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O Yǒngjae’s Taedong River: Nature, Society and the Lyrical Self

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 2:54 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Literature and the Arts | Comments Disabled

Sonja Häussler, Professor

Department of Oriental Languages

Stockholm University


At the end of the 1970s and in the beginning of the 1980s signs of changes in DPRK cultural policy became evident. Previously, rigorous restrictions which had been imposed in the cultural sector in the 1960s had confined artists and authors to an almost exclusive concentration on the achievements and merits of Kim Il Sung, his “revolutionary family” and his comrades during the anti-Japanese struggle. Publicized works in the 1970s dealt only with a few other topics, mainly heroic tales of the Korean War and socialist construction, and these put the main focus on the wise guidance of the Great Leader. Other contents and forms of art and literature were considered as of no value, and the publication of works which did not fit the official line was stopped.

In the literary field, first symptoms of change after the “dark period of the mid-1960s-1970s” manifested themselves in literature for children and young people. Around 1980 old legends, sagas and fairy tales surfaced again in magazines like Adong munhak and Ch’ǒllima. Thereafter the general reader again got access to works of classical literature as it had been possible in the period from the foundation of the state until the middle of the 1960s. At the same time, translations of foreign literature also began to appear again and soon culminated in a sheer flood of publications in 1984, the year when Kim Il Sung visited the Soviet Union and other East European countries. The motives for the sudden attention to foreign literature may have been rooted in the initial opening towards the outside, but the astonishing reversal in the entire literary policy surely cannot be explained by this reason alone. Rather, it should be assumed that mainly internal political factors led to the described changes in the literary field and the cultural sector in general. Early on the strategists in the ideological sector presumably evolved a long-term plan to support the later transition of power to Kim Jong Il with a broader concept of cultural development which in particular included a recourse to Korean history and indigenous cultural traditions.

At any rate, the cultural life began to be enriched during the 1980s. Besides long-taboo classical Korean and foreign literature North Koreans could read a number of newly produced works which addressed a broader scope of topics, had slightly more attractive plots and presented a widened spectrum of characters if compared to the previous period. The prose literature of the 1980s, for instance, brought up new historical novels dealing with the Imjin war and the peasant struggle of the kabo year.

A major event in the development of North Korean poetry was O Yǒngjae’s Taedong River which will be the focus of the proposed paper. It is a 303 pages long work written in the form of lyrical epic (sǒjǒng sǒsasi). Originally imported from Soviet-Russian literature to North Korea by Soviet-Korean poet Cho Kich’ǒn, sǒjǒng sǒsasi had become a popular genre of North Korean poetry by the time when O Yǒngjae decided to write down his impressions about travels along the banks of the Taedong river during the years 1981–1985. The particular form of the sǒjǒng sǒsasi allowed the poet to include a multitude of different topics, motives, characters and images using different styles which otherwise would have been difficult to render in one poetic work. The key social event which forms the background of O Yǒngjae’s work is the construction of the sluice gate in Namp’o. His work distinguishes itself by the grand picture of nature, lively depictions of conversations with compatriots and lyrical explorations of the poet’s soul.

The proposed paper will study to which degree O Yǒngjae’s Taedong River continues or departs from the North Korean literary conventions of previous periods, where he borrows from Soviet-Russian literature and what he inherits from classical Korean and other East Asian literatures which were re-introduced in North Korea right in the time when he composed his poem. The analysis of O Yǒngjae’s work shall answer the question what strategies he used to produce an attractive, lyrical and entertaining piece of literature while still complying with the political restrictions in the North Korean cultural sector.


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