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A Literary Thaw in Korea
Do North Korea's racy and topical new novels signal greater freedom, or is Kim Jong Il just letting off a little steam? 

Believe it or not, North Korea has a literary scene, although its indomitable muse is Kim Jong Il, who keeps writers on the national payroll to pen books about himself and who has personally written (according to Pyongyang) a nonfiction work on film and even some poetry. Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader's father, once dubbed writers "engineers of the human soul"but he and his son have always had strict control over the project specs.

These days, however, North Korea's writers are getting a little leeway. Last week, Pyongyang said it would host a meeting of South and North Korean writers, the first such get-together in nearly 60 years. And to the surprise of foreign observers, new topics are appearing in North Korean fiction: poverty, starvation, even the hint that not all officials are paragons of virtue. In 2002, state presses released Hwang Jin Yi, a ribald historical novel by Hong Seok Jung, which will be published in South Korea in September. The heroine is a courtesan who encounters starving masses, corrupt officials, and a governor "completely immersed in booze and women." The story is set in the 16th century, and there is no reason to suspect that the author is anything but a loyal subject of the Dear Leader. Still, when reading the book, it's hard not to make the connection to Kim's lobster-and-Bordeaux lifestyle in a country where at least a million people have died of starvation during his rule. "I read some parts with my jaw hanging open," says Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean literature at Korea University in the south of Seoul. "The parallels to the current political situation are really just too obvious even for the most obtuse, literal-minded reader to miss." Kim Jae Yong, an expert on North Korean literature at Wonkwang University in southern South Korea, speculates that Kim may be regarding such scribblings as a relatively harmless way for people to vent: "Literature is a useful safety valve."


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