North Korean literature

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A shelf of books with Korean writing on them
Books on display at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang
This article deals with the literature of the northern half of the Korean peninsula following the proclamation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. For the literature of Korea before that date, see: Korean literature.

The partition of Korea following the Second World War led to a considerable cross-border movement, which included writers moving from North to South or from South to North.

North Korea's subsequent literary tradition was shaped and controlled by the State. "Guidelines for Juche Literature" published by the official Choson Writers' Alliance (Chosŏn'gŭl: 조선 작가 동맹) emphasised that literature must extoll the country's leader, Kim Il-sung, and, later, Kim Jong-il. Only members of the Writers' Alliance are authorised to have their works published.

Literature of the 20th century[edit]

According to "court poet" and now defector Jang Jin-sung, prior to 1994, when Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung was alive, the art of the novel was preeminent.[1] Nearly all the top state honors such as the Kim Il-sung Medal, the Order of Heroic Effort, and the title of Kim Il-sung Associate were awarded to the state's novelists.[1] The novel's length was a perfect medium to expose on the great deeds of Kim Il-sung, who was himself both an avid reader and writer of novels.[1] After his death in 1994, the novel was replaced by poetry, which was largely due to the countries economic problems which made paper very expensive and poetry about the deeds of Dear Leader could be reproduced easily in a single newspaper page.[1] Shorter poetry was most common, while the longer epic genre was restricted to just six poets, who were also the poets laureate of North Korea.[1] Epic poetry (and film) became the chief vehicle of political propaganda under Kim Jong-il.[1]

The DPRK Ministry of Culture promoted North Korean literature in Russia and China during the Cold War era. Several Soviet Koreanists published studies on DPRK literature and translations in Russian. Among the novelists translated into Russian and Chinese were:

Works published in Choson Munhak, the Choson Writers' Alliance's monthly literary journal, are accessible by subscription abroad.

Contemporary literature[edit]

As Ha-yun Jung puts it, "[i]f there is an underground network of dissident writers secretly circulating their writings under the watchful eyes of the Workers' Party, the world has not heard from them yet". In 2006, Words Without Borders included the works of four North Korean writers, translated into English, in its anthology Literature from the "Axis of Evil". Kang Kwi-mi's short story "A Tale of Music", published in Choson Munhak in February 2003, tells the tale of a young Zainichi Korean who discovers he is skilled at playing the trumpet, moves to North Korea, and relinquishes music in favour of stonemasonry. His passion for the "music" of stones is caused by the greatness of Kim Jong-il as expressed through stone monuments. Lim Hwa-won's short story "The Fifth Photograph" is told from the perspective of a North Korean woman who visits post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s, and finds a country in a state of moral turmoil for having turned its back on socialism. The narrator blames insidious American influence for Russia's woes, and emphasises the need for strong ideological commitment in North Korea. Byungu Chon's poem "Falling Persimmons" evokes the emotional suffering caused by the partition of Korea, and hopes for reunification.

The anthology also contains an excerpt from Hong Seok-jung's 2002 novel Hwangjini, which received the 2004 Manhae Literary Prize – the first time the South Korean literary award had been conferred upon a North Korean writer. Hwangjini is a historical novel set in the sixteenth century.

Themes and literary techniques[edit]

Without exception, North Korean fiction seeks to instill a teaching in the mind of the reader.[6] Almost every story includes a exemplary character whose upright behavior is to be emulated.[7] A recurring storyline is the protagonist's initial misunderstanding of a hard-working person as emotionally cold and eventual realisation that hard work is in fact an instance of love felt for the nation.[8] It is usually this protagonist that comes to realisation rather than the idealised character that the reader is supposed to identify with.[9]

Transition is a particularly important literary technique in symbolising adoption of a didactic message.[6] The characters that the reader is supposed to identify with are seen as inadequate and in process, so that a moment of reaffirming one's revolutionary commitment become possible for the reader.[9] Thus transitory events, like the New Year, take on symbolic meaning.[6]

Stories often evoke the pathetic fallacy: characters' emotions tend to be reflected in natural phenomena such as the weather. One reason for such a technique is that description of nature might be one of the few areas of artistic expression where authors enjoy relative freedom from political constrains.[10] Nature as a theme, however, has undergone a transformation. Until the 1990s, man's "revolutionary struggle" is the master of nature, but since then, nature is likened to an external threat. The intended message is that the floods and consequent economic hardship of the 1990s are caused by factors that are not in the control of the government.[11] The 1990s, in general, saw a turn to less romanticised portrayal in North Korean literature.[12] However, despite portrayal of difficulties, stories tend to be optimistic and have happy endings.[13]

A prominent theme of North Korean fiction is hagiography of the leaders. Hagiography is particularly evident in novels. In particular, Kim Il-sung is depicted in both historical (the Anti-Japanese struggle) and contemporary contexts. Han Sorya's History (MR: Ryŏksa) was the first long work to deal with Kim Il-sung during the Anti-Japanese struggle, whereas The Immortal History (MR: Pulmyŏl-ŭi ryŏksa) and The Immortal Leadership (MR: Pulmyŏl-ŭi hyangdo) are classics that praise Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il respectively.[14]

Works published abroad[edit]

Some autobiographies written by North Korean exiles published since 2000 contain grim accounts of life in North Korea, such as Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2000) and Hyok Kang's This is Paradise! (2005).[15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Jang Jin-sung (2014). "Chapter 1: Psychological Warfare". Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee--A Look Inside North Korea. 37 Ink. ISBN 978-1476766553. 
  2. ^ Ivanov, Viktorina Ivanovna (b. 1929) A creative way to Lee Ki-Yong. 1960. The life and work of Lee Ki-Yong. 1962. New Fiction of Korea. Nauka. 1987
  3. ^ Grave of North Korean Writer Ri Ki Yong
  4. ^ Grave of North Korean Writer Hong Myong Hui
  5. ^ Grave of North Korean Writer Han Sorya
  6. ^ a b c Epstein 2002, p. 36.
  7. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 42–43.
  8. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 43.
  9. ^ a b Epstein 2002, p. 45.
  10. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 40.
  11. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 41.
  12. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 46.
  13. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 48.
  14. ^ Epstein 2002, p. 37.
  15. ^ Kang Chol-hwan (2001). The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Basic Books. 
  16. ^ Hyok Kang (2007). This is Paradise!. Abacus.