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Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK.


North Korean literature is virtually unknown in the West. Brian Myers's Han Sorya and North Korean Literature, published by the Cornell University East Asia Program, presents Han Sorya's life through North Korean literature. Han (1900-707) was one of the most prominent writers of prose fiction in the history of North Korea. As the chairman of his country's Federation of Literature and Art from 1948 to 1962, he played a decisive role in all the major events and policy developments on the Pyongyang literary scene, "while devising in his own writings the iconography of a personality cult which has since come to dominate every facet of life in North Korea." Since I conducted research on the topic "North Korean Literature in the Chosun Munhak, 1980-1990" and published the findings in Asian Thought and Society (1994), I greatly appreciate Myers's hook, which covers North Korean literature from 1945 to 1970. In my studies I never noticed Han Sorya's name in any issue of Chosun Munhak, the main literary monthly in North Korea. Han was already a forgotten figure, even though his literary thought and style must have left its imprint on today's North Korean literature in a significant way.

Myers's contention in his book (his doctoral dissertation at the Eberhard-Karls University in Tubingen) is that Han's literary thought and style do not follow the principles of socialist realism. The term socialist realism is used here as it was professed in North Korea during the 1940s and 1950s: namely, the official Stalin-era esthetic doctrine defining an "artistic" method whose controlling principle is the accurate, historically concrete presentation of reality in its revolutionary development and whose main task is the communist education of the masses. "Han's extreme worldview," Myers asserts, "is fundamentally incompatible with the ideology a socialist realist literature is by definition obliged to reflect." So, Myers claims Han was his own man, not a socialist realist.

I may agree with Myers on one count: Han had established his literary name before Kim Il-Sung consolidated power in North Korea. Therefore, Han is not a typical North Korean writer. To me, Han was an extreme political writer who tried to appease his boss, Kim Il-Sung, who ruled North Korea for nearly fifty years. I read Han's essays in Chosun Munhak from the mid-1950s praising Stalin and the Soviet Red Army, which liberated his nation. In my view, he was an ardent socialist realist. He produced his literary works as propaganda materials for the masses on behalf of Kim Il-Sung. Myers has tried to emphasize the fact that Han's works were fundamentally incompatible with socialist-realist ideology, but I am not persuaded. Han's stories and essays clearly advocated disgracing the Christian missionary presence in Korea and South Korea's political regime while praising Kim Il-Sung, Soviet doctors, and "utopian" North Korea. Such loyalty made Han a leader in North Korea. He was a "running dog" to Kim Il-Sung, How can Myers say that he is not a socialist realist? How can Myers say that Han's thought is not compatible with communist ideology? I can understand Myers's views on orthodox socialist realism, yet I see socialist realism abundantly present in North Korean literature: North Korean writers still advocate socialist realism. Myers simply does not interpret socialist realism as they do.

Myers seems to be lamenting the fact that North Korea's literature is not known to the West, but he does not need to do so. Why? Because North Korean literature has not yet reached the level attained by many eminent Chinese and Russian writers. North Korean short stories are not of sufficient quality to merit translation into English, French, or German. I have not yet found one North Korean short story published between 1980 and 1990 that I would recommend for translation. Nevertheless, I appreciate Myers's book, because Han's rise and fall in North Korean political life and the vicissitudes of factional politics themselves are striking stories even within literary circles. Myers's translations of Han's stories, moreover, prove his command of the Korean language.

Yearn Hong Choi Washington, D. C.
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Author:Choi, Yearn Hong
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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