North Korea lays out ideology via children’s books

Brainwashing the next generation is a big deal in North Korea. Research suggests that Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung could be the authors of some fiercely ideological children’s tales, according to an Australian academic, Christopher Richardson, who is researching North Korean children’s literature for his PhD at Sydney University.

Boys Wipe Out Bandits, first published in 1989, is “adapted from a story the Dear Leader ‘one day’ dreamed up as a child himself”, writes Richardson, in which “cultural impurities, capitalist degeneracy, and rampant individualism are defeated by the pure virtue of the collective”.

Although the story was published in his name, Richardson is skeptical about whether Kim Jong-il really wrote it. “Even the publishers in the DPRK maintain a degree of ambiguity about the authorship of these tales, attributing the stories to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, while acknowledging they were written down by someone else,” he told the Guardian.

Richardson also mentions another book: the anti-American fable The Butterfly and The Cock, apparently said to have first been told by Kim Il-sung and then written down. It tells the story of how a cockerel, intended to symbolize America, sets out to bully other animals, but a butterfly – representing North Korea – steps in.

A Winged Horse is another children’s story from Kim Il-sung, in which the country is under threat from Japanese invaders, but a child saves the day on a flying horse. Writes Richardson, “Whereas the invaders are grotesque and dysmorphic, the three boy heroes are beatific, round-faced, rose-cheeked and neatly groomed, especially the youngest. Almost feminine, he has wide liquid eyes, like a cherub. Their bodies incarnate Korean simplicity and virtue.”

He was also surprised to find the stories themselves were “quite enjoyable”. “I was astounded that children’s books (purportedly) written by Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung were vastly more readable than one would expect from any political leader in the democratic west, still less a severe authoritarian,” he said.

He said that when he has shown his collection of North Korean children’s books to defectors, “their response has usually been to recall that while enjoying the more colorful and adventurous tales as children, they were not so interested in overtly militaristic and political stories”.

So far, Kim Jong-un has not – as far as Richardson can tell – written his own children’s book, but he anticipates it won’t be long until North Korea’s latest leader steps into the children’s literature arena.

[Read more in The Guardian

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