North Korea (English) – Korean Short Stories: a collection from North Korea
North Korea (PDRK) is difficult, not only for diplomats but also for world-readers! The aim of my reading project is, essentially, to read a novel from every country and, if possible, to learn as much as possible about that country from it, from the inside. But I’m acutely aware that sometimes, due to dictatorship or other reasons, a book published in a certain country might actually tell you less about the real situation there than one published outside, perhaps by a refugee, émigré or just a foreign observer. This may well be the case with North Korea. There is no shortage of fascinating books about it, and I’ve read several of them recently. But my main aim here is to read what the local people might read, even if it’s only the voice of the government.
Since most outsiders are unlikely to ever read anything from there, it might be worth posting on a few books.
By the way, while in English we usually refer to ‘North Korea’ and ‘South Korea’ (or their official titles, PDRK and ROK), as a single country divided by war, it’s interesting that in the two states different traditional names are used for ‘Korea’ – Choson (Joseon) in the North, Daehan Minguk in the South. And it hasn’t only been divided since the Korean War – it was divided into three states for a large part of its history.
While reading this I also read a couple of fascinating non-fiction books on the country: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick); Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (Bradley K. Martin); and Without You, There is No Us (Suki Kim). I found all of them enthralling and filled with the most amazing anecdotes. If you have even the slightest interest in this enigmatic land, I really encourage you to dip into a few non-fiction works on it. From my experience, they seem to be far more balanced and nuanced than the one-dimensional cut-out view you get from the Western (let alone PDRK) media. I can’t recommend these ones too highly.
This collection (Korean Short Stories) was originally published in Pyongyang in 1986, when Kim Il-Sung was the head of state (actually he still is, officially, despite the minor detail of being dead). The common feature of the stories is a messianic appearance (in reality or dream) of the ubiquitous Great Leader, who was (it was claimed) an expert in everything, so it was interesting for me to see the specific advice he gave on each occasion.
Generally the editing is quite good with only one or two funny typos (”Sometimes the beauty of fair sex is really mightier than the sword, the priest thought to himself”).
History of Iron (by Pyon Hui Gun, 1967) – A steelworker is visited by the apostolic figure of Kim Il-Sung (in the flesh this time) and inspired by his rather vague advice to repair his blast furnace which had been bombed by the ‘Yankee imperialists’ by hand-chiselling out the congealed iron.
Happiness (by Sok Yun Gi, 1963)
A love story in which a paralysed man suffering from ‘bone tuberculosis’ and a ‘Yankee shell splinter’ lodged in one of his vertebrae is cured with a bone marrow transplant. At a desperate moment during the operation the doctor cries out in his mind, “‘What shall I do, Comrade Leader?’ The penetrating voice of the great leader echoed in my heart. ‘Have trust in man and love man!’” The patient walks out of the hospital ‘before long’ and is rewarded by the Party by being sent to work in a mine (seriously!)
‘It dawned on me then [sic] happiness is not gratification of one’s desires. I still firmly believe this – true happiness is not what we have gained but the long hard struggle for it.’ Despite some ridiculousness (the patient ‘knocked off a dozen or so American tanks single-handed’ before being wounded) and self-contradiction (especially as to when true happiness comes, considering this is the theme of the story), it is on the whole not bad.
Ogi (by Chon Se Bong, 1961) – Ogi nearly breaks off her engagement to Bong Guk when he decides that he could learn more by going to university than by staying as a tractor driver. The romance is saved when she discovers the miracle of the correspondence course. ‘nuff said…
Fellow Travellers (by Kim Byong Hun, 1960) – A county party chairman meets an enthusiastic would-be fish breeder smuggling young carp in her can on a train. I wasn’t quite sure why she was freelancing if the development of pisciculture was already Party policy, but it’s nice to see someone there being front-staged for doing something spontaneous and taking some initiative!
Everyone in Position! (by Om Dan Ung, 1974) – A group of workers come up with a radical plan to move a huge crane a distance of 6 Km, faster than the normal time of four months (!), by carrying it whole on a ‘raft’ of trucks and bulldozing the road as they go, thus overcoming ‘the central physical moment of force’ and the ‘law of inertia’:
“The opponents of our views know nothing but laws of physics. They don’t know the essence of the Juche [self-reliance] idea that man is the master of laws.”
Unusually, this story doesn’t end in a triumphal resolution, although we can safely assume it will:
“The impressive march with the 25-ton crane moved on through the dazzling confetti towards the target of steel production set by the leader.”
Unfinished Sculpture (by Ko Byong Sam)
This one is uniquely set in Kwangju in South Korea (which the Southerners now spell Gyeongju) during a confrontation “between the townsfolk who had risen up for liberty and soldiers armed to the teeth”. Annoyingly, this story is undated so it was impossible to know if it’s based on an actual uprising (probably the 1980 Kwangju Massacre/May 18 Democratic Rising) or some future purely fictional event. Of course, you wouldn’t recognise the lovely city:
“Silence. Blood. Red blood. the roadside pebbles, smashed roof tiles, broken street trees, downtrodden flower beds, open school bags, the pages of textbooks and notebooks fluttering in the wind, children’s shoes, smashed buses and barricades… Everything stained with blood. This night the white-robed girl was wandering in search of her lover, on the asphalt road splashed with young people’s blood, instead of flower petals or spring rain.”
I found the plot messy and hard to follow.
Korean Short Stories: a collection from North Korea, Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2003, ISBN 1-4101-0218-1