Kim Joo-parl, a 61-year-old bookseller in this city in the middle of the peninsula, is the only South Korean with a license to buy and sell publications from North Korea.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Kim would have been considered a seditious demagogue ― an unforgivable criminal in the day. Times have changed, though, and Mr. Kim now freely keeps stacks of books by, for and about North Koreans.
The controversial National Security Law, forbidding South Korean citizens to possess “subversive” materials ― a synonym for anything North Korean ― is still in effect, except in Mr. Kim’s case. In his Daehoon (“Great Lesson”) Bookstore, which specializes in North Korean books, shelves are full of books like the one titled “A Brain Works Better If You Use It More.”
A native of Daejeon, Mr. Kim sits in his main office, talking about his stores and the strange, unexpected direction North Korean books have taken his life. “Cultural exchanges, above all else, are the most efficient and least inflammatory way for the two Koreas to be one,” he says. Taking out one of the books from the shelves, Mr. Kim delicately turns its pages, like it’s the most precious, fragile thing in the world.
It was an unlikely road to North Korea book maven. Mr. Kim was on his own and desperate for a job at 15 years old. Despite being illiterate, he found a job cleaning, carrying and helping out at a local bookstore.
He soon worked on teaching himself how to read and write, with a dictionary in one hand and a book or pen in the other ― “I had to write love letters,” he says. He also found that illiteracy was no obstacle to selling books, and soon opened a small stall of his own. The business prospered and in time grew into the biggest bookstore in Daejeon.
It was in 1989, a few months after the Seoul Olympics, when Mr. Kim turned his eyes to North Korean books. He had spent three decades as an ordinary, if highly successful, bookstore owner. “Until then, I never imagined that I would be interested in anything North Korean,” he recalls.
But one of his patrons, a university professor whom Mr. Kim admired greatly, inquired about getting a North Korean book. “It suddenly occurred to me that books, above all, are the easiest way for reunification, for books are about people and their lives,” he says. “At the moment, North and South Koreans know practically nothing about each other.”
Up until the early 1990s, however, to possess, never mind to trade in, North Korean books was an unacceptable, subversive activity. In one famous case in 1989, the National Security Service confiscated a collection of 10,000 “disquieting” North Korean books, punishing those who were involved, mostly student activists.
But Mr. Kim was not daunted by this legal barrier. “For a true professional, there should be nothing he cannot achieve in his field,” Mr. Kim says, “which in my case meant getting a book from North Korea.”
Mr. Kim first contacted American and Japanese bookstores dealing with North Korea, but their meager holdings failed to meet his high expectations.
Then he flew to Yanbian, a Chinese city on the border of North Korea. At the time, it was a difficult, roundabout journey that required him to travel through Hong Kong and transfer flights three times. Once there, he signed a contract with a publisher who had access to books from North Korea. Overjoyed, Mr. Kim boarded a plane to Seoul with a pack of North Korean “improper” books. Not surprisingly, when he tried to clear South Korean customs, the books were seized.
But he was not ready to give up. Mr. Kim continued to make trips to Yanbian. He carried one or two books with him, allowing him to avoid customs, and in the meantime he found a warehouse in China where he kept his ever-growing stock of books until he was able to get the Yanbian publisher to mail them to him by parcel post.
For years, his North Korean bookselling existed in a legal limbo. Only after the Kim Dae-jung administration came to power in 1997, bringing with it the “sunshine policy” toward the North, did Mr. Kim see an opportunity to make some headway.
He filed a petition to the government to get a license to sell the North Korean books for reunification’s sake, but months passed without an answer. So Mr. Kim decided to take his case directly to then-Culture Minister Park Ji-won, who was traveling on Jeju island. “I was like a stalker,” Mr. Kim jokes. But he was able to meet with the minister, and after explaining his philosophy of using books to further inter-Korean relations, his license arrived in less than two weeks. Right away, Mr. Kim opened a second bookstore, one dedicated to North Korean books.
