Frogs in a Well: Literary Life in North Korea

In Growth Markets by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka


North Korea is without a doubt among the most mysterious of countries, which begs the question: What kind of literary life is there in North Korea? The answer — according to two new books about the country, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau) and The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers (Melville House) — is nothing short of surprising and alarming.

“Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is popular in North Korea,” says Demick during an interview with Publishing Perspectives. Her book is drawn largely from interviews with North Korean defectors and covers several decades of recent history, focusing on the industrial city of Chongjin. “The parallels between the American Civil War and the Korean War, that brutality of divided nations, of brother against brother, interests them.”

Demick explains that foreign books are, by and large, only available at The People’s Study Hall, which is the showcase library in Pyongyang, and a place only open to the elite. “North Korea isn’t anti-intellectual, it’s just anti-outside ideas. There are a very limited number of foreign titles available at the library, including some books by Russians, as well as Jack London — who is popular, and some others, like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and some by Sidney Sheldon.”

“Apparently,” she adds, “there is a list of one hundred approved books — ‘The 100 Books’ — that the elite are allowed to read.”

Like in many dictatorships, the paper supply is kept under tight control; but in the case of North Korea there has hardly been any paper to control as there has been serious paper shortage for some time. As a consequence, students are forced to photocopy books whenever possible and many textbooks used by schoolchildren are virtually unreadable reproductions of reproductions.

“At the end of the day,” says Demick, “literature is totally subservient to propaganda, which is there to preserve the myth of North Korea’s greatness.”

Recent works of historical fiction have also touched on international figures, such as books about US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to North Korea and about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Narrative Propaganda

B.R. Myers warns that “North Korea is country in which all cultural activity is subjugated to the needs of the Workers Party. Even a simple love story, for example, will carry a propaganda message — a man will fall in love with a woman because she has the right attitude toward working for the state.”

Another typical story might be: A solider is lazy and not sweeping the floor of his tent, so a comrade does it for him. The bad soldier comes in and sees what has been done and bursts into tears and says he’s sorry.

More often than in the West, that soldier might be a woman rather than a man.

Absent Fathers

Indeed, “Fathers are virtually absent from North Korean narrative,” says Myers, citing the example of Kim Il Jong, who he says is deliberately depicted as a hermaphroditic parent figure, more mother than father, because the state itself is seen as more of mother figure than a father.

“In almost every North Korean narrative a character is a widowed mother or one of the children who grow up under them,” notes Myers. The result of this fatherless society, he says, is the celebration of “rash, impetuous behavior.” Accordingly, in North Korea “they solve differences with their fists and there is frequently spontaneous violence.” This too is something reflected in the narratives, which often include a character who is “mad as hell” which leads to “an explosion of purgative violence.”

As for structure, North Korean literature tend to eschew the convention of suspense: “Narratives tend to start with final scenes — with the hero being rewarded,” says Myers. “They don’t like suspense because if you’re not sure what is happening, your mind will go in directions that the Party can’t control.”

No Literary Underground

Myers says that one of the common mistakes Western observers make when discussing North Korea, whether politically or culturally, is to assume that it is similar in character to the former Soviet Union. “Don’t extrapolate that the scene is anything like there was in Soviet literature,” says Myers. “There is no samizdat underground literary scene.”

Another error is to view the excesses of North Korean propaganda as little more than a joke. Myers notes that it’s a key to the Party’s power: “This a state that manages to survive twenty years after the end of the cold war not because it’s repressive, but because it still manages to give its people a message that inspires them.” (The message is that North Korea is the most racially and culturally superior country in the world.)

Myers’s book from 1994, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK, looked at the man who was chairman of the D.P.R.K.’s Federation of Literature and Art from 1948 to 1962 and was responsible for the iconography of Kim Il Sung. “He got too big for his britches and they had to purge him,” says Myers. “That is why now the state decided not to link the myths of the leader to any particular writer. You now have multiple writers doing historical narratives about the leaders.”

Carter, Lewinsky, and James Bond

Recent works of historical fiction have also touched on international figures, such as books about US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to North Korea and about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal — which, of course, presume a familiarity with world events, again reinforcing the idea that books and fiction are for a very small privileged elite.

In fact, Myers says that there are generally only two ways to become a writer in North Korea: You are one of the elite students and have a sterling Party background or else, on occasion, the Party will select a talented amateur who has sent in something praiseworthy about the country to the government.

These days the literature is not monolithic and, because more and more South Korean media is slipping over the border, whether in the form of DVDs or radio, the propaganda has been forced to compete with these other distractions. As a result, recent North Korean novels have more of a “James Bondian element” to them.

However, despite these mass-market touches, reading is not an especially popular activity in North Korea or, even, South Korea. “Koreans are more inclined toward group activities and not solitary activities, such as reading,” says Myers, who cited a recent poll which indicated the South Koreans read half as much as Americans and were near the bottom of developing nations. “In North Korea, the leaders are not keen to push novels because they isolate people.”

All said, there are a number of lessons that can be extrapolated from a study of North Korea’s literature and literary life, not the least of which is the fact that so many stories that celebrate rashness and spontaneity and end in an act of “purgative violence.”

“If they knew just what kind of state they’re dealing with,” says Myers, “politicians would be talking about the nuclear problem with more urgency.”

READ: An excerpt of Barbar Demick’s Nothing to Envy.

LEARN: More about B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race.

DISCUSS: What book would you give North Koreans to read?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.