Encountering North Korean Fiction: The Origins of the Future

The new year is dawning. The thought that we are entering the last year of the current century arouses a different feeling within me than usual. My heart is overwhelmed with emotion and my thoughts come ever more frequently. Not many years ago the twenty-first century seemed as remote as the ends of space... but now we have reached its cusp.

—Ri Chun-gil

Despite having its own indigenous system for dates based on the birth of Kim Il Sung, as North Korea approached the new millennium of the common era, the nation, like many throughout the world, contemplated where it had been and where it was headed. Such reflection occurred perhaps even more earnestly in the DPRK than elsewhere, for not only does the nation's very self-conception rest on its relationship to its twentieth-century past, but the year 1999 also culminated a decade of ongoing crisis: the collapse of communism in Europe, economic difficulties resulting from the loss of the nation's erstwhile trading partners, the death of Kim Il Sung, natural disasters, and, not least, devastating food shortages all contributed to a collective national sense of undergoing a "forced march" (kanghaenggun). In this essay I wish to highlight the articulation of fiction and its intersection with social concerns as North Korea entered the new millennium. Although the nation's writers remain as firmly committed as ever to the maintenance of the Juche ideology and a belief in the value of literature as a tool for propaganda, repeated references in recent stories to the "forced march" or "arduous march" (konan ûi haenggun) and their attendant issues offer evidence of an increasing psychological toll that has been exacted upon the DPRK.1 Despite official pronouncements portraying the nation's journey on the forced march as a heroic effort that has been brought to a successful close, underscored by the use of the military metaphor, details in short stories, as we shall see, suggest much of the population may feel otherwise.

Analysis of North Korean literature almost invariably begins with discussion of its relationship to official policy, for as much as anywhere in the world artistic production is steeped in and skewed by heavy-handed directives from above. The regime enthusiastically proclaims that its art serves not entertainment but ideology, and that authors, in a notorious phrase borrowed by Kim Il Sung from 1930s Soviet Russia, are to be "engineers of the human soul."2 Scholarship on North Korean literature in the West is rare and its particular focus on relationships with the development of Juche ideology and the Kim personality cult has at times precluded detailed analysis of individual texts.3 Even the more frequent book-length studies emanating from South Korea that treat works in depth tend to use them primarily as a vehicle for understanding DPRK society rather than examining closely how they function as literature per se.4 Perhaps unsurprisingly, a generally low assessment of the quality of the DPRK's literature has also contributed to the paucity of close analysis: Kwon Young-min, for example, complains that the official guidelines set down by the Juche theory of art and literature have eliminated individual creativity.5

I would prefer to argue, however, that an alternative methodological perspective from which to approach the fiction of the DPRK is in terms of an implicit contract established between state, author, and reader. With editorials that appear in Chosôn munhak, the DPRK's most important literary journal, under such hortatory titles as "Let's Be Active in Creating Literary Works That Positively Contribute to the Construction of a Strong Socialist State,"6 official policy could hardly be more explicit about what it desires from its literature, and North Korean readers will of course approach texts with such pronouncements in mind; simultaneously, though, they will possess less consciously formed expectations for a story in relation to its plot structure, narrative strategies, style, and the like, and the success of any given story will depend on the skill with which the author can manipulate these conventions within a rigid structure. In other words, while all concur that North Korean literature functions as a tool of state ideology, we still need to examine whether the nation's writers can wield this tool with sufficient subtlety that it functions not as a blacksmith's hammer, but a sculptor's chisel. It is not, for example, inevitable that characterization in North Korean literature be rough-hewn: although it often is, some writers portray their characters with a sympathy and insight that brings them to life even for a reader outside the ideological framework of Juche.

Given the revelation of social fissures in North Korean literature, its reception by its audience merits continual consideration; if we focus solely on how the regime wishes its fiction to be interpreted, we run the risk of taking its profession of monolithic solidarity at face value, precisely as its fiction warns us against doing so. As Kim notes, although many North Korean fictional texts indicate general "objectively" definable problems within society, the solutions depicted are in fact both abstract and "subjective," being dependent on individual characterization.7 One can press Kim's point further: it is in fact precisely the idiosyncratic moments of epiphany concluding many DPRK short stories that reveal all the more clearly deep-rooted structural problems in contemporary North Korean society; the constant repetition of themes suggests an ultimate lack of confidence in solutions that substitute emotional catharsis for verifiable proof.

In the larger essay from which this summary comes, I focus on two questions: what literary mechanisms do recent stories use to wean readers from social reality to social ideals, and what issues acquire resonance in the unspoken contract between author, state, and reader on the eve of the new millennium?

