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  • Introduction to O Yŏng-jae's Taedong River:Nature, Society, and the Lyrical Self
  • Sonja Haeussler (bio)
    Translated by Sonja Haeussler (bio)

The poem Taedong River (Taedonggang, 1985) was O Yŏng-jae's magnum opus of the 1980s. This work not only enhanced the author's reputation but also contributed significantly to the development of North Korean poetry. With Taedong River, O succeeded in producing a captivating, lyrical, and entertaining piece of literature for North Korean readers while staying within the contemporary restrictions imposed on literary production.1

O Yŏng-jae's work would not have been possible without the construction of the West Sea Dam with its sluice gates in Namp'o, a project undertaken between 1981 and 1986. It is quite likely that O, like many other writers and poets at the time, was dispatched to witness and write about this major state enterprise. Naturally, they were expected to praise the wise guidance of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in planning, projecting, and carrying out the construction. Indeed, O Yŏng-jae's poem fulfills this task and thus may be read as a commissioned work; Taedong River is, after all, a panegyric about Kim Il Sung's great love for the people, his worries about their living conditions, and his care for their well-being. The author's purpose is to demonstrate how Kim Il Sung, throughout his life, [End Page 325] worried about the Taedong River's frequent flooding as well as the droughts that often threatened harvests. The poem shows how Kim took specific measures to prevent such damages and issued orders to build dams, artificial lakes, and irrigation systems on the Taedong River. His ultimate aim is to convey the message that the construction of the West Sea Dam was Kim Il Sung's lifelong plan, a plan eventually realized by his son, Kim Jong Il.

What makes Taedong River remarkable is that, in contrast to previous panegyric poems, these aims are not revealed immediately to the reader. O's poem is also a sophisticated and entertaining work that strives to excite readerly curiosity and maintain suspense. To this end, he employs several strategies, a few of which will be discussed in this essay. Choosing the form of a travel account, O allows the reader to join him as he relives his journey along the banks of the Taedong River. He shares his road adventures and fascinating views of landscape. Against the backdrop of grand panoramas, he embarks on philosophical explorations into his lyrical self and discusses issues of contemporary society. There is even a love story. His method of establishing a close relationship between nature, society, and the lyrical self serves to bind all passages of the poetic work into a suspense-filled narrative, without deviating too much from the poem's ideological aims.

This essay will begin with an account of O Yŏng-jae's life and career. Thereafter, I will focus on the formal characteristics of Taedong River and relate them to the development of the epic genre.

O Yŏng-jae's Life and Career

O Yŏng-jae belongs to the postwar generation of North Korean writers. He was born on November 7, 1935, in the village of Soryongni in Kangjin County, in South Chŏlla Province, which means he was originally from the southern part of the peninsula. While he was studying at the Agricultural Middle School in Kangjin, the Korean War broke out, and he joined the volunteer troops fighting on the North Korean side at the age of fifteen. The course of the war brought [End Page 326] him to P'yŏngyang in December 1950. He stayed in North Korea and was separated from his hometown and family.

As O Yŏng-jae later reminisced, during his childhood he did not have a great interest in literature besides enjoying reading novels he would find in the sarangch'ae2 of his native house.3 It was only during the war that he felt himself attracted to the pen, inspired by the poetry of Pak Se-yŏng, Cho Ki-ch'ŏn, Min Pyŏnggyun, and Kim Cho-gyu in...


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