Leader as Teacher, Leader as Scribe: An Introduction to North Korean Children’s Literature

By | October 07, 2013 | No Comments

A Winged Horse | Image: Christopher Richardson

A Winged Horse, “an illustrated book of a fairytale told by the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.” | Image: Christopher Richardson

Sino-NK has lately been focused on affairs of the pen, bringing together Tatiana Gabbroussenko, Benoit Berthelier and our own Sherri Ter Molen for the annual Sino-NK symposium, in which we spend a week or more with the emphasis firmly on a single element of North Korea research.

But the journey is not over yet! Gloriously, no sooner had we scythed our way through the forest of literary themes planted by the Benoit Symposium than we were drawn back into the woods, this time by analyst Christopher Richardson, who returns today to analyze the children’s literary production of North Korea’s leaders themselves (and, presumably, those who ghostwrite in their stead) in the second of his two-part series on North Korean children’s literature.

Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd may indeed be children’s authors of merit, but the “thousand-ri horse” of legend is noticeable by its absence from their works. Au contraire for the Kims. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.

Leader as Teacher, Leader as Scribe: An Introduction to North Korean Children’s Literature

by Christopher Richardson 

Storytellers-in-Chief: Leaders as Mythmakers | In the West, it has lately proved fashionable for state leaders to turn their hand to children’s literature. In 2010, Barack Obama penned an illustrated children’s book entitled Of Thee I Sing: A Letter To My Daughters. Aiming to capture the zeitgeist, Obama introduced an inspirational survey of influential Americans, from George Washington to Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr. to a new generation of children. Rather less ambitiously, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also released a children’s picture book. Entitled Jasper and Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle, it explored the lives of the Prime Ministerial pets. Yet it is unlikely that either Obama or Rudd was aware of the company they were keeping when they joined the ranks of world leaders who had penned picture books for their child constituencies; both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have done the same. This is one aspect of the culture wars that neither America, nor Australia, stands any chance of winning, as these images from the vastly more exciting works of Kim Jong-il attest.

The exuberantly violent Magic Crystal Gem (left) and Boys Wipe Out Bandits (right) | Image: Christopher Richardson

The exuberantly violent Magic Crystal Gem (left) and Boys Wipe Out Bandits (right) | Image: Christopher Richardson

A Winged Horse: Imagining the Past, Writing the Future | Re-released in multiple translations in 1989—and now available in animated DVD format!–A Winged Horse (날개달린 룡마) is introduced as “an illustrated book of a fairytale told by the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.” Set in a mythologized medieval Korean past, it tells the story of the coastal village of Drum. Like many North Korean children’s books, it is a story of invasion and resistance, of the victory of the weak over the ostensibly invincible forces of the strong. The first thing we learn of Drum, apart from its natural beauty, is that “foreign invaders over the sea were greedy for our country, and this village would always be the first place they invaded.”[1] Korea’s long and bitter history of colonialism, whether at the hands of the Chinese, Japanese, or Western powers, resounds strongly.

Intriguingly, the identity of the invaders is never stated. Rather, they are simply described as “brutes,” a “bestial enemy” prepared even to attack unarmed old men.[2] The illustrations provide the rest. Indeed, the enemy may remain unnamed, and therefore symbolic of any old, or potential new, threat to the Korean people, yet the invaders are clearly of Japanese origin. As drawn, their medieval armor suggest Hideyoshi’s Imjin War of 1592-1598, a series of invasions still cited by North Korea as a source of grievance against the modern Japanese state. Despite the deceptively cartoonish qualities of the illustrations, they exude violence, juxtaposing the purity of the luminous, softly drawn Korean characters against the distorted features of the monstrous Japanese invaders. Characteristically for North Korean children’s literature, as indeed for North Korean arts in general, there is an unapologetic racialism to the depiction of the samurai invaders, with their unkempt facial hair, cruel lips, and phallic red noses. The invaders are depicted committing violence with ease, even glee, evincing pleasure in the task of assailing the village of Drum.[3]

Yet paradoxically, even as the book attempts to instill the reader with a terror of the Japanese invader, it seeks to diminish the status of the enemy as a force to be reckoned with. Despite his legendary martial prowess, the splendor of a samurai in full martial attire is reduced to a contemptible joke, a buffoonish bow-legged parody in fancy dress, compared to the simple honest attire of the Korean peasant. When the unnamed child hero of the story finally comes to the rescue of the village astride the eponymous Winged Horse, or Chollima (천리마), the Japanese are depicted screaming or gibbering in terror, blocking their ears. As the text relates, “the enemy fled, screaming with fright… the villagers cut down the fleeing enemy with arrows and spears.”[6] The final stage of battle are illustrated graphically, the Japanese mown down as they retreat, buck-teethed and cross-eyed, ceremonial helmets flying from their heads as their lifeless bodies crash to the ground.