Han Ung-bin's "Tubôntche sangbong" (Second Encounter),8 the story I have made available here, intrigues for two reasons: first, it depicts a cross-cultural encounter between citizens of Pyongyang and a Western journalist, and, second, it draws a surprisingly honest contrast between the optimism of the late 1980s and circumstances ten years later, revealing strains that occur within the narrator's own family that leave the ending unusually ambiguous. Kim Chae-yong notes that North Korean literature begins to move away from a one-sided tendency to view its world through rose-colored glasses during the 1990s, and this trend, which gathers steam during the decade, is much in evidence here.9 The bulk of "Tubôntche sangbong" is taken up with the first-person narrator's description of serving as a minder during the 1989 World Youth Conference to a Western journalist who doggedly refuses to believe the portrait of North Korean society with which he is presented.10 And while this encounter is fascinating in itself, that is not my focus here, for the text derives its effect from the relationship of the framing sections that depict the narrator's life and his perspective a decade later to the main portion of the story that is related in flashback.

The tale begins with the narrator looking out the window of his Pyongyang apartment and noting slogans everywhere on the streets ("Let's continue the arduous march vigorously onward to paradise!") that give expression to the hardships of the previous ten years. When we return to the present after the lengthy account of his experience as guide to the journalist, the narrator provides a detailed account of what the 1990s have meant for the DPRK. The narrator's thoughts are then interrupted by a knock on the door from the head of his inminban (people's group), who urges the family to go to the clinic to be inoculated. At this point the text provides a telling glimpse of domestic life, as the narrator's daughter, fretting about the vaccination, is scolded by her mother for not changing out of her school uniform. The narrator reflects on their bickering and the outside gloom, then trails off, "Nevertheless... ."—an ellipsis that well accentuates the pervasive tension in recent short stories between the grim situation faced by contemporary North Korea and a steadfast refusal to lose faith in the ideals of Juche. Yet the daily conflict between mother and daughter which provokes tears suggests a society under severe stress and perhaps close to the breaking point; the mood here differs radically from earlier stories where one senses that the claim to live in a socialist paradise carried greater conviction for its audience.

The story concludes as the narrator explains why he has engaged in such a lengthy reminiscence. He has just re-encountered the journalist indirectly via one of his newspaper articles and then proceeds to quote from it; although the correspondent had believed that people the world over lived without hope for the future, he has discovered upon a return visit to North Korea that, in fact, there is one nation where faith remains strong: "ten years have passed, and, having traveled through several nations in Eastern Europe, I have come to realize as I walk through the roads of this land that, although few decorations are illuminated and the street lights are dim today, this indeed is a nation that knows neither desperation (chôlmang) nor anxiety (puran), a land filled with confidence in the future... ."

The story thus appears to provide a more "objective" reason for optimism through the words of a foreign journalist, whose argument rests on personal observation and comparison. Nonetheless, the text follows a dangerous strategy in emphasizing present difficulties and contrasting them with the happier days of the late 1980s, because even within the narrator's household, one would be hard pressed to say that hope predominates over despair. The reader is asked ultimately to share the narrator's subjective faith, despite being reminded at length of contemporary hardships. More troublingly, the narrator's brief domestic vignette appears to belie the journalist's words, and the text allows the reader to wonder whether the narrator's wife and especially his daughter would second his interpretation. Reprimanded by her mother for not considering the nation's situation in wearing out her school uniform, the daughter greets the news of the vaccinations precisely with worry (kôkchôngsûre): a child's nervousness about needles or more serious concerns about health issues in a nation with an inordinately high death rate?11 The text attempts to prescribe how it is to be read, but is unable to seal off ambiguities, as the narrator's satisfaction that the DPRK's way of life continues defuses discontent largely by raising fears over alternatives.

What, in conclusion, is the overall literary and emotional effect created by recent short stories for their implied readers? Perhaps the most salient feature of North Korean literature in contrast to its southern counterpart is its eternal optimism. In reawakening consciousness of difficulties in daily life, but by ultimately effacing them through the manipulations permitted in a fictive world, contemporary North Korean literature promises psychological comfort: its conventions allow readers the opportunity to yield temporarily to darker fears with the reassurance that a utopian redemption awaits at story's end. Regardless of moral failure on the part of the protagonist or details that point overwhelmingly toward hardship, as in "Tubôntche sangbong," all stories promise a better tomorrow, even at the expense of raising contradictions between a text's details and its final message. One might be tempted to apply the term "willing suspension of disbelief" to the fiction of the DPRK, but that phrase, which requires the acceptance of things we know not to be so (an essential element of such genres as science fiction), is perhaps not appropriate to the DPRK's literature: rather, the texts rely on the reader's "willing acquiescence in belief" and eagerness to suppress cognitive dissonance in favor of the interpretation the texts themselves wish to dictate. The reader's role in the implicit contract established with the state and author, then, is to allow his or her faith in the system to be reaffirmed. Nonetheless, North Korean fiction on the cusp of the new millennium also provides ample scope for its audience to become "resisting readers"12 and to rebel against the perspective imposed by the texts' conclusions. I have attempted to show how points of indeterminacy within these texts allow one to approach them not as a closed conversation but as an open dialogue. Of course, my analysis invites one crucial query: how do real North Korean readers choose to understand their fiction within the privacy of their own thoughts? That, I fear, is a question whose answer may be several years in coming.