“As soon as I heard the news that a legal North Korean bookstore has opened, I hopped in my car and drove right away to Daejeon,” says Park Tai-sang, who lectures about North Korea at Korea University and is a Korean Literature professor at Korea National Open University. Indeed, there are few casual customers at this specialty store, and most of his customers are professors of North Korean studies.
Rhee Myung-jae, a professor at Chung-Ang University specializing in North Korean literature, is likewise grateful to Mr. Kim and his story. “I had to fly to Los Angeles or to Tokyo to get the books I needed for my study of North Korean literature,” Mr. Rhee says.
“I’m not doing this to see a profit,” Mr. Kim says. “I’ve done my best to make money from dealing in books for the last 50 years. Now I want to be of service to society.”
Even though Mr. Kim is licensed to sell the North Korean books, not everyone is allowed to read them. Books from the North are divided into two types: those anyone can read, and those restricted to people with a license (restricted books are mostly the more ideological, and licensees are mostly university professors).
Mr. Kim says he can see North Korean society through his books. “Joseon Central Yearbook -- 1953 Edition,” is printed on pure white paper with quality ink. Textbooks for teenagers, on the other hand, are made from cornstalks so rough that the printing is hardly decipherable.
Mr. Kim’s proud collection of “The Lee Dynasty Chronicles” is even more telling. The 400-volume series was published intermittently from 1971 to 1992. The first few volumes are on pure white paper, but as time goes by, the paper turned rough and pulpy.
Despite the low quality of the paper, each volume of the “The Lee Dynasty Chronicles” costs 30,000 won ($24), making the whole set a steep 12 million won. Mr. Kim bought 103 sets, and still has many in stock.
In North Korea, a limited number of books are distributed ― not sold ― which makes it harder for an outsider to get them. “The Great Joseon Encyclopedia,” for example, is not available in North Korea anymore. Mr. Kim calls the book a bonanza, which he happened to find in a used bookstore in Yanbian.
On a recent visit to Pyeongyang, as a civilian on a cultural exchange between the South and the North, Mr. Kim once complained to a North Korean government official that the price of North Korean books is too dear. “Paper is too rare a thing here,” the official replied. So Mr. Kim offered to provide paper and ink, only to be rejected. “The official said, ‘We can do everything on our own.’”
Mr. Kim says he was rather taken aback at the irrational, haughty attitude of the North Korean official, but at the same time he says he admired it. “At least, they are proud of themselves,” Mr. Kim says.
The Daehoon Bookstore has more than just North Korean subjects. The North publishes many books from around the world in translation, and Mr. Kim has copies of books such as “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte and a series of Shakespearean dramas. But even these literary works are not free from ideology: In the preface of “Shakespearean Drama,” the editors quote Kim Jong-il saying that “The Merchant of Venice” is notable for showing how evil and irrational capitalism can be. Every book carries a preface with “Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-il” in bold, red letters.
The North even publishes its own how-to-learn-Korean series for English speakers. “Learning Korean on Your Own” is a grammar-heavy guide that can teach you useful sentences such as “Fatherland, prosper forever!” (“Jogukiyeo, yeongwonhi beonyeonghara!” in case you are interested). Don’t call it “Hangukmal,” though ― hanguk is a word reserved for the South. In this series, it’s always “Joseonmal.”
Mr. Kim says he will go on gathering North Korean books until two the Koreas become one. His only wish is that the government open all North Korean books to the public. “I believe my fellow South Koreans are not so empty-headed to follow blindly what’s written in the North Korean books, praising Kim Jong-il high to the skies.”
Putting the volume of “The Lee Dynasty Chronicles” back on the shelf, Mr. Kim adds: “North Koreans are not monsters like the way South Koreans are brainwashed to believe. As you see, they are human beings, reading Shakespeare.”
by Chun Su-jin