In the North Korean Literary Fiction Factory

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With colorful rhetoric on idiots and nuclear buttons, North Korean propaganda is attracting worldwide attention.

Outside observers can now easily access some of this propaganda by visiting sponsored by the plan websites. These, in turn, spawned foreign foods like the excellent KCNA Watch Media Aggregator and satirical sites such as “Kim Jong Un looks at things. ”

However, there is another facet of the North Korean political message, one directed at the national population.

Difficult to access and written in highly stylized dogmatic prose, North Korea’s domestic propaganda is not only largely ignored abroad, but it is also difficult to understand, even for South Koreans. It includes state-sponsored Chosun Central television shows, state-produced films, and groundbreaking operas and ballads.

But one of the most illuminating forms of internal propaganda is state-produced fiction. Published in monthly literary journals, these stories are distributed by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party to selected schools and offices across the country.

In an effort to make this internal propaganda more accessible to non-Koreans, I translated and blog on a selection of North Korean fictional works as part of my research on North Korean cultural policy.

These stories may offer outsiders a glimpse into the regime’s changing concerns and priorities, which include a recent campaign to bolster the legitimacy of their young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Penning tales for the diet

No other autocratic regime today has such a well-developed stable of artists and writers producing works aligned with the ideological needs of the party. The ruling Korean Workers’ Party has a large bureaucracy responsible for training talent, setting standards, and commissioning projects in literature and other branches of the arts.

Like most professionals in North Korea, fiction writers belong to their own organization within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party: the Chosŏn Writer’s Union. The Party therefore has direct control over what is written and the themes that are put forward.

The works of fiction are published in one of the few monthly literary journals, the most prestigious of which is Korean literature, produced by Chosŏn Literature and Art Union Publishing. Other journals include children’s literature, children’s literature, and the literary journal.

A North Korean propaganda image proclaims “Let’s make a habit of reading nationwide!”
Tatiana Gabroussenko

Within the Union of Writers of Chosŏn, the most elitist authors constitute the Literary Production Unit of April 15. This group has produced all of the major works featuring the personal stories of the leaders, including “The Immortal Story” (Pulmyŏl i Yŏksa) and “Immortal Leadership” (Pulmyŏl i Hyangdo), who constructed the official hagiography of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively.

The list of authors of new dramas on Kim Jong Un reveals many well-known names from these series, including Kim Sam Bok, Baek Bo Hŭm and Chŏng Ki Jong. Chung, one of North Korea’s best-known contemporary authors, died in 2016, but not before writing the short story “Sky, Land and Sea,” which details Kim Jong Un’s role in the Ŭnha and Gwangmyŏngsŏng satellite launches.

Since consumer demands and preferences are irrelevant to the creation of a North Korean fiction, it cannot be assessed as a reflection of the underlying social anxieties of the average North Korean (so it is. that a cultural anthropologist could study literature). Through interviews with North Korean defectors living in Seoul, I discovered that most North Koreans do not spend their free time reading these newspapers for fun. Many, however, told me that they had been exposed to these stories at some point in school.

The loss of anthropologists, however, is the gain of political scientists. North Korean fiction offers a window into the ruling party’s priorities that is just as informative as its official outward-directed propaganda.

Read between the lines

Many of these stories feature events in the lives of leaders. Some are moral tales that feature characters who embody certain socialist ideals. Others reflect concerns about the geopolitical landscape – and, unsurprisingly, U.S. leaders sometimes make guest appearances.

Chung Ki Jong’s most famous novel, “Ryŏksa ui Taeha“portrayed President Bill Clinton curled up under blankets during the nuclear crisis of 1994. Another short story around this time,”Maehok“, tells the story of President Jimmy Carter’s famous visit in 1994 from the point of view of his wife Rosalynn, when she meets (and is in love with) the great leader Kim Il Sung.

More recently, however, the stories have focused on one topic: Kim Jong Un.

Kim was officially named as his successor in September 2010. Prior to that, his very existence was virtually unknown to the general public in the country. In a land where schoolchildren ritually memorize idealized accounts of their leader and his ancestors, it must have been mind-boggling to see a new leader on television about whom they knew next to nothing.

The regime had to hasten to build up a personal legend worthy of the grandson of the nation’s founder. The first works of fiction mentioning Kim by name appeared in early 2013, more than a year after taking over from her late father as frontman. In these stories there is a marked thematic shift, with an emphasis on youth, creativity and innovation.

For example, the short story of 2017 “Flowery dreamsKim Il Su describes the young leader as a sort of talent scout. It finds talented young artists and architects and encourages them to participate more fully in various national building projects. At one point, he pontificates to one of his advisers on the value of young thinking:

“Our future as a socialist nation of culture will not be built by architects and experts alone. He will demand that all our fellow citizens become gardeners and creators who beautify our country. And it is the young generation who must stand up to give birth to this bright future. Lately I’ve been hearing the saying “everything is getting younger”, but isn’t that wonderful? These times are young, and our people are getting younger… ”

References to new luxuries and recreational facilities are another notable feature of recent stories. Since Kim became Supreme Leader, he has invested resources in development Western-style entertainment like water parks and ski resorts.

Kim Jong Un takes a tour of Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground. The amusement park is featured in the short story “Blossoming Dreams”.
AP Photo / Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

One such site, the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, gained international media attention after Kim Jong Un go around the installation in 2012 during his first official photoshoot with his new wife. An ode to Rungna Park appeared in the Literary Journal in October 2012, celebrating it as “the creation of heaven and earth following the path of the leader”. In “Blossoming Dreams”, the faithful minister of architecture of Kim Jong Un recalls how the young leader “suffered from the summer heat and high winds” when visiting the site of the theme park which will soon open its doors.

A similar prestige project is the new Changjn Street complex in Pyongyang, which includes sparkling apartment buildings and sports facilities.

In “TeacherNews published in 2013, a family of teachers are delighted to hear that they have been given a new spacious apartment in the Changjŏn complex. The family is surprised to learn that they made the list: it is well known that the first apartments were supposed to go to “workers and innovators”. Later, it becomes clear that Kim Jong Un personally requested that some apartments be reserved for educators as well, as part of a general priority to “cultivate the next generation.”

North Korean fiction, of course, should not be interpreted as a realistic description of real conditions in the country.

But reading between the lines, one can discern clues to the regime’s internal concerns, as well as the messages it is most eager to convey to its captive national audience.

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