Han Sorya: North Korea’s Literary Lion

North_Korea-Pyongyang-Grand_People's_Study_House-Books-01 sm.jpgIf you could choose a single novelist to represent the legacy and aspirations of twentieth century America, who would it be? F. Scott Fitzgerald? William Faulkner? Toni Morrison? John Steinbeck? Admittedly, the choice is artificial; there are no wrong answers here, only degrees of emphasis.

For a North Korean confronting a similar question, one name would readily spring to mind: Han Sorya (1900-1976). And further, there is one particular work, a short story, with which Han is especially identified: Sungynangi [Jackals] (1951), one of the few North Korean works of literature available in English translation.

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Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1995, includes two reports of literary criticism of Han Sorya’s work: Modern Korean Literature and Han Sor-ya (JPRS 5745); and Han Sol-ya and his Literature (JPRS 5874). Translated directly from original North Korean sources, they convey a sense of how Han’s work is viewed in his native cultural context.

Han occupied a prominent place in Korean cultural and political life. He was born in the north of Korea during the period of Japanese occupation, and he studied sociology in Tokyo before returning to Korea in the 1920s. In 1925 he joined the Korean Artists Proletarian Federation and integrated themes of socialist class consciousness into his writing.

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Han eventually settled in Pyongyang following the liberation of the Korean peninsula during World War II. After meeting Kim Il Sung in 1946, he dedicated himself to developing a North Korean national literature, and he was appointed to a number of leadership positions including the chairmanship of the Korean Writers Union. As an indication of the extent to which North Korea venerates its state artists, one need only look at the flag of the Korean Workers’ Party, which in addition to the socialist hammer and sickle features a calligrapher’s brush as a nod to intellectual pursuits.

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In the early 1960s Han ran afoul of the North Korean Federation of Literature and Arts and was purged from his official posts. His actions while Minister of Education beginning in 1956 cultivated enemies and rivals, and his support of a colleague who had had an affair with a KFLA officer finally resulted in his being officially denounced. The peculiar socialist requirement of public self-criticism also took a toll on Han's reputation. After 1963 Han assumed a much lower profile, but his work continued to be influential in the country's culture.

Jackals is a seemingly simplistic, even coarse story of a young Korean boy, Sugil, who finds a large rubber ball that he treats as his own. When the older son of an American Christian missionary reclaims the ball and beats Sugil, the younger boy lapses into a coma and is eventually killed to forestall a local uprising against foreign authority. The story combines Korean ethnic nationalism, hatred of American and Japanese imperialism, and a visceral desire for justice and revenge. In Korean idiomatic reference, the word “jackal” has become a standard epithet applied to Americans.

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Going into any discussion involving North Korea, one needs to acknowledge that it’s an outlier in every sense of the word. It’s an ostensibly socialist state with dynastic succession whose founder, Kim Il Sung, was first a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and then a Soviet officer during World War II. Korean culture is very old, but as a nation North Korea is still very young, dating only to 1948.

North Korea dogmatically adheres to Kim Il Sung's Juche ideology which cultivates national self-reliance, although the country relies heavily on Russia and China for trade, national defense, and international legitimacy. Yet it makes few concessions to any international norm or nation, including its communist patron states. The citizens of South Korea are regarded literally as family, nonetheless the North constantly threatens to invade the South in the name of Korean reunification. North Korea remains a puzzle not only to Western nations, but to its Asian neighbors as well.

Modern Korean Literature and Han Sor-ya (JPRS 5745) is a 15-page literary biography written on the occasion of Han’s sixtieth birthday. The biographer writes of how Han “exposed the cunning and beastly nature of the United States” in his short story Jackals, where the American characters are described as personifying the basest qualities of various animals. It also notes at length the influence of Han’s novel, Twilight:

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Han Sol-ya and his Literature (JPRS 5874) is a more lengthy topical report mixing literary criticism by Yun Se-p’yong with a personal remembrance by Han’s colleague Yi Ki-yong. Yun speaks of Jackals in terms similar to those of JPRS 5745:

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Han Sol-ya artistically defined the inviolability of the Korean people. In “Sung-nyang” the author accuses the tyrannical inhuman cruelty of the cunning American missionary who calls out, “Oh, Lord, ” in the name of the holy cross of Korea; and by contrasting the missionary with Su-kil and his mother’s virtuous and admirable character. 

Yi relates such personal vignettes as an impoverished Han pawning his overcoat to settle a bet:

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In our youth, both Sol-ya and I could not resist a couple of drinks. Whenever we met our friends in Seoul, we used to frequent saloons and spend all the money we had. Once, I recall, P’o-sok, Song Yong, Sol-ya, and I played Yat game, and whoever lost the game was to buy the drinks. Sol-ya lost, but none of us had enough money. So, Sol-ya pawned his overcoat for thirty [unspecified] to buy the drinks. We were all in desperate straits in those days.  

He concludes by describing Han as “the totality of Korean literature itself.”

These writers leave no doubt of the influence of Han Sorya on Korean culture, both North and South. Beyond any ideological disagreement that Western readers may have with the political stance of North Korea, Han’s talent and commitment to his craft appear notable for their own sake. We can hope that tensions between America and North Korea will ease, and Twilight and other examples of his work will be translated for Western audiences in years to come.


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