North Korea’s Literary Theory
This is the first part in a series of articles by Choi Yearn-hong who is to publish his memoirs under the title of My American Memoir: A Korean-American Life, later this year in the United States. The writer was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and University of Seoul. He is a poet, essay critic and a long-time columnist for The Korea Times. ― ED.
North Korean literature promotes socialist ideology, new technology and Puritan communist culture. Kim Jong-il has been criticizing North Korean literature as lacking philosophic depth, aesthetic sense, sensitivity and artistic craftsmanship, and thus as mundane, mechanical, repetitive and ``distant from life.'' His different theories, ``the seed theory,'' ``literature as a study of man,'' and ``Our Own Creative Works,'' attempted to correct weaknesses in North Korean literature. I doubt his theories have achieved what they were supposed to accomplish.
North Korean literature in the 1980s and 1990s reflects the North Korean reality and economy which suffers from numerous bottlenecks that lead to shortages in many areas.
Transportation and power were continuously serious problems, and every year, there have been renewed efforts to overcome them. Railroad electrification continued, and the introduction of heavier rail cars, but all seemingly failed to overcome and get ahead of the ever-increasing demand on the transport system. Power shortages have been the norm. The inability to ensure power cripples machinery and disrupts production.
Hydroelectric power was emphasized and then thermal power got attention.
North Korean writers have never written about shortages of transportation and power.
They never write about shortage of food. They produce many short stories on land reclamation projects and the scientific production of food. Whether they are purged or killed, North Koreans could not complain to Kim Jong-il, because Kim Jong-il is God, and his father was the father of God.
Judging from North Korean literature, North Korean society is isolated from Kim Il-sung's Juche (which literally means ``self-reliance'') thought, and is deteriorating due to its economic stagnation and decline, and its loss of nearly all its international allies. It shut its door, and controls the people within.
Juche thought North Korean writers have not written down any short story on the United Nations Development Project on the Tumen River Basin and the Najin-Sungbong free trade zone, opening of Mt. Geumgang for South Korean tourists for revenue, reconnection of the railroad between North and South Korea, construction and stoppage of light-water reactors after the Geneva accord for electric power by South Korea, development of the Gaesong industrial complex by South Korean government and business, and enormous monetary and material assistance from South Korea to North Korea. In the 2000s, I could only add ``military first'' theory or ideology in their literature.
I don't see any hope.
What is (or are) North Korea's literary theory (or theories) which guide North Korean literary works?
The North Korean government continued to indoctrinate its people with socialism until the early 1960s. It justified its initiation of the Korean War, 1950-1953, as a national liberation struggle, mobilizing all resources toward building a socialist country. Under the direction of the Communist party, literature and art were used to propagate revolutionary socialism. From the mid-1960s, writers and artists were expected to advocate the Juche thought of Kim Il-sung. History was rewritten from the perspective of Kim's Juche thought.
In the 1980s, North Korean literary critics started to discuss the ``seed'' theory, which originated from Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung. In one of his speeches, Kim made the statement; ``All great writers should have good seed in their literary works.'' It is a commonsensical word, but it has stirred up North Korean poets and writers. They spent the first five years of the 1980s extensively discussing the meaning of the seed theory.
One critic said, ``Seed theory is searching for a balance between ideology and aesthetic sense or artistic craftsmanship.'' Another said, ``it is the philosophic depth of literary works.'' In order to settle the dispute, the North Korean Writers' Association attempted to find the seeds in their so-called classic literary works ``Blood Sea,'' ``Fate of a Militia Man,'' ``Flower-selling Maid,'' ``Traditional Worshipping Place,'' and ``Ahn Jung-geun shot Ito Hirobumi.'' The seeds, in their classic works are class struggle, national liberation, permanent revolution, Kim Il-sung's fight against the Japanese army and the U.S. army, and his victories.
In the mid-1980s, North Korean critics started to say that ``literature is a study of man,'' which originally appeared in Kim Jong-il's book, ``On Cinema,'' reported in the February 1992 issue of Chosun Munhak. Kim said, ``literature is a study of man. Literature should not come from an empty sky; it should come from real human life experiences.'' He emphasized that Kim Il-sung was the man who fought the Japanese Manchurian Army and defeated it, who fought the mighty U.S. army and defeated it, and who reconstructed the North Korean economy from the ashes of the Korean War. His speeches were made on the occasion of publishing a series of novels on the life of Kim Il-sung, his father, under the name of ``Never-perishing Literature'' series. ``Literature as a study of man'' includes stories about a lovely young woman who married a disabled veteran from the Korean War; the humble man who enjoyed equality under Kim Il-sung's leadership; a teacher who could not leave her countryside school for her fiance in a city; a worker who produced more than his assignments; a scientist who invented a new sophisticated technology in a steel mill; a prisoner of war; and an employee who produced his works ahead of schedule among many others. All these people are small Kim Il-sungs.
In 1991, the North Korean Writers' Association advocated ``Our Way of Making Creative works'' modeled after the party line, ``Let's Maintain our Own Socialism.'' They recognized the fact that the Cold War was gone, that the USSR was dismantled, and East European communist nations were converting to free market economies. Our own style of socialism never knows defeatism, it only knows victories.
In the first four years of the 1990s, North Korean literature pursued seemingly conflicting goals: xenophobic nationalism, worshipping Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jung-sook, the elder Kim's first wife and the younger Kim's mother; and anti-U.S. imperialism, scientific and technological advancements, economic development, food production by making land reclamation projects to expand farm land and crop diversification. North Korean literature reflected what North Korea lacked: internationalism, advanced science and technology, food, new leadership, and stability.