Benoit Symposium: From Pyongyang to Mars: Sci-fi, Genre, and Literary Value in North Korea

By | September 25, 2013 | No Comments


A brief perusal of episodes of the legendary American exercise in pre-teen science fiction, the Jetson’s will tell anyone that the future certainly is not what is was meant to be. Every society seems to mirror its own predilections and presumptions through exercises in futurology, with “Western” cultural production based within this sector currently heavily focused towards the disastrous and the dystopian and examples from the Soviet Union such as Tartovsky’s Stalker and Solaris riven with paranoia and disease. What, therefore, can we expect from the cultural output of a political, social and artistic space which at face value appears determinedly optimistic? Benoit Berthelier offers here, in a brilliant piece of writing, a deep analysis of literary and cultural value and approach in the science fiction and fantasy output of Pyongyang. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research 

From Pyongyang to Mars: Sci-fi, Genre, and Literary Value in North Korea

by Benoit Berthelier

Genre fiction, from mystery to sci-fi, has long been defined as the antithesis of “high art” and good literature. Indeed, genre fiction itself is historically rooted in the rise of popular fiction and mass-market literature of late 19th century Europe.[1] This segmentation of genres along clearly differentiated lines, and with easily recognizable codes, made for a type of fiction that was both easier to produce and easier to market to its target audience. This direct link with economic factors and a formulaic mode of production are at odds with the Romanticist ideal of originality and pure aesthetics that pervades our conception of “high art.”

As Bourdieu noted in 1992, the “symbolic credit” of any type of literature tends to vary in inverse relation to economic profit and the social spread of its audience. Thus with its short production cycle, mass audience and profitable returns, genre fiction stood in stark contrast to “art for art’s sake” literature such as avant-garde fiction or poetry. A popular and financial success is always a potential threat to the aesthetic integrity and literary value of a work, unless it is an established classic.

But how does this dualistic opposition between popular and literary fiction play out in a socialist society like the DPRK? While the development of sci-fi in North Korea was independent from economical imperatives, the foreign influences of the genre and its novel themes made it highly creative in comparison to the more prosaic works of the established literary canon. But this originality hardly seems to have a played a role in the critical reception and evaluation of the genre, hinting at the fact that literary value in North Korea might not be as much a matter of novelty as one of convention.

Science Fiction North of the DMZ | Science fiction first appeared in North Korea in the mid-1950s with two volumes of translations of short stories by writers from the Soviet Union. Drawing upon these models as well as European authors of early science-fiction such as H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes, North Korean writers started to produce their own sci-fi works in the mid 1960s. Sci-fi stories continued to appear infrequently in youth magazines throughout the next twenty years, but it is really only at the end of the 1980s that the genre took off.

After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale,[2] the number of sci-fi works grew significantly. From space travel to immortality or underwater exploration, sci-fi stories cover a wide range of subjects within settings that usually exceed the national boundaries of North Korea. If the country remains the central point of most plots, foreign characters–both positive and negative–are much more common than in traditional fiction.

Robots are another ubiquitous element, and often benevolently so; witness the disease-curing nanobots of Lee Geum-cheol’s Mysterious Medicine.[3] Sometimes robots take on more disturbing profiles, as in Lee Cheol Man’s Explosive Report[4] where a robot is involved in the murder of a scientist in a space lab. On the other hand, aliens are, unlike in Soviet or Western sci-fi, conspicuously absent, a fact justified by sci-fi author and theorist Hwang Jeong-sang by “the lack of scientific proof of a developed extra-terrestrial life.”[5]

Anthologies of children’s science fiction stories. |

Anthologies of children’s science fiction stories. |

Genre Development in Science Fiction | North Korean science-fiction is quite foreign to space opera and utopian/dystopian themes, focusing instead on the potential developments of applied science and technology. It pays particular attention to the process of scientific discovery and the conditions that make innovation possible. Scientifics and innovation are recurring characters in North Korean fiction, which is always keen on underlying their contributions to society. Family or love relationships sacrificed for the pursuit of scientific truth are common clichés of both literature and film (such as in the 2007 movie The Schoolgirl’s Diary), just like the image of a worker spending nights after nights trying to improve his factory’s machinery. But in each case, while the actual process of research is mentioned it is hardly ever described. Science is not the object of the story but works more as a kind of plot device through which traditional matters such as family values or devotion to the country can be addressed.

Science fiction stories, meanwhile, often detail the process of theorization, research, and experimentation that is the everyday work of a scientist. The importance of cooperation is routinely stressed: showing teamwork, theoretical debates, peer-reviewing, and international or interdisciplinary collaboration as key factors of scientific innovation. Conversely: pride, individualism, and personal ambitions are often linked to the failure of scientific projects. There is no room for stock characters such as the “genius scientist:” in phase with socialist epistemology, scientific discovery is first and foremost linked to external, socio-economical factors and is considered to be the product of a process of collaboration rather the fruit of individual genius.

