Introduction of North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center
The PEN Center for North Korean Writers in Exile was formed in February 2012. At the time there were already some 20,000 North Koreans living in South Korea, a number of them writers. The PEN Center started out as a dozen or so of us discussing our creative plans for the future. Our meetings mostly consisted of us discussing literary works and how to promote existing publications.
Only a few of our members had actually been published in North Korea. But as word spread, the group began to attract people who had longed to write in the North but had never been able to as well as those with heartbreaking stories of escape.
And so the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center was formally launched on August 4, 2012, and ratified at the 78th International PEN Congress held on September 14 that year.
Of course, not everything went smoothly in the beginning. We had been recognized by PEN International, but we lacked everything else. Not many of our members had any training in writing, and even those that had been published in North Korea had only been exposed to socialist realism and propaganda glorifying Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It was a struggle to keep up with or understand the trends of international literature in an open society.
In the two years since then, however, our members have overcome these limitations to an astonishing degree, immersing themselves in the literature of South Korea, and striving to leave their mark upon it.
It would be amiss not to celebrate some of their notable achievements. Already some five or six North Korean writers in exile have been accepted as members of the Korean Novelists Association, and this September our member Kim Jeong-ae received the Newcomer’s Award. As for works published by our members during this period, Lim Il published Kim Jong-il and Hwang Jang-yop; Chang Hae Seong published Tumen River, and Lee Ji-myeong’s Woman of God is slated for publication after the success of his Where Is My Life? Last but not least, newcomer Lee Ga-yeon has published her first collection of poetry, Missing Dinnertime, to great acclaim.
In addition to publishing, the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center has adapted a popular North Korean radio play for a South Korean audience and broadcast 15 episodes since this July. The radio play, Cheon-bok and Man-gil, ran for 37 years in North Korea before it was canceled. Our version of Cheon-bok and Man-gil is currently broadcast on North Korea Reform Radio, Radio Free Chosun, Open Radio for North Korea, and Far East Broadcasting, to the delight of the North Korean community.
To return to the subject of our writers, our ranks have grown substantially since the Center’s formation. At first, we only had a handful of published writers, but now the number is closer to 30, with many others eager to begin writing. We have also published the second issue of our magazine, North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Literature, which shows a vast improvement over our first issue. Works published in this issue include many short stories, most notably Kim Jeong-ae’s “Rice,” two poems by Yoo Jin, namely “I Love Myself Most” and “The Last Virgin,” and Hyun Inae’s critical essay “North Korean Literature and Fantasy,” all of which boast a high level of writing while relentlessly exposing North Korean reality.
Of course, these are not the only landmarks the PEN Center for North Korean Writers in Exile has celebrated. Looking forward to the day that the North and the South will be reunited, however, there is still so much work to be done. When that day comes, we must have something to show for the time we have been in exile. We must be able to say that we wrote not just for ourselves, but also for those stuck in a living hell, weeping and beating at their chests because they cannot write what they want.
We have many tasks ahead of us if this is to be achieved. We must hone our creative skills and write even more works decrying the North Korean regime, as well as recruit and train young writers. We must work harder on our ongoing radio play, and also on Letters from North Korea scheduled for next year. Of course, none of this will be easy. Looking back upon our achievements over the past two years, however, it is far from impossible if all of our members work together towards this goal.