[NK News] Foreign fiction present in North Korea, though restricted

With some of the tightest restrictions on information on the planet, North Korea would never be called a book lover’s paradise. But aside from the domestic propaganda that spans media from comic books to newspapers, a North Korean bookworm can hope to access a limited, but increasing selection of foreign fiction, according to sources familiar with the country.

The choices available, however, could largely depend on where they live and if they can speak a foreign language.

“It’s getting easier to read books and sell books these days. It has been changing since (under) Kim Jong Il,” one recent defector surnamed Kim told NK News on condition of anonymity.

Kim, who left the northern city of Chongjin within the last two years, said officially sanctioned and translated foreign literature includes classics such as Gulliver’s TravelsTess of the d’UrbervillesRobinson CrusoeAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gone with the Wind.

Gone with the Wind, in particular, has often been noted for its popularity in the country, even coming preloaded on a domestic version of the iPad.

While books with overtly political or religious themes are banned, classic Western, Chinese and Russian novels, as well as poetry, are sold at bookshops, albeit at prohibitively high prices, Kim said. He said a single book can cost $4-5. The average monthly wage for a worker in the country is around $40, according to an estimate by North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

Cho, a defector who said she worked as a librarian for five years, said books were available at libraries and chaekbang (book rooms), but were carefully selected by the authorities. She remembers reading two Chinese novels that were edited by the government: Dream of the Red Chamber and Light and Shadow.

“At those places, the government provides books to be lent and sold,” said Cho, who arrived in South Korea within the last five years but refused to name her hometown out of concern for her family still in North Korea. “But there, all the books are used for the government’s policies or propaganda.”

Novels are also sold on the black market and rented among the public, often for considerable sums, Kim said.

“There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money,” said Kim, adding that he believes some government officials smuggle books into the country to make extra cash.

There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money’

Cho painted a similar scene of the black market.

“There are many cases of individuals secretly selling on the black market after unsuccessfully trying to apply to sell at a government-approved business,” she said. “The age group varies, but there are many relatively poor people in their 20-30s.”

The experiences of another defector, surnamed Lee, also suggest that access to foreign fiction was previously more limited.

Lee said she had no experience of foreign novels before she left the country seven years ago. Even expressing curiosity about the outside world would have been dangerous, she said.

“Compared to before, it could be easier to find that sort of material. I think it could also depend on the region,” said Lee, who left the northern border area of Ryanggang Province while she was still in middle school.

At school, Lee’s exposure to literature was limited to stories extolling the ruling Kim family.

“There are books written by Kim Il Sung from my parents’ generation and I’ve seen people of that generation read those,” she said. “If you compare seven years ago to now, there is a greater variety of information.”

She also remembers being able to borrow books at train stations, but these were limited to stories about the Japanese occupation and other government- friendly narratives. Regardless, she said reading for leisure was not especially common.

“Everyone is so busy with work and life that they don’t have time to read books,” she said.

While access to foreign books may have become easier, the choice for readers of Korean appears to be still limited to the classics. Kim said he not seen or heard of any recent fiction translated in the country.

The situation is much different for North Koreans who can speak English in relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan Pyongyang, according to Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours and a frequent visitor to the country.

“I know quite a lot of people who’ve read Harry Potter. It’s quite popular among younger women, but these are English-speakers,” he said.

Cockerel said that such titles would probably come from a foreigner or friend who’d been abroad, as he’d never seen any in book shops in the capital.

“It wouldn’t amazingly shock me if someone told me they’d read a fairly recent work of foreign literature,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider that to be particularly remarkable in Pyongyang.”

The reading preferences of the capital’s middle class also throw up what might be considered an unlikely author.

Sidney Sheldon, an American writer of suspense novels who died in 2007, has a sizable following among those who can read English, Cockrell said.

“Honestly, you’ll find a lot North Koreans who’ve read of English novels might mention Gone with the Windand or books by Jack London, then Sidney Sheldon, as if Sidney Sheldon is part of the pantheon of great Western literature. Why that is, I honestly have no idea.”

Jeong Gwang-myeong and Lee Mi-sun contributed to this article. 