From its early stages on, science-fiction had been a children’s genre, appearing in youth periodicals such as Adong Munhak (Children’s Literature; 아동 문학) or in anthologies published by the children’s book publisher Keumseong Cheongnyeon Chulpansa (Keumseong Children’s Publishing House; 금성 청년 출판사). The characteristics of the adult genre, however, started to evolve in the early 1990s as writers stepped beyond the realm of children’s literature. Adult sci-fi stories started to incorporate elements of mystery fiction (churi soseol; 출리 서설) and became more plot-driven with suspense, twists, and “whodunit” narratives. Most stories begin with a startling event–a bomb planted on a plane (Lee Keum-cheol’s Change of Course)[6], a high-ranking politician blackmailing the hero’s family (Eom Ho Sam’s Way Out)[7],a mysterious flying object in space (Lee Cheol-man’s Explosive Reporti)[8]–followed by a series of peripeteias involving spies, gangsters, imperialist conspiracies and scientific gadgetry. The international and exotic settings of these works give writers greater freedom in the depiction of criminality and violence, from murder to drug trafficking, sexual abuse, or cyber warfare. This in turn allows for a level of action as well as a variety of characters and villains (such as sea pirates or hackers) otherwise unheard of in the country’s literary tradition. But while all of this certainly makes for pleasant entertainment, the violence is never gratuitous: it stresses the cruelty of the enemies of the North Korean hero and its foreign allies in order to within the broader political message delivered by each story.


Illustration for Han Seong-ho’s Explosion in the 3rd Dimension (Chosunn munhak, 2006).

It is a truism that all of North Korean literature, which draws upon a national tradition of Confucian didactic literature and politically-charged pre-Thaw socialist realism, is politically motivated. The literary value of a work is always inherently linked to its ideological content and potential social utility. It is this idea that provided the basis for the concept of the seed (chongja; 종자) defined in Kim Jong Il’s literary theory as “the ideological kernel of life,”[9] that is, the political and practical dimension of any work of art, but also any action in life.

Sci-Fi in a Humanocentric Ideology | In the case of sci-fi, discussions pertaining to the value of the genre have likewise focused on social and ideological value with three main points. First, with its glorification of technology and scientific achievements, sci-fi provides one of the best illustrations of the anthropocentric principle that “man is the master of everything and decides everything. … Man performs creative activities to transform nature and society.” From 1972 on, this notion became the central tenet of North Korea’s Juche ideology. Secondly, it contributes to the development of North Korean technology by attracting workers and young people to the fields of science and providing “inspiration” to scientists. Finally, it can provide metaphorical criticism of individualism and capitalism and educate people by exposing some of the strategies used by imperialists against the DPRK.

However, despite the ideological-correctness and the support of the cultural authorities, the genre still seems to occupy a subaltern position within the country’s literary hierarchy. A precise assessment of the mechanisms of artistic recognition and consecration is a challenging endeavor, especially for a country like North Korea. Nonetheless, we can formulate a few hypotheses and point out some external signs of institutional and professional recognition in order to outline the position of sci-fi within the country’s literary hierarchy.

Science Fiction in the literary firmament | Tatiana Gabroussenko has previously pointed out that North Korean writers may not enjoy the celebrity status of their former Soviet colleagues; nonetheless, there are several ways in which a writer’s work can be singled out for praise and recognition. To sort out a few of these markers of literary value, we can consider the type of publication in which an author’s work are published, signs of institutional and professional recognition, and critical reception.  When writers appear in periodicals of possibly varying prestige such as Choseon Munhak (Chosun Literature; 조선 문학), Tongil Munhak (Unification Literature; 통일 문학), or Cheollima (천리마), or in anthologies, or are allowed to publish long novels, their name spreads. Likewise, writers are able to garner acclaim via literary prizes, national medals, and positions within the writer’s league, not to mention higher salaries.

While recent works of sci-fi have been positively received and regularly appear in the major literary magazine Choseon Munhak, they still appear to be behind “regular” fiction in certain aspects. For example, a quick look at the yearly Chosun Arts and Literature Yearbook (hosun Arts and Literature Yearbook; 조선 문학 여슬 연감), which publishes a list of the year’s most noteworthy works of fiction, has never singled out a work of science-fiction, whether for adults or for children, in its annual ranking.

Works that do make it on the list are usually stories that are either biographical depictions of the leaders or related to one of their historical accomplishments. Indeed, literary prestige is positively correlated, at least in the realm of institutional recognition, with the glorification of the leaders, as exemplified by the prestigious “4.15 Literary Group” of writers (4.15 changjakdan; 창각단) who enjoy the highest level of recognition via press coverage and special salary[10] and are responsible for the production of works of “leader literature” (suryeong hyeongsang munhak; 수령 형상 문학) in two specialized book series (“Immortal History” for Kim Il Sung and “Immortal Guidance” for Kim Jong Il). As the North Korean definition of sci-fi makes it a necessarily futuristic genre, the historical themes that are crucial to institutional and political recognition remain out of its reach.


