North Korea: keeping the faith

There have been some intriguing books published about North Korea in recent years. From Barbara Demick’s outstanding Nothing to Envy to Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, an extract of which was published last month in the Guardian, there is no shortage of harrowing survivors’ accounts of life in the world’s most secretive state.

When I was starting to prepare for this project late last year, several people suggested that I contact the South Korean embassy in London to see if they knew of dissident literature by North Korean escapees that I could read. I was on the point of doing so when it occurred to me that, while this might well yield some fascinating texts, it would bring me no closer to knowing anything about literature inside North Korea itself. What did people in Pyongyang read? What stories were household classics in the land of the then-Dear Leader? I had to find out.

With this in mind, I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s website and dropped them a line. I was delighted to receive an email back from Spanish-born North Korean Special Delegate Alejandro Cao de Benos (the first foreigner ever to be granted North Korean citizenship and allowed to work for the government) and the two of us had an extraordinary exchange about what books might be available for me to read in English. You can read a full account of our correspondence in the blog post I wrote for the Huffington Post at the time.

I was planning to give Mr Cao de Benos another try after the dust had settled from Kim Jong Il’s death, however in the interim I heard from Nicholas Mercury, founder of North Korea Books, and what he said intrigued me. He had been prompted to get into North Korean literature and subsequently start his business selling rare books in English from the DPRK after reading My Life and Faith, a memoir by Korean Army war correspondent and ardent DPRK patriot Ri In Mo. He commended it to me as a text that contained ‘a point of view completely unknown in the West…that of utter love and devotion and sacrifice for a country, political system, and especially leadership, that (most) of the rest of the world prefers to despise and hate’.

I needed no further encouragement to give it a try and was delighted when the book arrived from an address in Beijing, accompanied by a DVD featuring subtitled extracts from DPRK films, military displays, dances and marching songs.

Telling the story of Ri’s early affinity for the DPRK’s ideology, his capture in 1952 and alleged 34 years of torture and imprisonment in South Korea ‘in blatant violation of the Geneva Convention’, and triumphal return to his homeland in 1993, My Life and Faith provides a fascinating insight into North Korea. At times extremely gripping, with overtones of jail literature by the likes of Albie Sachs and Nelson Mandela – to whom Ri is compared in the introduction – it presents a thought-provoking perspective on national identity and Western attitudes to the motherland. ‘It is not until they take off the colour glasses of “anti-communism” that they understand it’, he writes.

The human touches make the book. From the portrait of life in North Korea both before and after partition – where ‘widow kidnapping’ was once rife and many families were too poor to afford clothes and lived holed up in their houses ashamed to receive guests – to the descriptions of Ri’s wife sitting next to him as he writes, complaining about his old-fashioned turns of phrase, the sense of the man behind the narrative is strong.

These details win Ri credibility when he launches into broader ideological attacks, often citing statistics and events that few readers would have the means to verify. His tirades against ‘the US imperialists and Syngman Rhee puppet clique’ often have a familiar feel as they chime in closely with accusations levelled at the North Korean regime by the Western media. So we hear allegations of South Korean historians conveniently omitting or twisting facts, ‘lies’ from UN representatives, pro-Western propaganda in films and books, and a fascinating account of Ri’s interactions with the world’s media after his release in South Korea:

‘While talking with them, I found that there were differences in the way they expressed my ideas, and they seemed to take great effort to alter my words. When I said “people” by habit, they changed it to “the masses”[…] While altering my words in this way, the young journalists expressed the regrets [sic], “If the words used in north Korea are used, readers may find fault with them, so they should be altered somewhat. I’m sorry’

[…]

Many journalists with newspapers, radio and the foreign press visited me. They seemed to have not understood me well. There were instances of seriously distorted information.’

At times, the rhetoric undoes itself by too obviously pulling the tricks it ascribes to Western states. Ri regales us with the story of the South Korean soldier, a ‘victim of propaganda’ who killed himself rather than allow himself to fall into North Korean hands because he had heard exaggerated reports of the nation’s cruelty only to reel off a hysterical catalogue of Western atrocities in the next paragraph. The mawkish poems ‘Dedicated to the Dear Leader’ that pepper the narrative, the repeated assertions about the ‘deep solicitude’ of the nation’s leader and the accounts of the miracles that took place on the death of Kim Il Sung also have a distancing effect.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by how persuasive and compelling the book was. Now and then, in the face of its heartfelt appeals, I felt the see-saw tipping and found myself scrabbling for arguments to redress the balance. Then I remembered that, as Mr Cao de Benos confirmed to me, variations on this story – books ‘showing honour, loyalty and sacrifice for the motherland’ – are the only narratives allowed in the DPRK. Reading the world would not be an option there. And no amount of passion, rhetoric or idealism can make up for that.

