Friday, October 14, 2016

Dr. Lim Soon-hee on North Korean Literature and Popular Culture

Dr. Lim Soon-hee, who is guiding me in this project, has authored several books and papers in Korean on North Korean literature and popular culture. Before embarking on this project I reviewed two of her books, “북한의 대중문화: 실태와 변화전망” (North Korean Popular Culture: Present Situation and Outlook) and 북한문학의 김정일 ‘형상화’ 연구 (Study on the Idolization of Kim Jong Il in North Korean Literature).

Dr. Lim uses the term “popular culture” with some caveats when applied to North Korea. It is not “popular” as we understand it in the West, as a product of interactions between producers and consumers. Rather, it is imposed on the people by the Party. It is “popular” in the sense that it is intended for mass consumption, more so than “high” culture forms such as opera, painting and ballet.

Dr. Lim identifies the following distinctive features of NK popular culture (Lim 2000 p17-8)

  1. It is closed off from the opinions of those who constitute both its subjects and its consumers - the North Korean people. NK music, movies, plays, novels etc are deliberately produced and distributed according to the systematic procedures of the Party’s cultural policy organs. Rather than incorporating public sentiment, they actually exclude it. However, they are not completely without some open aspects, such as some artworks aimed at the common masses based on the “culture for the masses” policy.
  2. It is imposed from above. This is a universal feature of popular culture in communist countries, and North Korea is no different. A small minority of elites abuse the cultural demands of the masses and use popular culture as a political tool in order to secure and strengthen their positions. For example, people are obligated to sing songs and watch movies as directed by the Party. 
  3. Though its topics and subject matter may vary, the underlying content always conveys a consistent message. The core elements of this message are the achievements of the Party and Leader, sacrifice for the state and society, and gratitude for the virtue and compassion of the Party and Leader.  
  4. As a medium for mass political socialization, it functions to mobilize the people and persuade them of the legitimacy of the Party’s leadership values. Related to this, Kim Il Sung has written, “Our writers are our enthusiastic promoters among the people tasked with explaining Party policies, faithful educaters of the masses. Through the literary arts they must correctly interpret for the people the Party’s line and policies.” (Kim Il Sung, “Let us produce many literary works reflecting reality” The Complete Works of Kim Il Sung Vol 10, Pyongyang: KWP Publishing, 1980, p456.)
  5. It functions as a tool for the people’s political ideological education. North Korea emphasizes that the literary artists must fill the role of “supporters of the interests of the Party and the people, and their advocate” and “champions who educate the people and defend the Republic."
Thus the North Korean state's control of literature goes beyond mere censorship, even the extreme censorship seen in other autocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia. The writers themselves work under the auspices of the Party, and receive assignments for topics to write on. Their products are then edited, published and distributed by the Party, but since the writers themselves are employed by the state self-censorship probably eliminates most issues. I have written elsewhere about the extreme pressure North Korean writers face to avoid typos and misspellings.

Tatiana Gabroussenko, the foremost foreign scholar of North Korean literature, has even assessed that "control over writers appears to be much stricter in the DPRK than it was in the USSR even during the harshest Stalinist period." She further states:
Due to specific historical circumstances, the variety of permissible themes and acceptable artistic methods is far more limited for a North Korean author than for his/her Soviet colleague. Before being published, all manuscripts in the DPRK must pass through several levels of heavy censorship, which checks the works for appropriateness and the necessary dose of “Party spirit.” Yet, for a Communist writer, the logic of official censorship appears more or less self-explanatory: being brought up within this paradigm, North Korean writers, like their Soviet or Chinese colleagues, managed to grow their own internal censor. 
Dr. Lim identifies three major tasks of North Korean literature: building up the image of the Great Leader, extolling the greatness of the Party, and aiding in the creation of a new "Juche man.” Of these three, the first is by far the most important. From her review of various North Korean internal documents, Dr. Lim has identified a list of key instructions artists must follow for “Constructing the image of the Great Leader” (수령의 형상화): 
  1. Promote the Leader's greatness, particularly as a philosopher but also as a politician, strategist, and artist.
  2. Emphasize the greatness of his human image, particularly as a revolutionary warrior and a benevolent father to the people - particularly focusing on the depth of his inner thought and psychology.
  3. Depict his role as the link between the Party and the masses, according to the principal of the three pillars: Leader, Party, masses.
  4. Even if the work does not feature the Leader directly, it must show the influence of his revolutionary thought, wise leadership and noble virtue in all aspects of revolutionary struggle and construction (Lim 2001 p3, Lim 2000 p5-6).

Most of the stories I review here come from the literary journal Choseon Munhak (North Korean Literature), copies of which are smuggled out and sent to KINU and other South Korean libraries by unknown persons in Northeast China. 

At our first meeting, Dr. Lim warned me not to assume that these literary magazines are the sort of thing that the general North Korean citizen would often be exposed to. To read Choseon Munhak in North Korea, one must get a special pass to go to a library, where one may read while sitting in the stacks. Most North Koreans don’t have that kind of free time, even if they did get a library pass. From the Party’s perspective, the purpose of this literature is to establish North Korea as a cultural society and to serve as an archive of its progress on the path to socialist modernity.

Interestingly, Gabroussenko seems to disagree with Lim on this point, noting that "North Koreans proudly present the DPRK as 'a reading country' in which spending time with a book is a popular pastime in the general community and where 'it is easier to see a person with a book than a person with a cigarette.'" I asked the North Korean defector I teach English to, who left North Korea in 2006, and he said he was familiar with Choseon Munhak and that he would guess "at least 90%" of people have read it, although it is understood to be propaganda and they "don't believe it." My other North Korean student, who is from North Hamgyeong region, says she used to go to the library a lot but almost exclusively to read manhwa (North Korean comic books). She was vaguely aware of Choseon Munhak but said she would only have seen it in school, where they only read stories about the leaders. She also said they read an abbreviated version of Hugo's Les Miserables and several Tolstoy novels in school.

It's hard to know exactly what is going on inside the country, but this may be another example of the difference between people in the cities and the rural areas. Pressed on the point, Dr. Lim suggested that most people would only have read certain stories belonging to the genre of Kim family biographies, and these are read because they are assigned by work or school groups, not for fun. Thus, the question of "Who actually reads this stuff?" remains unanswered, at least for now. More on this perhaps at a later time.

임순희, “북한의 대중문화: 실태와 변화전망”,  통일연구원, Korea Institute of National Unification, 2000.

임순희, "북한문학의 김정일 ‘형상화’ 연구", Korea Institute of National Unification, 2001.
"Benoit Symposium: Writers in the DPRK: The Invisible Stars," by Tatiana Gabroussenko, Sino NK, Sept 27, 2013 (

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