A revolutionary aircraft in a still picture from the animated-film adaptation of Nam Dae-hyeon’s lightning powered aircraft. | Image: Information Center on North Korea

But even though political content is a decisive factor in the way a work of art is judged, it would be reductive to consider it the only standard of literary value. An ideologically sound base is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a cultural product to be considered art. Autonomous aesthetic criteria also do play a role, and in that aspect, works of science fiction demonstrate less of the accepted characteristics of literariness than many of their “literary” counterparts. For instance, descriptions are scant and very matter-of-factly in sci-fi stories. On the other hand, esteemed literary works like the novels from the Immortal Guidance series, tend to favor longer descriptions exhibiting, sometimes almost to the point of excess, traditional markers of literariness such as a rich vocabulary and figures of speech. Consider the following two descriptions, the first is taken from a sci-fi short story and the second, with more hyperbole, from a suryeong hyeongsang novel of the Eternal Guidance collection, the pinnacle of Juche literature. Even after accounting for individual stylistic differences between writers, the two samples are quite representative of the style of their respective genre:

Woreureu, kwang–Lightning struck, tearing the sky to pieces and the loud noise of thunder followed. It was as if the whole universe was angry.[11]

– Eom Ho-sam, Way out (2001)


Kureureung–On the other side, an unseasonable crash of thunder rolled loudly in the high skies over Mount Victory. This heavy noise of the Northern Land shook the center of the Earth like the roaring of a repeated artillery charge and echoed resoundingly into the distant space of the universe.”[12]

– Lee Sin-Hyeon, Kanggye Spirit (2002)

While their object is similar, the distinct stylistic characteristics of the two abstracts are quite revealing of the standards of perceived literary value in North Korea. Literariness is defined not only by the subject matter but also by a certain tone and the use of syntactic and lexical conventions, however overblown or stale they might look to a foreign reader. Therefore, science-fiction, with its plot-driven stories and minimal reliance on “literary” embellishment might never gain the level of critical recognition granted to works who respect the established standards of literariness.

Unlike what we might expect, the literariness of style is less a matter of originality than convention: the cosmic and martial metaphors from the above cited sentences are very common fixtures of works of suryeong hyeongsang and it is not hard to find the same analogies in several books by different authors. In the same way, these novels are ripe with recurring elements from stock characters (the party official accompanying the Leader) to stereotypical scenes (the Leader giving a ride to average citizens, unsuspecting people meeting the Leader without recognizing him). But the very presence and identifiability of these stylistic and narrative clichés acts as a semiotic marker of literary quality. Sci-fi’s lack of literariness is not as much a lack of literary creativity than its non-usage of established standards of high literature.

As a new genre and effective mean of strengthening commitment to the North Korean ideology, science fiction has received support from the highest literary authorities. With action-filled narratives and a broader range of subjects and characters than regular fiction, sci-fi stories make up a particularly interesting and entertaining strand within the DPRK’s literature. But the characteristics of North Korean sci-fi are not entirely consistent with the country’s stylistic and thematic standards of high literature, making it a secondary genre.

Nonetheless the literary establishment’s criteria are not necessarily those of the readers. For instance, the most popular work of the famous writer Paek Nam-ryong is a novel dealing with divorce, and not the several books he published in the Immortal Guidance series. Knowing the North Korean’s readership taste for romance and spy novels, one can safely assume that readers’ response might make sci-fi novels more popular than their level of institutional recognition would suggest. That this could transfer into an actual reassessment of the literary value of the genre is however doubtful. If, unlike bourgeois art, North Korean aesthetics do not consider popularity and aesthetic value to be mutually exclusive, the former nonetheless has little influence on the latter.

[1] David Glover, “Publishing, History, Genre,” in The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2012

[2] Hwang Jeong-sang, Gwahak Hwansang Munhak Changjak (Munhak Yesul Chulpansa, 1993), 49.

[3] Lee Keum-cheol, “Sinbihan Yak,” Adong Munhak 8 (1994).

[4] Lee Cheol-man, “P’oktan kisa,” Choseon Munhak 3 (2007): 63.

[5] Hwang, Gwahak Hwansang, 47.

[6] Lee Keum-cheol, “Hangno-reul Pakkura,” Choseon Munhak 4 (2004): 71.

[7] Eom Ho-sam, “Churro,” Choseon Munhak 8 (2001), 75.

[8] Lee, “P’oktan kisa.”

[9] Kim Jong-Il, Juche munhangnon (Joseon rodongdang Chulpansa, 1992), 71.

[10] Lee Myeong-jae, Pukhan Munhak Sajeon (Gukhak Jaryowon, 1995).

[11] Eom H.S., “Churro.”

[12] Lee Sin-hyeon, Kanggye Jeongsin (Munhak Yesul Jonghap Chulpansa, 2002).

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