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No Kiss Scenes Yet – The Significance of North Korean Literature

September 2, 2013

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This article originally appeared on pages 30-33 of the February 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Arranged by Robert Lauler.

Dr. Kim in his office at Kyunghee University.

Literature is often said to reflect the society in which it is created, and this is arguably as true in North Korea as anywhere else. While many might view North Korean literature as being little more than worthless propaganda – even “garbage” – this misses the point, says Kim Jong Hee (김종희), a professor of Korean literature at Kyunghee University (경희대학교). Kim believes that understanding North Korean literature can provide outsiders with a better understanding of North Korean thinking and changes in the country.

Kim is already well-known in the North Korean literature field for works such as “”Understanding North Korean Literature” (북한문학의 이해), “Literature of the Korean People” (한민족 문화권의 문학), and “Source Book of Overseas Korean Literature” (해외동포문학 전집). He recently published a 3,000 page “source book” on North Korean literature (북한문학연구자료총서), a massive four-volume work that boasts 252 poems and 31 novels from North Korea, along with 21 research papers and 26 literature reviews written by scholars. “My motivation for publishing the book was to create a comprehensive understanding of North Korean literature for future research, something that has been absent in South Korea up until now,” he says.

Literature: The Key to Understanding North Korea

Kim points out that in South Korea the first thing people criticize about North Korean literature is its ideological, pro-regime character. South Korean literature, Kim says, is aimed at producing something of artistic value that can be enjoyed. North Korean literature does not fit this characterization. “North Korea uses literature to spread ideology to its people and has a strong tendency to use it in ideological education, particularly the spread of Juche ideology,” Kim says. “North Korea’s literature is not aimed at artistic expression, but is rather a tool to maintain control over the people.”

Nonetheless, the heavy propaganda in North Korea literature does not totally eliminate its value, argues Kim. He says that the literature reflects the actual sentiments and thinking of North Koreans themselves. “Even if the literature has the tendency to criticize and insult America and South Korea it nevertheless reflects the current North Korea, and that has significance,” Kim points out. “Even though some may regard it as “trash” the literature reveals the truth of the lives of North Koreans.”

Kim argues that reading North Korean literature and understanding changes within its history can provide a key to understanding larger changes in North Korean society. “I think there is no better source to understand North Korea’s political and social changes than the country’s literature,” he says. Kim divides trends in North Korean literature into five periods, which are outlined below:

1945 – 1950: Period of Peaceful Democracy Construction (평화적 민주건설 시기)
1950 – 1953: Period of War for Liberation of the Fatherland (조국해방전쟁시기)
1953 – 1967: Period of Struggle for Post-War Recovery and Constructing a Basis for Socialism (전후복구건설과 사회주의 기초건설을 위한 투쟁 시기)
1967 – 1980: Period of Struggle for Spreading Juche Ideology (주체사상화를 위한 투쟁시기)
1980 – to present: Period of “Real Juche” Literature (현실주제문학시기)

Kim says that the “Period of Struggle for Spreading Juche Ideology” (1967-1980) has become the foundation for North Korean literature up until now because literature from this period idolizes the Kim family. In fact, this period coincides with the establishment of the “April 15 Literature Group” (4.15문학창작단), where April 15 denotes the birthdate of Kim Il Sung. The group is famous for publishing the “Immortal History” (불멸의 역사) series, which are full-length novels focused on recreating heroic moments in Kim Il Sung’s life. During the Kim Jong Il-era, the group published the “Immortal Leader” (불멸의 향도) series with similar motivations to embellish Kim Jong Il’s life. “These novels revere Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as the father and son of the nation, respectively, and go into minute detail into everything they have done,” says Kim.

No Kiss Scenes Yet

North Korean literature’s focus on spreading the Juche ideology and idolizing the Kim clan means individual feelings (개인의 정서) are nowhere to be found in North Korean books before the 1980s, says Kim. North Korean literature before this time had only superficial scenes of ordinary North Koreans and other propaganda-filled messages from the regime. “The only personal expressions are those that express praise or loyalty to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the like,” Kim says.

Dr. Kim in his office at Kyunghee University

He says that things changed in the 1980s when North Korean leaders found that the current literature had largely lost its power to educate the masses. As a result, North Korean literature began reflecting social issues and real people’s lives; in short, this period saw the appearance of stories that ordinary North Koreans could sympathize with. “Literature from this point describe conflict between mother and daughter-in-laws, domestic disputes, and even free love. It is particularly worthy of note that the literature has dealt with mother vs. daughter-in-law conflict and domestic disputes considering the fact that North Korea has a strong paternalistic culture.”

Kim nonetheless makes it clear that only very small changes have occurred in the literature since the 1980s. North Korean literature’s first expression of love between a man and woman – a novel titled Hwang Jin I (황진이) – is a case in point. “The novel is shocking because it is the first time that a work of North Korean literature expresses love between a man and a woman. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is a major change,” warns Kim. “This is because while the expression of love is worthy of note, the book does not have a kiss scene. I think that a kiss scene would make it possible to say that North Korean literature and society is undergoing some change. What the North Korean authorities want expressed to the outside world is reflected in quick fashion in the literature, but we are not at the point yet where ordinary North Korean people’s lives are revealed to that extent.”

North Korean Literature is not “Trash”

Kim says there has been little interest on North Korean literature from the South Korean government, and this ignores the role literature can play in finding a solution to the inter-Korean impasse. “There is no government department tasked solely with dealing with North Korean culture and the arts, and little understanding as well,” he says. Kim argues that a better understanding of North Korean culture would play a role in developing better political and military policies that could lead to improved inter-Korean relations. “This is because literature itself reflects the society in which it was created. Approaching the issue from the cultural side, like North Korean literature, can help policymakers understand North Korean thinking,” he says. “I believe that the development of inter-Korean relations will depend on how much the government has interest in and understands North Korean culture.”

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