|North Korea Table of Contents
The role of literature and art in North Korea is primarily didactic; cultural expression serves as an instrument for inculcating chuch'e ideology and the need to continue the struggle for revolution and reunification of the Korean Peninsula. There is little subtlety in most contemporary cultural expression. Foreign imperialists, especially the Japanese and the Americans, are depicted as heartless monsters; revolutionary heroes and heroines are seen as saintly figures who act from the purest of motives. The three most consistent themes are martyrdom during the revolutionary struggle (depicted in literature such as The Sea of Blood), the happiness of the present society, and the genius of the "great leader."
Kim Il Sung himself was described as a writer of "classical masterpieces" during the anti-Japanese struggle. Novels created "under his direction" include The Flower Girl, The Sea of Blood, The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man, and The Song of Korea; these are considered "prototypes and models of chuch'e literature and art." A 1992 newspaper report describes Kim in semiretirement as writing his memoirs--"a heroic epic dedicated to the freedom and happiness of the people."
The state and the Korean Workers' Party control the production of literature and art. In the early 1990s, there was no evidence of any underground literary or cultural movements such as those that exist in the Soviet Union or in China. The party exercises control over culture through its Propaganda and Agitation Department and the Culture and Arts Department of the KWP's Central Committee. The KWP's General Federation of Korean Literature and Arts Unions, the parent body for all literary and artistic organizations, also controls cultural activity.
The population has little or no exposure to foreign cultural influences apart from performances by song-and-dance groups and other entertainers brought in periodically for limited audiences. These performances, such as the Spring Friendship Art Festival held annually in April, are designed to show that the peoples of the world, like the North Koreans themselves, love and respect the "great leader." During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the North Korean media gave Kim Jong Il credit for working ceaselessly to make the country a "kingdom of art" where a cultural renaissance unmatched in other countries was taking place. Indeed, the younger Kim is personally responsible for cultural policy.
A central theme of cultural expression is to take the best from the past and discard "reactionary" elements. Popular, vernacular styles and themes in literature, art, music, and dance are esteemed as expressing the truly unique spirit of the Korean nation. Ethnographers devote much energy to restoring and reintroducing cultural forms that have the proper "proletarian" or "folk" spirit and that encourage the development of a collective consciousness. Lively, optimistic musical and choreographic expression are stressed. Group folk dances and choral singing are traditionally practiced in some but not all parts of Korea and were being promoted throughout North Korea in the early 1990s among school and university students. Farmers' musical bands have also been revived. Kim Il Sung condemns such cultural expressions as plaintive p'ansori ballads. Kim also condemns the sad "crooning tunes" composed during the Japanese colonial occupation, although he apparently has made an exception for songs that indirectly criticize the injustices of the colonial society.
P'yongyang and other large cities offer the broadest of a necessarily narrow selection of cultural expression. "Art propaganda squads" travel to production sites in the provinces to perform poetry readings, one-act plays, and songs in order to "congratulate workers on their successes" and "inspire them to greater successes through their artistic agitation." Such squads are prominent in the countryside during the harvest season and whenever "speed battles" to increase productivity are held.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress