Published February 4, 2016
On the fifth floor of South Korea’s sprawling National Library is a place far more fascinating than its name suggests: The North Korea Information Center.
Here you can read every edition of North Korea’s national newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, dating to its first publication in the 1970s. Or peruse a collection of 100,000 North Korean books and videos — fiction, nonfiction and the complete teachings of the autocratic dynasty that runs the country.
In a dictionary, you can find the “Song of General Kim Il Sung,” with adoring lyrics:
“So dear to all our hearts is our General’s glorious name, our own beloved Kim Il Sung of undying fame … He severed the chains of the masses, brought them liberty, the sun of Korea today, democratic and free.”
Librarian Jeong Hui-Suk gives me a tour, pointing out the teachings of each Kim, separated into sections, as she walks us through the stacks. The space is airy and bright, with high ceilings and meticulously organized collections.
In addition to political propaganda, there is also a North Korean children’s book section. And there are textbooks. (Calculus problems are exactly the same in North Korea, but the textbooks have much less color.)
Documents dominate the space, but you can see some other materials, too.
“These are everyday artifacts from the 1990s,” Jeong says, peering through a display box. “So there’s Korea insam, which is ginseng tea. There’s a fan. Insam soap. Ginseng soap.”
The library sees about 15 to 20 visitors a day, a mix of South Koreans and researchers from other countries.
“There are very few places worldwide where you can get most of this stuff that is surrounding us,” says Christopher Green, a North Korea scholar from University of Leiden, who spends a lot of his time here doing research.
Researchers know about this place, which opened in the late 1980s during a thaw in inter-Korean relations. But the library isn’t advertised. Most South Koreans have never heard of it, and they can face jail time for having these materials out in the wild.
The books from North Korea are “essentially banned,” Green says. A Cold War-era national security law makes it illegal to share North Korean political documents. So none of the TV and film recordings can be checked out. Nor can any of the periodicals in the library be read online. South Korea blocks its Internet users from accessing North Korean sites.
The library has to work through the Korean Ministry of Unification to acquire materials by ordering through a government-to-government liaison or purchasing them from North Korea’s allies like China and Russia.
“There’s a lingering fear that North Korean propaganda and information could change the mindsets of South Korean citizens and make them susceptible to North Korean ideology,” Green says. “Perhaps an outdated view, but it’s still held by politicians here.”
The de facto censorship of this material makes it all the more surprising to South Koreans when they discover it.
“They can feel that North Korea does have a culture, too,” Jeong says. “And maybe they can want to help the North Koreans and be more curious. When they see North Korean books for the first time, they get really surprised because they say, ‘Oh, North Korea has books, too.'”
But not South Korean ones. As far as we know, there is no counterpart South Korea Information Center in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
Haeryun Kang contributed reporting to this story.