Review: Korean Short Stories A Collection from North Korea

Cover to Korean Short Stories A collection from North KoreaI have written about North Korean fiction in the South Korean gaze in my Diaspora in a Mirror series herehere, here, and here. But now, I have some actual North Korean literature in hand, the Korean Short Stories A  Collection from North Korea. It is an interesting mix, with some stories ridiculous political cant, and other with quite affecting bits.

The first story is History of Iron (1967) by Pyon Hui Gun and unfortunately that’s not an ironic or symbolic title and the story is every bit as interesting as the title might lead you to believe. It’s the story of two North Koreans, Ung Chil and Byong Du, who labor in an ironworks that is destroyed twice, once by the “Japs” and once by the “Bloody Swine!” Americans. The story is technically well constructed, using flashbacks and highly improbable encounters with Kim Il Sung who is, no surprise, presented as a combination of Albert Einstein, Dr. Ruth, and Dale Carnegie. But it is so chock full of political lecturing that it is difficult to enjoy. There is a minimal and un-interesting plot.

It ends

Our history of iron which began under the guidance of the great leader will continue under his command, startling the world with many miracles.

Scarcely stirring stuff.

The next story works much better. Happiness (1963) by Sok Yun Ji, is a story-within-a-story, featuring two old friends meeting and discussing, by way of one of their lives, what happiness is. Happiness is also prone to moralizing, with characters doing things like reciting entire paragraphs of poster-propaganda, but is has the advantage of a friendship and semi-love-story at its heart. Sin Hyong Jin, a widowed (by the evil American bombers) surgeon takes a walk with his friend a newspaperman and the latter’s exploration into the surgeon’s potential plan for remarriage leads the surgeon to recount an interesting love triangle that he has been (chastely) involved in. The characters here have real personalities, and by the time the story ends on a note of relationship hope, I had recovered from the soporific effects of History of Iron.

Ogi (1961), by Chon Se Bong, unfortunately, immediately drops us in to the middle of North Korean economic productivity lecture, as the eponymous heroine is described as:

(planting) 600 pyong (about 1,000 m2) a day. At home, at the sewing-machine she could easily make a garment in a few hours at night. This winter Ogi had collected more than three tons of manure all by herself.

In some ways this heroine reminded me of the equally fiercely didactically presented Kyeonghui (1918) by the tragic Na Hye-seok, who was always brave, noble, and ecstatically happy at the thought of additional work

The not-so-naturalistic (I hope) dialogue includes exchanges like the following.

“Ogi, let’s prove our merits in farming this year. We really must not fall behind the other villages, must we?”
“Of course not.”
Ogi smiled as she dug up the manure

Ogi is engaged to a burly truck driver who has, after 4 years at that work, decided he wants to go to University, a decision Ogi finds ‘vain.’ Worse, he wants to break off their engagement. In the end a kind of compromise is reached, but it seems unsatisfying for both parties, although it will allow the truck driver to continue to support the economic growth of the village, which really seems to be the plot-driver in this story.
Fellow Travelers (1960) by Kim Byong Hun wins hands-down for most ironic title in the collection and also for most entertaining. It is the story of an older man who, on a train, meets an enthusiastic younger woman who is bringing 50,000 young carp in a can, with a plan of seeding them somewhere and letting them grow to eating size. The woman gets separated from the train and other riders have to decide what to do to re-unite her with her bucket of carp. This is well written and the characters are only a bit cut-out, with the old man (the narrator) being particularly well portrayed and the secret he keeps from the girl being a funny one.

As in Ogi, there is a strong undercurrent of argument against leaving the village and going to the big city. I imagine at this time Pyongyang worked in the North Korean imagination as Seoul does today in South Korea, and wonder if these messages were the equivalent of a literary Saemaul Undong movement (President Park’s plan to modernize villages, to develop their infrastructure and to get rid of old habits and traditions. Villagers were “educated” and “mobilized” through state-sponsored campaigns and assisted by a massive reallocation of government funds as well as by “spiritual guidance.” In its emphasis on local initiatives and ideological indoctrination, the Saemaul Undong is eerily reminiscent of similar campaigns in socialist countries ).

This story also gives a shout out to From Wonso Pond by Kang Kyong-ae, which amused me in some obscure way.

Everyone in Position! by Om Dan Ung has one of those martial titles that scare me just a bit, and the story begins with Chon Chang Min, a former regiment commander, staring out a window and thinking back on his military days and his current problems. He is confronted with the problem of moving a massive crane and needs to come up with a quick move. When a worker proposes a radical solution to the problem (and one that openly suggests that the “laws” of Juche supercede the laws of physics!) Chon must decide to accept it or not. The last paragraph is powerfully written and well described, only to collapse in the last sentence when its physicality and precision is deflated in a whoopee cushion of quota-meeting. All in all, though, a pretty good story.

Unfinished Sculpture by Ko Byong Sam is undated, but from a much later time period, as it takes place in Kwangju during the Kwangju Massacre, which happened in 1980. It is the story of two (chaste, again) lovers, looking for each other in the chaos of the rebellion, and finding each other just before the government troops mount their final assault on the rebels. It is a bit overwrought at times, a difficult thing to do to a story as horrible as the Gwangju Massacre, but it is an interesting story. Among other things it presents a priest sympathetically and it has a grim but positive ending.

The translation here seems good (likely done by someone from the UK?), but no translator is named, and there are no explanatory notes of any kind, nor and introduction or conclusion, so a reader is pretty much on their own with this one.

5 thoughts on “Review: Korean Short Stories A Collection from North Korea

  1. Your review is good, and reinforces my view that if one systematically went through Choson Munhak

    one would likely find enough good stories to merit a small anthology.

    I would think that one could publish annually in ROK “The Best of DPRK Literature” that would contain stories, poems, plays, etc. that would be good, and not filled with the surreal leader-worship that is the unofficial official religion of DPRK.

    Moreover, I tend to think that Chinese literature written in Korean( because of the far lower levels of censorship in China) is likely to be even better in terms of the ratio of quality vs. quantity than that from the DPRK.

  2. Pingback: More on North Korean Literature & poet Jang Jin-sung |

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