A Conversation with North Korean Writers in Exile

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byPark Dukkyu

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 called “literary correspondents.” But if they show promise, they are summoned to become professional writers.

Lim: North Korean writers are paid in rations from the government, so there is no need to write anything other than what the government tells them to. The only acceptable subjects are the Party, the Great Leader, and loyalty. They are not forbidden from writing about other things, but no one would ever acknowledge them if they did.

Park: I understand that any information on South Korea is banned in North Korea. Did you have any chance to read South Korean literature in North Korea?

Chang: Writers have access to the so-called “100-Copy Collection.” These are books with a print run restricted to 100 copies that are offered to a select number of people, such as writers. I don’t think there were many South Korean books in the collection. I remember Jang Gilsan (multi-volume saga by Hwang Sok-yong) and Dongui Bogam (novel by Lee Eun-sung). Kim Ji-ha’s “Torture Road—1974” and “Five Bandits” were held up as examples denouncing the depravity of the South Korean regime.

Hyun: I snuck as many copies of the “100-Copy Collection” as I could, too. I wasn’t a professional writer so I wasn’t supposed to have access. I only read the American ones. I remember reading Gone With the Wind and Stairway to Heaven.

Park: What do you think of South Korean literature?

Hyun: I was very fond of novels in North Korea, but here in South Korea there are too many other distractions, so I don’t read as much. I’m used to socialist realist literature, but South Korean literature is abstractionist. It was completely new to me and made me wonder why people would want to write things like that. Personally I don’t enjoy it. South Korean writers seem to think they are promoting diverse ideas and ways of life by writing about people in unusual situations. North Korean writers use archetypes to contribute to the revolution and development of the country. I don’t think North Koreans would be interested if you showed them South Korean books.

Park: What subject is most important to you, as writers in South Korea?

Lim: At first I published three memoirs focusing on the cultural differences between North and South Korea. After I turned 40, however, my ideas and beliefs changed a great deal, and I became more interested in North Korean politics. Politics is what dominates the North Korean regime, culture, and society. Society exists because of politics. For my novels Kim Jong-il (2011) and Hwang Jang-yop (2013), I did a lot of research on executed defectors and the corruption of the Kim Jong-il regime and consulted various specialized South Korean publications. In my books I mixed real names with made-up ones, fact with fiction. My greatest strength is that I lived in Pyongyang all my life and know what it feels like, so hopefully my books will reflect that. I cannot stop writing because I feel I have the duty to represent the comrades I left behind, if only on the page.

Hyun: It’s about what we want to share with North 201437Koreans through the genre of literature—that could be our experiences in North Korea or in South Korea. You could say that we are more realistic than South Korean writers in that way. If something is written by a North Korean writer, it must be about North Korea and North Korean defectors.

Chang: Human rights is an inevitable subject when writing about North Korea. More than 80 percent of North Korean writers in exile write about human rights in North Korea, regardless of genre.

Park: The North Korean regime is not very happy about North Korean writers publishing books in South Korea, are they?

Lim: They’re not just unhappy, they’d have us executed by the firing squad! I published my first novel, Kim Jong-il, in August 2011, and Kim Jong-il died that same December. Just before that, in November, the North Korean government named me in a statement saying, “Puppet Traitor Lee Myung-bak Meets Traitor that Blasphemed the Great Leader’s Dignity through Fabrication.” The National Intelligence Service and the police were calling me because I received death threats. I had to be put under protection for a while after that.

Chang: I’ve been called “human garbage” by the North Korean regime, but I take it as a positive sign that I’ve accomplished something here in South Korea. If I had kept quiet, they wouldn’t have any reason to attack me. For me, it’s a badge of honor.

Hyun: The North Korean regime denounces all defectors by name, not just writers. But they’re making a mistake. They’re only giving defectors more attention.

Park: Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to say as a North Korean writer in exile to the South Korean or international community?

Chang: The North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center is still very new, and we are a small association without a lot of influence. But cultural and ideological infiltration is more important than any nuclear weapon. Literature matters, which means we have an important task as writers. We will strive to write books we can be proud of after the two Koreas are reunited, so we can say that we did our part in South Korea.

Hyun: Literature has power in South Korea. I would like to see more works by South Korean writers spreading awareness of North Korea and reunification.

Lim: I went to the 80th International PEN Congress as a representative of North Korean writers in exile. We need more people to listen to North Korean writers in exile. Ours is a voice that cannot be heard in North Korea. We represent the people of North Korea, the truth. Our voices need to be heard. 



Park Dukkyu is a Professor of Creative Writing at Dankook University. Born in 1958, Park is a poet, critic, and novelist. He is the author of numerous short story collections including You Tremble from Loneliness Even When You Are Together (2012), which focuses on North Korean defection.