Inside the weird world of North Korean children’s books
Whatever you think of the North Korean government, it’s probably quite unlikely that the first thing that springs to mind when you picture its despotic leaders is "children’s authors". But since the 1960s, the country’s elite, and particularly the country’s leaders, have been penning books to be consumed by generations of schoolchildren - and as may be expected from a state whose rhetoric is peppered with fire and fury, it’s all a bit weird. Don’t expect any hungry caterpillars or talking cars here, North Korean children's books are all about violent battles, sudden death and government-endorsed heroes.
Kim Il-sung, who established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948 and is now revered as a God-like eternal leader, started the tradition. Recognising the power of books to influence young minds in the aftermath of the Korean War, he embarked on a campaign to raise the literacy level in the country, which now stands at 100 per cent, using his own books as reading material. Somewhat conveniently, much of his work features a solitary hero saving the world from foreign invaders. One of his most treasured stories, A Winged Horse, depicts an angelic child saving his village from aggressors atop a white winged horse. In combining violence, self-sacrifice and flying beasts it becomes a bit like the My Little Pony of your worst nightmares.
Not to be outdone, his son and successor Kim Jong-il took this one step further with the publication of On The Art Of The Cinema, a treatise dedicated to how literature can be used productively in the interests of the state. This work, which included an entire chapter dedicated to children’s literature, was followed up by the release of works such as Boys Wipe Out Bandits, a cautionary tale of what happens to people out of touch with the the Juche ideology of North Korean self-reliance. Well, no one ever accused them of being subtle.
Like everything in North Korea, literary production is strictly controlled. There is only one publishing house and as a government that thrives on a personality cult, it is only fitting that many of these books focus on the heroic exploits of North Korean leaders past and present.
But apart from the obvious propaganda machine element, are these childhood tales really so different to our own? Speaking to the BBC, Dr Christopher Richardson, who specialises in the study of children’s culture in the DPRK argues not: “North Korean children's books and cartoons proved to be often entertaining, colourful, action-packed, and not so different to children's books and cartoons anywhere.”
Kim Il-sung’s The Butterfly and The Cock, a Harry Potter vs Voldemort-style tale of a beautiful, humble butterfly protecting the animal kingdom from the brutish force of an evil red, white and blue cockerel, highlights just this. Featuring plant stomping, pollen hurling and tears, it ends rather abruptly with the cockerel falling off of a cliff and drowning, and a celebratory singalong. So it lacks the heartwarming motif that you might find in Charlotte’s Web, but between farmyard animals and brightly coloured cartoons it’s not a million miles from something you would find in a western storybook. The fact that the title works so well in English is just an added bonus.
Of course, whether the Kims really are the authors of these books or whether they’re claiming credit for a ghostwriter’s work remains to be seen, although we know which is more likely. For his part, Kim Jong-un has so far steered clear of children’s fiction, instead peddling stories of his own divine abilities through official school textbooks. But if he can find the time to write, in between threatening nuclear war, we can’t wait to see what he will add to the (literary) canon. What are the chances of a blonde man with a slightly orange tinge making an appearance as a baddie?