In the West, we consider it proper to condemn government censorship of literature. In North Korea, the production and consumption of words is more strictly controlled and politically micro-managed by the ruling party than anywhere else on earth. Ironically however, there may be no government-censored art for which commentators in the West so often ‘suspend disbelief’ with regard to values we otherwise uphold and defend in our own world.
Perhaps there is more sympathy for the notion that judging North Korean works according to our values is Orientalist, than there is for the notion that by denying these values as relevant to North Koreans we make them our ‘other’. Moreover, some might ask, aren’t there more pressing matters in North Korea that we should concern ourselves with than the right to free expression?
I just received my first copy of a book I translated, Dear Leader, the memoir of Jang Jin-sung, a former poet laureate of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. The view of a devil’s advocate – that all writing is constrained, whether socially, politically or commercially – is where it began for me: when I met Jang, I asked myself, can there be a North Korean Virgil? Could North Korea produce the highest beauty in the highest service to those in power?
My intuitive answer was no: not because I didn’t want it to be possible, but because I didn’t think it could be, at least within the current system. Not only because it’s impossible to publish any work outside of the meticulous legal-literary rulebook of Juche Art Theory, but because of an enforced vacuum: the abrupt breaking from the past and from outside context; the beginning of history and literature ‘anew’; the denial that goes beyond cultural amnesia. Roman writers were intimately familiar with the heritage that they were to assume and appropriate, and this heritage was instilled as superior even to their own; but as Jang says, his people were brought up to deny that any heritage superior to theirs could possibly exist, even when they were able to encounter the outside world through the rare privilege of family or work connections.
The young Jang devoured what was forbidden, which for him was the poetry of Byron and the music of Dvorak. It led him to question state teaching, but he still believed there could and should exist aesthetic interrogation within the bounds set by the Party. In North Korea, it is forbidden for love poetry to be about a man and a woman; it may only speak of the individual’s love for the Leader. But Jang managed to write love poetry, within these bounds, but still about the love between a man and woman. In one poem, a soldier walks too fast ahead of his girl, saying that he wishes to slow down to her pace but cannot, as he must go and defend their country with the Leader; but one day, he might be able to walk in time with her. Not only did this poem cause a sensation, Kim Jong-il gave it the highest possible praise in North Korea: the Leader’s personal endorsement.
But, as each North Korean exile among the privileged has testified (the North Korean elite, perhaps more so than any other, must continually deny and compartmentalise – whether in diplomacy, policy-making or proclaiming the truth of an ideology that each knows is false and hypocritical), there comes a point at which the sublimation and double life can no longer be denied to oneself, even if one manages to uphold it for others and the outside world. Jang had the impulse to acknowledge what he saw, not just what he was told to see on pain of death, both for him and his loved ones according to the dogma of guilt by association. He began to write secretly and, finally, began to share with close friends the forbidden literature he had been allowed to see as part of his work as a propagandist.
As Jang says in his memoir, “The world might damn North Korea as a ruthless regime, claiming that the system is run by physical force. But this is only a partial view of how the country is run. Kim Jong-il always stressed: I rule through art and literature.”
In a country where nobody is allowed to communicate freely with another, let alone with an outsider, for a North Korean to propose that there is another reality behind the façade poses an obvious problem: how can any outsider verify that this proposition is true or at least sincerely intended? But for Jang and all the others who know that a North Korean literature can exist beyond the absolute control of the Workers’ Party, it is a story that must continue to be told.