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Science Fiction Literature from North Korea

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(The following post is by Sonya Lee, Korea reference specialist, Asian Division.)

Is there science fiction in North Korea? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Kim Chŏng-il (1941-2011) himself, the country’s second leader, believed science fiction had an important role to play and encouraged its publication. But what does science fiction in North Korea look like?

First, the genre of science fiction in North Korea is tied to anti-imperialism and the concept of juche, often translated as “self-reliance” or “self-determination.” Thus, North Korean science fiction focuses above all on the possibility of molding nature and society according to the will of the North Korean people so they become the master of their own destiny. Juche is a foundational concept in the ideology of the North Korea state, too. The country’s founding leader Kim Il-sŏng (1912-94) connected this idea of juche to the concept of a people’s revolution, one that would be free from imperial, or Western, influence.

Science fiction is a special type of literature that describes technologies that do not yet exist and envisions what our future life may entail with highly developed science. While science fiction often fantastically imagines how science and technology can explore new worlds and even conquer nature, the premises of its stories have to be based on convincing scientific knowledge. Science fiction writers need considerable knowledge of the trends in modern science and technology in order to create convincing previews of a highly developed future.

Art and literature have been important means of political activity in North Korea, particularly during periods of severe food shortage. In this sense, science fiction literature is one way to present the future of North Korean society as a utopia. For instance, Tong-sŏp Kim’s 1964 short story “Algok kongjang ŭl ch’ajasŏ” 알곡 공장을 찾아서 (“Finding a grain plant”), which appeared in the periodical “Kisul kyoyuk,” follows a group of students who visit a factory. The students are thrilled to watch how rice seeds are carried by conveyors and then buried in soil to grow under the rays of an artificial sun. In the story, it takes only 50 hours to produce a bountiful harvest without much effort, regardless of environmental conditions, whether monsoon season or prolonged drought. Here, science allows the country to achieve its goal of self-reliance by ensuring sufficient food for its people.

Detail of illustration from Tong-sŏp Kim’s 1964 short story, “Algok kongjang ŭl ch‘ajasŏ” (“Finding a grain plant”) from volume seven of “Kisul kyoyuk” a periodical about vocational education. Korean collection, Asian Division.

Chŏng-sang Hwang’s 1988 novel “P’urŭn isak,” 푸른 이삭 (“Blue ear”) is another interesting North Korean story about human will conquering nature. The novel depicts scientists who study sea plants that miraculously fight cancer. The idea of cultivating new anti-cancer plants on a large scale imagines how human wisdom and effort can reconstruct nature in an independent, conscious, and creative way. This story takes the ocean along the country’s coastline as the object to be conquered by the collective efforts of North Korean scientists, all for the good of the people.

Kim Chŏng-ŭn, the current leader of North Korea, also emphasizes science and technology and argues that a socialist society cannot be built without the rapid development of science and technology. Since Kim Chŏng-ŭn’s reign began in 2011, there has been a strong focus on North Korea’s scientific development, and this is echoed in science fiction.

For instance, Kŭm-ch’ŏl Yi and Sŏng-ho Han’s 2014 novel “P-300 ŭn narŭnda,” or “P-300 files,” tells a story of people kidnapped by pirates through various computer interfaces. Here, individuals are closely connected through brain waves and their connections constitute the great collective of the “Fatherland.” This particular story uses new technology to bring people together and solidify their allegiance both to the country and its leadership.

Sample covers of North Korean science fiction literature: “Naeil ŭi onŭl” by Tong-ho Han; “P’urŭn isak” by Chŏng-sang Hwang; and “P-300 ŭn narŭnda” by Kŭm-ch’ŏl Yi and Sŏng-ho Han. Korean collection, Asian Division.

Another common theme is support for the country’s leadership and maintaining a hostile attitude toward imperialist forces such as Western capitalist countries and Japan, which are often portrayed as cruel and cunning. Kŭm-ch’ŏl Yi’s novel “Yujŏn ŭi kŏmŭn anʼgae” 유전의 검은 안개 (“The black fog of the oilfield”) follows the struggle of North Korean scientists to protect their manmade oil field from an enemy invasion. After the oil field explodes and starts to leak crude oil, it is discovered that Japanese companies have stolen the lost oil. North Korean secret forces infiltrate the enemy’s headquarters, film their actions, eventually reveal the enemy’s crimes, and find the lost oil. The novel also shows the ingenuity of North Korean scientists who use a special light to destroy the blueprints stolen by the Japanese. Ultimately, this North Korean work depicts the conflict with Japan as a battle of technology in which North Korea can fight back against the enemy’s hostilities with better science.

Sample covers of North Korean science fiction literature: “Pŏnʼgae chabi pihaengsŏn” by Chŏng-hŭi Kim; “Yujŏn ŭi kŏmŭn anʼgae” by Kŭm-ch’ŏl Yi; and “Tu kae ŭi hwasal” by Chong-nyŏl Pak. Korean collection, Asian Division.

Overall, North Korean science fiction depicts the activities, struggles, and lives of people who use science and technology to strengthen the bonds between the people, the country, and its leadership. Moreover, it offers an interesting view into how authors of officially sanctioned popular literature imagine the country’s present and future. Many works in this genre can be found in the Korean collection, which is accessible in the Asian Reading Room. To learn more or ask a question, please contact us through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian site.

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  1. What a fascinating take on North Korean literature. I had no idea that North Korean authors were writing about these topics!

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