Illicit Texts: North Korea's View on History Explored through Smuggled Books
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History is written by the winners, or so they say. It’s an often-forgotten side of East Asian history, though, that North Korea wasn’t always seen as a ‘loser’.
The centrally planned North Korean economy, in fact, matched its southern counterpart right into the 70s, fuelled by support from the communist block. The culture of the post-war country has been a repressive one since the drawing of the 39th parallel, but the ideology has stuck fast, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea's increasing isolation enabling it to create and maintain its own very distinct view on the past 70 years. The North Korean take on history is an unavoidable party line in Pyongyang. It's given little credence elsewhere, but this hasn't stopped them producing English language books for tourists, proclaiming their version of history. Before we take a look at these glimpses into the North Korean perspective however, its worth looking at the literature more typically available.
There are plenty of books that explore North Korea from a western perspective, and others from the perspective of those who have run from the Kim regime. Some of them are fantastically insightful. Kang Chol Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang gives a rare account of a North Korean escaping from the notorious gulags. Jang Jin Sung’s Dear Leader comes from another angle, charting the life of a high-ranking, high-society Pyongyang resident and his fall from grace in the ministry of information, and eventual escape.
In Park Yeon Mi’s In Order To Live, the complexities of escape are explored in an intensely personal and harrowing tale, while The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters (B.R. Myers) gives a brief but startling insight into the North’s ‘Juche’ (self-reliance) worldview.
Most takes on this hermit kingdom focus more on presenting personal perspectives than on reproducing the broader North Korean view, however, and that’s where Pyongyang's Foreign Languages Publishing House come in. Their English language texts, on sale to tourists who visit the isolationist corner of Asia, set out how North Korea views the world.
The books are heavy-hitting propaganda, extolling the virtues of the Kim dynasty and firing less-than-subtle pot shots elsewhere, largely targeting the USA and South Korea. They’re printed on crumbling, wafer-thin pages marked with official stamps and dated in the North’s Juche dating system as well as our own.
In 2007 and 2008, I visited North Korea twice. At the time I was living in Seoul, South Korea, and I used trips operated by the travel branch of Hyundai (since closed after a tourist was shot by a border guard) to cross the 39th parallel and drop in on the traditional town of Kaesong, and the mountainous east coast at Kumgangsan.
Amid the surreal environs of having to pay respects to the Kims, of guards controlling when a camera could be used, and of oddly luscious food offerings in a recently famine-hit area, I struggled with the morality of the trips, yet I revelled in the intrigue.
I came back with a strange selection of souvenirs: North Korean liquor, stamps commemorating the country’s first rocket launches, the fake passport issued to present at the border, and a collection of four books. The latter, all written in English, ‘academically’ sourced, and held together by the lightest of bindings, are the pride of my travel mementoes. I held them quietly in South Korea (where North Korean propaganda remains illegal) until I left my job as an English teacher to return to Europe, bringing them with me, and feeling grateful I simply strolled through customs.
This is how they describe North Korea’s history:
US - The Empire Of Terrorism
An 18-page pamphlet rather than a full-blown text, this little grey book outlines North Korea’s issues with the US, occasionally in direct relation to Korea, but largely in a broader context. Released in 2002, it's interesting to note that many of its criticisms of America are ones that have also been leveled in the west: it kicks off with references to “the sea of blood of indigenous Indians”, moving on to prior Mexican ownership of the southern states and summing up America as “a terrorist state at the very source.”
There’s plenty of dark American history here: slavery, the KKK, school shootings, presidential assassinations, anthrax and gun control all feature, and nothing in the way of balance. Perhaps the more surreal moments, however, come in the more leftfield allegations made against large corporations such as Ford (see below) and in suggestions that American orders were to shoot children on sight during the Korean War.
“The White House lives up to its stature as the mastermind of terrorism, with the Pentagon and the CIA serving as the executor and the munitions monopolies as the producer of terrorist weapons.”
“The US is riddled with private terrorist groups run by monopoly businesses to crack down on blacks and workers. For instance, the personnel department of Ford Corporation employs numerous secret agents, mostly boxers, gangsters and ex-murderers...”
"American hands are irrevocably stained with the blood shed by Korean patriots; their bodies are smeared with the blood of numerous ordinary Koreans, who were slaughtered by dumdum bullets, germ bombs and poisonous gas."
