Benoit Symposium: Writers in the DPRK: The Invisible Stars

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“Evening road:” shepherd girls reading “Choson Munhak” | Image: Tatiana Gabroussenko

Authors in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere in the world are still held in high regard in-spite of the closure of libraries and literacy programs in the age of austerity, the rise of corporate and technological take over/corralling of the reading medium, and the diffusion of concepts of authorship. It has often been noted that in North Korea the imagistic representation of communist collectivity (elsewhere represented by hammer and sickle), includes a writing implement as manifestation of the symbolic importance of the written word within the revolutionary social and political firmament. However as any scholar or analyst of North Korea will tell you, apart from the works of the Kim dynasty, assigning authorship to most North Korean written output has been historically difficult. In this authoritative piece, Tatiana Gabroussenko, the author of “Soldiers on the Cultural Front,” investigates authorship within a system that, while reverential towards the product, regards the producer with ambivalence. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Writers in the DPRK: The Invisible Stars

by Tatiana Gabroussenko

One of the basic similarities between the cultural politics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Soviet Union is their focus on promoting the reading of books. Not satisfied with the achievement of mass literacy, both the Soviet and North Korean leaderships continuously targeted ordinary people with a reading list of literary texts. State propaganda in both countries was largely text-based, and reverence for books and creative writings was deeply ingrained in the official rhetoric, cultural environment and important political practices of the USSR and the DPRK.

A passion for reading and a high value placed on books by the population are cornerstones of North Korean and Soviet self-perceptions. Like citizens of the Soviet Union who once took pride in belonging to the “country with the most avid readers in the world,” 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.”[1] It is no accident that contemporary North Korean works of fiction about Japan customarily focus on the contrast between highly cultured, aesthetically developed North Koreans who are constantly carrying piles of books with them, and rude, mercantile and unspiritual Japanese.[2]

The prestige of books necessarily confers a high social status on their creators, the authors. In both the USSR and the DPRK, involvement in creative writing has been considered a desirable, respectable and materially secure social path. The North Korean popular attitude to the profession of writer was illustrated well in the feature film, “Girls in My Hometown.” The film includes a flashback episode about the high school years of the heroine, who is living in Gangwon Province. During a chat with her female friends, during which the girls share their dreams about ideal future husbands, the heroine exclaims, “I’m going to marry a writer!” This comment is met with a burst of laughter which clearly shows that for a regular North Korean girl, marrying a writer is “geurim-ui tteok,” or pie in the sky.

For the young heroine of the film it would come as no surprise that a writer, who can work in a clean office, surrounded by books rather than pigs and tractors, must somehow return those social privileges. The Stalinist paradigm of social class presupposed no self-importance for an intellectual: even a genius must fulfil his social duty of educating people and persuading them to maintain unconditional loyalty to the commonly recognized benefactors: the Leader, the Party, and the state.

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Image: Tatiana Gabroussenko

More Stalinist than Stalin: DPRK Control of Writers | Due to specific historical circumstances, control over writers appears to be much stricter in the DPRK than it was in the USSR even during the harshest Stalinist period. 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. Interestingly enough, the North Korean literary world is highly stratified: all writers are divided, according to their performance, into special levels and categories which define their incomes.

It seems that participating in state-sponsored art has some spiritual advantages for a writer in a Stalinist society. As Scalapino and Lee put it, a North Korean writer “does not have a sense of cultural deprivation… If he is a writer he will be given access to a fairly wide range of non-Communist as well as Communist writings including literature deemed subversive.”[3] Indeed, for the sake of better propaganda performance, North Korean intellectuals, just like Soviet writers under Stalin, have freer access to classified materials and sources. This enables North Korean authors to describe politically dangerous topics such as perestroika or a visit by former American President Jimmy Carter to the DPRK with minor realistic details of these occurrences; contemporary works of North Korean fiction customarily cite foreign Internet materials. These privileges are unthinkable for the majority of North Koreans.

No Name, No Fame: Soldiers on the Cultural Front | While in the USSR and North Korea writers can justifiably be considered the crème de la crème of their societies, the standing of North Korean and Soviet writers strongly diverges in one important aspect. This difference finds expression in the popular nicknames of Soviet and North Korean writers: “engineers of the human soul” and “soldiers on the cultural front” respectively.

The USSR social position of writers as “engineers of human souls” was quite close to that of celebrities or movie stars in Western societies. The “engineers” had distinctive social faces and voices which were heard and carefully listened to. Personal meetings of Stalin with famous authors were widely covered by the Soviet press. Regular interviews with distinguished authors were also popular; the repetitiveness of the question “What are your creative plans?” which Soviet journalists would regularly ask Soviet intellectuals, turned the phrase into a popular joke in the USSR. The private life of Soviet writers was an object of intensive public curiosity and gossip, so that every housewife in the USSR of the 1930s and 1950s knew, for instance, about the turbulent relationship between the distinguished poet Konstantin Simonov and the actress Valentina Serova.