My Life and Faith by Ri In Mo, translated from the Korean by ? (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang, Juche 86 (1997))

20 responses

  1. Very, very interesting. Certainly ideology must pervade the book, but ideology pervades our discourses as well – and people seem to forget that too easily at time.

    When Kim Il-Jong died, I felt there was a lot of harsh judgement of North Koreans – but I think you have to put yourself in their shoes. If you are raised within a system (as we all are, if even some systems are more open than others), it can be very difficult, if not impossible at times to even imagine the very opposite. Their grief probably would have been very real (or if not, essential in order to survive), even if that makes absolutely no sense for anyone outside of North Korea.

    Of course, your final conclusion is right – at least we can try to step the shoes of North Koreans by accessing books of this sort (or travelling the world), while they cannot.

  2. This does sound like a really unusual read – which I gather is only available directly from North Korea? And I loved reading about the problem with the word ‘fiction’.

  3. Book reviews are difficult to write well.You do an amazing job of it! I love the concept of reading around the world, and, intrigued, started following your site. I’ve actually started a list of books I want to experience myself,based on your reviews. Thank you!

  4. The level of sophistry and reaches for moral equivalency in these comments are truly startling. The very notion that DPRK literature can reveal the true essence of the North Korean experience or pysche is laughable. Even a minimum understanding of how North Korea’s unique form of totalitarianism has always worked to control and extinguish individual will and thought would dispel any notion that its state-sanctioned (and censored) literature contains anything worth knowing about the genuine aspirations of a people.

    Are the ideas of democracy or liberty just another point of view (a morally indistinguishable “ideology” on equal footing with communism)? Or do these notions strike at something history has proven to be true about how best to organize a society that values freedom and the individual? This does not mean we ignore abuses in the heat and aftermath of war on either side. But, to not see the deep distinction between what freedom and oppression have wrought, in terms of the evolution of South and North Korea, is fundamental failure of simple logic.

    North Korea’s system is inherently corrupt, based on lies, a personality cult, and a twisted race-based nationalism which equates worship of dictators with love of country. As long as that system persists, there is nothing worth knowing in its propogandized literature.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. The posts on this site are not an attempt to draw conclusions about different countries’ ‘national psyches’ – it would be laughable if I thought reading one book gave me the authority to do that. Instead they are records of my responses to texts as I find them.

      Having read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and been appalled by the human rights abuses, mind control and extreme suffering described in that book, I was confident that I would find a pro-DPRK work contemptible and risible. The fact that a lot of it was engrossing and compelling instead was a surprise and a challenge. I wanted to take people through some of the mental labyrinth it sent me wandering through.

      There’s no question that every text published in North Korea is heavily controlled, censored and ‘propagandized’ as you say. Alejandro Cao de Benos, the DPRK government special delegate, was quite open about this in his correspondence with me. In a way, this was why I wanted to read the book.

      Unlike you, I can’t agree with the idea of with ruling a voice or viewpoint out of discussion. I believe that every text, no matter how censored, partial or untruthful, has the potential to teach me something, whether intentionally or not. I also believe that there is no reason to fear giving a platform to specious voices because a flawed argument will collapse under careful scrutiny.

      My Life and Faith sorely tested the second of these beliefs, but in the end logic triumphed.

  5. I think your idea of reading a different book from each country you visit is truly inspired and I haven’t seen anything like it on the web. Your reviews are in depth, thought provoking, and really give sense of time and place that is quite different than other articles on the internet. I really value what you’re doing, so keep up the good work!

  6. I am learning about so many countries and their rich literature through you. Great Job. Have you read ‘The Orphan Master’s son’? It won the Pullitzer prize and is set in North Korea

  7. Hi Anne,
    I wasn’t sure from your review if this work was fiction or non-fiction. (I guess, always a moot point with this state!) I have N. Korea looming up soon on my list so need a book (preferably a novel) to read. I feel I need to start looking early, as I would if I were after a visa! Have you come across anything since then?

    • No – I suspect he doesn’t correspond very much with the outside world these days. There is a book being published in English next year which is purported to be dissident writing from inside North Korea (although I think it’s short pieces again), but there are doubts over its authenticity. I think Kim Il Sung wrote novels, but perhaps I’m misremembering. What short story collections have you found?

  8. I’ve just finished “The Accusation” too, and can highly recommend it as a fascinating and extremely well-written collection of short stories. It was apparently written by a dissident still living in North Korea and smuggled out. My problem with it is that it seems TOO well written – too sophisticated in terms of its international level of writing quality – for an individual writer living in a state where there is probably nothing to read but propaganda. So I can’t help having a nagging doubt about its authenticity somewhere along the line. I hope I’m not putting down the potential of North Koreans here. As I said, it’s very much worth reading.

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