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A World Where Books Don’t Exist


North Korea totally creeps me out.

One of the ways in which the country controls ( i.e. brainwashes) its people is by controlling what they read.

Adam Johnson recently wrote a fabulous piece for The Daily Beast about his experience in North Korea–including their control over art, which basically means the country has no art.

For over six decades, every movie has paid homage to the goals of the Korean Worker’s Party, all operas extolled the virtues of Juche theory and Songun policy, all the paintings in the Korean Art Gallery Pyongyang had to depict either Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il or waves of dutiful peasants sacrificing for their Dear and Great Leaders.

Imagine a world in which no writer has written a literary novel in sixty years. Imagine a place where not a single person has read a book that is truly about the character at its center.

How sad is that? The fake, fraudulence of it all? How easy it is to take for granted how, in our world, everything from The Bible to Lolita is easily purchased online or at a local bookstore.

In America, we believe that each person is the central character in his or her own story. In the stories we tell ourselves, characters’ deep-seated desires and motivations send us on trajectories toward what we strive to attain. Along the way, there are complications and conflicts that challenge us and invite us to look inward, but in the end, our characters change, grow and understand.

In North Korea, however, there is one narrative, written almost exclusively by the Kim family. The twenty-three million other people in North Korea have been conscripted to play secondary characters in a national script that starred only Kim Jong-il. These masses had to forego their own yearnings and aspirations in order to play their assigned roles. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. For an entire populace, change, growth, and spontaneity were dangerous. Acting upon a personal desire, whispering a hidden longing, revealing your true feelings—all the human actions we think of as essential to a character—had be censored by the self lest they be punished by the state.

It’s sad to think of a world without real books. When you’re under a dictatorship like that, when you’ve been told your entire life that black is white and the sky is yellow, then you’ll grow up thinking the sky is yellow.

North Korea is an entire country without art, which is understandable since art is essentially the expressing of human emotion. In North Korea, emotion will get you executed.

Can you imagine a world without art, without books?

(Image: Via

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31 Comments Post a comment
  1. No I can’t. It’s not only sad, it’s scary… to death.

    January 10, 2012
    • Ditto

      January 10, 2012
  2. Most certainly there exists an alternate North Korean subculture of writers and artist whose work, if exposed, would cost them their lives. I like to think of this group of people who combine this acuity and bravery in defiance of the regime.

    January 10, 2012
    • I’m sure there are. And that’s a ballsy group of people.

      January 10, 2012
  3. I like to think of the parallel lesson of life. No matter how improbable, no matter how bleak the circumstances – life always seems to find a way to spring forth.

    Your post makes me hope that, even in North Korea, art, literature, creativity and individual human expression exists – it just has gone undiscovered by the world at large (for obvious reasons).

    Thought provoking post.

    January 10, 2012
    • Yep. It’s there. It’s just been beaten into submission. Hopefully it will re-emerge one day, though this new Kim doesn’t sound any better than the old one.

      January 10, 2012
  4. A barren landscape it must be, but a flower must bloom somewhere.

    January 10, 2012
  5. North Korea is the closest thing to the society George Orwell imagined in “1984”.

    January 10, 2012
    • Very true. Hadn’t thought about that.

      January 10, 2012
  6. I don’t follow political discussions much and I know next to nothing about North Korea and even less about Kim Jong-il. What amazes me about this is that they’ve been able to keep up this kind of censorship in today’s world. As you said, the world is so small I can buy nearly any book that has ever been written and have it delivered to my doorstep in a week.

    January 10, 2012
    • I think one way to keep up the censorship is by keeping the people extremely poor. If you are starving and freezing, you just have other problems than getting the latest Shakespeare.
      The other way is brutality.

      January 15, 2012
      • Note also that keeping the population constantly tired from working long, hard hours, more concerned about where their food is going to come from, divided and alone by outlawing collective support groups, living in fear of bodily harm, insisting on the efficacy of myths and ignoring reality, etc. is wonderful for camouflaging the systematic looting of the country, be it North Korea or the United States.

        January 16, 2012
  7. bluebookbelle #

    Interesting article. I watched a fascinating arts show on Tv not long ago, and they were looking at the art which has come out of Afghanistan which was formerly hidden because of the Taliban regime being against any creativity, and the art was really amazing. Makes you wonder what would come out of North Korea if they were liberated.

    January 10, 2012
  8. It is sad and scary. I have friends that don’t understand how the North Korean people can love their leader the way they do. I can attempt to understand – it is all they’ve ever known.

