On April 21, 2021, “With the Century” hit the bookstores in Seoul. This is Kim Il Sung’s memoirs, written at the end of his life, covering the period from 1912 to 1945 (before the liberation of Korea). They describe the childhood of the North Korean leader and his actions in resisting the Japanese colonial regime. It was published by Minjeok Sarangban, a small publishing house whose head Kim Seung-kyung wrote that he hoped the book “would help North Korea and South Korea become friends again and bring out the nobility of our people.”
Formerly head of an NGO promoting inter-Korean exchanges, Kim, 82 years of age, now runs a small company specializing in trade with North Korea. In his view, the country should recognize Kim Il-Sung as a prominent leader of the anti-Japanese resistance, despite his communist views and subsequent career as leader of the DPRK. He promised to use all the profits from book sales to finance the association’s projects.
As noted by the Korean media, the autobiography has not undergone any additional editing or commentary, and even the cover design is the same as the North Korean one. This is not the first attempt to publish Kim Il-Sung’s writings in the South. In the 1990s, a South Korean publisher tried to do the same and was investigated for violating the National Security Act.
An official spokesman for the “Ministry of Reunification” of the ROK said “on condition of anonymity” that permission to publish the book to the general public had not been obtained. “The publisher in question has not consulted the unification ministry with regard to publishing With the Century.” The official added that “we will look into how the books have been published and other issues and consider taking measures that we can take.”
Curiously, the publisher strongly disagrees with this position and states that permission has been in fact granted.
To understand the uproar and scandal that this has caused in the Republic of Korea, two things need to be elaborated on: what Kim Il Sung’s memoirs are as a historical source and what the South Korean National Security Act (NSA) is, about which the author has written on numerous occasions.
The NSA considers the DPRK not a country, but an anti-state organization, the praise of which is criminally punishable. Any attempt to bring in materials written in North Korea must be approved by the state, including things such as postage stamps. The possession and distribution of content of North Korean origins “obtained without permission,” is punishable by up to five years in prison, about the same as in North Korea for likewise distribution of content originating in the ROK. In both cases it is interpreted as hostile propaganda, even when it comes to downloaded musical compositions — without words, but with ideological names. That’s exactly the kind of thing a man in South Korea got two years’ probation for.
In addition, “South Korean historians and experts say that the autobiography is riddled with exaggerations and factual errors about Kim’s achievements.”
Possession of Kim Il Sung’s autobiography has been banned in South Korea since 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was anti-national propaganda. A year later, the law was amended to say that only government officials who needed the book “for research purposes” could own it. If you are not a professional fighter against the DPRK by duty, having a book automatically makes you a hidden supporter of the Kim regime — why else would a citizen of the ROK keep one at home?
Now that it is published, if one were to follow legal procedure, both the publishers and everyone who bought it should be punished.
On the other hand, Kim Il-Sung’s memoirs cannot contain “praise for the DPRK,” as they describe his struggle against Japanese colonial rule and end in 1945. Moreover, “With the Century,” which came out in the early 1990s, is a rather interesting piece in itself, a step forward in terms of realism compared to the biographies of Kim Il-sung in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, it acknowledges Kim Il Sung’s occasional visits to the Soviet Union, although this does not mean that he was there all the time between 1941 and 1945, but it represents great progress compared to earlier biographies where these facts were not made public at all. Furthermore, Kim’s memoirs make it clear that his views were not those of a classical communist (although he considered himself one), but rather of a radical leftist nationalist who combined various concepts, including communist ones, in his head.
Next, two more questions arise: what will happen to the book now, and how was it possible that the eight-volume book was published in the first place.
Experts note that the DPRK leader’s memoirs could have been taken off the market if the case had come under the jurisdiction of the Korea Publication Ethics Commission, which can classify published material as harmful if the content “clearly undermines public order or national security by denying the system of democracy or encouraging people to overturn that system.” If the publication is deemed harmful, the committee may order the destruction of the print run.
As early as April 23, Kyobo, the largest bookstore in South Korea, decided to ban the sale of the series and remove the memoirs from its online bookstore. “Considering a Supreme Court ruling that found that readers who purchase books violating the National Security Act can also be punished, we decided not to receive new orders to protect customers”.
Avoiding political interpretations, the official replied that his company would decide whether to resume sales after decisions were made by a court or a national publishing agency. For now, the books have been returned to the publishers’ association, which is responsible for their distribution and, in the meantime, has stated that it has no reason to stop distribution of the memoirs for the time being without a request from the publisher or a legal decision.
Now about what was behind the publication. Kim Seung-kyung said he was ready to cooperate with the police or the Ministry of Unification if necessary. “I thought it was normal since South Korea doesn’t have a permit system for publication, but I’m sorry that the controversy has escalated,” Kim Seung-kyung told the Yonhap news agency in a phone interview. And this is rather peculiar: as an ex-leader of an inter-Korean NGO, he should know the rules well. From the author’s point of view, the publisher could not have neglected to examine this issue before publication, for to do so without such preparation would be political suicide.
Conservative forces, of course, are discussing the incident in the paradigm of “this is what Moon has brought the country to,” recalling the law banning anti-Pyongyang leaflets and once again reproaching Moon for crypto-socialism. Some of it simply reminds us that the two Koreas technically remain at war, since the Korean War of 1950-53 ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
It is true that the conditional leftist NGOs have gained a little more freedom, but previously it was not for real actions, but for performances, which were in any case sporadic in nature. The widespread dissemination of information about the current situation of North Korea does not help to increase the number of ideological Jucheists.
The following version seems more realistic: Publishing an eight-volume book is a process that takes a long time. It is very likely that this process was authorized during the “Olympic warming,” when the appearance of Kim’s work in the public domain would have looked more favorable against the background of the rhetoric of inter-Korean friendship. The publication process could then be delayed, possibly influenced in part by the coronavirus pandemic, which was a serious blow to small businesses, including small independent publishers. But good that comes too late is good as nothing, so by the time the book hit the shelves, the social and political situation in South Korea had changed, at least because inter-Korean contacts had reached a dead end and Moon Jae-in had lost Pyongyang’s credibility.
It is also possible that the publication was seen as part of a kind of reciprocal concession and mitigation of hostile actions, which may have been followed by requests for similar steps in terms of easing bans on South Korean content in the North.
In any case, Moon Jae-in was in a very difficult position. If he intervenes in the issue and tries at least to play down the anger of conservatives, internal criticism of him will increase, and his position as a “lame duck” will become even worse. Not only conservative, but even neutral press is increasingly writing that Moon should abandon his utopian ideas about developing a dialogue with the North. But if he lets the situation slide, and if there is a crackdown on publishers, let alone book buyers, it will provoke a certain reaction from the North and discredit him as a populist who is only interested in inter-Korean dialogue from the standpoint of personal gain.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.