A Conversation with North Korean Writers in Exile

Home, Where Is Home?


Literature on North Korean defection can be divided into two categories. The first kind is authored by professional South Korean writers exploring North Korean defection as a phenomenon linked to reunification and changes in international relations. The second kind is by actual North Korean defectors writing from experience about their escape and tortuous journey that finally brought them to South Korea.

     This conversation was conducted with novelist Chang Hae Seong, literary critic Hyun Inae, and novelist Lim Il, members of the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center who write to raise awareness on North Korean human rights. It was hosted by Professor Park Dukkyu of Dankook University, who has written extensively on the subject of North Korean defection in South Korean literature since the late 1990s and is a published author of short stories in the same genre.


Lim Il is a member of North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center. Lim previously worked at the Ministry of People’s Security, the Council for the Promotion of Foreign Trade, and a North Korean construction company in Kuwait. He defected to South Korea in 1997 and has been writing since 2005. He is the author of the essay collection Shall I Go Back to Pyongyang? and the novel Kim Jong-il, among others.




Hyun Inae is an Associated Research Fellow at the Ewha Institute of Unification Studies and member of North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center. Hyun defected to South Korea in 2004 and has since earned a doctorate in North Korean studies from Ewha Womans University. She contributes to the radio drama Cheon-bok and Man-gil.




Chang Hae Seong is President of North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center and a former reporter and writer for Korean Central TV. Chang defected to South Korea in 1996 and has since worked as a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS). He is the author of the novel Tumen River and numerous short stories, and also writes for the radio drama Cheon-bok and Man-gil.



Park Dukkyu: The number of North Korean defectors has skyrocketed from the mid-1990s onwards. Out of the approximately 26,000 North Koreans in exile here in South Korea, most of them escaped during this period. North Korean writers in exile are now a visible presence in South Korea. How many North Korean writers in exile are there in South Korea and what kind of works are they writing?

Chang Hae Seong: Those of us defectors who are writers formed the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center. We have about 30 members. Not many of our members used to write in North Korea. Most of our members include those who wanted to be writers but were obliged to take on different jobs for various reasons, or those who feel strongly about sharing their experiences of defecting or other atrocities they have suffered.

Lim Il: I worked in construction and accounting in North Korea. This is my 18th year in South Korea. When I first got here I didn’t think I would write fiction. I wrote personal essays in the beginning. I wanted to raise awareness about the situation in North Korea and writing seemed to be the best way. I started writing fiction later. I’ve had a number of books published now. I know that many people started writing fiction because they felt the same way—that it is their duty to raise awareness about the realities in North Korea, how the people are suffering.

Chang: I wrote scripts in North Korea. Since I came here, I have published one novel and seven short story collections. I have the impression that there are more novelists than poets among North Korean writers in exile. The most common genre is memoir.

Hyun Inae: I went to an exhibition of books by North Korean writers in exile. There were over 100 memoirs, also quite a few poetry collections. Novels were the fewest by number. There are more memoirists because memoirs are the easiest to write—you write about your own experiences.

Park: Could you briefly sum up the course of North Korean literature since the division of Korea? This is generally known to those who have studied Korean literature, but I’d like to hear from someone who actually studied literature in the North.

Chang: Critical realism was the mainstay of early North Korean literature. After the Russian army arrived, North Korean literature turned to socialist realism and this trend continued until the mid-1960s. In 1958, I think on March 24, Kim Il-sung gave a speech to the 324th Army Unit of the Korean People’s Army called “The Korean People’s Army Is the Successor to the Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle,” and after that everyone had to write anti-Japanese literature. And from 1967 onwards, it was about glorifying the two Kims. All writers had to write literature glorifying Kim Sr. and Jr., whether they wanted to or not.

Park: I heard that North Korean writers all belong to an association and are assigned a certain rank. Could you give a brief explanation of that?

Chang: The General Federation of Korean Literature and Arts Unions oversees the Dramatists’ Union, the Filmmakers’ Union, and the Writers’ Union. What’s unique about the Writers’ Union is that it has its own agency, the Korean Literary Production Unit. All North Korean writers belong to the Korean Literary Production Unit. Writers belonging to this unit are called “affiliated writers” (hyeonyeok jakga). Then there are writing studios affiliated with Korean Central Television, the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and Kim Il-sung University; if you belong there, you are called “employed writers” (hyeonjik jakga). I was an employed writer with Korean Central Television.

Hyun: Affiliated or employed, they are all professional writers. They are full-time writers employed by the government. And then there are those who work as laborers but who also write in the field; they are...