“Still Quite Fun To Read:” An Introduction to North Korean Children’s Literature
Children’s literature is more than just for kids, suggests Christopher Richardson, doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, whose research focuses on the contemporary conceptions and experiences of childhood in the DPRK. In part one of a two-part series on children’s literature in North Korea, Richardson reviews the ideological significance of the stories that all North Korean children love. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor
“We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mold their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies….” — Plato, Republic
“Still Quite Fun To Read:” An Introduction to North Korean Children’s Literature
by Christopher Richardson
Our Chosen Stories: Tales from the Republic | In her groundbreaking analysis of Soviet children’s culture, Felicity Ann O’Dell assessed the foundational role of children’s literature in the construction of state and social identity in the Soviet Union, forming part of a small but growing movement taking seriously the role of children’s literature in shaping the political and civic environment in which young people are educated and raised and the societies they inherit. Such a comprehensive assessment of North Korean children’s books is yet to be undertaken, although Dafna Zur has made notable inroads in the field. In terms of North Korean literature more generally, Tatiana Gabroussenko’s Soldiers On the Cultural Front remains essential. Although she concludes North Korean literature is “a field of exceptional uniformity,” she notes that “a researcher who is interested in the shifts and twists of North Korea’s propaganda, hidden modifications of the Party line, North Korea’s cultural stereotypes, or the officially endorsed self-portrait of the North Korean people and image of the world around them, will find this literature an invaluable source of information.” Or, as David-West writes succinctly, “North Korean literature is a continuation of politics by other means.” This is equally true of children’s literature, a state-controlled endeavor fostering the intergenerational construction of revolutionary consciousness, national cohesion, ideological purity, and reverence for Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. In the first of two installments for Sino-NK, I aim to provide an overview of the role of literature in modern North Korean children’s culture. Attention will be paid to recurring images and themes, noting the process of socialization into political norms, such as Juche, militarism, nationalism, anti-Americanism, and adulation of the Kims. In a second installment, I will offer a close reading of one such tale, ostensibly authored by Kim Il-sung himself.
The Elements of (Our) Style: Kim Jong-il On Juche Literature | In his treatise On Juche Literature, Kim Jong-il addressed the central importance of children’s books to the state, in a chapter entitled, “Children’s Literature Must Be Created In A Way Best Suited To Children’s Psychological Features.” Extolling the virtues of North Korean childhood, he celebrated the fact that:
The level of ideological awareness of our children is very high… our children’s feeling of loyalty and filial devotion to the leader and the Party is incomparably higher, deeper and warmer than that of the children of any other country in the world….
Yet implicit in such praise is a warning against the lure of literary heterodoxy, conceding the imagination of even the most precocious revolutionary saint remains fragile, susceptible to the taint of foreign culture. Thus, the Dear Leader exhorts writers to “develop children’s literature into our style of literature that conforms with our Party’s policy and our children’s characteristics. Only our style of children’s literature can contribute to bringing up our children into pillars of Korean revolution armed with the juche idea.” Moreover, Kim warns that exposure to the culture of foreign children risks “making them incompetent beings for the times and revolution and prisoners of reactionary fatalism.” Writers of children’s books thus stand at the frontline of a battle for the future of the revolution itself. The stakes could not be higher.
1001 Korean Nights: Hagiography, History, Humor | Despite such pressure to present and preserve the ideology of revolution, North Korean children’s literature is, in fact, surprisingly diverse. As Gabroussenko writes, “the literary form has traditionally served as a sweet coating for the bitter or dull medicine of North Korean propaganda,” and this is perhaps most colorfully true of literature for children. To outsiders, the most visible genre of North Korean literature concerns the lives and exploits of its leaders, especially Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, although increasingly Kim Jong-un also. Even when written for children, such tracts and treatises are written in the awed tone of religious hagiography, and indeed their strength derives from the reverent consistency of their voice and style. Yet a second field of literature is far more diverse, embracing a variety of genres, tones, and styles. These range from exhilarating Boys’ Own adventure novels, depicting valiant soldiers of the Korean People’s Army defending the nation against foreign aggressors, to simple parables and fables in Aesopian style, such as Butterfly And Cock. Yet even the simplest fables parallel North Korea’s geopolitical predicament. In On Juche Literature, Kim Jong Il asserts that, “personification is advantageous for satirizing the enemy’s life and for showing the present life of our people figuratively and in an interesting way.” A trite zoological morality play, Butterfly and Cock, thus depicts a large “bad tempered” rooster, bullying its neighbors, yet outwitted by a small virtuous butterfly, in an unsubtle analogy for North Korea’s existential struggle with the United States of America.
