Seoul library houses trove of North Korean propaganda

North Korean periodicals and journals are on display at the North Korea Information Center in Seoul, South Korea.


By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 22, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea — Obtaining information about North Korea is never easy, especially in the South, where any sign of propaganda is illegal — unless you’re on the fifth floor of the National Library.

The North Korea Information Center holds a massive collection of more than 100,000 items, including newspapers, books, journals, films and the complete works of the ruling Kim family dynasty that has governed the communist country since it was founded in 1948.

It provides a trove of resources for academics and other researchers, ranging from the earliest editions of Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s newspaper, on microfiche, to math textbooks printed on brown parchment paper.

Flip open a children’s magazine to read the tale of evil American soldiers snatching boys and girls from their mothers during the Korean War. Or find a North Korean poem or novel in the literature section. One recent visitor was researching cartoons in the isolated communist country.

Glass cases display North Korean clothing, money, stamps and personal items such as toys, ginseng toothpaste and soap, providing a splash of color to the meticulously arranged bookshelves, computers and study tables.

There’s also a ticket to the Mass Games, a highly choreographed performance involving thousands of dancers, acrobats and children, lapel pins bearing the image of the country’s founding father Kim Il Sung and official documents with names and photos blocked out.

Elsewhere, a paper tree is covered with handwritten notes from South Korean children wishing for unification of their divided peninsula, which remains technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

The atmosphere is sedate in the spacious hall, which is somewhat of an oasis in a country where the subject of its enemy to the north is so sensitive that North Korean websites are blocked and a national security law criminalizes the dissemination of northern propaganda.

The two Koreas both profess to want the reunification of the peninsula, which was carved into a Soviet-backed north and a U.S.-backed south after World War II. But they differ sharply about what that means.

The center opened in 1989 in a post office in Seoul as the communist bloc began to disintegrate and there was a thaw in relations between the North and South. It was moved to the library in 2009, said the librarian in charge of the center, Kim Youngnam.

But it takes more than a library card to get in, although you still need one of those to enter the sprawling complex on the south side of the Han River.

Patrons then must obtain separate permission to pass through the gate of the fifth-floor information center, which is run by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. It gets more complicated if you want to make copies or check something out. That requires a recommendation and an oath to use the material for only a stated purpose such as research or children’s education — and to return it on time.

Just three people were in the center on a recent afternoon. Kim said the center gets some 350 visitors a month, mainly graduate students and professors, but they receive many more phone inquiries and requests for faxes.

She said the center obtains materials from South Korean agencies working with Chinese trading companies and has no dealings with the North Korean government. It also has booklets and leaflets about South Korean government policies.

“The center serves as the only place in South Korea that provides the opportunity to see resources about North Korea or unification,” Kim said, adding her dream is to move the center to its own building.

“I have hopes of expanding the center so it not only has books but also exhibition and interactive spaces that can inform people about North Korea a bit more.”

Stars and Stripes staffer Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

Twitter: @kimgamel

A display case at the North Korea Information Center in Seoul, South Korea, holds tickets for North Korea's national airline and cultural events, along with lapel pins bearing the image of the communist country's founder Kim Il Sung and official documents with identifying information blocked out.

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