Defectors in Bookstores

Wednesday 1st April, 2015

Why are defectors overwhelmed when entering bookstores?

A bookstore in North Korea.

A bookstore in North Korea.

In South Korea today, readership is substantially low; people find information through other forms of media. Here, books are losing ground.

How much do North Koreans read? Among North Korea’s provinces, cities, districts, as well as universities, factories, and companies, the number of libraries is estimated to be around 15,000. Roughly, for every ten to twenty thousand books in North Korea, 25 to 50 people can be accommodated. The sizes are quite small.

The books in North Korea’s libraries primarily consist of lessons on Juche, scientific theory, or foreign languages. Of these, a great number are about the Kim family. A section of these are fictional stories with war themes, such as ‘Together with the Century’, ‘Red Autumn Leaves’, and ‘Nameless Heroes’.

How high is readership inside North Korea? Kim Mi-hwa, who escaped in 2013 says, “Even though there were libraries I have never borrowed once. For North Koreans over twenty years of age, the number of books they read per year is not the suitable measure. It would probably be better to ask how many books they read over ten years. That’s how little we read. With all the trouble trying to make ends meet, who’s got time for reading?”

Kim continues, “When I first entered a bookstore in South Korea, I was shocked. There were so many books, I wondered how much brainwashing these people have to go through that there are so many books. So I read a few books, and for the first time in my life, I learnt that such beautiful sentences could exist. It truly was like entering a new world. After that, I started to read regularly, I probably read over 80 books a year now.”

Lee Dong-min, who escaped in the same year, says, “Reading is considered as a time waster is North Korea, where people are constantly physically drained. It’s a form of extravagant luxury. For all people alike, sleep is a natural response to exhaustion. To add, North Korean books are not even interesting. They’re pretty much all the same.”

Further, “For men, the situation is even worse. Serving over ten years in the army, who would think to read books? They might read the Rodong Shinmun occasionally, if they read at all. Now that I think about it, in North Korea you don’t really get the opportunity to read much at all,” Lee testifies.

Reading means much more than just reading words off a page; it is also an interaction and conversation between author and reader. But in North Korea, the authors must all serve as mouthpieces for the Kim family, and the readers now find those books tedious. This is why exiles are overwhelmed when they enter South Korea’s bookstores – the sheer variety of purpose in the written word. It is hoped that the day will come when books on a diverse range of subjects will be easily accessible for the people of North Korea.


Reporting by Shin, Junshik


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