    January 10, 2012
    • Totally brainwashed too. Even for those who might somehow “get it”, the consequences of standing up to their leader, in even the smallest of ways, can get them killed.

      January 10, 2012
    • The sorrow about Kim Jong Il’s death looked real somehow, although surreal at the same time. (Although North Koreans might also have cried about some other things: )

      January 15, 2012
  9. It is sad and scary but it is also instructive. Even in this country there are groups that see reading and education as threatening to their vision of the future. It pays to keep your eyes open and speak out against all forms of oppression, censorship, or other limitations to freedom. But you have to think big: Freedom isn’t something restricted to the individual—that’s self-centered—it must be available to all the people. A rich man isn’t free unless he uses his riches to help dissolve the shackles of sickness and poverty for all men.

    Whether we like it or not, there are powerful people in this country who do not find the situation in North Korea sad and scary, but rather somewhat enviable.

    January 10, 2012
  10. I heard a few years ago that Kim Jong-Il has done his best to convince the people of North Korea that the rest of the world is like a third world country. It is so hard to believe that a culture like that can exist today when the rest of us take things like social media, the internet, and television as a way to share information for granted.

    January 10, 2012
  11. Patti #

    I just pray that there are some folks who have hope and imagination who are storing their thoughts away or writing them secretly so that they might someday share the real stories and real thoughts of real people around them.

    January 10, 2012
  12. That is extremely scary. It’s almost like 1984 by George Orwell.

    January 10, 2012
  13. North Korea’s reaction is an extreme one to Today’s globalisation. I think it is wrong for them to starve their people, also wrong to not give its people a one way ticket out of the country alive.

    A world without art, I guess would be a ‘grey’ world. What I do appreciate is that they are a proud people and that there is a strong North Korean diaspora ready to help its brothers and sisters once the regime becomes flexible. But what is North Korea to do? Open its doors wide open? Think about it, Iraq’s WMD was a joke, just another way of boosting the economy and securing the USA’s future. Think about it, the USA is making a big deal about Iran’s nuclear warheads activities and last I checked the USA was the last country to use them and twice on civilians…

    So if North Koreans were to come out of ‘this darkness’ who should they turn to?

    We now live in a world that is becoming more and more virtual, filled with fewer readers of books and more TV channels owned by the usual companies. Readers are a minority but TV viewers are the reality. Reality TV being the most popular form of entertainment, I fear we may be heading towards a form of 1984 ourselves. The difference is we pay for the subscription and don’t think twice about putting toddlers in front of the TV. My last trip to the US I could not believe the number of commercial breaks between shows on TV and on the net!!

    The Western world is also scary, especially with its waves of school reforms which create a larger knowledge gap between government and private schooled kids. One could go even further, it the West is also scary because of its willingness to turn a blind eye to its paedophiles abroad. So what is the message it is sending to us Third worlders?

    Thanks for sharing
    xx Layinka

    January 10, 2012
    • I am not sure if what North Korea is doing is “an extreme reaction to today’s globalisation”.
      – North Korea has been a brutal dictatorship since 1945.
      – There is no globalisation in North Korea.

      January 15, 2012
    • You ask “So if North Koreans were to come out of ‘this darkness’ who should they turn to?” – How about letting them decide that on their own? Without executions, forced labour or internment camps, without censorship, without closing its borders and thus treating the whole population like prisoners.

      January 15, 2012
    • Surely, having to watch commercial breaks (with the option of turning off the TV) is not comparable to being starved to death or put into prison without a trial.

      January 15, 2012
  14. Siuon #

    You may want to read Nothing to Envy, a great book about the lives of North Koreans and North Korean refugees.

    January 11, 2012
    • Thank you Sluon for the book recommendation. I’ll definitely be reading this book very soon. xx Layinka

      January 11, 2012
  15. Books are my companions. I lose many friends when the book ends and sometimes wish that I could crawl into the pages and just chat with the characters. So a world without books would be beyond unimaginable for me.

    January 11, 2012
    • celticsky #

      Couldn’t agree with you more.

      January 11, 2012
  16. countyroad233 #


    January 11, 2012
  17. But there are thousands, perhaps even millions, of books in North Korea! And it is one of the most functionally-literate population in the whole world (apart from Cuba and Vietnam) with a vibrant literary culture. Here’s a sample of a North Korean graphic novel: and a North Korean short story: Down with US imperialist propaganda! Defend the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against US imperialist aggression! ;)

    January 19, 2012
  18. Reblogged this on syllk19.

    February 1, 2012

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