Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Sarm ui Hyanggi": A North Korean's take

Where the Cuckoo Bird Sings,
A collection of North Korean short stories
published by Sallimteo
As mentioned in an earlier post, I have received some help in translating difficult passages from the two North Korean refugees I teach English to through the auspices of the NGO, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). TNKR links interested foreigners with North Koreans living in Seoul for one-on-one English tutoring, as a way to help fill the gaps in their early education and help them compete with their South Korean peers.  Both of my students are young refugees in their 20s who have been living in South Korea for several years and are now attending college, and their English ability is already quite formidable.

One of my students, who goes by the name Jade, expressed particular fascination with the stories I was reading. When she saw the Sallimteo collection of North Korean short stories, her eyes got wide as saucers and she exclaimed, "This is just the way people in the North talk!" It seemed quite novel for her to see a story written in the style of normal North Korean speech, without the usual stilted phrases praising the Party and the leaders. She asked me where she could find such a book. I told her it was out of print, but I could lend her my copy for a few weeks. In exchange, I asked her to write a short composition in English on her reactions to the story Sarm ui Hyanggi, summarized here. Here is what she wrote (edited slightly for clarity):
   After reading the short story written in North Korea, I tried to find some words to understand my feelings about the story. I got fresh inspiration because of the content of this story, which is mainly about gender equality. This writer emphasized the social position of women and placed high emphasis on the challenges women face in advancing their careers in society. But this sort of emphasis is not really typical in North Korea. I do not mean that women have no chance to try to build their careers; they can study if they want to. But the reason I got fresh inspiration was that I had never heard about gender equality while in North Korea, beyond learning the importance of women’s roles in supporting men, who are the ones expected to serve the society of Kim Jong Il.
   In addition, I was really fascinated by the phrases and expressions used in this story. The subject matter and the expressions were really fresh for me.  Also, the writer only mentioned Kim Jong Il once. Compared with the books that I had read in my life before leaving North Korea, this story was completely different. In the strict sense, I think this book was written for the outside world. Some of my other friends from North Korea agree with me.
   I am happy to have the chance to read this book as a North Korean in South Korea.
We debated for some time about the intended audience of these stories. Jade said that she believed they were written for the purpose of promoting North Korea to South Koreans and overseas Koreans, since she herself had never seen this kind of writing in North Korea. I felt skeptical, pointing out that the stories depicted a less-than-perfect socialist society and it was only through smuggling that such materials were able to make their way into South Korea. But I must defer to her insights, since she knows far more than I do.

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