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‘I repeatedly did not win any awards’: my doomed profession as a North Korean novelist | South Korea

‘I repeatedly did not win any awards’: my doomed profession as a North Korean novelist | South Korea

2023-12-13 12:16:01

Since its founding, North Korea has at all times had an elaborate paperwork for inventive manufacturing, organised throughout the Korean Employees get together’s agitation and propaganda division. This framework was arrange in emulation of the Soviet system beneath Stalin. Over time, this inventive paperwork has been more and more tailored to advertise the cult of character surrounding the primary chief Kim Il-sung and his descendants.

Among the many many cultural merchandise designed to advertise the regime, probably the most vital is literature. Aspiring writers in North Korea should register with the Korean Writers’ Union and take part in annual writing workshops. The KWU has places of work in each province within the nation. KWU editors consider every work on its ideological deserves earlier than permitting its publication in one of many get together’s personal literary journals. There are significantly strict guidelines relating to how the leaders and the get together could also be depicted in literature.

A author’s life is extremely aggressive. Literary success means turning into a “skilled revolutionary” with numerous perks: a three-month “creativity go away” yearly, permission to journey freely across the nation and particular housing privileges.

Kim Ju-sŏng was one such aspiring author. A “zainichi” (Japan-born ethnic Korean), he “returned” to North Korea in 1976 at age 16 as a part of a wave of emigration inspired by pro-North Korean teams in Japan and lived within the nation for 28 years earlier than defecting to South Korea. The zainichi returnees have been an vital propaganda software in addition to a supply of revenue and international expertise for the North Korean regime. On account of their international connections they loved a comparatively greater way of life, however additionally they confronted suspicion from the regime and prejudice from odd North Koreans.

Under are three excerpts from Kim’s memoir, Tobenai kaeru: Kitachōsen sennō bungaku no jittai (The Frog that Couldn’t Soar: The Actuality of North Korea’s Brainwashing Literature), translated by Meredith Shaw. In it, he describes working at his native KWU department as an workplace assistant. The primary excerpt begins as he’s assembly along with his superior shortly after beginning the job.

“By the best way, how are you managing with the 100-copy assortment?”

“Huh? What do you imply, the 100-copy assortment?”

“The books within the protected. Don’t neglect your library duties. It’d be a catastrophe if something leaked to the surface.”

I set off for the library at a run. There have been books in that protected? I had no concept. I figured, at finest, it might be a stash of treatises by the leaders on literary idea, or else information of secret directives for KWU eyes solely. It turned out that the 100-copy assortment was the place the union saved translated copies of international novels and reference books that writers might entry.

With the pace of a financial institution robber, I yanked out my key, turned the lock and opened the protected. Inside, tightly packed collectively, have been practically 70 translated copies of international novels. Seeing them, I crumpled to the ground in shock.

The primary title to leap out at me was Seichō Matsumoto’s Factors and Traces, a Japanese psychological thriller printed in 1970. With rising pleasure, I fumbled by the stack. There was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, O Henry’s The Final Leaf, Alexandre Dumas fils’ The Girl of the Camellias, Takiji Kobayashi’s Crab Cannery Ship, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; and, most enjoyable of all for me, Seiichi Morimura’s Proof of the Man, a Japanese detective novel that tells the story of a manhunt from Tokyo to New York.

I had joined the KWU within the late Nineteen Eighties. At the moment, the one international literature odd North Koreans might entry was that of different socialist nations, mainly the USSR and China. I had learn Russian writers like Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the Chinese language basic The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun. Often, translations of classics like Shakespeare’s works have been printed. However no person even dreamed of seeing literature from enemy nations such because the US and Japan.

Some zainichi returnees like myself had introduced books from Japan, which we handed round secretly. Considered one of these was Proof of the Man. Upon discovering a Korean-language copy within the 100-copy assortment, I used to be struck by the standard of the interpretation. I later realized that it had been executed by a zainichi acquaintance of mine who labored as a translator.

“These sneaky bastards. If we odd residents have been to learn this we’d be put away for political crimes, however they get to take pleasure in all of it in secret,” my zainichi good friend grumbled once I confirmed him.

“You’ll be able to’t inform anybody about this. I’d get arrested.”

“Hey, they don’t have any graphic novels, do they? I’d like to see Golgo 13, Blackjack, or Captain Tsubasa once more.”

