Part 3. North Korean Defector Poets

Poetic Expression in North Korean Defector Culture



Significance of Defector Poets

Mass migration prompted by the great famine of the 1990s has transformed the status of North Korean defectors in South Korean society from that of a strategic tool in the ideological wars to a social minority in need of assimilation. The unofficial count of North Koreans crossing the border ranges from 100,000 to 300,000, with the number entering South Korea now well over 10,000. In these numbers, defectors have not only lost their ideological influence as living proof of the superiority of the Southern regime, but are now reduced to a cultural minority whose past existence is rarely if ever acknowledged.

     This article is an attempt to examine North Korean defector culture through examples of North Korean defector poetry. Key examples of this genre published to date include Jang Jin-sung’s I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won (, 2008), Kim Ok-ae’s Rice Porridge Incident (Sam Woo Publishing Co., 2005), Kim Dae-ho’s Confessions of a Naked Poem (Living Books, 2003), and Kim Seong-min’s Why Are Songs about Home Always Sad? (Dashi, 2004).


Multi-Layers of Defector Psychology

The two major themes in North Korean defector poetry are defection and migration. In North Korean defector poetry, this refers to the poet’s thoughts on defection, the specific circumstances that prompted the poets to defect and why they chose to go to the South. On the surface these thoughts fall into a clearly pro-South, anti-North category, but the underlying thought process of North Korean defectors appears to have changed little from the indoctrination expected to come out of the North Korean regime.

     To take the poetry of Jang Jin-sung as an example of pro-South, anti-North sentiment on a surface level, it can be argued that North Korean defectors antagonize the North and idolize the South in that they did in fact make the dangerous escape to the South and typically have no problem justifying this choice to themselves. They are strongly against the North Korean regime and for the ideals of liberty and freedom in the South. While the practical reason of hunger is usually their direct motivation for coming South, the choice of South Korea implies an affirmation of the South and a rejection of the North. This psychology is readily observed in North Korean defector poetry.

     In a footnote to his poem “Palace,” Jang Jing-sung notes: “The Kim Jong-il regime exhausted the nation’s coffers to build Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun while three million people starved to death. If they had used that money to buy rice, they could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” From this we can infer that “Palace” refers to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and that the poet disapproves of the political and economic repercussions of its construction. The poet emphasizes that North Korean starvation is directly linked to the political choices of the party in the lines, “Three million starved to death / To bury one dead man.” This idea that the people of North Korea starved for political reasons, and that most of the poems in this collection deal with starvation, indicates that the North Korean defector poet is strongly anti-North.

     Surface declarations of absolute affirmation towards the South, as in the poems of Kim Ok-ae, reveal an interesting twist. Kim’s poem “I Was So Surprised” shows the boundless enthusiasm toward the South, which is doubtless familiar to those who have studied North Korean literature. The poet is i...