In contrast to the renowned “engineers,” North Korean “soldiers on the cultural front” present themselves as indistinct rank and file in the intellectual-cum-propaganda world. For all their privileges and entitlements, North Korean writers are denied personal fame. The names of North Korean writers, including the authors of popular books and high-ranking writer-bureaucrats of the Writers’ Union, are consistently disassociated from visual images, biographical details and any extra information.

When compiling a catalogue of North Korean writers, I found it almost impossible to find their personal data in official DPRK resources. Even Munhak Sinmun (Literary Newspaper), the organ of the Writers’ Union, which specifically aims to discuss literary matters and literary administration, manages to keep the personalities of the authors surprisingly obscure.

Astonishingly, the sixtieth anniversary of the leading North Korean literary journal Choson Munhak, which was celebrated in the DPRK in 1997, failed to bring to public light any personalities among North Korean writers. While many writings in Choson Munhak that year were devoted to the anniversary, they all focused on the care that the Dear Leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il gave to writers and literary matters.[4] None presented writers who had actually worked for the journal for those sixty years.

Popular mythology about Kim Jong-il includes a tale about a young soldier whose literary talent was noticed by the Leader and who, due to the latter’s fatherly care, became a professional writer. However, the actual name of the solder is never even mentioned.

The front pages of all North Korean literary journals omit the names of the chief editors or other contributors to the publication. In North Korean press or television it is near impossible to find an interview with a writer. If such an interview appears it normally fails to cast any light on the personality of the writer. There is no tradition of a “best writers’ list” for the reading public in the DPRK (the USSR was also devoid of such a practice). Although North Korean “men of the pen” occasionally receive some professional rewards, the presentation of these is not accompanied by public ceremonies or widespread information in the mass media. A regular North Korean who has no relevance to literature by profession has effectively no way of gaining information about such awards.

North Korean literature textbooks tend to discuss literary works with either a brief mention of the authors’ names without biographical information or they simply omit these names altogether. When quoting a literary work in a public speech or other work in the DPRK, it is common to omit the author’s name and title of the book, simply stating “as stated in a novel.” In the case where a foreign author is cited, it is usually sufficient to refer to the source as a “foreign book” without any details of the author or culture the work belongs to. This practice presents a striking contrast to the practice of citing the Leaders, whose names must always be stated.

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Image: Tatiana Gabroussenko

A characteristic example of how the official media presents a writer in the DPRK is an article titled, “The creative personality of Baek In-jun.”[5] This material is devoted to a veteran of the North Korean literary world, who wrote the first pieces of poetry glorifying Kim Il-sung, and was the screen writer of several popular North Korean films. The article begins with a promising quotation from Kim Jong-il: “To increase lyricism in lyrical poems, a poet must clearly show his personal face.” However, it fails to provide any features of Baek’s “personal face,” omitting basic details such as his place and year of birth, or a list of his major writings, much less a portrait or biographical details. Instead, the author concentrates on the issue of Baek’s devotion to the leader, which is discussed in the most general of terms, and could easily be ascribed to any North Korean writer.[6]

The results of the “no celebrity” policy are predictable. When directly asked about authors or titles of particularly popular books, North Koreans are normally slow to answer. Several North Korean defectors I have interviewed, who had frequently read fiction due to professional obligations (being philologists, book editors, or students) or who described themselves as avid readers, could name a few deceased Korean writers at the very most; however, they appeared to be unfamiliar with essential details of their biographies. I repeatedly came across experienced school teachers of literature who would claim, for instance, that Na Do-hyang, whose works they once studied and then taught, had allegedly belonged to KAPF (Korean Proletarian Artist Federation), or that New Spring in Seokkaeul was written by Lee Gi-yeong. The equivalent of this in Western literature would be to mistake a poem of Shakespeare for that of Kipling.

Not surprisingly, none of the North Korean literary teachers whom I interviewed was able to name a “living star” among contemporary writers. At the same time, the respondents were able to accurately re-tell plots of novels but could not remember the authors who had written them.

Out of the Limelight: Rationale behind the “No Celebrity” Policy | This anti-celebrity stance of contemporary North Korean media regarding writers is in stark contrast to the position adopted in the earlier years of the North Korean literary world.

Until the early 1960s, North Korean writers were popular figures of significant political weight. This absorption of intellectuals into the political world and their transformation into national cultural symbols was an intentional policy of Kim Il-sung’s early government. In order to imitate the deep Communist traditions of the Korean intellectual world, the early North Korean media exaggerated the popularity of some contemporary writers, in particular those who before Liberation had belonged to the above-mentioned KAPF—the only literary organization of leftist inclinations in colonial Korea that obscurely resembled a Communist one. Due to such politics, Han Sorya, for example, an insignificant novelist before Liberation, soon became a nationally renowned intellectual. Another case was Lee Tae-jun, a writer who, by contrast, enjoyed popularity in colonial Korea. When Lee moved to the North in 1947, his Soviet supporters immediately established a “Lee Tae-jun Text Society;” the writer was showered with various awards and his works were constantly republished.

