Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kim Ju-sŏng on writing fiction in North Korea

I recently got my hands on North Korean defector Kim Ju-sŏng's new book The Frog that Couldn't Jump: The Reality of North Korea's Brainwashing Literature. The book was published in Japan earlier this year and provides a very compelling account of Kim's life as a Zainichi Korean transplant in North Korea, including details about his efforts to join the elite ranks of the Korean Writer's Union. 

Unlike other, more successful, more famous ex-KWU defectors I could talk about, Kim Ju-sŏng represents the experience of the rejected, downtrodden writer struggling and ultimately failing to climb the ladder of North Korea's state-controlled cultural production system. He writes with an amiable and self-deprecating style that hints at some of the creative inhibitions North Korean writers feel, without being too obvious or angsty about it.

The Frog that Couldn't Jump by Kim Ju-sŏng
Kim Ju-sŏng grew up attending a pro-North Korean school in the Kansai region. As a kid growing up in Japan, his loyalties had been torn between his paternal grandfather, a devoted Chosen Soren cadre who raised him to revere Kim Il Sŏng while slowly giving away the entire family fortune to pro-North Korean causes, and his father, a debt-ridden gambler and largely absent parent who warned him that the regime was a lie. In 1978 at age 15, he ended up boarding the infamous Mangyŏngbong ferry for a one-way trip to North Korea alongside his grandparents. They were among the last wave of Zainichi Koreans to be tempted away from Japan by the promise of socialist paradise in North Korea.

Kim paints a memorable image of his grandfather on the night of their arrival in Chŏngjin, smoking by the window and muttering "aigoo!" (alas). The old man had devoted his entire life and fortune to supporting the regime across the sea, convincing as many friends and relatives as possible to migrate to a land he had never actually seen. But apparently it didn't take long after his arrival for him to realize that he'd made a terrible mistake. Both grandparents died within two years of arrival, leaving Kim in the indifferent care of his aunt and uncle.

Author Kim Ju-sŏng
It was Kim's homesickness that drove him to write fiction; he wrote stories set in Japan so that he could vicariously visit his childhood home through his characters. As an adult he got a good job teaching physical education at a local college. However, after a few years of this he realized he would never become a professional writer that way, so he took the unusual step of quitting his job.

With his eye on winning admission to the prestigious writing program at Kim Hyong Jik University in Pyongyang, Kim decided to "step into the tiger's lair" and took a clerical job at the local KWU offices. This gave him abundant time to write in a supportive environment with feedback from professional writers.

Within two months, he had successfully published an essay in Chosŏn Munhak about a young Zainichi Korean making his first visit to to North Korea.  In the next three years he managed to publish four short stories in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, all featuring Zainichi characters and set in Japan, but sadly none of these won any national awards. He took the qualifying exam for the Kim Hyong Jik writing course and scored well, but was passed over in favor of a hack who "couldn't write the 'mun' in 'munhak' (literature)" but had the advantage of high sŏngbun (class ranking) and party membership.

Kim slaved away for the next seven years trying to become a party member. In addition to bribing people left, right and center, he signed up for every kind of manual labor - asphalt pouring, welding, street cleaning, streetlamp maintenance, etc.  Meanwhile he wrote tirelessly, with the goal of producing a "talked-about work" (話題作) that would force the establishment to notice him.

Finally, a senior KWU cadre dropped him a hint: If he would just drop the Japan stories and write something set in North Korea, he would surely be promoted to professional writer on the spot. So he wrote a story titled "Two Pillars."

The story centers on a Zainichi grandfather who has two granddaughters in North Korea. Hearing that they are bound for college, he travels to North Korea to see them enrolled - but finds them dressed in construction uniforms. He is puzzled, but eventually they convince him that their country needs construction workers more than college girls.

Kim put his all into the story, but it was rejected at the draft stage for "lacking originality." Apparently a famous Zainichi returnee writer, Kang Gui Mi, had written a similar story many years before.

