While the eyes of the world have been focused on North Korea over the last few days in the wake of the death of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, I have been busy trying to get another sort of story out of the world's most closed state. No, I'm not a secret agent. Or even a well-known agent. I'm a blogger and I've made it my mission to read my way around the world in 2012.
Having an inkling that I'd be unlikely to find books from all the planet's 196 sovereign states on the shelves at Waterstone's, I thought I'd better lose no time in getting some suggestions of titles together, ready to hit the ground running when the clock strikes midnight on 1 January 2012 (or as soon after it as the hangover allows). North Korea struck me as one of the tougher nuts to crack on the list, so it seemed to make sense to try and track down a book from there asap.
Now, as far as I can work out, if you want to contact North Korea you have two choices: you can go and stand on the banks of that river they're always showing in the news reports and shout very loudly into the distant hills on the off chance an English-speaking peasant farmer hears you while you're dodging the bullets from the border guards; or you can visit their website.
Set up in 2000 by the pioneering Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos (the first, if not only, foreigner to be granted a North Korean passport and allowed to work for the government) the official website of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Korean Friendship Association proclaims its mission to be 'building international ties in the fields of culture, friendship, diplomacy and business'.
Perfect, I thought, if anyone could help me find a book for my project, these chaps would. I fired off an email straight away and sure enough, within a day or so a message came back from none other than Mr Cao de Benos himself.
He regretted that most books that had been translated into English were tourism, politics or army related, but said he would recommend one book, 'a historical fact [set] in 1593 showing honour, loyalty and sacrifice for the motherland. Principles that are reflected in any work published in North Korea today.'
Curious to see what else Mr Cao de Benos might be able to recommend, I replied that I was particularly keen to see examples of contemporary adult fiction and was happy to get a story translated myself if need be. After a few days of waiting, a response came back:
"I am sorry but do not know of any adult fiction since the times of the creation of the Republic. All literature was politically oriented for setting the base of the new socialist country.
"Books, films or cartoon in DPRK must have the meaning, moral and ideology. There is no adult fiction because all books published are either poems or based in historical facts."
This puzzled me, particularly as I knew that Words without Borders had published its Literature from the Axis of Evil anthology in 2006, showcasing several short stories from North Korea, all showing principles similar to those Mr Cao de Benos described.
Then it struck me that perhaps the word "fiction" was the problem. If you understood it in its negative sense, meaning "fabrication" or "lies", then there was clearly no room for it in a country where all literature is believed to be "based in historical facts."
I replied redefining my terms and citing the names of the writers featured in the WWB anthology. I have yet to receive a response and I suspect this week is not a good time to try and make contact again, but I will send the Korean Friendship Association another email in the new year and see if they can recommend me another book. Watch this space.