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NK founder’s controversial autobiography published in South Korea

The book cover of Kim Il-sung’s autobiography “Reminiscences: With the Century”
The book cover of Kim Il-sung’s autobiography “Reminiscences: With the Century”
The republication of an autobiography of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung has ignited controversy in South Korea, where possession of the book could violate national security laws.

Starting this week, a number of major South Korean bookstores have accepted purchase orders for “Reminiscences: With the Century,” which emphasizes the North Korean leader’s childhood and what he did to resist the Japanese colonial regime.

But South Korean historians and experts have said the autobiography is riddled with exaggerations and factual errors about Kim’s accomplishments. Though Kim took part in the resistance, many details in the book are inaccurate.

The eight-volume hardcover collection is being sold for 280,000 won ($250) and is available from the online stores of major bookstores. It was published April 1 by Minjok Sarangbang, a local publisher that launched in November last year.

The publisher is led by the head of a trade firm that focuses on exchange between North and South Korea.

The book was originally published by the North Korean government on April 15, 1992, to celebrate Kim’s 80th birthday, and was sold there from April 1992 to August 1997.

The publisher said in the introduction that the autobiography deals with Kim’s “extensive armed opposition against the Japanese regime until liberation on Aug. 15, 1945.” The book also “candidly portrays records of Kim’s actions under the Japanese colonial regime,” the introduction reads.

The book has been available in many countries as research material for North Korean studies and has been translated into 20 languages including English, Chinese and Arabic.

Possession of the autobiography has been effectively banned in South Korea since 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was anti-national propaganda.

Its publication raises controversy as making it available for regular consumers to purchase could violate the National Security Act. Under the law, anyone who gives support to anti-national organizations or their members can face up to seven years in prison.

The autobiography did not undergo any additional content editing prior to its publication by Minjok Sarangbang.

In 2011 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a South Korean national surnamed Jung, who was sentenced to a year in prison in for “possessing materials benefiting the enemy” and visiting North Korea illegally without the South Korean government’s approval.

The prohibited materials included “Reminiscences: With the Century.”

In 2016 a University of Ulsan professor who asked his students to submit book reports on the autobiography was sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for one year, and barred from teaching for six months.

A publishing company owner was arrested and his office raided for attempting to publish the controversial autobiography here in August 1994, soon after Kim died.

The autobiography could be taken off the market if the case were to come under the purview of the Korea Publication Ethics Commission.

The commission can categorize published material as harmful if the content “clearly undermines the public order or national security by denying the system of democracy or stirring people to overturn the system.” If deemed harmful, the commission can order the books to be taken off the shelves and destroyed.

The publisher wrote that it hoped the book “will help North Korea and South Korea become friends again and highlight the nobility of our people.” It promised to use the profits from book sales to fund unification projects. The publisher could not be reached for comment.

The Unification Ministry told reporters Thursday that Minjok Sarangbang had not consulted with the ministry before publishing the autobiography, saying it would look into the matter and review whether to take action.

Publishers in South Korea looking to market any North Korean reading material to a general audience in the South must first consult with the Unification Ministry.

Kim’s autobiography was approved for sale in the South in 2012, but only to government-authorized institutions that would need the book for research purposes. No permission was ever granted for the book to be made available to a general audience, the ministry said.

By Ko Jun-tae (