However, later when the North Korean literary world was engulfed by a wave of purges, and Lee and Han were among the victims of different campaigns, North Korean policymakers faced a serious dilemma. While the purged writers had to be understandably excised from public references, policymakers were reluctant to extinguish Han and Lee’s politically useful writings from the official discourse.

From the late 1960s, every effort was made to dissociate politically correct writings from the names of their authors, and furthermore to keep the names of the authors away from the public spotlight. This tendency reached its height in the 1970s, when the practice of collective authorship emerged and thrived in the DPRK. Naturally, not every novel or poem in the DPRK in the 1970s was written collectively, rather the tendency was to use collective authorship for works of particular political significance that later could be turned, into scenarios for revolutionary operas, for example, or poems about particularly important national symbols.

In the 1980s the practice of collective authorship gradually waned and the majority of literary works displayed the names of their authors. However, writers themselves still continued to be kept out of the public eye. Notably, collective authorship resurges from time to time on special occasions, the most recent example being the first piece of panegyric poetry about Kim Jong-un, titled “People, we have General Kim Jong-un with us,” which was signed by a collective of authors from the Literary Institute of Kim Il-sung University.[7] In all probability, the poem, which was intended to lay a foundation for the flourishing cult of the “Young General,” was considered much too politically important to be connected with a particular writer’s name.

Aside from the goal of dissociating authors’ names from their politically important writings, the “no celebrity” policy in the North Korean intellectual world has an even more important rationale. This stance of North Korean officialdom aims to destroy the link between the creators and the recipients of culture in the DPRK, thus preventing formation of a potentially dangerous network of informal cultural leaders.

The Dark Shadow of Perestroika: Conclusion | It is well known that the elite of the Workers’ Party in the DPRK carefully investigated the experience of Soviet perestroika and seemed to share the view that it was talk not bombs that actually killed the Soviet system. They came to realize that it was members of the Soviet Writer’s Union, affluent and assumed to be fully under state control, who emerged as major agents in the collapse of Communism.

In the USSR in post-Stalin years, the public opinions of writers, who were now clustered around an institution of literary-cum-political “weighty journals,” were heeded much more than the tiresome speeches of the General Secretary. Gradually, Soviet intellectuals started to develop alternative discourses that contradicted the officially proclaimed social goals of the Communist Party. From the late 1950s, Soviet literary dignitaries customarily emerged as unwanted social commentators who nurtured dissent and protest movements within their new alternative discourse.

This activity reinforced liberalization processes in the Soviet Union. In the public eye, Soviet perestroika bore the faces and voices of Rybakov, Nagibin, Okudzhava, and other writers.

For North Korean policymakers, the emergence of perestroika would be a catastrophic development. Feeding the “soldiers on the cultural front” well, but at the same time keeping them away from the limelight, is one of a number of pre-emptive strategies adopted by the North Korean leadership. Time will show how successful it is.


[1] Ioa Kim, “Chitayuschaya strana” [A reading country]. http://juche-songun.ru/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=284:2010-09-10-09-52-59&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50

[2] See, for example, Kim Seon-hwan, “Suhak ryeohaeng” [Study Travel], Choseon munhak, 1999, #5 (619), 73-77, or Pak Jong-sang, “Sosaeng” [Resuscitation], Choseon munhak, 2004, #12 (686), 62-68.

[3] Scalapino and Lee, Scalapino, Robert and Lee Chong-sik. Communism in Korea. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. 889.

[4] See, for example, the article by O Yeong-jae, “Japji ‘Choseon munhak’ gwa jakka” [The journal Choseon munhak and the writer], Choseon munhak, 1997, #10 (600), 61-62.

[5] Lee Ju-jeong, “Siin Baek In-jung-ui ch’angjakjeok kaeseong” [The creative personality of the poet Paek In-jung], Choseon munhak, #5 (763), 2011, 37-40.

[6] As another example, see the article “Sunshine generously poured over Minch’on: the love and care which the Dear Leader gave to writer Yi Gi-yeong,” which fails to provide any information about one of the founding fathers of North Korean literature, Rim Su-rip, “Minch’on’ege ttasaroi bich’in euhyeroun haebitt, widaehan suryeongnim jakka rigiyeongege dollyeojusin saranggwa baeryeo” [Sunshine generously poured over Minch’on: the love and care which the Dear Leader showered on the writer Yi Ki-yeong], Choseon munhak 597, no. 7 (1997): 61-68.

[7] Kim Il Sung jonghap daehak munhak daehak jipchaejak, “Inminiyeo, uriege Kim Jong-un daejangi gyesinda”. The collective authorship of the Literary Institute of Kim Il Sung University [People, we have General Kim Jong-un with us], Rodong sinmun, 24.12.2011, 7.