Rewriting Revolution

Posted January 8, 2022

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Immanuel Kim, Rewriting Revolution: Women, Sexuality, and Memory in North Korean Fiction (University of Hawai’i Press, 2018), 220 pages

Immanuel Kim is determined to prove that “North Korean literature” is not a contradiction in terms. A professor of Asian and Asian American studies at SUNY Binghamton, Kim takes a close look at a number of North Korean novels and stories published over the last several decades. He reveals that although these works of fiction fulfill certain ideological requirements, they provide a rich and even subversive account of social relations.

Kim uses as his jumping-off point a quote from the American novelist Adam Johnson who, after a single trip to North Korea and a cursory examination of its culture, concluded that the country “is a nation without literary art.” Johnson continues: “Imagine a world in which no writer has written a literary novel in sixty years. Imagine a place where not a single person has read a book that is truly about the character at its center.”

Such a sweeping generalization is, of course, ridiculous. It’s made possible not just by the arrogance of the observer but by the paucity of North Korean literature available in translation. Until recently, one of the few examples of North Korean fiction in English was Jackals, a 1951 novella translated by Bryan Myers as part of a study of writer Han Sorya. Myers’s contempt for the work, and for North Korean literature in general, was palpable in his monograph.

Since then, most North Korean literature translated into English has been by escapees. In the case of Bandi’s The Accusation, it’s a manuscript smuggled out of North Korea. An exception is the excerpt from Hong Suk-jong’s Hwang Chin-i, the first North Korean novel to receive a prestigious South Korean literary award, published in the 2006 collection, Literature from the “Axis of Evil.”

Immanuel Kim doesn’t rely on literature in translation. He subjects a number of North Korean stories to a close reading that requires not only a knowledge of the nuances of the Korean language but also how certain words and phrases function within the North Korean cultural context. Moreover, he is specifically interested in what Adam Johnson slights – character – particularly during the pivotal decade of the 1980s.

Kim shows how the presentation of character tracks with both the material conditions of North Korean society and the ideological messages that the state is promoting at the time. So, for instance, the state developed a “hidden hero” campaign that championed the otherwise overlooked contributions of revolutionary members of society – and these heroes populated works of fiction as well.

Or take the case of the novel Eight Hours (1988), in which the main character, facing a mining disaster, ignores the timidity of the managers and throws himself into the task of saving the miners. After eight hours, he succeeds. The novel reflects the social critique of bureaucracy and celebrates the initiative of individuals inspired to do heroic acts. “Rather than depending on the state to provide for the people’s everyday needs,” Kim writes, “the story passes the responsibility over to individuals to find means to overcome such conditions.”

Although North Korean fiction generally follows a certain template – not unlike genre fiction in the West – there is considerable room for variation. And the subject matter is not simply the heroic struggles of socialist realism found in Soviet novels and their imitators. North Korean fiction addresses corruption, divorce, and the conflict between individual and society. More recently, North Korean writers have been even more daring. Kim writes, “An interesting addition to works of the 2000s is the honest and critical treatment of topics that writers in the past would not have dared to mention, such as doubts about socialist ideology after the fall of the Soviet Union, problems with the Arduous March, and individuals returning from prison.”

Rewriting Revolution, however, is particularly focused on the role of women. Women in North Korea face the conventional paradox of communist countries: legal equality and functional subservience. In the patriarchal and neo-Confucian culture of North Korea, women are subordinate to the state, their fathers, and their husbands. Even at the level of language, women traditionally use honorifics when addressing their husbands in the DPRK.

And yet, as Kim demonstrates, women play more ambiguous roles in North Korean fiction. Perhaps the most interesting of the novels that Kim discusses is Paek Namnyong’s Friend (1988). This popular book, which was even made into a TV series in the North, treats divorce sympathetically. One of the women characters, Un-ok, refuses to accept the roles that society tries to impose on her – of housewife subordinate to her husband. Ultimately, she wins a divorce ruling from a judge.

“The divorce verdict releases the wife from the bondage of marriage,” Kim writes, “which the text describes as a ‘dead forest’ that has been obstructing her identity as a woman in a tightly structured patriarchal society.” Here, Friend reveals that perhaps there is more ferment going on in North Korean society than is commonly assumed.

By 2002, when Hwang Chin-i was published in Pyongyang, the ferment has clearly intensified. The novel portrays one of the most famous kisaeng – a female entertainer – of the Choson Dynasty. The novel is unusual in being sexually explicit and utterly devoid of contemporary propaganda. Indeed, in its descriptions of a government indifferent to corruption and famine conditions, it could even be seen as an allegorical critique of contemporary politics in North Korea.

Rewriting Revolution is an illuminating study of an oft-ignored subject. At times, the author leans rather heavily on post-structuralist critiques to tease out indeterminacies in the text. This theoretical approach might be tough going for a non-academic reader. And without access to North Korean readers, how the texts are received in the country remains largely a mystery.

Still, Rewriting Revolution is a rewarding read. Literary art flourishes everywhere, even under censorship and very difficult conditions. Immanuel Kim does a remarkable job of describing something that others not only don’t see but refuse to believe even exists.

Korean Quaterly, Winter 2019

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *