While slaughtering thousands, North Korea’s dictators published children’s books


In this photo dated on February 26, 2008, a painting is seen of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Grand Peoples Study Hall in the North Korea capital, Pyongyang. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The passions of Kim Jong Il were as myriad as they were odd.

Before his death in 2011, for example, he kidnapped a South Korean film director to make this truly terrible Godzilla movie, invited Michael Jordan to see his basketball collection at the Museum of International Understanding (Jordan declined) and looked at a great many things.

Now, it turns out, Kim Jong Il — along with dad Kim Il Sung — were prolific children’s books authors. According to fresh research published in The International Review of Korean Studies, each of the dictators wrote books for young people that were equal parts propaganda and parable.

“I’ve wondered why the DPRK endures in defiance of all expectations,” the study’s author, Christopher Richardson, told the Washington Post. “Even when so many fraternal social systems withered and faded, it remains. It endures, now under its third leader, Kim Jong-un. Why?” His theory: children’s stories.

Well actually, Richardson found, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  “‘Children’s literature remains one of several key means for the instruction of citizens in North Korea’s revolutionary culture,” he said. “Very little has been written about North Korean children’s culture, even though it has been more successful than either the Soviet Union or China at maintaining its revolutionary culture.”

How many books did the dictators write themselves?

“Certainly several,” Richardson says. Though, he adds, it’s difficult to pinpoint which ones derived from the dynasty itself — and which were merely written in their names.

The prose was anything but understated — and nearly as trippy as the accompanying pictures.

Here’s a taste from Kim Jong Il’s “Boys Wipe Out Bandits”: “At last the left cyst burst, emitting fierce flames and the captain fell down, dejectedly dropping his club. At that moment a loud battle cry was heard from outside. Villagers killed the rest of the bandits.”

This tale, like most of the dicatators’ work, invokes some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, denouncing callous Koreans who oppose his revolution.

Another story by Kim Il Sung — boldly named “The Butterfly and the Cock” — explains how a rampaging cockerel stomps into a pleasant garden and intimidates the other animals until a young butterfly confronts the offending animal. (Hint: The cockerel symbolizes U.S. aggression, and the butterfly North Korea’s courage.)

It’s not clear whether the youthful Kim Jong Un has gotten into the act yet, Richardson said. But he may soon. “His renewed emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of children suggests Kim Jong Un is keenly aware that if he cannot win this generation,” Richardson said, “then the DPRK as he knows it will soon change beyond recognition.”

Which, all things considered, could make for a pretty good kid’s book.

(For the trippiest thing you’ve ever seen, watch this video, which recreates Kim Il Sung’s opus, “The Butterfly and the Cock.”)

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.
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