Reclaiming North Korean Literature

By Shirley Lee

Engaging with ancient literature has its difficulties. Even if we put aside the unfamiliar details of cultural context, there remain factors such as genre, function, and form that can be daunting for the modern reader. The didactic genre is currently out of fashion (Vergil's bee-keeping manual in poetic form is not a modern favorite); earnest patriotism expressed through poetry is difficult to take at face value today (Wilfred Owen imbued "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" with an irony not present in Horace's original); and the epic poem as the preferred literary long-form has long been superseded by the novel.

These factors are perhaps felt more acutely when the ancient literature in question is read in translation, as expectations shift closer to the cultural and literary context of the target language, and away from that of the source.

Although contemporary literature from within North Korea is not ancient, an outside reader attempting to engage with it may be confronted by a similar feeling of alienation to that described above. Not only is the language of North Korean literature enmeshed in its distinctive and poorly understood sociopolitical context, but it is severely constrained to serve a narrow political purpose, grinding unpleasantly with our outsiders' sense of the role we think literature should play.

We generally expect writers to write in defiance of establishment politics, as suggested by the controversy arising from Nobel laureate Mo Yan's apparent endorsement of Chinese state censorship. And perhaps Bob Dylan's lyrics are all the more valued by mainstream opinion because they offered an alternative voice to establishment politics.

DPRK state literature may try to appeal to the outside reader in superficial terms of form: the psychological warfare division employs writers whose attempts at “catchy” lyrics are published on YouTube. Yet in terms of function and purpose, the words are fundamentally interpreted as serving establishment politics.

In trying to understand why the work of North Korean exiles is so accessible and relatively easy to translate with a foreign reader in mind, one answer suggesting itself is this: the key is in the familiarity of function, rather than of form. As North Korean exiles write in defiance of establishment politics, they perhaps write according to the values of literary purpose we are most comfortable with.

The literature of North Korean exiles is written from a viewpoint we feel we can identify with, even if we have not experienced what they have; in this way, it provides a bridge of communication between North Koreans and the rest of the world to speak human-to-human—something almost impossible to accomplish when the language of the regime is the mediator between us and them.

Yet I feel familiarity of function does not wholly account for North Korean exile literature's relatively docile nature when being rendered into English. The bare language and simplicity of the literary web of allusions in this literature plays a large part, too. Perhaps it is a symptom of severe cultural trauma.

During China's Cultural Revolution, establishment politicians tried to erase their literary heritage, attempting to replace the vacuum with the Party's vision of Chinese language and literature. Poets of China's “New Generation,” still little-known in the West but legendary in China itself, rebelled by turning to the classical Chinese literary canon; and thereby reclaimed a Chinese language and literature that did not belong to the Chinese Communist Party.

Coming from a country where history has been set to begin on the dictator Kim Il Sung's birth year, where allusions that contradict the official literary lexicon are considered blasphemous, where the politicians' usurpation of the literary canon is more total than in any other nation on earth, North Korean exiles have an enormous task ahead of them once they leave the system: they must claim an alien heritage as their own, or start anew.

Stripped of language and literature, their voices are nakedly human. I am reminded faintly of fables and folk tales—they are a product of their time, but known and enjoyed and passed down stripped of context, and thus easily transferable through languages and cultures. At the same time, the literature of North Korean exiles is more than fables, because their simplicity is owed more to their context rather than to the nature of their  content. This is true also with modern Korean literature from before the war, which can be glimpsed in "Military Jacket Button" by poet Kim Chul.

For these reasons, the developing creation of a non-state North Korean literature—the work of North Korean exiles being the only such literature at present—will go hand in hand with the emergence of a new society: of North Koreans who represent an identity beyond what can possibly be owned by the ruling Party of the DPRK, with the writers reclaiming their language and literature from the politicians.


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