PYONGYANG, North Korea—The former black marketeer has read it. So has the beautiful young librarian, and the aging philosophy professor who has spent his life teaching the ruling doctrine of this isolated outpost of totalitarian socialism. At times it seems as if everyone in Pyongyang, a city full of monuments to its own mythology, has read the book.
In it they found a tortured love story, or a parable of bourgeois decline. Many found heroes. They lost themselves in the story of a nation divided by war, its defeated cities reduced to smolder and ruins, its humbled aristocrats reduced to starvation.
The book is “Gone with the Wind.”
To come across Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Civil War epic in North Korea is to stumble over the unlikeliest of American cultural touchstones in the unlikeliest of places.
What does antebellum plantation life have to do with North Korea, where three generations of rulers—grandfather, father and now the young son, Kim Jong Un—have been worshipped as omniscient? What appeal does Scarlett O’Hara’s high-society ruthlessness hold for people only a few years past a horrific famine?
And yet here, in a country thought to have the world’s tightest censorship net, a place where the literary culture was largely inherited from Joseph Stalin, the government has published a novel that longs for the days of the slave-owning American South.
Maybe the explanation is in Mitchell’s own words.
“They had known war and terror and hunger, had seen dear ones dead before their times,” Mitchell writes of postwar southerners. “They had hungered and been ragged and lived with the wolf at the door. And they had rebuilt fortune from ruin.”
In Gone with the Wind, North Koreans found echoes of their own history and insights into the United States: bloody civil wars fought nearly a century apart; two cities—Atlanta and Pyongyang—reduced to rubble after attacks by US forces; two cultures that still celebrate the way they stood up to the Yankees. If North Koreans have yet to find fortune, they haven’t given up.
“In North Korea only the strong survive,” said the onetime black marketeer, a former salesman of used televisions who spent much of his life in Pyongyang but who eventually escaped to South Korea. “That’s the most compelling message of the novel.”
Perhaps more than anything, though, North Koreans found what readers everywhere ask of a good novel: an escape and a comfort. And in a country with little in the way of entertainment, a police state that keeps the entire population relentlessly on edge, Mitchell’s well-told—if relentlessly soapy—tale of lost love, mansion life, war and honor became an important refuge.
Ambitious young North Korean women, raised amid deeply entrenched sexism, find inspiration in Scarlett’s rise from ruin. Men revel in the muscularity of her swashbuckling love, Rhett Butler. People struggling with a lack of heat in winter, or political infighting, or the everyday pain of a marriage gone to hell can disappear into Mitchell’s story.
It also moved into official life. The movie, forbidden to the general public but beloved by the former dictator and movie buff, Kim Jong Il, is sometimes used in English-language programs to train elite government officials. North Korean negotiators meeting with US envoys would occasionally quote from it, once replying to American criticism with the quote (which perfectionists might note is slightly off from the book and the movie): “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”
Ask around in this capital city, an enclave of North Korea’s educated elite, and nearly everyone has something to say about it.
“Scarlett is a strong woman,” said Pak Su Mi, a 20-something guide at Pyongyang’s main library, The Grand People’s Study House, a maze of house-sized rooms lit by stuttering fluorescent lights where the smell of mildew often hangs heavily.
In a country where women’s fashions were long frozen in Soviet-style dowdiness, men watched intently as Pak strode through the library in her tight skirt, heels clacking on the concrete floors. “But the triangle relationship between Scarlett, Rhett Butler and Ashley, I didn’t like that,” she said.
The games that Scarlett learned in the whirl of plantation life—to toy with men, to hide her intelligence, to dangle her sexuality—reinforced the worst American stereotypes.
“I have to be loyal to my man, not be thinking of another man,” Pak said.
Guides at places like the Study House are groomed to interact with foreigners, and are well-versed sliding propaganda into conversations. Pak didn’t miss her chance.
“In my country,” she noted, pressing a button for the elevator, “the woman is more important in relationships.”
Gone with the Wind is one of the best-selling novels in modern history, and remains a talisman in the American South, where Mitchell’s vision of a lost aristocracy often pushes aside the complexities of Civil War history. It still sells about 50,000 copies worldwide every year, according to its publisher, Scribner.
When it was released, though, it sold copies by the million. It was popular from England to Nazi Germany to imperial Japan, which then occupied the entire Korean peninsula.
The book, which the Japanese probably brought to Korea in the 1930s, is thought to have largely disappeared from here by the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. By then, the peninsula was firmly divided, many cities were shattered, and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was building a Stalinist police state.
When the government suddenly ordered it translated and released in the mid-1990s, a time when North Korea’s all-important Soviet support had disappeared and famine was looming, it swept like a literary firestorm through Pyongyang. The book scene here has long been dominated by detective stories and romance novels riven with heavy-handed propaganda, and classic foreign novels like Don Quixote.
“For a while, you couldn’t have a conversation without talking about ‘Gone With the Wind,’” said the former Pyongyang TV trader, who spoke on condition he not be identified, fearing repercussions against relatives still living in the North.
Why it was published, though, remains unclear.
While Washington and Pyongyang are still technically at war, and hatred for the United States government is a constant in North Korean propaganda, American culture has always been quietly popular here. There are North Korean fans of everything from Mark Twain’s short stories to bootleg Schwarzenegger movies.
Some believe the decision to publish Gone with the Wind was meant as a symbolic peace offering from North Korea to the United States—the two nations have sparred for years over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Others see it as an attempt by the government to teach its people about American culture, or at least Mitchell’s version of that culture.
Or perhaps it was an insult. Gone with the Wind is, in many ways, a celebration of how North Korea sees its own history: as a small, honorable nation that stood up to Washington.
“Mitchell’s depiction of US soldiers as lecherous marauders is also a good fit with North Korean propaganda,” B.R. Myers, a North Korea scholar and professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University, said in an email.
Its popularity, though, has little to do with politics.
“The book is about the normal lives of the American people, so it does nothing to help me understand American policy of today,” said Song Chol, a 63-year-old professor who has spent much of his life studying “juche,” the North Korean philosophy of self-reliance that is quasi-religious dogma here.
“I read it a long time ago,” Song then growled, making clear that additional questions should be on juche.
Like Mitchell’s postwar southerners, North Koreans know about living through terrible times.
More than one million North Koreans are thought to have died in the Korean War, and hundreds of thousands more in the mid-1990s famine. Rights activists say more than 100,000 people are held in political prisons. Poverty is the norm.
The economy has improved for some over the past couple of years, and there are now a handful of rich North Koreans who can buy BMWs and flat-screen TVs.
But most people barely get by. They earn a few dollars a month, and count themselves lucky if they own a bicycle. They are tough people, who endure North Korea’s brutal winters in thin cotton overcoats, plow fields with wooden farm tools and make ends meet by selling dumplings or laundry detergent in street markets.
“The weak perish in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ said the former black marketeer. “That is something that North Koreans understand.”