The only good Samuri, according to North Korean children's literature, is a dead one. | Image: Christopher Richardson

The only good Samuri, according to North Korean children’s literature, is a dead one. | Image: Christopher Richardson

What, then, of the heroic Koreans in A Winged Horse? Whereas the invaders are grotesque and dysmorphic, the three boy heroes are beatific, round-faced, rose-cheeked and neatly groomed, especially the youngest. Almost feminine, he has wide liquid eyes, like a cherub. Their bodies incarnate Korean simplicity and virtue. As Tatiana Gabroussenko writes, North Korean literature ritually presents, “a gathering of angelic heroes.” So it is here. We learn that the eldest boy is the strongest in the village, the second its finest horseman. And yet, when faced with the challenge of harnessing the winged-horse to deliver the village from its oppressors, it is neither virtue that grants victory to the people of Drum. The eldest learns that “the strength and courage I have cultivated for the country have become useless,” and the second son’s horsemanship falters on the raging banks of the Kuryong River, self-preservation trumping self-sacrifice. Instead, it is the selfless, almost blind courage of the third son that delivers victory to the village. When the boy encounters a ravening tiger, he does not flee, but rides it, turning danger into opportunity. When he guides the horse to the raging Kuryong, the steed finally unfurls its wings, primed by the boy’s determination to cross the water no matter the risk. Our child hero declares: “My dear horse, I am not afraid of that violent storm if you can get through it. Please understand that I am determined to risk my life to save the village.”[4] A declaration of self-sacrifice and faith, there could be no clearer statement of the revolutionary creed.

The Spirit of Chollima: Stories To Live By | This version of A Winged Horse was published as the Eastern Bloc edged towards terminal decline, the final years during which North Korea’s propagandists held full mastery of their information environment before the famine shattered this monopoly. Whether or not Kim Il-sung actually composed the tale, its use of the Chollima, or “thousand-ri,” horse as a central image exploits the nostalgia of North Koreans for the Chollima Movement, a halcyon period of economic and industrial growth launched in December 1956 at Kangson Steel Mill. During this era, as Dae-Sook Suh writes, “persons who surpassed their quotas [were] decorated with the banner of the Chollima and were called Chollima riders.” Implicitly, Kim’s fable concedes that the revolution is vulnerable, requiring a restoration of Chollima values for its salvation. That salvation is found in the heroic child. His bravery and devotion transcend the storm, mastering nature itself in a display of supernatural power, as “the horse spread its wings to the full and flew bravely across the river. He could see a beautiful scene. The violent storm abated and the columns of water broke up and became millions of colorful flowers.”[5] The Chollima delivers the village from the clutches of defeat, guided by the valiant patriotism of an innocent child. Correct thinking and ideology trump circumstance.

Winged horses and virtuous Koreans | Image: Christopher Richardson

Winged horses and virtuous Koreans | Image: Christopher Richardson

Charles Armstrong has argued that this is a key ideational element of the North Korean revolution, writing that in the area of ideology “one of the most distinctively Korean elements of communism in North Korea was its emphasis on ideas over material conditions. Koreans shared this Marxist heresy with their counterparts in China and Vietnam, but this humanistic and voluntaristic emphasis was even more pronounced in Korea than in the other two East Asian communist revolutions.” Indeed, the almost miraculous power invested in the ideologically pure child hero of A Winged Horse would be out of place in Soviet children’s literature, emerging instead from the folkloric traditions of the Korean Peninsula and reflecting the heretical centrality of piety of thought and intention to the North Korean revolution. As of 2012, Kim Il-sung’s fairytale has gained a newfound resonance. Now that Kim Jong-un, youngest of Kim Jong-il’s three sons, has risen to power above his older siblings, one wonders whether the legend of A Winged Horse might have a special place in his imagination…

How To Judge A Book? Nature, Nurture & the Shifting Sands of Narrative | There is a paradox at the core of North Korea’s literary philosophy, a tension between nature and nurture that Kim Jong-il’s dialectic in On Juche Literature struggles to resolve. Does the artist create, or merely represent? Or perhaps, in representing, create? On the one hand, Kim insists North Korean children’s literature must reflect “our children’s characteristics,” and present “artistic images in conformity with this high level of the mentality of our children.” Yet, on the other hand, in his scathing attack on foreign children’s culture, Kim is forced to concede that the revolutionary mentality of the North Korean child is, in fact, manufactured, not innate. In a striking passage, he writes that:

Prevalent in the current world children’s literature is a tendency to sing the praises of a supraclass “pure disposition,” trying to find the children’s characters in something inborn. To neglect acquired nature and to regard inborn nature as being absolute in representing children’s characters is the way to building a barrier between the rising generation and society, and making them incompetent beings for the times and revolution and prisoners of reactionary fatalism.[6]

Of course, this is no concession at all; rather, it is a semantic obfuscation, intended to occlude the dilemma at the core of revolutionary literature. Struggling to resolve the tension between nature and nurture, Kim redefines the debate, distinguishing instead between two types of nature: “acquired nature” and “inborn nature.” Yet the implication is clear; that the role of North Korean children’s literature is not to reflect “something inborn” in the Korean race, but to create and project a new nature, one authored by the state. The onus then falls on artists and writers to adequately enforce this re-engineered vision of “nature,” and for the child to adequately respond. In contemporary North Korea, with proliferating foreign media in the hands of adults and children, this is likely to prove an onerous task. Ultimately, the state might be forced to permit the distribution of foreign children’s culture, or attempt to suppress it altogether. In the meantime, the writers and illustrators of North Korea will strive to reconcile their twin demands, creating texts that foster revolutionary consciousness, national cohesion, ideological purity, and reverence for the Kims in the minds of their young readers, whilst also being “still quite fun to read.”


[1] Kim Il-sung, A Winged Horse (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1989), 2.

[2] Ibid., 7-8.

[3] Ibid., 6-7.

[4] Ibid., 23, 56-57.

[5] Ibid., 49-50

[6] Kim Jong-il, On Juche Literature (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992), 221.

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