History is written by the winners, or so they say. It’s an often-forgotten side of East Asian history, though, that North Korea wasn’t always seen as a ‘loser’.
The centrally planned North Korean economy, in fact, matched its southern counterpart right into the 70s, fuelled by support from the communist block. The culture of the post-war country has been a repressive one since the drawing of the 39th parallel, but the ideology has stuck fast, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s increasing isolation enabling it to create and maintain its own very distinct view on the past 70 years. The North Korean take on history is an unavoidable party line in Pyongyang. It’s given little credence elsewhere, but this hasn’t stopped them producing English language books for tourists, proclaiming their version of history. Before we take a look at these glimpses into the North Korean perspective however, it’s worth looking at the literature more typically available.
There are plenty of books that explore North Korea from a western perspective, and others from the perspective of those who have run from the Kim regime. Some of them are fantastically insightful. Kang Chol Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang gives a rare account of a North Korean escaping from the notorious gulags. Jang Jin Sung’s Dear Leader comes from another angle, charting the life of a high-ranking, high-society Pyongyang resident and his fall from grace in the ministry of information, and eventual escape.
In Park Yeon Mi’s In Order To Live, the complexities of escape are explored in an intensely personal and harrowing tale, while The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters (B.R. Myers) gives a brief but startling insight into the North’s ‘Juche’ (self-reliance) worldview.
Most takes on this hermit kingdom focus more on presenting personal perspectives than on reproducing the broader North Korean view, however, and that’s where Pyongyang’s Foreign Languages Publishing House come in. Their English language texts, on sale to tourists who visit the isolationist corner of Asia, set out how North Korea views the world.
The books are heavy-hitting propaganda, extolling the virtues of the Kim dynasty and firing less-than-subtle pot shots elsewhere, largely targeting the USA and South Korea. They’re printed on crumbling, wafer-thin pages marked with official stamps and dated in the North’s Juche dating system as well as our own.
In 2007 and 2008, I visited North Korea twice. At the time I was living in Seoul, South Korea, and I used trips operated by the travel branch of Hyundai (since closed after a tourist was shot by a border guard) to cross the 39th parallel and drop in on the traditional town of Kaesong, and the mountainous east coast at Kumgangsan.