Many of my English-language colleagues and friends complain that it is surprisingly difficult to translate North Korean language texts into English. The result, they say, often sounds highly artificial and rather comical.
The present author does not face such problems when he has to translate North Korean texts into his native Russian. There are some exceptions, to be sure, but most North Korean idioms are expressed perfectly well in the Russian language, or rather, the official and semi-official language of Soviet publications (which remains quite familiar to a majority of Russians). There is little doubt that Koreans took pretty much all of these expressions straight from Russia. In many cases, Soviet Koreans who often felt more comfortable with Russian than with Korean translated these expressions.
The official dialect of North Korea is, essentially, a rather literal translation of the Soviet Russian
Let’s look at a few examples – all taken from the first paragraph of a lengthy indictment against Jang Song Thaek, released by the Korean Central News Agency last December. For every Russian it is clear that 당 중앙의 두리에 굳게 뭉쳐 is nothing but splotivshsis vokgrug tsentralnogo komiteta partii (“to be firmly united around the party Central Committee”), while 위대한 김정일동지의 유훈을 관철하기 위한 투쟁 is word by word copy of borba za vypolnenie zavetov velikogo Lenina (“the struggle to fulfill the posthumous will of the great Kim Jong Il/Lenin”). Countless examples can be added: The official dialect of North Korea is, essentially, a rather literal translation of the Soviet Russian.
Unfortunately, it is obvious for me that, in two or three decades, this connection will be lost on nearly all readers of such texts. I myself belong to probably the last generation that grew up learning Soviet official idioms and, as a matter of fact, reproduced it whenever appropriate. Even our younger siblings who were teenagers in the late 1980s have far poorer command of this now-extinct Russian dialect. Thus, I would not be surprised if, half a century from now, there will be Korean scholars who spend a great deal of time looking for the “pure Korean roots” of such North Korean slogans as 죽음을 미제침략자들에게 (“death to imperialist aggressors”) which is actually a literal (and rather ungrammatical) translation of a Soviet slogan from the Second World War.
After all, the scholars of North Korea keep quoting the official description of North Korean art which is described as 민족의 형식의 사회주의 내용 (“national in form, socialist in content”). This sentence is from the 1972 DPRK Constitution, to be sure, but it is a literal translation of the oft-repeated Soviet description of the Soviet art, which is, of course natsionalnoie po forme, sotsialisticheskoie po soderzhaniiu. This sentence was coined by Stalin in 1930 and then repeated countless times, so it still remains one of few Soviet era cliché which are easy recognizable by younger educated Russians – but not by Koreans, North Korean populace and South Korean academics alike.
NORTH KOREA’S PARIS
And what about the slogan of the North Korean Children’s Union, 항상준비 (“always prepared”)? If our Western readers recognize the origin of the slogan in the Boy Scout movement, they will be correct, but North Koreans learned it from the Young Pioneers, a nationwide children’s organization which once existed in the Soviet Union. The Young Pioneers, first established in the 1920s, made good use of the Boy Scouts’ paraphernalia, without admitting it – the general semi-military style of organization, badges and grades, triangle ties and uniform, and, of course, greetings. In due time these traditions were borrowed wholesale by the Children’s Union. The traditions still persist, but few people understand the origin of this peculiar culture – since, predictably, the North Korean ideologues invented for the Children’s Union a proper (and completely fake) pedigree, making it a successor to the children’s groups which allegedly existed in the Communist-controlled areas of Manchuria in the 1930s.
For many decades, the USSR remained the major source of information about the outside world for most North Korean officials and intellectuals
When people discuss Soviet influence over North Korea, they nearly always discuss influence over policy, administrative structure and ideology. However, Soviet influence was much wider than just this. For many decades, the USSR remained the major source of information about the outside world for most North Korean officials and intellectuals. As one keen observer of North Korea’s social and cultural life in the 1960s remarked to me, “for North Korean intellectuals of the 1950s, Moscow was their Paris.”
While Moscow of the 1960s – let alone the 1950s – is rarely seen as a city of light, Soviet culture even in the darkest days of 1940s late-Stalinism was far more permissive and, if I am allowed to be politically incorrect, far more creative than the culture of North Korea. It could easily deal with a number topics that were completely taboo in North Korea itself, and it also allowed a measure of stylistic experimentation that would not be tolerated by North Korean ideological watchdogs. Last, but not least, the Soviet Union in general, and Moscow in particular have always been far more prosperous than North Korea.
It also helped that for decades, Russian remained by far the most widely studied language in North Korea, and North Koreans (those very few with the right political connections) most frequently visited Moscow.
A RANGE OF INFLUENCES
Thus, influence was wide and varied. Few people know, for example, that the lyrics of 휘바람 (“Whistle”), widely seen as the most popular of North Korean popular songs, is retelling of a popular Soviet song from the 1940s (the original song is called “every morning a lad walks near my house,” composed by Issakovsky).
There is little reason to be surprised, since the lyrics of “Whistle” were penned by Cho Ki Chon, an ethnic Korean who was born and lived in the Soviet Union until after the Second World War, and had not visited Korea before that. Predictably, when Cho was named as North Korea’s most outstanding poet, his biographers began to claim that he was born and brought up in North Korea. Even though Tatiana Graboussenko discovered original documents from Cho’s family archives that leave no doubt about his biography, it is remarkable that South Korean scholars still repeat the official fairy tale – perhaps to some extent because the idea of a purely North Korean culture fits nicely into nationalist narratives of the country that some in the South are so fond of.
…it was the Soviet Koreans and/or North Korean graduates of Soviet art schools who brought late Stalinist socialist realism to North Korea
It might be instructive to have a look at the famous statue of the Worker, Intellectual and Farmer in front of the Tower to the Juche Idea in downtown Pyongyang. This statue was allegedly designed to show the unique nature of Juche socialism, but Russians can seldom help smiling in recognition when they see this monument because the source of inspiration is just too obvious. The statue is a basically a transparent homage to the Soviet sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” by Vera Mukhina, erected in 1937 for the World Fair in Paris, and then moved to Moscow.
Once again, one should not be surprised. Initially, it was the Soviet Koreans and/or North Korean graduates of Soviet art schools who brought late Stalinist socialist realism to North Korea. This style disappeared in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while in North Korea it survived and flourished, but its origins still remain obvious to any Russian observer.
The same is also applicable to daily life: fashion, food and interior design in pre-1990 North Korea have also not escaped Soviet influence. While there is little doubt that Korean cuisine is quintessentially Korean (food culture is generally very conservative in most countries and changes slowly), many dishes one can now eat in North Korean restaurants owe much to Russian/Soviet versions of official cuisine. The generous application of mayonnaise and other similar sources to salads and other cold dishes is clearly a feature of Russian (or rather bygone Soviet) cuisine.
All such parallels are obvious for those (very few) people who have a clear idea about daily life in Soviet Russia and North Korea. I sometimes feel bad that the number of such people is numbered in the low dozens at most, and none of them has ever bothered to write down such observations even in Russian. Time is not on our side: I am already 51 and people even slightly younger than me usually have no clue.
Picture: Eric Lafforgue