Wonders of North Korean literature

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Wonders of North Korean literature

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Tatiana Gabroussenko

Every time I explain that I specialize in North Korean literature, I receive sorrowful looks. To the majority of Koreanists properly warned by Brian Myers, our field is a desert: Reading bad-quality prose filled with militarist credo and repetitive slogans sounds like very drab work indeed. But in reality, few subjects in Korean studies are as entertaining as mine.

Some time ago, for example, I came across a fascinating love story called “Enchantment,” the plot of which was redolent of “Anna Karenina”: the transformation of Rosalynn, a happily married lady, under the influence of a person whom I will refer to for the moment as X, with whom she falls hopelessly in love.

The narration is centered on the slow-paced depiction of Rosalynn’s blooming feelings. A light purple dress gracefully floats as she walks quickly in her garden. Thrilled and excited, the lady understands that “her feelings betray her reasoning” and she is ready to unquestionably “follow the will” of her new love.

“Her whole soul is trembling with joy” when she holds the flowers sent by the object of her love to her room. She blushes in front of her idol, awkwardly smiles in order to hide her shyness and excitedly runs toward X to meet him in her room. Suffering from emotionally driven insomnia, Rosalynn plays the piano at night in a vain attempt to calm herself.

Rosalynn confesses to X that his smile is the most beautiful in the world - much more beautiful than that of her husband! She feels estranged, “embarrassed and strangely resistant” to her husband, Jimmy. She feels that comparing Jimmy to X would be “like comparing a little boy with God, or rather, to compare the glow of a firefly with the sun.”

Rosalynn’s husband notices her feelings and playfully comments that X has carried away the heart of his wife. In his turn, he seems to be so enwrapped in the “human beauty” of X that he does not pay attention to Rosalynn, thus making her envious. X seems to encourage the relationship, joking that he could take Jimmy away from Rosalynn because her husband is “so beautiful,” and comments about the youthful looks of Rosalynn.

I have to disappoint the readers: The story has a chaste ending. The heroine leaves X for a distant country but still dreams of him. The only regret she has in her mind is that she was never able to “put her small hand to the broad chest [of X] and feel the beat of his mighty heart.”

Contrary to what a reader can imagine, the story is not a translated Victorian romance a la Barbara Cartland. This is an original text produced by North Korean writer Kim Jung-hak in 1998, which describes a visit from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, then 70, and his 67-year-old wife Rosalynn to Pyongyang in 1994. The visit aimed to convince the North Korean leader that he should freeze the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for concessions from the United States. The hero, whom I referred to as X, was the leader of the Communist state at the time, Kim Il Sung, who was then 82.

The reason why the North Korean writer has chosen such an extravagant way to portray the meeting of the Carters and Kim Il Sung, using rhetoric that often borders on lewd, is simple. Being driven by a benevolent desire to present the former U.S. president and his wife as “ours,” Kim Jung-hak used imagery similar to that of normal North Korean works that are supposed to represent the relationships of North Korean citizens with their leaders. These relationships are always characterized by mutual love. In North Korean cultural discourse, the images of a virgin who tosses and turns in bed at night being enwrapped in thoughts of the Great Leader are common.

As the Carters’ visit crushed the stereotype of North Korean propaganda about bestial Yankees who never change their evil nature, Kim Jung-hak instead utilized another familiar form: “love which conquers all;” i.e., love for Kim Il Sung that allegedly conquers the hearts of the Carters, forcing them to discard their lifelong advocacy of gunboat diplomacy and fall in love with the North.

While the real Carters could scarcely find these images flattering, the fact that this story was published is significant. “Enchantment” was a sign that the North Korean author strove to humanize his American characters by applying to them a favorite framework of North Korean literature: the spontaneous eruption of emotions in positive heroes at the expense of cold logical reasoning, a burst of love. When viewed long term, this is a positive sign.

*The author is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.

By Tatiana Gabroussenko


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