There’s a lot of reasons that this is the most durable Stalinist regime in the world and why they’re still there. But change is happening and it’s coming through technology. Park Sang-Ha is floating balloons with DVDs into North Korea. Ken Cho Wan is smuggling in thumb drives and DVDs. So North Korea is kind of getting flooded with movies, especially soap operas from South Korea, which are popular with everyone (go watch some!). Things like South Korean Wikipedia: imagine the knowledge of a nation made by its people, editable by its people, and it’s not an official version.
One of the things I discovered (and I say this because we’re in a room full of book people) in writing my book, was that there isn’t literature in North Korea. The Japanese begin their occupation in 1910, and in the colonial period not only were you not allowed to have Korean names (eventually everyone had to be renamed with Japanese names), not only did they take 800,000 slaves to the mainland to run the factories (and comfort women and all those things), but the Daegeum became illegal, the taegum flute became illegal, and you had to read Japanese literature. And then there was no literature! They lost connection with their own stories. A century ago.
If you think about the Soviet Union, it’s a heterogeneous society with lots of cultures. You could choose to look to the writers of the past (you maybe had to do it secretly) for how they handled adversity. You could choose to be a writer, at your peril, but the choice existed. Solzhenitsyn wrote in the Gulags and got literature out of that experience. And no novelist ever made it out of North Korea. So in 1910, they lost their own literature. Then there’s World War Two. Then partition by the superpowers. Then the Korean War, which is a war which our country has come to terms with in no way beyond a TV comedy. And then 60 years of a totalitarian dictatorship in which there’s only propaganda.
The people there have never read a book as you would know it. And I ask you people who care about books to consider that: having never read a book that questions society, that shared the human experience, that had a person at the center. As they’re floating these important things, I wish they would float books in there too. I talked to Park Sang-Ha, he said they’re too heavy, and I said find a way! It would have an alternative narrative to the official regime. These are things in which individuals are at the center. They’re easy to create by people and they invite questions, and it could connect them to a time before the regime.
Taken from a public lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library, entitled, “Unveiling North Korea with Fact and Fiction”, on 23 March 2015. Johnson received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles has generously provided the audio from this event for download.