Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Today’s question is from Ian Hunter, who asks: I’ve seen photos of North Korean market stalls selling comics. Are they just for children or do adults buy them too? Do many people read them?
Most of the books you find in public libraries are all about the three Partisan Generals (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Suk). That wasn’t the reason why I didn’t feel inclined to go to the library, it was just far easier to get books at the market or through people around me.
As far as I know, libraries exist in every Elementary, High school, University, and factory. But not many people visit them.
I once went inside a library back in high school. But I didn’t bother to go back again until my graduation. I was quite impressed that they had books such as “Don Quixote” and “Les Miserables” available. To be honest, I had expected that the library would be filled with books about the three generals only. Of course, there’s no way for me to find out if they deliberately distorted parts of the story for the sake of the regime or if they have been adequately translated.
Still, I found it pretty impressive that these books were readily available at public libraries for anyone to check out and read for themselves. Unless you really care and start looking, most North Koreans aren’t interested in what kind of books are available at the local library.
The North Korean government also makes investments in children’s books and animation. But they are usually old folk stories and they aren’t very fun to read or watch – they were so boring that they always put me to sleep when I was a child. But one day, North Korea put a new show on TV on which they read children’s stories from other countries during the time when they used to air animations. This new TV program was so popular that all children and adults began waiting for the show.
When the regime saw that it instantly attracted people’s attention all across the country, they began sending volumes of books such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to daycare and kindergartens around the country. North Korea’s babies and little children couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning and go to daycare and kindergarten so that they could read story books. That’s how popular those stories were in North Korea!
But, adults can’t start going to kindergarten just to read those stories, can they? The book rental business was popular for adult readers in North Korea. Some individuals lent books to other adults in return for money. The books adult readers rented were mostly fiction rather than comic books. As far as comic books for adult readers were concerned, they were mostly about Chinese fantasy or stories set in the historical Koryo and Chosun Dynasty. I always preferred novels over comic books. Among the books I read in North Korea, Sherlock Holmes was my favorite.
The government ban on comic books was loose. As a result, it was easier for vendors to sell or lend them for profits. But foreign novels usually contained and revealed aspects of capitalism. So vendors wouldn’t display them out in public. Instead, they would only lend them to people they were close to in order to avoid any trouble.
There were two other American books I read with great pleasure. One was called “A Lady Who is Mad About Money” and the other was called “If Tomorrow Comes.” After arriving in South Korea, I looked for books with the same titles but I could never find them, probably because these books were translated under different titles.
Judging by the content of these books, I’m 99.9% sure that they weren’t written by North Koreans. I think that North Koreans didn’t translate the titles correctly and I never had a way to find out the original titles in English while living in North Korea.
The American book, “If Tomorrow Comes,” was a story about a man during his imprisonment. Rape and homosexuality were depicted in the story, both of which were topics inconceivable in North Korea at that time. This is why I’m certain that this story wasn’t written by a North Korean.
Back in North Korea, I once read a fantasy novel called “Lucy’s Closet” and it was a story about a girl named Lucy entering a whole new different world through her closet. Before “Lucy’s Closet,” I had never read anything about an imaginary world. Once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop reading until the very end of the story. I kept turning pages under a lit candle and I pulled an all-nighter just so I could finish reading Lucy’s Closet. [Editor’s note: Je Son is possibly referring to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by CS Lewis].
Apart from foreign fiction, most North Korean fiction is about government agents carrying out government missions. Nine out of ten, they were about agents sneaking into the enemy’s fortress, get the confidential documents, and safely returning to the home country as a hero or heroine.
Of course, the main characters’ names and the situations they were put in were different in each story they published. But all these stories were pretty much the same: about making a sacrifice for our Great General by risking your life.
Even if the characters don’t sacrifice their lives in these stories, they end up living under the loving care of the great leader. Contrary to the vapid North Korean stories, foreign fiction and novels were about love and capitalism and, as a consequence, were very popular among North Korean readers.
In order to rent a book in North Korea, you need to put down a small amount of money and pay the rest of the fee when returning the book. I’m sure various books are available in North Korea by now. When I was living in North Korea, many people around me were avid readers and they frequently rented books from such individual rental business. My neighbors loved novels over comic books and they were more frequently seen reading novels rather than comic books.
Written by Je-son Lee
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image by Adam Westerman