Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pyongyang Propaganda Concedes Hardship ; in New Tack, North Korean Books and TV Allude to Food Shortages and Hard Times

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pyongyang Propaganda Concedes Hardship ; in New Tack, North Korean Books and TV Allude to Food Shortages and Hard Times

Article excerpt

A North Korean literary genre, called "leadership series," has for years employed a device whereby the "Great Leader" of the nation steals out, unrecognized, to mingle with the people. In these novellas and short stories, peasants and rustics hold unwitting conversations with Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il about the glories of living in a "paradise on earth" - a device designed to flood the tear ducts of the reverent reader.

Yet there is a new honesty - possibly a risky one, some experts say - in the media arts of one of the last Stalinist nations. Consider an excerpt from "Change," a short story by Pak Il Myeong, and certainly approved by Kim Jong Il. The dialogue begins when an incognito Kim meets an elderly woman on the roadside. She is undernourished, described as "gaunt," and that elicits a response from the troubled ruler:

"Comrade Kim Jong Il spoke in a grave voice. 'In recent years we have not farmed well ... we have suffered from floods and droughts. So the problem of food is causing the people difficulties. But no one complains. Even while eating gruel they steadfastly overcome these difficulties!"

North Korean propaganda, in the classic communist mode, has long reinforced a perfect picture of life and leadership. In "socialist realist" art theory, masses must only be shown a future utopia, things as they should be, come the revolution. Even today no depiction of living standards outside the North are allowed. Kim himself is a "peerlessly great man," as the North's official media put it this week, as six-party talks began in Beijing.

Now, that propaganda is undergoing a subtle adjustment. In dialogue, camera work, and story lines, mentions now crop up of mass hunger and hard times since Kim Jong Il took over from his father, Kim Il Sung - a period when five percent of the population died of starvation. There are even subtle hints that Kim is not the same "Great Leader" his father was.

The new frankness does not include mention of starvation, says B.R. Myers, author of "Han Sorya and North Korean Literature." But it depicts hunger, and magnifies events like a World War II "hardship march campaign," which can also be read as an implicit symbol of current woes.

Still, "the very acknowledgment of a food shortage is remarkable when compared to the propaganda under Kim Il Sung," argues Mr. Myers, a visiting professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul. "It is also more honest than what was written under Stalin and Mao."

In new fiction, TV shows, and in films like last year's "People of Chagang Province," Kim Jong Il is shown as keenly aware of chronic food shortages, and even as eating the same "gruel" as ordinary Koreans. He is often depicted as too busy conducting a "military first" policy, defending the nation from its enemies, to have the time to be fully engaged in agricultural oversight. There's even a strain of guilt injected in the message - that people don't work hard enough to feed the "Dear Leader."

For example, the elderly woman in the short story says to the incognito Kim, "Does not our General [Kim] go up and down steep mountain paths without a moment's rest in order to visit the People's Army troops? He's trying to keep watch over the homeland and over the fate of all of us. And he always insists on eating just what the people are eating, rice and gruel. …

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