- The Interview:Life of North Korean Author Paek Namnyong
I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from August 8 to August 15, 2015. I requested to interview the Kim Il-Sung Literary award-winning novelist, Paek Namnyong. I sent a set of interview questions to my contact agency in North Korea. The agency approved of my questions and issued me a visa. I was scheduled to meet Paek Namnyong for one day, but we ended up meeting two additional days. When I met the writer, he handed me an envelope that contained his written responses, which were over sixty-five pages. The agency had passed on my interview questions to the writer prior to my arrival. The interview below is Paek Namnyong’s written answers along with conversations I had with him during the three days we spent together.
North Korean literature is still seen as only a propaganda tool to glorify the nation’s leaders, the Party, and the political ideology. The writers of such literature are also perceived as mouthpieces of the state’s directives. The purpose of the interview was to find out more about the personal life of a best-selling North Korean novelist. That is, literature in North Korea is written by people with human emotions, human experiences, and desires that go beyond political propaganda. I purposely refrained from asking sensitive political questions. [End Page 245]
Mr. Paek, it’s a great honor to meet you. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to come see me and talk with me
First of all, I want to thank you for traveling across the Pacific to come see me. When I received your interview questions, I unearthed the memories of my prosaic past that I had buried a long time ago. Some of these responses that I wrote down here have not even been shared with my own children. I fear, though, that my responses may not satisfy you.
However, your efforts to better understand a North Korean writer and to share this knowledge with American readers are qualities that I admire and appreciate. That is why I unabashedly wrote the responses to your questions as honestly as possible.
Let’s start from the very beginning. Where were you born? Please, describe your hometown
I was born on October 19, 1949, in the district Kwanghwa in Hamhŭng city in South Hamgyŏng Province. Hamhŭng is a densely populated city located in the midlands along the eastern coast. It is considered one of the most industrialized cities in the DPRK. There is a heavy concentration of chemical factories, machine factories, and other light industries. Since it is located along the coast, it is also a port city. There are fresh fish available all year long. On the other side of the coast is fertile land with plentiful rice, plums, peaches, and apples.
Could you describe your family? What did your parents do? Do you have siblings? What were they like?
My grandfather lived in a mountain village called Hŭksuri in the Taehŭng district about eighty miles away from Hamhŭng. He worked as a blacksmith and a farmer. After Liberation, my father moved to Hamhŭng and worked as a freight car driver. The year after I was born, my father was hauling military supplies from his truck when American jets bombed the area and killed my father.
I have no memories of my father. But from what my mother had told me, my father was a tall and slender man with an easy-going personality. He was good with his hands, so fixing things around the house or the truck was not a problem.
Much like other women who lost their husbands during the Korean War, my mother participated in the national restoration project after the war. She tightened her belt and was determined to survive with her two daughters and son. She worked at the Hamhŭng Wood Factory day and night. I recall my mother bringing home scraps of wood that had fallen from the sawing machine in her burlap sack to use as tinder...