After Japan cut off the Niigata-Wonsan ferry connection as part of its sanctions in 2005, life for Zainichi returnees in North Korea became increasingly untenable. Kim tried his hand at trading with Chinese enterprises and became familiar with the seamy underworld of cross-border trafficking in materials and people.

Kim eventually left North Korea and arrived in the South in 2006 at age 42.  The long, convoluted, fascinating tale of his escape is recounted in detail in here (from 30:00, in Korean with English subtitles). He was eventually reunited with his mother in Japan, but his father had perished in the Kobe earthquake in 1994.

The KWU Hierarchy 

According to Kim, writers in North Korea are referred to as "professional revolutionaries" and enjoy unusual perks. The first step to becoming a writer is registering as a "popular literature communicator" (群衆文学通信者) with the Korean Writer's Union, which is organized along with other artists' unions under the control of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers' Party.

Anyone can register with the KWU regardless of age, profession or gender. Once a year, registered members must attend a month-long training camp held at the KWU offices in each region. During this time, the writers live in a dorm together, attend writing seminars led by the Party, and workshop their writing. If one's work gains KWU approval, it gets published in the monthly KWU journal Chŏngnyŏn Munhak (청년문학).

A North Korean bookstore
Once a writer has published three short stories and two essays in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, he or she is promoted to "candidate member" of the Union and is given the title "employed writer" (現職作家), indicating someone who writes part-time while continuing to work in another profession. "Employed writers" are able to publish their work in the main Party literary journal Chosŏn Munhak, which is distributed only to members of the KWU. After publishing a requisite number of short stories in Chosŏn Munhak and at least one novella, one advances to "professional writer" (現役作家), indicating someone whose sole job is writing.

"Professional writers" are counted as civil servants (公務員) with all the associated privileges. But even "employed writers" enjoy considerable perks - including three month's "creativity leave" from one's main job each year, permission to travel freely anywhere in the country for research, and an invite to the annual week-long national writer's seminar in Pyongyang. There are four ranks of "professional writers," and the highest-ranked may be granted the status of "merited writer" (勲功作家) or "laureate" (桂冠作家). Above that, a few of the greatest writers have been honored as "Kim Il Sung Laureate" (金日成桂冠作家); these are considered "human national treasures." Chŏng Ki Jong, author of Ryŏksa ŭi Taeha and "Sky, Land and Sea," was one such laureate.

Pathways for Aspiring Writers

Though he started writing out of pure homesickness, Kim makes clear that his major motivation for aspiring to be a professional writer was the opportunity to live in Pyongyang. As mentioned above, to become a professional writer one must first climb the KWU hierarchy by publishing a specified number of stories.

Getting even one story approved by the KWU is quite difficult, and most aspiring writers burn out before reaching the "employed writer" stage. He discovered a short-cut: at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in Pyongyang, there is a 3-year creative writing course sponsored by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the KWP. By completing this course, one automatically advances to "professional writer" status, with a good chance at securing a Party appointment. The program is very hard to get into, and the entrance exam is held only once every three years.

He saw the Kim Hyong Jik College writing course as the best guarantee of obtaining a Pyongyang residence permit. Since he understood that the KWU stood as the gatekeeper of admissions and publications, all of his creative decisions on content, setting and style were shaped by what he knew the Party would reward.

Han Man Yu, winner of the 2017 Our
Schoolroom Prize junior division
Src: dprktoday
Early on, Kim figured his best chance at admission to the college writing program would be winning a national literature prize.

The most illustrious of these is the 4.15 National Representation Literature Prize [4.15전국형상응모문학상]; the KWU also offers the "Our Schoolroom Prize" and the "6.4 Literature Prize." Anyone in the country can submit for the 4.15 Prize in one of four divisions: adult, youth, child and professional. The "Our Schoolroom Prize" is named after a famous poem that Kim Jong Il allegedly wrote in gradeschool, and the 6.4 Literature Prize is named after the date that Kim Il Sung's guerrilla unit attacked the Japanese army outpost at Pochonbo.