A street in Pyongyang, 2018.
A road in Pyongyang, 2018. {Photograph}: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Photographs

Having stumbled upon this windfall, I devoured the contents of the 100-copy assortment. My favorite was Man de Maupassant. I used to be deeply impressed by his brief tales The Necklace and Boule de Suif and used them as fashions for my very own work.

Any mismanagement of the 100-copy assortment could be prosecuted as a political crime, since it might in impact be distributing capitalist reactionary supplies to the general public. I don’t perceive the logic, however I’ve heard that the Narcotics Management Legislation deems it a better crime to promote or transport unlawful supplies than to eat them.

Use of the 100-copy assortment was restricted completely to our writers, and lending to civilians was unlawful. However one way or the other a hearsay bought out, and I used to be besieged with requests. Most got here from get together bureaucrats or their kids, and it was arduous to refuse them. The most well-liked request was for Proof of the Man. The three-volume set was ragged and dog-eared with use.

One time a humorous factor occurred. A giant shot from the KWP administration bureau requested to borrow the ebook. His part managed get together development and appointments, so I wasn’t about to refuse him. (In fact, it additionally didn’t harm that he handed me a carton of Delicate Seven cigarettes.)

Greater than a month handed and I hadn’t bought it again. To my more and more pointed reminders, he at all times requested for “just a bit extra time”. The 100-copy assortment needed to bear an annual inspection, at which era all of the books needed to be so as. An inspector was dispatched from the central KWU organisation, and if even one quantity was lacking, there might be dire penalties. If I used to be unfortunate, I is perhaps expelled from the KWU and even face authorized prosecution.

With the inspector’s go to only a week away, I grew involved sufficient to go to the official’s dwelling. Nevertheless highly effective he could also be, the 100-copy assortment fell beneath the purview of the get together’s propaganda and agitation division, and thus was past the attain of native cadres. If I let issues get uncontrolled, I might neglect about turning into a author – I’d be fortunate if I wasn’t despatched to some distant farm for the remainder of my days. Summoning my braveness, I arrived on the get together officers’ unique condominium block and knocked on the door.

“Who’s it?” a younger lady’s voice chirped on the identical prompt the door opened. The scrumptious aroma of roasting meat assailed me. Earlier than my eyes was a pale younger magnificence in her 20s.

“I’m from the KWU. Is the comrade director at dwelling?”

“Ah, you’re right here in regards to the ebook? Come on in. My father’s not dwelling but. He’s gone to Pyongyang on enterprise.”

“In that case, I’ll come one other time. When you might get the ebook again inside every week, I’d be a lot obliged.” However my toes simply stored proper on shifting into the entryway.

I’d heard that the official had a daughter attending the College of Tremendous Artwork, however I’d by no means met her earlier than. I forgot all in regards to the ebook, enchanted by her radiant magnificence and smile, and allowed her to attract me into the house.

“I heard your union has many diverting books. I’m a terrific lover of books myself, my father is at all times bringing them for me.”

It was the primary time I’d ever been inside a celebration official’s dwelling. Emboldened by my curiosity, I regarded round as she chattered. It was equal to a four-bedroom, fairly luxurious by North Korean requirements of the time. Within the parlour was a leather-based couch, a Hitachi color TV with a VCR and spectacular audio system – in different phrases, posh digs. I used to be at all times listening to that get together cadres lived extremely effectively, however I’d by no means imagined it was this fabulous.

Instantly, three extra beauties appeared within the entryway. They have been all pals of the director’s daughter from the college. The sight of them arrayed round me was fairly breathtaking.

“You’re a novelist? However you’re so younger, and tall.”

“Oh, no. I’m only a widespread citizen who hopes to change into a novelist sometime.”

They giggled in unison as I joined them on the couch.

“What’s so humorous? Do I’ve one thing on my face?”

At my aspect, the director’s daughter punched me evenly on the shoulder. “La, ‘citizen’… There’s no want to make use of such stuffy phrases. Will we seem like peasants to you?” She punched the distant management, and a South Korean music video appeared on the display.

A cup of espresso appeared earlier than me. The scent of Nescafé Gold Mix stuffed my nostrils. Sitting there, watching the South Korean singer Kim Jong-hwan belt out the ballad Cause for Existence, I felt like questioning my very own existence. What are these folks? Is that this nonetheless North Korea?

