North Korea

Literary Life in North Korea | Pyongyang Review of Books

In Korea you can often come across people reading in a wide variety of places: on a park bench, in the tram, on the subway, in an elevator, behind the sales counter, beneath a street lamp, sat atop a grassy knoll overlooking the Taedong River, or reading whilst smoking. Usually the front cover and read pages are folded in a tight bundle across the broken spine, right up against the backside, and for this reason it is not easy to spy the most popular titles.

Books are widely available at the multitude of bookstores, libraries, schools, cultural houses, and reading rooms across the country, but specific titles can be difficult to get your hands on. Sometimes the search may involve a number of locations across the city or a series of phone calls to friends and family asking to check their bookshelves.

Today e-books allow for an entire library to fit on a smart phone or tablet: short stories and novels, western classics and socialist realism, children’s literature and textbooks, political works, comics, and poetry. It is possible to download updates, buy, and rate books via your device. Yet like anywhere, many purists still prefer the material object of the book.

Korean books have a distinct tactile character. The fibrous, gray paper, on which most are printed, is rough and grained to the touch. At times one can feel the text across the page where the print has set too deeply, like an inverted braille (real braille books are also increasingly available).

Korea is currently in the midst of a 200 Day Work Campaign, but that doesn't stop people rom reading. In fact, there is such a thing as a “Ten Thousand Page Reading Campaign (만페지읽기운동), encouraging people to read at least thirty pages a day. 365 x 30 = 10,950 pages per year.

According to the Kim Il Sung University website, Leader Kim Jong Il first initiated this campaign in 1961 with the goal of encouraging both students and workers to learn about a diverse range of topics. This focus is reflected in society today where many people are well-read not only in Korean literature, but also foreign classics from the UK, Russia, France, Germany, Poland, China, Japan, and even the United States.

In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at the literary world of Korea through books, stories, film, and the like.

Updated 08 November 2018

The Pyongyang Review of Books is a modest literary review of books from the DPRK and Korea related topics. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores.

Looking to find or order North Korean books? Contact us for recommendations! Or scour North Korea's bookshops on a custom independent tour to the DPRK.

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