Anti-Americanism typically centers on the Korean War, the atrocities of the United States, and the heroism of Koreans, often plucky youths in the maelstrom of war. Many tales are dramatizations of real events. Dean Captured, for example, celebrates the North Korean imprisonment of Major General William F. Dean in 1950. Reflecting the long nature of political memory in Pyongyang, Choe Hong-sik’s illustrated novella Sherman: The US Pirate Ship describes that earlier encounter between the West and Korea in 1866, foreshadowing later confrontations, and re-enforcing a vision of Yankee as eternal foe. As another principal legitimizing narrative of revolution, the anti-Japanese guerilla struggle remains a key subject, luridly depicted in graphic novels with titles such as Take This Rifle, Comrades!, Unending Confrontation, and The Japs Punished, with little change across time. Less blood curdling, other genres celebrate the ancient and medieval history of Korea, such as Kim Il-sung’s A Tale of Two Generals.
Science fiction is also common. In Kim Sang-bok’s The Secret of Subsonic Waves, for example, foreign agents wreak global havoc with futuristic technology. Many children’s books contain stories and images that would not be out of place on Western bookshelves, and Bowdlerized versions of European fairy stories are increasingly available. Yet even the sweetest and most humorous tales contain some political content, and those foreign tales permitted by the state are endorsed for broadly didactic purposes, even if they are sometimes lost on the children themselves.
“Still Quite Fun To Read?” The Peculiar Pleasures of Propaganda | Indeed, despite a variety of genres and styles, there endures in North Korean children’s literature a unity of intent. Emerging from a small number of publishing houses in Pyongyang, there can be little or no divergence from what Brian Myers terms “the Text.” Yet whilst North Korea incarnates this pedagogical model of children’s literature in distinctive ways, Pihl has sought to place it within a wider tradition of Korean literature, describing “an inclination toward didacticism which has been expressed in differing forms under various social conditions throughout the history of Korean writing,” both prior to, and under, Japanese occupation. Such continuities may help explain the receptivity of North Korean readers to a type of literature renounced elsewhere. Yet it is to the credit of Pyongyang’s writers and artists that their books succeed as more than mere propaganda. Or in the words of one young defector, “those books were actually still quite fun to read. Some might say we were being brainwashed, but at least it was done entertainingly.”
 Felicity Ann O’Dell, Socialisation Through Children’s Literature: The Soviet Example (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
 For more on the Russian example, see Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up In Russia 1890-1991 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). For the East German example, see Anna Saunders, Honecker’s Children (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
 Dafna Zur, “The Korean War in Children’s Picturebooks of the DPRK,” in Exploring North Korean Arts, ed. Rüdiger Frank (Vienna: Verlag Für Moderne Kunst, 2012).
 Tatiana Gabroussenko, Soldiers On The Cultural Front (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 1.
 Alzo David-West, “Archetypal Themes in North Korean Literature: Working Notes on Problems & Possibilities,” Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 5, no. 1 (2011): 75.
 Kim Jong-il, On Juche Literature (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992), 220-221.
 Ibid, 224.
 Ibid, 221.
 Tatiana Gabroussenko, “Calls For Self-Sacrifice In North Korean Creative Writing in the Late 1900s to 2000s,” The Journal of Korean Studies 13, no. 1 (2008): 35.
 Genius of Revolution (Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 1989).
 Kim Yong-sam, Butterfly & Cock (Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 2003).
 Kim Jong-il, On Juche Literature, 219.
 Choe Hong-sik, Dean Captured (Pyongyang: Art & Literature Publishing House, 2004).
 Choe Hong-sik, Illustrated Korean History Vol. 88: ‘Sherman,’ The US Pirate Ship (Pyongyang: Korea Publications Export & Import Corporation, 2004).
 Kim Sang-bok, Take This Rifle, Comrades (Pyongyang: Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 2005).
 Jun In-kwang, Unending Confrontation (Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 2005).
 Kim Sang-bok, The Japs Punished (Pyongyang: Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House,
 Kim Il-sung, A Tale of Two Generals (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1989).
 Kim Sang-bok, The Secret of Subsonic Waves (Pyongyang: Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 1994).
 B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (New York: Melville House, 2010).
 Marshall R. Pihl, “Engineers of the Human Soul: North Korean Literature Today,” Korean Studies 1, no. 1 (1977): 63.