Korea in Kim Jong Il’s Era
A very narrow analysis of the North’s former leader, Korea In Kim Jong Il’s Era spans the elevation of the dynasty's second leader in 1997, to the turn of the century. It comes from the unlikely source of a Japanese ‘freelancer’ who specialises in books that are highly favourable towards the North Korean regime. The period was one of relative openness to the outside world (this ended with the election of George W Bush) in which the country accepted aid from the UN as it struggled with the aftermath of serious famines.
Not that those negatives are mentioned too much. Instead, highlights here are of ‘benevolent politics’, missile development and, naturally, ‘economic blockade by imperialists’. Much of it has an eye on the US and Japan in particular, while Kim strolls around improving crop yields and technology by his mere presence. Nevertheless, the tone has an edge of defeatism, particularly in reference to the period known as the ‘arduous march’, when locals were encouraged to work harder to establish the true Juche ideal.
“The basis of benevolent politics is precisely the idea ‘People are my God’, which the President regarded as a lifetime motto.”
“The 21st Century will highlight the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
"The Republic holds that in order to improve north-south relations, the south Korean "regime" should, firstly, renounce its policy of dependence on foreign forces, secondly discontinue its political confrontation with the north, thirdly, end its military confrontation with the north and fourthly, effect democratization of its socio-political life."
The US Imperialists Started the Korean War
Western history tells of Kim Il Sung travelling to Moscow in 1950 to persuade Stalin that his army should invade the South. The North Korean version, unsurprisingly, is somewhat different, focusing on American “provocation,” arguing in its introduction that “the US imperialists are desperate to avoid responsibility for the outbreak of war. As ground for their assertion, they refer to the fact that as soon as the war broke out, the Korean People’s Army rushed forward at a remarkable speed.” In the North Korean version, this progress is referred to as “strategic superiority.”
Much of the book is then dedicated to the context of the war. It particularly focuses on things like the nuclear attacks on Japan that ended the Second World War, and establishing the Korean War as an American ‘loss’ (specifically, as opposed to a South Korean 'loss'), in that the post-war positions were close to identical to those pre-war.
The cover, in imposing black and red with grainy outlined soldiers, is described inside as “South Korean puppet army men [attacking] on behalf of the US Imperialists”
“A design of the US Imperialists is to keep its cloven hoof from sight and lay the blame for war on the Republic... get [their government] to spread the rumour that the north is going to invade the south.”
“On October 23, 1950, the US aggressor troops came to the Unryul Mine, ran a wire through the bellies of every ten of over 2,000 workers and their family members in the mine, threw them into the pits and covered them in ore to die there. They also murdered more than 300 inhabitants by cutting their bodies to pieces with a fodder-cutter.”
"The successive 'orders' and 'proclamations' of the US imperialists were aimed at preventing, with the help of Japanese imperialism, the establishment of an independent government by the Korean people."
Kim Jong Il - The People’s Leader
Part of a 30-book series exploring the leadership of the second of the Kim dynasty (this is book 2), the colourful charm of the chapter titles (for example ‘Boundless Warm Bosom’, or ‘The Three Revolution Team Has Solved A Big Problem’) hint at the deification of a man about whom the North regularly made outlandish claims. These claims include: that he learnt to walk at three weeks, wrote 1,500 books whilst at university, and could alter the weather with his mind.
The text is rarely quite as outrageous. Instead, it revolves around a common theme: the miraculous results of Kim's benevolent wisdom, which he offered to locals on his various trips around North Korea.
“Working with tremendous energy, he [Kim] got through work in one day that would have taken other men ten or thirty days to complete... Kim Jong Il is employing the ‘tactics of shrinking time’ to step up the transformation of the whole of society in line with the Juche idea.”
“All present were struck with admiration for the high aims of Kim Jong Il, who wanted to imbue not only the present generation but also all future generations with the monolithic ideology of the party.”
"Kim Jong Il propounded the principle of creating a new kind of opera which none of the many scholars of art and literature had ever conceived in their lifelong work. And so he made a notable contribution to the development of human culture."
The author would like to clarify that he is not seeking to support the views of North Korea, a country which of often accused of crimes against humanity that include torture, maintaining prison camps and slave labour.
Cover image: a view in the Kumgangsan Mountains.