These days, every time folks ask my nationality, I at all times reply that I’m an alien from the planet Baltan. However the elites of North Korea are from a very totally different galaxy.

Traffic police officers in Pyongyang.
Site visitors cops in Pyongyang. {Photograph}: Wong Maye-E/AP

Feeling like a person bewitched, I out of the blue needed to get the hell out of there. It was terrifying to take a seat there blithely doing issues that beneath odd circumstances would get me shot.

“Hear, about that ebook … Do you will have it right here?”

“Sure, it’s right here. We’ll be completed by tonight truly. I used to be nearly to return it.”

It shortly grew to become clear what she meant by “completed”. The gorgeous ladies all took out their college notebooks, and in each I noticed Proof of the Man written out phrase for phrase.

“Maintain on – have you ever been copying this ebook?”

“Oh, the story’s simply so shifting and wonderful. These two are within the drama division they usually needed to indicate it to all their pals. And it’s simply so difficult getting books from the 100-copy assortment.”

Maitta!” I swore in Japanese with out considering.

“Huh? What’s that imply?”

“Nothing. However it is a actual mess you’ve made. When you’re discovered, we’re all screwed.”

“Oh, nonsense. We’re all daughters of get together officers, they gained’t arrest us. However why is it unsuitable to learn such an exquisite ebook? It’s the identical with songs, too. Isn’t it pure for a frog in a effectively to wish to see the broader world?”

“A frog in a effectively … Actually, you tadpoles are one thing else. Look, simply maintain this entire factor beneath wraps, and attempt to get all of it executed tonight, OK?”

The gorgeous tadpoles stored their promise and guarded the key. Proof of the Man was returned in good order. As for the hand-written copies, I do not know what grew to become of them. I can solely think about they went a way towards altering the mindset of the youthful technology and fertilising a brand new revolutionary consciousness.

I consider the explanation my writing obtained poor evaluations lay primarily in my alternative of style. All of my tales occurred in Japan, or had zainichi as the principle characters. In North Korea these have been dismissed as “international works”, the catch-all time period for something in regards to the wider world. Like wherever, in North Korean literary circles there’s a truthful quantity of specialisation, and every author has his or her personal type and character.

Essentially the most extremely regarded style, it goes with out saying, is No 1 literature – that’s, works about members of the ruling Kim household. This isn’t a style that simply anyone can write. So as of esteem, the genres of North Korean literature are:

1) No 1 works: tales in regards to the achievements and personalities of the Kim household.

2) Anti-Japan partisan works AKA revolutionary works: tales set throughout the colonial-era independence motion.

3) Warfare works: tales set in the course of the Korean battle.

4) Historic works: tales set in the course of the Yi, Koguryo or Koryo dynasties.

5) Actual-life works: tales about odd society from the postwar to the current.

6) South Korean works: tales set in South Korea.

7) International works: tales set wherever outdoors Korea.

I used to be concerned with international works. Other than No 1 works, writers had free alternative of any style, and we have been additionally free to maneuver round and experiment between genres. However solely essentially the most elite, achieved writers have been permitted to provide No 1 works.

In fact, writing is just not restricted to fiction; there have been writers specialising in poetry, kids’s literature, performs, translation and movie scriptwriting. I produced many works of fiction, however all fell throughout the “international” style, and thus have been thought of ideologically and politically inferior to, say, partisan or real-life works.

A book shop in Pyongyang, North Korea.
A ebook store in Pyongyang, North Korea. {Photograph}: Benoit Cappronnier/Alamy

As an apart, I’d prefer to briefly describe the KWU organisation. On the prime is the chairman, adopted by the vice-chairmen accountable for fiction and poetry, respectively. Under which are separate divisions for fiction, poetry, theatre, international literature in translation, kids’s literature and manufacturing for the lots. From the Nineteen Eighties, a brand new renaissance got here to North Korea, generally known as the “movie revolution”, which introduced huge adjustments to the KWU as effectively. It was reorganised beneath the Basic Literary Arts Union with separate however equal divisions for Korean Literature Manufacturing and Korean Movie Literature Manufacturing. This was based mostly on Kim Jong-il’s coverage of encouraging competitors by placing literature and movie on equal footing.