The epigraph is drawn from "P'ungsônghan rojôkkarirûl nop'i ssalgo sae segirûl majunghagessûmnida" [Piling up Abundant Stacks of Grain, I Will Go Forth to Meet the New Year], Chosôn munhak, January 1999, 66. Please note that I generally follow MacCune-Reischauer romanization in this article, but also adopt common DPRK English spellings for specific people or places where they exist. This essay is a condensed version of "North Korean Short Stories on the Cusp of the New Millennium," originally published in Acta Koreana 5, no.1 (2002): 33-50

1Juche can probably best be defined as self-reliance, independence, or autonomy. The ideology of Juche is the fundamental guiding principle behind the North Korean approach to the world. It has connotations of nationalist pride and self-determination. Official DPRK policy titled the years 1996-97 the "arduous march" (konan ûi haenggun); after the proclamation of a victorious result at the end of 1997, terminology changed to the "socialist forced march" (sahûijuûi kanghaenggun) for the years 1998-99.

2Kim first used the phrase in "Talk with Writers and Artists, June 30, 1951," in Kim Il Sung, Works (Pyongyang, 1981), 6:336-342.

3For comprehensive discussions of the relationship of ideology to the literature of the DPRK in English see Young-min Kwon, "Literature and Art in North Korea: Theory and Policy," Korea Journal 31, no. 2 (1991): 56-70; Yon-ho Suh, "The Revolutionary Operas and Plays in North Korea," Korea Journal 31, no. 3 (1991): 85-94; and especially Vladimir Pucek, "The Impact of Juche upon Literature and Arts," in Han S. Park, ed., North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996), 51-70. Marshall Pihl's "Engineers of the Human Soul: North Korean Literature Today," Korean Studies 1 (1977): 63-110, makes valuable comments on style and comment as a whole, but does not engage in sustained analysis of a single story. Brian Myers's article on Soviet characters in North Korea fiction ,"Mother Russia: Soviet Characters in North Korean Fiction," Korean Studies 16 (1992): 82-93), and his book-length treatment of Han Sôl-ya, Han Sôl-ya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series, 1994), are notable exceptions to the lack of analysis of individual stories, although his scorn for much of the work he examines is readily palpable. For helpful accounts of the role played by ideology in North Korean film, a field that has been subject to similar theoretical treatment in the DPRK, see Myung-jin Park, "Motion Pictures in North Korea," Korea Journal 31, no. 3 (1991): 95-103; Kyung-Hyun Kim, "The Fractured Cinema of North Korea: The Discourse of the Nation in Sea of Blood," in Stephen Snyder and Xiaobing Ting, eds., In Pursuit of Contemporary East Asian Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 85-106; and Hyangjin Lee, "Conflicting Working-Class Identities in North Korean Cinema," Korea Journal 40, no. 3 (2000): 237-254.

4See, for example, Kim Chae-yong, Pukhan munhak ûi yôksajôk ihae (Seoul: Munhakkwajisôngsa, 1994); Shin Hyông-gi, Pukhansosôl ûi ihae (Seoul: Shilch'onmunhaksa, 1996); and Pak Tae-sang, Pukhanmunhak ûi hyônsang (Seoul: Kip'ûnsaem, 1999).

5Young-min Kwon, 57.

6 "Sahoejuûigangsôngdaegukkônsôr-e chôkkûk ibajihal munhakchakp'um-ûl hwalbarhi ch'angch'akhaja," Chosôn munhak, January 1999, 5.

7 Kim Chae-yong, 275.

8Chosôn munhak, September 1999, 49-58.

9Kim Chae-yong, 283, and "'Konan ûi haenggun'kwa 1990 nyôndae huban pukhanmunhak ûi kallyojuûi pip'an," Munhwayesul (2000): 6.

10This skepticism reaches a climax when, during the course of guiding the reporter about, the narrator runs into an acquaintance whose simple honesty and faith in the North Korean system places the questions the Westerner asks in a ridiculous light: e.g., at one point the reporter asks his interlocutor what goods he possesses in his home, only to be met with uncomprehending complexity: "What a strange person! A house is for people, not for storing objects like a storeroom."

11During my meeting with Han Ung-bin, the author made clear that he only intended the first interpretation, but I would nonetheless maintain that the second view can suggest itself. My point is, in fact, that such ambiguities leak into these recent texts even when they may not in any way be intended by their authors. Furthermore, although the story attempts to differentiate between a "worry" (kôkchông) and "anxiety" (puran) through the voice of the foreign journalist, the narrator's local acquaintance, significantly, is himself unable to understand the distinction.

12I use here the term first coined by feminist literary critic Judith Fetterley in a study that takes issue with the masculine bias in American literature that leads a reader "to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of whose central principles is misogyny." Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). We may similarly apply her approach to a reader's possible reaction to the coerciveness of the values of Chuch'e ideology in North Korean literature.

I would like to thank Charles Armstrong, Gregory Nicholas Evon, John Frankl, Frank Hoffmann, David Kosofsky, and Leonid Petrov for providing helpful comments on earlier drafts and/or assistance in securing difficult-to-obtain research materials. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Marshall Pihl.