Kim ultimately failed to win any of these prizes, although one story earned third place for the 6.4 Literature Prize. 

North Korea's Literary Production 

According to Kim, North Korean fiction can be divided into seven genres, roughly in order of acclaim:
1) "Number One Literature" - stories about members of the ruling Kim family
2) Anti-Japanese partisan era stories
3) Korean War stories
4) Historical fiction depicting pre-colonial, dynastic Korea
5) "Reality stories" about regular people's lives in North Korea
6) Stories set in South Korea
7) Stories set anywhere outside of Korea

With the exception of Number One Literature (which is reserved for the most elite authors), aspiring authors can choose from any of these genres, but the last two tend to get poor reviews from the KWU and are considered ideologically inferior.
Cho Ryŏng Chul (1913-1993), one of North Korea's
successful writers, pictured with his wife Kim Gwan Bo
(a renowned opera singer)

Kim writes that the highest level literary magazine, Chosŏn Munhak, is distributed only within the KWU and is inaccessible to ordinary citizens. At the next level down, Chŏngnyŏn Munhak is distributed to the general public and sometimes publishes amateur work. This writing has only one objective: to mobilize the masses. Kim writes: "There are only two types of North Korean publications: 'for study' and 'for agitation/propaganda.' There is no concept of entertainment purely for the purpose of enjoyment."

In addition to fiction, the KWU also contains divisions for poetry, theatre, foreign literature in translation, children's literature and writing for the masses. Around 1980 there was a big reorganization as Kim Jong Il prioritized film and added a screenwriting division at the same level as the literature division. From that time on, screen-writers dominated the KWU's resources, and all writing became focused on promoting the objectives of the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Kim describes the production process thusly:
   After finishing a manuscript, the writer first sends it to the state-run publishing agency, where it is edited. After that, if it passes evaluation by the National Review Committee (国家検閲委員会), it gets printed in one of the Party circulars like Chŏngnyŏn Munhak or Chosŏn Munhak. Every three months, all the published stories are evaluated and categorized as '話題作' (talked-about work), '成功作' (successful work), or '問題作' (problematic work).
   In Japan, a 'talked-about work' suggests something that garners public attention, but in North Korea, the criteria for a 'good review' are fundamentally different. In the North, fiction is judged not on circulation, sales, or reader responses, but on its evaluation by the Leaders and the higher-ups. Stories that gain the personal approval of Kim father-or-son are branded 'talked-about works,' and stories that score above a certain level are 'successful works'; such stories become required reading at all citizen's reading groups (読書会) and criticism groups (感想発表会). They are treated like some sort of school text.
   Meanwhile. the author of a 'talked-about work' suddenly gets treated differently. If Kim father-or-son reviews a work personally, it's like winning the lottery. I've seen writers who became superstars overnight, given personal cars and apartments.
   As for 'problematic works' - often stories deemed to have capitalistic elements or expressions may get this label. Among these, if works are judged as 'politically problematic' the writer may be purged or sent for reform through labor... We are literally writing 'as if our lives depend on it.'
Among other things, stories are expected to reflect revolutionary optimism and praise the works of the KWP. Among themselves, after a few drinks, writers may jokingly refer to this as "kiss-ass literature" (おべんちゃら文学). Kim believes that the reason his career never took off was that he was unable to convincingly deliver this kind of kiss-ass flattery.

When Kim began writing as a defector in South Korea, his South Korean editors were surprised that he was unfamiliar with the concept of royalties. In North Korea, writers are paid by the page (1 page = 200 characters). At the time he was writing in the 1980s, a short story might earn 300-400 NK wŏn, a novella could earn 1000-1500 wŏn and a full-length novel could earn several thousand wŏn. However, "Number One Stories" got paid four times as much and could be twice as long. (For context, at the time Kim was writing, 1kg of rice in the market cost 40 wŏn and a pack of foreign cigarettes cost 120 wŏn).

