ANDREA PLATE WRITES — This year, the best-selling North Korean novel Friend was translated into English and approved for publication in the US by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea – a first in that nation’s history.
Immanuel Kim, 42, professor of Korean Literature and Culture Studies at George Washington University, stumbled upon the novel by accident, while doing academic research, and translated it for use purely as a teaching tool. But as luck — and ambition — will sometimes have it, Kim ended up traveling to North Korea, meeting with author Paek Nam-yong, and eventually, after “many, many rejections,” landing a US publisher (Columbia University Press).
Professor Kim, a specialist in North Korean literature and cinema, has authored two nonfiction books (including Laughing North Koreans: Culture of the Film Industry). While students love his sense of humor, the wry, witty professor is quite serious about hot-button contemporary topics such as the changing role of women in Korean society.
He was interviewed by Andrea Plate, Senior Editor of Loyola Marymount University’s Asia Media International.
Q: English-language translations of South Korean novels written by women have flooded the US this year. Does that stem from the US-inspired 2018 #Metoo movement?
A: I don’t think so. The feminist movement is gaining traction in South Korea, so more South Korean women authors are getting noticed and published. But chronologically, Friend [written in 1988],in North Korea, had nothing to do with that movement.
Q: Is feminism alive and well in North Korea?
A: According to the Constitution, in North Korea women have equal rights to men. They can be and do anything. They can use their voice. But the reality is a little bit different. It’s a Confucian society. There’s a gap between what the Constitution says and how it really plays out.
Q: So that must be reflected in North Korean literature.
A: The short stories I’ve read from North Korea from the sixties to the nineties show a very male-dominated society. I told my PhD advisor, ‘I’m sick and tired of all these stories about a wonderful, well-mannered male figuring out how he can please the nation, then going through this learning curve and finally realizing that the best way to please the nation is not only through hard work but by giving reverence to male leaders. The male characters in those stories are role models for all the citizens of North Korea.
Typically, female characters were in the backseat. But in the eighties, women started to challenge that. A cohort of Paek and his friends at the writers’ union began looking toward a different society.
Q: Are North Korean novels heavily censored?
A: You don’t have to say the country is good, or the Leader is good, but you cannot defame them. Excessive violence is okay as long as the one being harmed is the enemy. And you can’t have gratuitous sex or graphic descriptions. But writers are clever. In Friend, two lovers meet along the riverbank. The rivers are rushing, the boulders hit together…this is a classic literary trope, as it is in Victorian literature.
Q: You read hundreds of short stories as a scholar, researcher and professor. Any favorites, besides Friend?
A: Yes, and they had a common theme: Very strong women who challenge the patriarchal norm. The feminist theories you find elsewhere in the world are very applicable to the literature of North Korea. That’s when I realized that North Korean literature isn’t that unique. The more you slice through the propaganda, you see that writers are just … writers.
Q: Friend shows how state doctrine regarding the sanctity of marriage greatly influences the judicial system and the country at large. In this way, are America and North Korea diametrically opposed?
A: That’s an oversimplification. In America, there is this pretense of harmonious families. But what is it really like behind the scenes? I’m not sure I quite buy the liberalized Western ideal of families. A lot of families I’ve met think the woman should stay home. The politically correct statement in North Korea is that family is everything and a wife should be subservient to her husband, and he should be loving and caring of his wife. Do they have a more conservative view of marriage than Western families? Who can say?
Q: How’s the divorce rate in North Korea?
A: It was high in the 40s, when they were modeling themselves after the Soviet Union. Women took on the feminist movement in Russia. Now, there’s a flip side to that same coin. Men also divorced their wives.
Q: Friend includes very strong female protagonists married to weak, unmotivated or frustrated men. What prompted the author to be so bold in 1988 when he wrote the novel?
A: Paek was taking a break from writing, in his office on the top floor of a building that had the civil court on the ground floor. He asked a long line of people waiting outside, “What are you guys doing here?” They said, “We’re getting divorced.”
Q: How do North Koreans view America’s most recent First Ladies, who are quite different prototypes – Hilary, Michelle, Melania?
A: I don’t know, but I will say that high-profile North Korean wives been revered as the ideal composite mother and wife. The current First Lady plays that kind of coin. But the current leader’s sister is on the rise … and she is rather vocal!
Q: What developments would you like to see in North and South Korea’s literary future?
A: A diverse representation of immigrants. Korea is becoming globalized. There are a lot of migrant workers in South Korea. And there are subgroups of immigrants, religiously and geographically, who call Korea their home. They are gaining a lot of attention. They have careers, they have kids, they go to Korean schools, they speak Korean. They just look different. I hope the literature will reflect that.
Q: Is it harder for women, than men, to become writers in today’s North Korea?
A: No. Everyone starts at a local newspaper and if they get noticed, they get invited to do more work. Writers go through training. In the seventies, the country attempted this very democratic thing: Everyone who thinks they can write, write. Let me tell you, I read almost every story written in the 1970s. That was a mistake. Thank God those people didn’t become writers and that there was a heavy screening process.
Q: What about other social or fashion trends, like plastic surgery? Of course, Seoul is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world.
A: The plastic surgery industry exists in North Korea, but it is done under the table, and it’s not promoted by the state. People don’t talk about it. And I dare not ask.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior editor for writing and editing, holds degrees in English Literature (UC Berkeley), Communications-Journalism (USC) and Social Welfare/Public Policy (UCLA). Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a staff social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.