 1944년 8월 1일(화요일)까지 일기”

    that one might not expect, given the DPRK’s own horrific prison system.

    As such, I think one must be extremely careful before one subscribes to the notion that the DPRK is simply endless pablum.

    There is a great deal of pablum, yet there ARE exceptions.

  3. Pingback: N-Korean Lit. Diaspora in a Circus Mirror? A Reader Responds

  4. Hi, again. Like i´ve told. I´m member of a poetic prose and we would like to include excerpts of books awarded by north korean writers, but we have difficulties to find. Is there any Literary Award in North Korea? We have found the next writers Ko Im Hong, Eom Jeong-Hui, Cho Pyŏng Kwŏn, Kim Byung-hun and Kim Hong-ik. Nothing about photo or biography. Could you help us? Thanks a lot.

  5. Sorry I’ve been away from comments.^^

    For this you’d probably need to contact LTI Korea or someone else who owned rights to Korean fiction..

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