Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions. This week, David N. asks the following:
What kinds of books are readily available in North Korea? Are foreign books available?
As far as literature is concerned, censorship and ideology direct everything in North Korea. Of course, we have many different types of books, but all are checked thoroughly for political correctness. However, just because they’re written to the political standards expected by the government, it doesn’t mean they’re boring.
When I was little, like many other children I read a collection of books called ‘Memoirs’. This long epic was about the birth, childhood, and death of our first leader, Kim Il Sung. It was eight volumes long and I read every page with fascination, despite the highly ideological subject matter.
Reading the books, I became very impressed by the heroine ‘Kim Jong Suk’. She was the first wife of Kim Il Sung. She was depicted as a selfless woman always giving herself up for the leader, and I remember her drying Kim Il Sung’s wet clothes with her own body and even making insoles for his shoes to protect his feet using her own hair. I was so proud to be reading these stories about the great leader, and was inspired to behave like Kim Jong Suk. It was books like this, alongside things like “The Complete Works of Kim Il Sung”, and “Immortal Leadership” that taught us to praise the revolutionary history and great work of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il.
It might sound strange to you, but these kind of books were very popular and hard to borrow without a long wait at the library. Despite them being distinctly political works, I guess that ultimately, they were good reading.
Compared to South Korea and America, the contents of our novels did not vary much, it is true, but I do remember gripping tales about heroic soldiers or prisoners of war being returned to the country. While they might sound boring, those books were actually still quite fun to read. Some might say we were being brainwashed, but at least it was done entertainingly.
Folk stories were the only popular books without any political ideology in North Korea. I remember books like ‘Lim Kkunk Jung’, and ‘Chun Hyang Jeon’ were quite popular.
Regarding novels, some of the best children’s books were imported from foreign countries – I especially enjoyed ‘Daddy Long Legs’ and ‘Cinderella’. The stories and pictures in these books fascinated us because they came from the mindset of another world, although to us it was just fantasy anyway, so I guess they were deemed politically safe.
You’d need dedication to get hold of these books, however. I would always queue in long lines, and join long waiting lists to borrow books from the local library. When I got hold of a desired book, I’d be loaned it for one week. Having had to wait so long for the privilege, I would waste no time absorbing myself in the pursuit of reading. For many North Koreans, it’s a real pleasure. That said, many people couldn’t read at all.
Aside from children’s books, we have access to foreign technical books and even a few translated novels, although mostly imported from China and Russia. Whatever comes over the border, however, is usually edited out of its original form.
Before publishing a book in North Korea, it needs to be seriously censored. As a result, nobody writes non-political books. Books or writings with ‘wrong’ thoughts can end up with the reader facing serious investigation if caught with them. Now I am in South Korea I am so happy that I can read all kinds of books in the library whenever I want.
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