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Author provides a glimpse into a North Korean bookstore

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David Guttenfelder/AP

(Read caption) The city of Pyongyang is seen from above.

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Writer Jose Luis Peixoto has been sharing his experiences from traveling in North Korea in 2012, including traveling by train and going to a grocery store, via the literary and arts journal Ninth Letter.

Now Peixoto’s latest installment recounts what a bookstore in the famously secretive country is like.

The store that the writer visited, which was located in Pyongyang, was called the Foreign Language Bookshop and the majority of what was for sale were works by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, available in a number of languages, or books of which they were the subject.

According to Peixoto, the fiction section was small enough that he purchased a copy of every title they had, which included an epic poem in English titled “Mount Paektu” and a novella titled “The People of the Fighting Village,” which was penned by the director of the prose sub-committee of the Central Committee of the Korean Writers' Union. Also available and purchased by Peixeto were a folk tales collection titled “The Legends of Pyongyang” that had been converted to French, a short story collection titled “A Usual Morning,” which included a tale about the Great Leader solving the difficulties of an agricultural cooperative, and “Sea of Blood,” a novel version of the well-known opera. (The opera “Blood” is cited as having been written by Kim Il-sung, while the book was listed as written by ChoSeon Novelist Association of the 4.15 Culture Creation Group, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

Peixoto noted that he picked up another title, which “despite not being in the literary fiction section, seemed to me could be read in the same light. It was called The Democratic People's Republic of Korea: an Earthly Paradise for the People.”

As reported by Monitor writer Husna Haq, Australian doctoral candidate Christopher Richardson recently shared stories he’d found while researching North Korean children’s literature. Titles such as “A Winged Horse” and “The Butterfly and the Cock” were listed as written by Il-sung, while the story “Boys Wipe Out Bandits” apparently came from Jong-il. It is believed to be likely that the leaders used ghost writers.

However, Richardson said the quality was better than some might think. 

“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.”


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