The names of some interviewees were changed to protect their identity. Some timelines were also slightly altered.

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[The Christian Science Monitor] Having built nation from scratch, elderly S. Koreans feel abandoned

Jeong Soon-ja spent a lifetime working and raising children as part of a generation that lifted South Korea from rural squalor and postwar ruin to become the world’s 15th  largest economy.

Yet like many of her peers, Ms. Jeong lives in poverty and isolation. Too frail to work, her husband gone, her children seemingly disinterested, she survives on a government pension of about $200 a month, plus a monthly allotment of kimchi and rice from a district office in the gritty Seoul neighborhood of Gaebong-dong, which lacks the glitz of districts like Gangnam.

“When I was young, I should have saved money, but I had to feed, clothe and teach my children,” says the octogenarian, who sits on her haunches, a stance ingrained among older Koreans. She did laundry and maintenance work all her life and now has no pension, and says, “my money is all gone.”

Family ties weakening?

Jeong’s situation is becoming more common among a generation given credit for aiding South Korea’s lightning rise to manufacturing and high tech prowess. A new government-funded study shows nearly half of South Koreans over 65 living in relative poverty as recently as 2011, in a society whose traditionally strong family bonds are weakening.

One of Jeong’s six children pays her rent and utilities. But in a culture that honors the elderly, she hasn’t seen her eldest or youngest daughter in five years, and rarely hears from the others.

Almost half of elderly South Koreans earn less than 50 percent of the median wage, according to a March study from the Korea Labor Institute. That abysmal rate is the lowest of all countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and is twice the figure of second-ranked Switzerland. (In Japan, a recent study found nearly half of the 1.6 million Japanese living below the poverty line were elderly.)

In South Korea, most seniors in financial straits live alone. Whereas it was once common for three generations to live under one roof, about one in five elderly citizen now resides in a single-occupant household.

Low birth rate

“In the past, when a grandfather and grandmother, or a mother and father, taught their children, those children had a responsibility to support them because living all together like this was a help to everyone,” says Kim Hyun-mi, general manager of the government-affiliated Comprehensive Support Center for the Elderly Living Alone. “But now, you can see that support has weakened because they live separately.”

The challenge of providing for the old is particularly acute in South Korea, which has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world, a consequence of a chronically low birthrate.

Jo Joon-yong, a professor of social welfare studies at the regional Hallym University, says that the elderly are projected to account for a quarter of the population by 2030, creating a potential future crisis for the welfare system.

“To maintain a social security system, you need a young generation to pay taxes and premiums for the social insurance system,” he says.

Amid the decline in filial piety in Korean families, the government has only marginally plugged the gap in support. Last year, South Korea had the lowest social spending of any OECD country.

President Park Geun-hye campaigned in 2012 on a pledge of introducing a universal state pension of about $200 a month. But that figure got scaled back to about $100-200 for the poorest 70 percent of seniors. Seniors who receive such benefits potentially lose out on separate, means-tested assistance for the poor.

Problems of living alone

The feasibility of more generous welfare schemes has been a political flash point between liberal and conservative politicians in a nation that is roughly divided along these general lines. Political gridlock may be slowing welfare reform, but more social spending in future appears inevitable, given the aging population.

“I think that because it is now in the beginning phase, welfare benefits for the old are insufficient compared to other countries, but in the future welfare benefits will be provided stably just like in advanced countries,” says Ms. Kim, the support center official.

Mental health, loneliness, and what Kim calls “emotional problems” are becoming more pressing concerns among elderly living alone, she says.

South Korea has the highest overall suicide rate in the OCED, and men aged 80 and above die by their own hand at almost five times the rate of those aged 30-39, according to government statistics.

Jeong, who speaks in loud, defiant bursts, insists she is satisfied with life. She regularly meets friends. But she also admits to being lonely.

Above all, she misses her daughters, who she has become convinced no longer love her. Even when she recently was hospitalized for an emergency, they did not visit.

“I really miss my daughters but they never contact me,” she says. “I miss my daughters the most. That’s the saddest thing.”