At its essence, the purpose of North Korean literature is to praise the Korean Workers’ Party. While South Korean poetry deals with topics such as love or life, North Korean poetry refers only to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, constantly reinventing itself as a mechanism of hymnal thought-control. In North Korea, whatever literary genius poets may possess, ignoring Party ideology in their work is a certain path to being mentally or physically broken by the state. This was the case of North Korean poet Kim Chul.
In the early 1960s, Kim Chul was one of the foremost poets in North Korea. He was renowned for his lyric poetry and wrote often about love. The people even dubbed him “the Pushkin of Korea.” But no matter how beautiful, his poems could not be published unless they promoted Party ideology. One such poem, “A Military Jacket Button,” depicts a soldier returning home after the Korean War. He takes in his arms a motherless baby. The baby wakes up and sucks on a button on the soldier’s military uniform, mistaking it for his mother’s nipple. It is a poignant elegy about the misery of the Korean War.
Wearing a military jacket stained with gunsmoke
The soldier holds the sleeping baby in his arms
The baby awakes, caresses his mother’s breast
And sucks on the button of a military jacket.
May this soldier become his mother.
Kim Chul seized poetic opportunities, wrote succinctly, and had strong control over tone; many considered him the nation’s leading poet. Yet because his poetry did not exalt Party ideology, his life could only end in tragedy. He was banished into obscurity by the North Korean state for the crime of writing according to an “artistic,” instead of “political,” sensibility. His pursuit of art offended the North Korean state.
In North Korea, July 27, 1953 is remembered not as a day of armistice, but rather, as the “day of victory.” The state dictates that all art must base itself on the joy of victory; the heroism of the Korean people for having expelled the forces of American imperialism from their lands must be the “voice” with which every artist speaks.
As is evident in “A Military Jacket Button,” Kim Chul’s poetry contained none of that “joy of victory.” His works reflect instead the darkness brought on by the Korean War. Through the image of the baby sucking on a soldier’s military jacket button—thinking it is its mother’s nipple—Kim Chul depicts the Koreans as a war-weary people, and the Korean War as a tragedy for the nation. The work was considered seditious in its realism, and banned.
To make matters worse, Kim Chul’s relationship with a Russian woman was frowned upon by the state. The Workers’ Party issued an order for their divorce, but Kim Chul refused to comply. He was forced by the authorities to make a choice: give up his Party membership, or separate from the woman. Kim Chul said that if this kind of oppression was what the Party represented, he would rather give up his membership. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in hard labor and was sent to a mine with his young son. According to the system of guilt by association, families of “criminals” in North Korea are also punished.
The Russian woman, forcibly separated from Kim Chul, returned to her home country. Kim Chul continued to work in the mines. As he watched his son grow to adulthood, Kim Chul fell into a depression. He began to feel guilty; his senseless stubbornness had resulted in his son’s lifelong suffering.
Day after day, as he watched his son work all day in the mines and come home exhausted and unable to eat, Kim Chul began to feel that life meant nothing unless one yielded to the needs of the Party. He came to accept that art had no value unless it was used as a tool of propaganda.
He wrote a letter of apology to the Party asking to be absolved of his past mistakes. He pleaded with his successors in the publishing section to give him a chance and publish the apology. They were sympathetic, but had to refuse; it was just not possible to publish something written by a poet whose life and work had been erased from the history of North Korean literature.
Kim Chul was devastated. Eventually, he composed a lyric poem expressing deep regret for his past actions titled “Forgive Me”:
Forgive me, Mother
I complained about the clothes you made me
I hurt you to the core
Forgive me, Mother
Forgive me, Teacher
I did not complete my chemistry assignment
I did not learn my log tables
I hurt you to the core
Forgive me, Teacher
Do not forgive me, my homeland
If, in the decisive moment of battle
I stop to consider my life
And the enemy’s bullet destined for me
Rips through my comrade
Do not forgive me
I am your son
I will be brave in battle
If, leading the charge with our standard, I fall
Never to rise again
Do not forget me, my homeland
In his apology to the party, Kim Chul likens himself to a child who has misbehaved; yet ultimately, he is prepared to sacrifice himself for his homeland, which should therefore forgive him.
Kim Jong-il accepted Kim Chul’s poetic apology and ordered that he and his family be recalled to Pyongyang. He presented them with a luxury apartment in a forty-story building in the Ryugyong-dong, Botong-gang area. In addition, Kim Jong-il enrolled Kim Chul’s children in the school of literature at Kim Il-sung University—they were to follow in their father’s footsteps and learn to sing eternal praises to the Party. Kim Chul shed many grateful tears for Kim Jong-il’s magnanimity.
He expressed his thanks in the poem “Mother.” This Korean Workers’ Party hymn depicts the Party as the birth mother of the speaker. All North Koreans are required to learn this hymn by heart.
Now, I have
Fully grown children
And white hair over my ears
Yet I call your name in a child’s voice
Mother, I have you, Mother.
You are my mother when I am happy
You are my mother when I am grieving
Whether you call me affectionately or tell me off, I run into your arms
Ask you about a thousand things
Tell you all my mistakes, even ones I might have forgotten
I cannot live without my mother!
If I let go, I might lose you
If I leave your side, I might lose you
Even while asleep, I fumble for you
And your dear gaze rests on my face all night
And your soft touch strokes my head
Into the morning
You, Mother, are you really
The one who gave me birth and milk?
I raise my eyes, softly
Looking up at her face again
I see that I was wrong
She is not my mother alone
But Mother to all the sons and daughters in this land
Raising them as upright revolutionaries
This wonderful mother glances down at me
As she gazes over the earth
All kinds of flowers bloom on desolate lands
And her great hands, when they point to the heavens
I hug the four hooves of the legendary Chollima
How could I have addressed this mother
In my child’s voice?
How could the vast embrace of this mother
Have cared even for my small cradle?
I am sorry
To have compared this mother to a woman
Who could not even provide milk for me
A woman of the countryside
Should not have been placed alongside Mother
But what was I to do?
O Party, O Korean Workers’ Party!
I was never taught a more suitable name to call you by
If one warrior falls behind on this road of holy war
She runs a thousand, nay, ten thousand miles
Helping him get back into line, wrapping him up in the red flag
She is the mother of revolution, the eternal embrace of life
In the million years of mankind’s history
A billion mothers
Awaited this morning in prayer
Which with your foresight and integrity
And your invincible guidance
Has dawned brilliantly upon this land
How could we in our childish way
Have looked into the depth of your
O Workers’ Party!
Your wise gaze
Your mature and commanding vision
Scans those faraway hills of the future
And there I will walk
I will give everything
I will not hesitate
If I could shine one more ray of light
Onto your dignified and solemn countenance
I would become a hot coal
And fuel a power plant
If your endless benevolence
Will turn green those furrows
I shall become a handful of fertilizer
And fatten a stalk of rice.
What more could I want?
O Workers’ Party!
O Korean Workers’ Party!
Even after being scattered to the heavens or buried under earth
I will return into your embrace
As your son
In your affectionate gaze
In your soft touch, I will entrust my body
Forever and ever
In my child’s voice
I will call out your name
Mother, Mother, without you
I cannot live!
We can see through this poem how individual human relationships become part of an ideological construct dominated by the presence of the Party.
By conflating a term that describes the most intimate and tender human relationship with the identity of the Korean Workers’ Party, the political effect is maximized. This Party hymn is a testament to the extent to which poetic talent is constrained to serve the will of the state in North Korea.
North Korean poets serve the Party with the art of poetry, novelists with the novel. Reader, please note that the concepts of “free will,” or “coercion,” are not adequate for an understanding of why North Korean artists serve the state. They are not merely forced to serve the party: they are forced to desire that servitude. They extol the Party because this is the only way to stay alive.
© Gwak Moon-an. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Shirley Lee. All rights reserved.