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 Travels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Robinson Crusoe, Alice’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.