North Korea: A Literary View

By Choi, Yearn Hong | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

North Korea: A Literary View


Choi, Yearn Hong, Contemporary Review


North Korea's nuclear development has been making head-line news for the past several years. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations have condemned North Korea's clandestine development of a nuclear arsenal of mass destruction which threatens the security of South Korea and perhaps even that of Japan and the United States. North Korea's action may accelerate the arms race between the two Koreas and between Japan and China. The United States' role in manoeuvring between China and Japan and between North Korea and South Korea is increasing in difficulty and importance.

Why does North Korea act so unreasonably? What does it gain from a nuclear arsenal? Is North Korea trying to create fear and conflict internationally in order to divert attention from their domestic troubles such as the food and energy shortages?

The Geneva accord in October 1994 opened the diplomatic relationships between the United States and North Korea. Dismantling North Korea's nuclear arsenal requires American help in establishing light-water reactors in North Korea. North Korean harbours have already opened to US ships transporting crude oil.

The US diplomats will soon stay in Pyongyang and the North Korean diplomats will soon stay in Washington. Normalization of diplomacy will lead to trade and exchanges of scholars. teachers, scientists, engineers, artists, and tourists. However, we still do not know North Korea which has been only depicted as George Orwell's 1984 or a mysterious country under one personality cult, namely, Kim Il Sung who ruled the country from 1945 to 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, is considered as a successor to his father officially since 1995. He himself is only known as a mysterious figure.

North Korea and Cuba are the last remaining hard core Communist countries in the world as China evolves towards a mix of communism and some capitalism. North Korea was ruled with an iron hand by Kim Il Sung, who has been known as God and the 'Great President Leader' in North Korea. In the past decade, Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, has joined him as co-ruler.

North Korea has been closed to the West. It is an unknown, mysterious country to us.

I attempt to unveil North Korea via reviewing North Korean literature. North Korean politics and society have been analyzed almost exclusively by social scientists. No one has seriously attempted to understand North Korea through its literature. Literature may most faithfully present their ideas, thoughts, ignorance, hostility, excuses, national and world views in their literary works. North Korean politicians and diplomats may hide their ideas and thoughts under the name of diplomacy, but North Korean writers may not necessarily hide their inner sentiments even though they are following the Communist party's line.

The professional literature supplies knowledge and skills to the readers. Mother wit and experience buttress these. Yet more is needed, the whole range of human talents. And have we not been told (oh how often) that it is the metier of the artist to give us 'insight', 'vision', 'wisdom': a type of knowledge accessible neither through science nor common sense?

I reviewed the Chosun Munhak (North Korean Literature Monthly) from its January 1980 issue to January 1994 issue. The monthly magazine is published by the North Korean Writers' Association. Each issue has about 70 pages with poems, short stories, and critical essays. I investigated: (1) what kind of literary theories they have developed; (2) how they view Western literature; and (3) the social reality and ideals they perceive and cherish in their short stories.

(1) Literary Theories

What is (or are) North Korea's literary theory (or theories) which guides North Korean literary works?

The North Korean government continued to indoctrinate its people with socialism until the early 1960s. It justified its initiation of the Korean War, 1950-53, as a national liberation struggle, mobilizing all resources toward building a socialist country.

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