I entered the KWU at a time when this competitors between movie and literature was at its peak. As a result of Kim Jong-il was such a passionate movie buff, the literature writers have been at all times handled as doormats by the screenwriters. From then on, movie and literature developed individually as devices of state persuasion.

At any charge, I repeatedly did not win any literary awards – the important thing to profession development – regardless of diligently finishing up my KWU assignments. I waited patiently for my likelihood at admission to the principle college writing program.

That likelihood got here and went twice as I labored on the KWU. Each occasions I obtained suggestions and was permitted to take the doorway examination, however each occasions I failed. Why I failed, regardless of receiving good marks and being extremely beneficial, was one thing I got here to know later.

Japan is called a rustic of bibliophiles, with detective novels and historic fiction significantly widespread. North Korea additionally has many books, although they aren’t what you’ll name widespread. The overwhelming majority – certainly, virtually all of them – are books glorifying the Kim household.

Other than the numerous books and treatises attributed to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il themselves, there are additionally “morality testimonies” idolising the 2 Kims.

These are first-person accounts by people who’ve had private encounters with the leaders.

In South Korea, I’m generally requested if I ever met Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. I reply: “If I had, I might not have left the nation.”

“Why?” they ask. “Are such folks monitored extra intently?”

“In no way. Actually, they obtain particular advantages. In a single fell swoop their lives change into rose-coloured – rainbow-coloured, even. In North Korea, the Kims are gods. When you obtain the favour of the gods, your entire life adjustments, doesn’t it?”

As for exactly how one’s life adjustments, that varies from case to case, however it’s by no means wanting miraculous.

I consider the Kim dynasty’s formulation for governing principally boils all the way down to “excessive contrasts”. Put merely, by singling out one individual as a sacrificial lamb, you practice 10,000 others to behave. And by bestowing miraculous luck on to at least one, you draw the devotion of one other 10,000. It’s the basic carrot-and-stick method.

The sticks can take many kinds, however most notable are the numerous purges. However what of the carrots?

A propaganda mosaic in Pyongyang, 2016.
A propaganda mosaic in Pyongyang, 2016. {Photograph}: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Photographs

As leaders of the nation, the Kims have at all times travelled the nation conducting “on-the-spot steerage”. Throughout these excursions, people who encounter the leaders are divided into two classes: witnesses and interviewees.

A witness is perhaps somebody who noticed the chief up shut or bought included in a gaggle photograph with him. Out of numerous witnesses, a couple of are blessed to change into interviewees – that means individuals who truly exchanged phrases with the chief. In different phrases, one’s stage of therapy is determined by whether or not or not one truly “spoke with God”.

For instance, suppose the chief visits a manufacturing facility someplace. The native get together organisation may have determined beforehand which individuals might be granted an viewers with the nice man – usually the manufacturing facility managers and mannequin staff – and these change into witnesses. Ought to a type of witnesses handle to converse with Kim, that individual turns into an interviewee. The remainder of the manufacturing facility staff are often despatched dwelling early or shuttled someplace out of the best way in the course of the encounter. Some factories go away folks working throughout steerage visits, however these staff could be advised: “The final is coming by right here, don’t you dare flip round.”

I’ve heard of factories that shoved staff right into a storage locker when one of many Kims dropped by unexpectedly. So it’s not like simply anyone can change into a witness.

For individuals who do, the rewards are varied, however a commemorative {photograph} with the chief is normal. This {photograph} serves because the interviewee’s “license”; it’s superbly framed and hung prominently within the dwelling like a household heirloom. When you purchase such a portrait, from that second on the native get together takes particular care of your loved ones. This will imply extra speedy promotion at work, a much bigger dwelling or permission to ship your youngsters to higher faculties.

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For interviewees, the rewards are a number of levels better. It varies relying on the content material of the dialog, however the best reward I’ve heard of included a allow to maneuver to Pyongyang, a luxurious condominium and a Mercedes-Benz.

The witnesses and interviewees who obtain such miracles are thus unfold all through the nation, fervently proselytising in regards to the largesse of the Kim household to their pals and neighbours. These encounters with the godlike Kims are memorialised by these “morality testimonies”.

These tales take two fundamental kinds: these written by the witnesses themselves, and people recounted by certainly one of us writers.

I’ll offer you an instance.

Late one night time, a automobile braked out of the blue on the streets of Pyongyang.

“What’s it, Basic?” the cadre using shotgun turned with concern to Kim Jong-il within the again seat.

