Tuesday, July 11, 2006

North Korean Libraries

The reclusive nation of North Korea, led by the strange dictator Kim Jong-il, has been in the news lately for continued bizarre antics, this time for firing missiles into the Sea of Japan.

According to a recent AP story, North Korea is "embracing the digital age." There is a new e-library at the Kim Chaek University of Technology with 10 million titles on its local intranet:

"Our e-library built under the deep love and concern of the great general Kim Jong Il is superior compared with other libraries because the students can search and access any kind of books that they want to read in a quicker way," spokeswoman Won Yun Ae told APTN.

The books available online at the university are approved by authorities in North Korea, where all media is state-run, and are mostly technical or scientific. The Korean government tightly restricts access to the broader, worldwide Internet.

Libraries are mentioned in a couple recent books on North Korea. From Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin:

Kim [il-Sung] got involved with some friends in organizing a reading circle and a private one-room library in a rented room. Their library offered love stories as a come-on to attract new members but concentrated on revolutionary works, which he says the group kept on a "secret bookshelf." [p. 22]

After the party they were taken to see the Dear Leader's [Kim Jong-il] personal film library, which they found to be a three-story building where some 250 employees cared for an astonishingly full collection of more than 15,000 films from around the world. [p. 315]

This effort was evident during my visit to the Grand People's Study House, a grandiose pile of masonry billed as the country's central library and "center of intellectual activity." Predictably, a gigantic chalk-white statue of Kim il-Sung, seated in an easy chair and reading the Workers' Daily, dominated the vast lobby. Several rooms of the library were devoted to an exhibit of books published in North Korea. A librarian there, Li Hyung-ran, boasted that more than 1,300 volumes of Kim il-Sung's works and more than 700 volumes of works by Kim Jong-il had been published. The latter included a fifteen-volume set of Kim Jong-il's achievements in guiding the country's literature and art.

The shelf for Korean literature in general -- novels, poetry, criticism -- was considerably smaller than the shelf for the works of Kim il-Sung, and even there it was impossible to escape the main theme.

Here, said the librarian, was a historical novel, also in fifteen volumes -- a fictionalized account of the deeds of Kim Jong-il. And over here, "these are the illustrated fairy tales told by the Great Leader and the Dear Leader," she said.
[p. 352]

And from Kim il-Song's North Korea by Helen-Louise Hunter:

Not far away is the beautiful Korean-style Kim il-Song Library, dedicated to Kim on his seventieth birthday in April 1982. The North Korean people devoted hours and hours of volunteer labor to the building of the library, as they did to the building of the Revolutionary Museum in 1972. [p. 23]

The Kim Il-song Library, designed to accommodate 10 million books and to serve as North Korea's Library of Congress, was constructed in a matter of a few months. [p. 125]

Each year the regime has allocated additional resources to improve the facilities of Kim il-song University. The main campus library boasts over 3 million volumes and 1,200 seats, but according to foreigners who have toured the campus, the elaborately furnished library rooms have no one studying in them. Many different editions of Kim's collected works, bound in leather, adorn the bookshelves, but no one seems to be reading them. [p. 213]

Here is a photo of the Grand People's Study House (also called the Kim il-Sung Library), North Korea's version of the Library of Congress.

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