Science Fiction behind the Iron Curtain

A North Korean poster on digital technology

During the space race in the 1960s, science fiction became a popular genre in the Soviet Union and several of the communist satellite states. This was a tradition of speculative fiction which emerged under different  conditions than the familiar literature of the west. Today these conditions have changed. Communist dictatorships, as they once were, are almost gone. Only a few places in the world do the ideologies of the 60s continue to persist. North Korea is the most striking example. Science fiction, the story of the future,  offers a glimpse not only into the North Korean mindset, but also into an interesting past. We talked to Benoit Berthelier, a Lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney. What are the similarities between our own western imagination and the dreams of the most isolated country on earth?

Historyradio.org:  In the West we often trace science fiction back to Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. When did science fiction become a genre in North Korea? Is there some towering writer in their tradition?

Benoit Berthelier: Shortly after the Liberation in 1945 you see translations of Soviet science fiction appear in North Korea. There had been some other translations of sci-fi (of Verne for example) before that in colonial Korea, but it was just seen as regular fiction rather than in terms of a specific genre like science fiction. North Korean writers start producing their own sci-fi stories after the Korean War. The influence of contemporary Soviet sci-fi was important, but I don’t think there really was a towering figure. Today, North Korean critics see Verne and Wells as the forefathers of the genre. In the domestic tradition, Hwang Chŏngsang wrote several influential stories and essays which played an important role in reviving the genre in the 1990’s. Chŏngsang is one of the most well-known SciFi writers in the country, he has been writing science fiction since the 1980’s.

Historyradio.org:  In the West much classic science fiction was published in so-called “pulp” magazines. Was there something similar in North Korea?

Benoit Berthelier: During the Cold War in North Korea, science fiction was published in popular science publications and youth magazines. These publications were state-sanctioned so they certainly did not suffer from the bad reputation and lowbrow stigma associated with pulp. Yet they targeted a mass popular audience, were printed on cheap paper and since their goal was to make science appealing to their readership, they put an emphasis on the more spectacular and sensational aspects of science. I guess you could see some similarities between the two in those aspects.

North Korean science fiction illustration. Photo credit: B. Berthelier

Historyradio.org: Is North Korean science fiction focused on technology, or is it soft and more focused on psychology?

Benoit Berthelier: That really depends on the author. Some writers will favor character-driven stories with more introspection, others will give more importance to technology or the scientific theories behind their fiction.

Historyradio.org: In the West there is a tradition of dystopian science fiction: Jack London’s A Curious Fragment, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and so on. Is this sort of writing available in North Korea?

Benoit Berthelier: These writings are available for the authors of the Writers’ Union (a state sanctioned union of professional writers) who would like to study and discuss them but not to the general public. Otherwise, there is no dystopian tradition in North Korea. North Korean literature is based on socialist realism and as such positivity is a prerequisite for all works of fiction. It does not mean that there can’t be conflict or some dystopian elements, but overall the future has to be bright and the ending has to be happy.

Historyradio.org: Are the North Korean SciFi writers free to communicate what they feel, or are limitations about what sort of message they can convey? If so, how does the censorship work? 

Benoit Berthelier: That is a hard question to answer since knowing what another person feels is not an easy thing. But there are limitations on what can be said and there are guidelines on how proper literature should be written. So you would not encounter texts criticizing the leaders or very experimental writing styles.
Once a work is produced there are different types of reviews it usually go through: a review by other writers, then a review by a committee at the publishing house where the author plans on publishing the book, then through a couple of national committees that oversee the content of all published materials in the country. Colleagues and publishers are usually more concerned with aesthetic questions and the national committees with the political aspects of the work. If a work is about one of the leaders it will be subject to more intense scrutiny. You have to keep in mind, however, that writers who are in the position of publishing books would not be there if they did not already know how to produce the type of politically and aesthetically correct writing that is expected of them. So a lot of the censorship is actually already internalized.

Historyradio.org: Are there examples of post-apocalyptic science fiction books in North Korea, like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or The Scarlet Plague by Jack London? If there are, what sort of catastrophes do they envisage?

Benoit Berthelier: Not really. North Korean literature must be positive and an apocalyptic event does not quite fit into that goal. But the country has been through a catastrophe of its own with the natural disasters and famine that struck it in the 1990’s. And that is actually a common subtheme in many works of science fiction. Science is used to make more food, find new sources of energy or make things with less materials.

Historyradio.org: Are there stories that deal with life on other planets, and encounters between North Koreans and aliens?

Benoit Berthelier: There used to be some stories about aliens during the Cold War, especially when the space race was at its peak. But later, alien lifeforms were deemed to be too unscientific and unrealistic a subject, so the theme disappeared. You still have stories about human colonization of space and other planets though. 

North Korean science fiction illustration. Photo credit: B. Berthelier

Historyradio.org: How popular are the north Korean science fiction writers compared to other forms of literature?

Benoit Berthelier: It’s only anecdotal evidence but I did hear from a few North Koreans, including book store clerks, that science fiction stories are quite popular. Their number certainly has been increasing recently. There are a few animated science fiction TV series and films in North Korea, at least one of which was adapted from a popular book. There are some comic books too.

Historyradio.org: Are translations of foreign science fiction stories available in North Korea?

Benoit Berthelier: Yes. Mostly Soviet science fiction and older writers like H.G. Wells. Most of these translations are old and out-of-print though, so they’re not always easy to come by.

Historyradio.org: If you were to recommend a North Korean science fiction writer, who would it be and why?

Benoit Berthelier: There’s a writer called Ri Kŭmch’ŏl whose works I really like. Very over-the-top with a B-movie feel. He is a younger writer who started publishing sci-fi in the 2000’s after, I think, winning a prize in an amateur literature contest.

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