An Interview with Hayun Jung

How easy was it for you, living in Seoul, to find work for the North Korea section of Literature from the "Axis of Evil" ?

Because there are very few North Korean publications available to the outside world, and all the more so in South Korea, the only place I could gain access to North Korean literature in Seoul was the library at the Ministry of Reunification, where all periodicals from the North was available, including Choson Munhak, the official publication from NK's official literary organization (which basically means the only channel of publication for writers in the North).

That's the only place where you can find work by North Korean literary authors, even though you're in South Korea?

Besides the ministry's library, probably the few other places where North Korean publications are available in the free world are university libraries with a substantial collection of East Asian publications, which in itself is quite rare, let alone libraries that stack North Korean books and periodicals.

So how did you choose the pieces for the anthology? Did they all come from the state sponsored literary magazine?

All the short stories and poems included in the anthology were selected through several days of reading several years' issues of Choson Munhak at the ministry's library.

What about the novel Hwangjini?

Hwangjini was an exception, since the novel was officially imported by a South Korean publisher and became a huge commercial and critical success in the South, which was possible because the book is a historical novel that does not deal with ideological issues. How easy was it to find information about the authors? Were you able to contact or interview any of them?

I doubt any of the North Korean writers can be reached for interviews -- although Hong Seok-jung (author of Hwangjini) has made himself available to the South Korean press on several occasions.

Would you say that there is a "dissident" literature in North Korea at all? Or is there one being produced by writers in exile in South Korea?

There is no channel for dissident writers in NK, if there are any, for publishing their works since all publications are strictly controlled by the Choson Writers Alliance, a chapter of the ruling Workers' Party.

Although only a few North Korean exiles in the South have published memoirs (and not literary works), since there are now almost 8,000 North Korean defectors living in the South and presumably over 50,000 North Koreans who have escaped to China, it is probably only a matter of time before an exile produces a masterful work dissident literature that he/she had been forbidden to work on in the North.

What are the consequences for writers of the current conservative political climate?

They definitely have much less freedom now than say, twenty years ago, when Kim Il Sung was alive, and are writing under an extremely oppressive censorship system.

Are writers now more likely to end up in prison?

I would say yes, compared to when Kim Il Sung was alive and the regime had more confidence in their system and were somewhat less vulnerable and threatened by the outside world.

Have any had to go into exile or are they all jailed?

Those charged with political/ideological crimes are either punished with labor or sent to camps for political prisoners.

Among the 8,000 North Korean defectors now living in the South, there has been one former member of the Choson Writers Alliance, the poet Choe Jin-i, who has published a memoir in the South. She was not, however, a prominent writers and was not actively publishing when she defected, after being expelled from the capital Pyeongyang (which had not been related to her writing but her stepson's misdemeanors.)

North Korea seems to have a lively publishing business with the state. What can we find out about how it functions under self-censorship, and how many books are published, etc.?

All works written by the writers of the Choson Writers Alliance is submitted for screening to an in-house censor. Before publication, during the editing process, the work is again screened by a state censor, who is authorized to grant final permission to publish the piece.

It's my impression anecdotally that a lot of publishing is samizdat; books are published illegally and become bestsellers, but not in the official press....

I would imagine there are samizdat publications in the North, but I can't really say. Choe, the defector mentioned above, does not mention any in her memoir. She does describe an incident she experienced as a creative writing student at the university where she got in trouble for keeping a notebook with her notes on fortunetelling, which is considered ideologically unsound. She writes that when it came to political and ideological doubts about the North Korean system, she never kept a single note, that she knew better than to put any of these thoughts on paper.