What’s on the agenda for the average North Korean leader? Dreaming up bizarre diplomatic scuffles, opening new prison camps, overseeing the development of nuclear weapons – and, of course, writing children’s books.
That’s right, it seems North Korean dictators have at least occasionally assumed the role of children’s book author, with two former late leaders turning out popular books for kids with titles like “Boys Wipe Out Bandits” and “The Butterfly and the Cock” and complete with evil foreign invaders and virtuous North Korean heroes.
Those gems were brought to Western audiences by Christopher Richardson, a doctoral candidate at Sydney University who is researching North Korean children's literature for his PhD.
In it, “monster-like” enemies surround an innocent village, an obvious metaphor for North Korea. The enemies are vividly described and illustrated, with an ogre-like leader with cysts on his shoulder that “emit noxious gas when pierced.” By contrast, the villagers are “beautifully attired and softly-drawn,” writes Richardson, and ultimately repel the invading enemies with “merciless violence.”
“As the sun rises, a triumphant [hero] Ye-dong restates the moral of the story, the wisdom of a child declaring that, 'no matter how formidable they are, we can defeat the enemy when we pool our strength and wisdom and have courage. Let's build our village to be an earthly paradise',” writes Richardson.
Another story, “The Butterfly and the Cock,” reportedly by Kim Il-sung, is a fable about a nasty cockerel, representing America, bullying other animals until a beautiful butterfly, representing – you guessed it – North Korea, intercedes.
Also from Kim Il-sung is “A Winged Horse,” about Japanese invaders threatening a peaceable nation until a child on a flying horse rescues his people.
Not surprisingly, the books contain clear lessons about North Korean virtues. It turns out children’s literature is actually critical to forming and upholding Korean identity, according to Richardson.
Upon researching it, he was surprised to discover “that children's literature was so central to the DPRK's conception of itself that its leaders had taken the time … to pen treatises to its importance and even to write stories for themselves,” he told the UK’s Guardian. To wit: Kim Jong-il wrote a treatise, “Children's Literature Must Be Created in a Way Best Suited to Children's Psychological Features.”
For example, in “A Winged Horse,” the child hero cries out as he races to rescue his country from foreign invaders, “My dear horse, I am not afraid of that violent storm if you can get through it. Please understand that I am determined to risk my life to save the village.”
Richardson describes it as “a declaration of self-sacrifice and faith…."There could be no clearer statement of the revolutionary creed.”
And it turns out North Korean dictators aren’t so different from other leaders and celebrities after all: like many important figures, they probably used ghost writers.
“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, whilst acknowledging they were written down by someone else,” Richardson told the Guardian. “The government thus musters a team of ghost writers whose job is to capture the essence of the leader's political and literary wisdom, known as 'the seed.’”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is that the stories are actually quite good.
“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,” Richardson said. “North Korean children's books and cartoons proved to be often entertaining, colorful, action-packed, and not so different to children's books and cartoons anywhere.”
A lesson, perhaps, for dubious Western audiences. And someday, a retirement hobby for current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.