Needless to say, in order to get a story published Kim had to pay far more than he earned in bribes to his editor.

Korean Writers' Union Editors

Kim describes his complicated relationship with his KWU editor in humorous terms. "For a North Korean writer, the editor (編集員) is simultaneously one's closest partner and greatest foe. In that country, writers' personal opinions are decried as individualism, while editors hold the key to publication and represent the will of the authorities. The editor is both teacher and tyrant, and also like a flea on one's side."

As an example, Kim wrote a story from the perspective of a North Korean official who travels to Japan with the national soccer team, on which his son is a star athlete. He has a long conversation with an elderly Zainichi Korean man seated beside him, pointing out his son on the field. At the end of the story the old Zainichi stands and fumbles for his cane, and the official realizes that he is blind and has been unable to see any of the game; he just came out of a sense of patriotism. Kim was particularly proud of this O. Henry-esque "twist ending." But his editor made him rewrite the story from the blind man's perspective, emphasizing how he pined for his homeland, the better to hammer home the ideological message. This of course completely ruined the "twist ending" and undid all of the clever work of setting up the surprise.

In the case of Number One Literature, it seems the editor-writer relationship is reversed. Kim writes that Number One authors are of sufficient status that their editors have to treat them with respect and not be overly critical. Also, editors have to be extremely careful about suggesting cuts to any part of a manuscript that portrays the Leaders. They, too, risk their lives with a single misstep in the high-stakes world of North Korean fiction writing.

Other interesting tidbits:

At the time Kim was writing, in the early 1990s, KIS' age was becoming more apparent and the succession issue loomed large. Because of this, the Propaganda and Agitation Department began a campaign to foster the idea that "Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the same person." This explains why their speech patterns, mannerisms and general descriptions in the stories are all identical.

Kim recalls a very melodramatic story that was told at his Korean school in Japan:
   One day, when the whole country was struggling to rebuild after the war, the top officials gathered for a meeting. Receiving the budget report, Kim Il Sung turned to his economic advisor and asked, "Why is there no allocation for Zainichi education support in this budget?"
   The assembled advisors were stunned.
   Chŏng Jun Taek (later vice premier) spoke frankly. "Why, Mr. Chairman, at present we have not even one cent to spare from the reconstruction effort. Food is short, and countless numbers of our own citizens are homeless. Now is not the time to discuss our overseas compatriots."
   Next Choe Hyŏn (a top military official, father of current number-two Choe Ryong Hae) launched into a tirade. "Comrade Kim Il Sung! Are you out of your mind? The scars of war are still raw, and you care more for distant children overseas than our own children near at hand!" Choe was a soldier to his core, an old friend from their partisan days, Kim Il Sung's elder and former superior officer in the Chinese Red Army, perhaps the only person who could speak to the Leader without restraint.
Han Dŏk Su meeting Kim Il Sung.
Src: Wolgan Chosŏn
   After hearing out all these objections, Kim Il Sung turned to the window and spoke quietly. "Why do none of you understand how I feel? Even if our people must chew on grass roots to fill their bellies, even if they sleep on the streets with rocks for their pillows, consider this: at least they have the grass and rocks of their homeland. Their own native land!"
    At his words, the officials were stunned to silence. When the Leader turned from the window, they saw tears streaming down his cheeks. "Right now, our comrade Han Dŏk Su (Chosen Soren leader) is boldly organizing and building a school for our children in Tokyo. Right in the heart of 'that country'! The fates of 600,000 of our compatriots and their children depend on him. They are our citizens overseas. As your leader, and as a parent, how can I ignore them!" And with that, he kicked open the door and strode out of the room.
Kim's first job was as a physical education teacher at a regional college. He writes that in North Korea, physical education is taken very seriously; in order to graduate every student must pass a series of physical tests. This is considered part of military readiness, that every citizen be in sufficient physical shape to take up arms if need be.

