February 21, 2014

Storytime with Dear Leader: children’s books from North Korea

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A cock, America, bullies the other animals until North Korea, the butterfly, saves the day in Kim Il-sung's The Butterfly and The Cock

A cock, America, bullies other animals until North Korea, the butterfly, saves the day in Kim Il-sung’s The Butterfly and The Cock

If you tried to imagine what a children’s book written by a ruthless dictator sounds like, would it be something like this?

“At last the left cyst burst, emitting fierce flames and the captain fell down, dejectedly dropping his club. At that moment a loud battle cry was heard from outside. Villagers killed the rest of the bandits.”

That’s from Boys Wipe Out Bandits by North Korea’s former “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Christopher Richardson is researching North Korean children’s literature, and found that both Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un, the current leader) and his father Kim Sung-il took time from their busy schedule of dictating to influence the country’s youth through books.

Speaking with the BBC World Service, Richardson described Boys Wipe Out Bandits as the tale “of reactionaries and bandits and gluttons lurking in the hills of North Korea, predating on the pure-hearted and virtuous villagers who incarnate all of the traditional virtues of the North Korean revolution.”

Villains in the stories vary, according to Richardson, from “wayward Koreans…not thinking of the collective” in Boys Wipe Out Bandits to America in The Butterfly and The Cock.

Richardson warns, though, that it would be a mistake to dismiss the books as forgettable propoganda. “They can be quite fun to read and they’re actually quite good yarns, and I imagine children aren’t even that aware of the ideological content,” he says. “If you made a cartoon of Boys Wipe Out Bandits and showed it to a bunch of Western six-year-olds or eight-year-olds they’d go nuts for it. They’d love it because it’s the same kind of silly violent nonsense that boys everywhere tend to like.”

Richardson is skeptical as to whether the leaders actually wrote the books themselves, as is Lee Hyeon-seo. Lee grew up in North Korea, leaving when she was 17, and remembers being given the books as a child.  She told the BBC that the stories she most remembers “recounted Kim Il-sung’s heroic battles against the Japanese ‘and some ridiculous stories about Kim Jong-il… when he was five he killed some enemies – he just shot them down.'”

“It’s impossible but we just believed as children because for us they are not human beings, they are like our Gods.”

The books “don’t usually tell the truth, they usually tell all the fake things,” says Lee. She was taught that the US had colonised South Korea and executed students, South Koreans were begging, couldn’t afford to go to school and that healthcare in the south was so expensive patients died outside hospitals.

It doesn’t seem that Kim Jong-un has written any books himself yet, but it’s safe to wager that if he does, the reviews will be stellar.

 

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.

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