[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.


The Relevance of the South Korea-US Alliance

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat — John. 

More than 60 years old, the South Korea-U.S. military alliance has weathered monumental change on the divided Korean Peninsula. Since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty at the close of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has transformed from a poor authoritarian state to a prosperous democracy. The once poorer sibling’s economy now dwarfs that of neighboring North Korea, its primary security concern. Further afar, the Cold War has been consigned to history. Meanwhile, China has entered the international consciousness as a burgeoning superpower.

Yet, fundamentally, the alliance remains little changed. South Korea’s defense continues to be the responsibility of the U.S., which retains wartime control over the local military and stations close to 30,000 troops on Korean soil. A plan to transfer wartime control to South Korea, first agreed upon in 2006, has been delayed repeatedly, most recently to 2015 – a date that itself looks in doubt due to trepidation from the conservative government in Seoul.

Despite the now vast development gap between the Koreas, both Washington and Seoul insist their partnership remains essential. Marking its 60th anniversary last May, a joint statement described the relationship as an “anchor for stability, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasingly around the world.”

Kwon Kih-yeon, foreign communications officer at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, told The Diplomat of the continuing importance of the alliance. “Going beyond the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, the two countries, through the alliance, are currently fostering the advance of a comprehensive 21st century strategy that is to the benefit of the Asia-Pacific region and international law.”

Bolstering the case for the status quo have been pessimistic assessments by defense officials and analysts of how the South would fare in a one-on-one conflict with the North. Speaking at a parliamentary audit last November, Cho Bo-geun, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, claimed that Seoul would likely lose such a war.

A study in 2011 by the Korea Economic Research Institute raised questions even about the security of South Korea with U.S. support, claiming that “it would not be entirely wrong to say North Korea’s military strength is stronger,” while adding that the U.S. and South would ultimately prevail.

Yang Uk, a research fellow at private think tank Korea Security and Defense Forum, said that while possessing a strong conventional military, South Korea continues to lack the kind of intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities provided by the U.S.

“If the Korean armed forces is a boxer, we have a strong punch but we don’t have any good eyes, or good movement, like the U.S. What we need is we have to train that much harder,” Yang, who describes the alliance as “crucial,” said.

“…The crucial problem of the Korean armed forces today is their intelligence, surveillance and targeting.”

But even with vastly improved intelligence and surveillance, Seoul would still lack the North’s ace in the hole: nuclear arms. Part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and a signatory to several non-proliferation agreements, South Korea is prohibited from developing its own nuclear deterrent.

“Regarding the rationale for U.S. defense capabilities augmentation to South Korea, I would answer that North’s nuclear threat is the primary reason why both Washington and Seoul have no disagreement on maintaining the robust alliance,” said Nam Chang-hee, an expert in Northeast Asia relations at Inha University in Incheon, about 30 kilometers west of Seoul. “Should the U.S. leave Korea, Seoul has no other choice but going nuclear, which, however, harms its own long-term security interest by further unleashing proliferation in the region.”

For segments of Korea’s political left, however, the calculation isn’t how necessary the alliance is, but how harmful. Rather than a force for peace and stability, they see a source of tensions and, ultimately, an obstacle to the eventual reunification of the country.

“The current Korea and U.S. alliance only reinforces the partition and confrontation structure between the two Koreas, and hinders the establishment of a peace structure,” said Oh Mi-jung, secretary general for Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, a local civic group.

Oh considers the alliance itself to be a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement between the two Koreas, noting, for instance, that the U.S. disregarded a provision prohibiting the deployment of new weaponry on the peninsula, just a few years after its signing. The defense pact, agues Oh, is incompatible with a peace treaty.

“Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea takes the view that the long-held hostile relationship between the U.S .and North Korea has to be eased for the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Aiming for this, we insist on the official end of the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty of mutual nonaggression.”

In the U.S., other analysts question the alliance, too, albeit from a very different perspective – that of the non-interventionist right. Their primary concerns are cost and whether the partnership actually serves U.S. interests.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based based Cato Institute, is one such observer who objects to the United States’ military subsidization of South Korea. He believes Seoul is capable of defending itself.

“I think it would have to make some adjustments in its current force structure and spending, but there’s no reason to believe that South Korea, with a much larger economy and population, is not capable of dealing with North Korea,” said Bandow. “The North is quite decrepit, in terms of its economy and infrastructure, as well as in terms of its reserve capacity.”

Bandow accepts that there was a legitimate argument for defending South Korea after the Korean War at a time of communist expansion, but sees no convincing rationale today. Instead, he sees the alliance as symptomatic of a world in which “everyone wants America to defend it.”

The perception that the U.S. is unfairly burdened with being the world’s watchman could have profound implications for the future of the alliance, especially if such weariness were to reach critical mass among the American public. U.S. government budget constraints, too, raise questions about the sustainability of the U.S. commitment to South Korea, despite a massive plan currently under way to modernize its installations in the country.

Bandow pointed to these two factors as spelling uncertainly for the future of U.S. involvement in the South’s national defense.

“To the extent that Americans realize that they have to make some choices — and those choices include, ‘How much do you spend on the military versus social security, Medicare, Medicaid?’ – my guess is that the American population is more likely to say ‘let our wealthy allies do more, we should do less.’ And that will certainly apply to South Korea.”

He added that, in the face of diminishing resources, the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “Asia pivot” may ultimately mean nothing more than the region being less affected by an inevitable reduction in military presence worldwide.

But neither South Korea nor the U.S. has given any indication of countenancing a future where Korea goes it alone. Just last October, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted that looming defense cuts would not lead to a reduction in the U.S. troop presence here.

Asked if the government could envisage a time when South Korea would not lean on U.S. military support, the Defense Ministry’s Kwon said that the current alliance would not only be maintained in the future, but “elevated.”

“Even the U.S . – which possesses the world’s strongest military – cooperates with European countries, Britain, Japan , Australia, and us (South Korea) to receive protection from influences that threaten national security,” said Kwon. “In this sort of context, as an alliance, South Korea will continuously have mutual cooperation with the U.S. in the future, too.”