The First Step toward Another “Immortal History”: Border Crossing Shadows by Do Myunghak et al.

  • onJune 20, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byYasuyuki Hatayama
越えてくる者、迎えいれる者 (Border Crossing Shadows)
Tr. Tomomi Wada

This collection of six short stories by writers who fled the North and seven by South Korean writers speaks of the problems of human rights and North Korea.

The works by the North Korean emigres portray life in the North, the political shadows that hang over the everyday, and the societal contradictions running rife through the country. They employ their creativity to fill in the “blanks in reality”: that which can never be fully expressed through officially sanctioned news broadcasts and academic writing.

In Do Myunghak’s “The Book Thief,” a book collection owned by the chief of a regional Writer's Alliance goes missing. The books turn up in the local jangmadang (black markets that popped up during the famine in the early 1990s). Among those stolen books is The Fog over the New Hill by Chon Se Bong. Chon (1915–1985) was the voice of North Korean literature. His 1966 novel The Fog over the New Hill, however, was banned in North Korea. Trouble would have followed had the book been found by the government—only someone who experienced the cultural vicissitudes of the North could write such truths. Do was born in Hyesan in 1965 and worked as a poet for the North Korean Writer’s Alliance. He was jailed for writing works deemed counterrevolutionary. In 2006 he entered South Korea.

This collection also contains heart-wrenching works like Yoon Yanggil’s “Buds,” which tells the story of someone who dies from eating wild plants to fight off starvation; Seol Songa’s “The Girl Called Chiuk,” which depicts a woman selling goods on the black market to make ends meet; and Lee Eunchul’s “Father’s Notebook,” which details the process of fleeing the North and arriving in South Korea. All these works shed light on the interiority of North Korean refugees.

Even if, as Wada claims, these works do not necessarily represent “the highest level of literary perfection,” they are valuable for the way they depict the hidden truth absent from the North Korean government’s public statements.

The South Korean writers, on the other hand, grapple with the question of how South Korean society receives refugees from the North. Yun Hu-myong’s “The Girl at Finland Station” merges the main character’s experience in Russia of encountering a man and woman who seemed to have escaped North Korea, and who are begging him to buy train tickets, with memories of a politically oppressive South Korea. Lee Sunga’s “Heaven’s Refugees” tells the story of a man who fled Japan for North Korea in the 1960s only to flee yet again to South Korea. The stories of these refugees are hardly ever told in Japan, and this theme will surely draw readers’ attention. Bang Minho’s “Samsu Kapsan” portrays the emotional life of a politically repressed artist, modeled after the modern poet Baek Seok. Wada observes that in these works by South Korean authors, one can see contemporary South Korean society’s “disinterest, feelings of powerlessness, and confusion” in the face of North Korean refugees.

Contemporary North Korean literature is primarily concerned with depicting the greatness of its leaders and often centers on characters who show their complete allegiance to those leaders (or what Seo Jae-kyung has called “Juche People” in his study, The Creation of Juche Literature). First came The Immortal History, a collection of works depicting the greatness of Kim Il-sung. This was followed by The Immortal Instruction, which took as its theme the successes of Kim Jong-il. And the 2017 collection Dawn took Kim Jong-un as its protagonist. Works praising the greatness of leaders continue to thrive in North Korea, where literature is an explicitly political activity and the publication of a work is the expression of an author’s political standing. But the works in this collection are all the more valuable for having been produced outside of that model.

Because works of literature are born of a given individual’s creativity, regardless of whether a work is founded on fact or not, what it depicts and what it calls for deserve the utmost consideration. These authors who lived in and fled North Korea, and those who maintain interest in their fellow brothers and sisters in the North, demand a different “Immortal History,” one which centers not on “great leaders,” but on the divided people who live through this period of time. This collection is a first step toward that goal.  


by Yasuyuki Hatayama
Representative, Contemporary Culture Research Center for East Asia