On why so many North Korean defectors choose to settle in Seoul: “If you ask them, they will all say the same thing: 'In North Korea we always dreamed of living in Pyongyang. When I visited on a school field trip as a kid, I ate ice cream for the first time in my life and visited the amusement park. I thought I was in heaven.' Since there is freedom of movement in South Korea, it just seemed obvious that everyone would want to live in the capital.” Part of Kim's reason for wanting to become a writer in the first place was in hopes of getting to live in Pyongyang.

In the 1990s Kim spent a lot of time hanging out with his Zainichi friends in the lower levels of the Koryo Hotel, where he frequently encountered Fujimoto Kenji (KJI’s personal sushi chef), and caught glimpses of KJI's firstborn son Kim Jong Nam (a solitary, sad figure) and later number-two officials Jang Song Taek and Choe Ryong Hae (always greeted with great fanfare and a reception line of beautiful women at the hotel entrance). It was generally understood that regular people were not allowed into the Koryo, but apparently Zainichi returnees with rich overseas relatives were welcome to spend their money there.

The Zainichi transplants had their own code words for the high-ups based on the Japanese reading of their names: Kim Jong Il was "Masa-chan," Kim Kyŏng Hui was "Keiko-san,"  Jang Song Taek was "Chō-san" etc. One of Kim's Zainichi friends got in deep trouble with State Security for using these code names.

Kim tells the story of one of his closest friends and fellow writers, a man who one day discovered that his editor had been regularly raping his wife. Knowing that her attacker held her husband's career and fate in his hands, the wife had kept silent. In rage and despair, the man tried to flee the country but was caught by State Security. Kim later heard that he had been sent to the infamous Yodŏk Prison Camp. This friend had been Kim's confidant and the two had often discussed their dissatisfaction with the regime, so for years afterward Kim lived in fear of every knock on the door.

One of Kim's responsibilities in his job at the KWU was maintaining its small lending library. In one corner of this library sat an unassuming safe which, it turned out, was packed full of mimeographed, Korean-translated copies of foreign novels: Matsumoto Seichō's Points and Lines, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, O. Henry's The Last Leaf, Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, Kobayashi Takiji's Crab Cannery Ship, Dante's Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's Decameron, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and Morimura Seiichi's Proof of the Man. These were exclusively for the KWU authors' use; the only foreign literature ordinary North Koreans had access to was Russian and Chinese. Though the safe's existence was a secret, somehow word got out, and Kim was constantly rebuffing under-the-counter requests from Party officials and their children. It would be his funeral if any of the materials turned up in the wrong hands.

Kim tells of numerous writers who fell out of favor and got purged or sent to reform-through-labor, including the screenwriter of the popular series "Unsung Heroes" (이름없는 영웅). One promising young Zainichi writer was studying literature at Kim Il Sung University when he had the misfortune to fall in love with Kim Il's daughter, at a time when the former partisan fighter was vice premier at the height of his power. When he found out about the romance, Kim Il had the lad sent to a labor camp and shipped his daughter off to school in Russia. The boy's father, a high-level Chosen Soren official in Japan, eventually found out and complained to Kim Il Sung, who harshly rebuked Kim Il. The boy was then allowed to return to school and went on to write a famous novel, "Hymn of Youth" (청춘송가), about his experiences - but the couple never got back together. Among the writers of North Korea, the back-story to this novel is well-known and considered the greatest love story of all time.


Author Kim Ju-sŏng has made the rounds of the defector variety shows. He appeared on ChannelA's "이제 만나러 갑니다" ( and has made numerous appearances as a contributor to Bena TV, giving extended interviews in both Korean ( - English subtitles) and Japanese ( - Korean subtitles).

Full citation:
Kim Ju-song, Tobenai kaeru: Kitachōsen sennō bungaku no jittai (The Frog that Couldn’t Jump: The Reality of North Korea’s Brainwashing Literature) (Tokyo: Futabasha, 2018). link