“That mild in that condominium window over there. I’m wondering who’s nonetheless awake at this late hour. Let’s go discover out.”

“However Basic, your guards usually are not with us, and we haven’t cleared it with the occasions bureau. Why don’t I no less than test it out first, whilst you wait within the automobile?”

“You’re saying I want defending from one thing, at this late hour? Will you not be happy until you get up a bunch of individuals and make a giant fuss for my profit? Just like the Nice Chief Kim Il-sung at all times stated, ‘A frontrunner who doesn’t belief his folks is a pacesetter who doesn’t belief himself.’ The Nice Chief’s authorities is a simply authorities that offers all the pieces for the folks.”

With that, the Basic left the automobile and headed towards the still-lit condominium. His trustworthy aide taken care of him with misty eyes, moved by the sight of the Chief carrying on his late father’s motto, “Serve the folks as heaven”.

“Who’s it?” stated the girl who answered the door at his knock.

“I’m Kim Jong-il. I noticed that your mild was on so very late and puzzled what you have been doing.”

Instantly confronted by the final, the girl of the home was unable to maneuver. Sensing her sudden change in temper, her husband rushed over, adopted by their two daughters, a twentysomething and a 10-year-old. Everybody promptly burst into tears of pleasure.

Kim Jong-il tried to calm them. “Hush, now, your neighbours are sleeping. If it’s not an excessive amount of of an intrusion, may I enter and have a phrase with you?”

And so the final joined this very odd household at their desk. “Now, inform me what on earth you might be all doing up so late?”

No one answered; all of them simply sat with downcast eyes, combating again tears. Simply as the final was questioning if maybe somebody had died or there’d been some calamity, the youthful daughter spoke up.

“Basic, Father’s going to change into a celebration member tomorrow. We’re all simply so completely happy we will’t probably sleep.” Then, as if pulled by an invisible set off, the entire group burst into tears directly. Realising that these have been tears of pleasure, the final sighed with aid.

Kim Jong-un with female soldiers after the inspection of a rocket-launching drill in 2014.
Kim Jong-un with feminine troopers after the inspection of a rocket-launching drill in 2014. {Photograph}: KCNA by way of KNS/AFP/Getty Photographs

He regarded in regards to the room. In a single nook somebody had been ironing a swimsuit, and the elder daughter held a card case that she had been embroidering with vibrant nylon thread, clearly meant for the daddy to hold his get together membership card in.

“And what have been you doing?” he requested the youthful daughter, gesturing for her to take a seat on his lap.

“It’s a secret, I haven’t advised anyone but.”

“Will you share your secret simply with me? I promise to not inform.”

“Actually? Then let’s go to my room. All people else maintain out!”

“Hey munchkin, you’re being impolite to the final. Get again right here,” her father stated, making an attempt to cease her.

However Kim Jong-il simply waved him off with a smile. “That’s all proper, I’ve bought youngsters of my very own, you already know.”

Getting into the lady’s room, the final discovered a vibrant bouquet of azaleas mendacity on a chair. “And what have we right here?”

“They’re the flowers I’m going to place on the Nice Chief’s statue tomorrow. For the previous 10 days I’ve been wishing for them to bloom, they usually did!”

“The place did you discover them?”

“Outdoors the town, with my pals. We needed to stroll actually far, approach up within the mountains.”

“And why did you select to supply azaleas?”

“As a thanks for my father turning into a celebration member. Since there’s not a lot else I can do, I assumed I might no less than provide the Nice Chief his favorite flowers. However …”

“However what? You’ll be able to inform me.”

“I don’t know what else to supply him!” And he or she burst into tears.

The final held her tightly and stroked her hair. “That’s all proper, your thoughtfulness is sufficient. These azaleas that you just made bloom with the heat of your feeling are essentially the most lovely treasure on the earth.”

The story ends there. There could also be an epilogue stating that a couple of days later the household obtained a number of new home equipment and items of furnishings as items from Kim Jong-il. The daddy bought quickly promoted, and the youthful daughter grew as much as change into a high-level get together official.

That ought to offer you some concept of a typical “morality testimony”. Actually, I simply made it up, deploying the actual artistic abilities which are distinctive to North Korean writers. However there are numerous others following this fundamental sample.

This piece first appeared in problem 10 of the Dial

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