Karl the Curmudgeon was a Propaganda Writer

"Did I ever tell you I was a government propaganda writer, Kid?" asked Karl.

No, you didn't, I said. What did you do, write light operas about Billy Yank and Johnny Reb?

Karl muttered something vulgar and gave me the finger. "You know you're only 20 years younger than me, right?"

Twenty-one years, I corrected. That's a whole person who can drink younger than you.

"Whatever, Grandpa. Just remember, whenever you joke about the aged, you're one of us."

I gestured at Kurt, our favorite bartender at First Editions, the literary-themed bar we frequented. Two more beers, please, Kurt. And a glass of soluble fiber for great-grandpa Karl. I turned to Karl. So tell me about your freelance propaganda work.

Kurt set the beers on the bar. He must have been out of the fiber.

"Well, it was in the 1970s and 80s. We were responsible for writing pulp fiction stories to counteract the crap Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Jong-Oops used to spread."

I think that was Kim Il-sung.

Kim Jong-un also owns many leather bound books,
and his apartment smells of rich mahogany.
"Whatever. We all wrote subversive literature that the CIA snuck into North Korea."

Why? I asked. I was never very strong on the 20th century geopolitics of developing nations.

"Boredom, I guess," said Karl.

No, why did the CIA do it?

"That's what I mean," said Karl. "In the 1970s, Kim Il-sung already knew his son, Kim Jong-il would succeed, him, so their government started planting all kinds of propaganda about him in the school books and news reports.

What did you do?

"There were 12 propaganda writers in the North Korea bureau, and they let us write whatever we wanted. One of North Korea's big claims was that Kim Jong-Il wrote 1,500 books while he was in college."

And you. . .

"Yep, we wrote 'em."


"Oh absolutely. We wrote all kinds of novels. Pulp style, mostly; they didn't have to be good. We did mysteries, romance, adventure, and even westerns. We had some professionals from the big publishing houses design these gorgeous covers. Then some defectors would translate them into native Korean, and the CIA would sneak them into the country and distribute them.

"The great part was that since the higher-ups had been saying Kim Jong-il had written all these books, the government censors had no choice but to believe them."

Kurt handed us a couple more beers without us asking. He was hooked.

"We only made them slightly subversive, not too over the top. As long as we passed the censors' smell test, we were golden. And the great part was that, even if someone dared asked Kim Jong-il if he had written a particular book, he couldn't just admit that he hadn't, or his whole story would fall apart. He figured his dad was having them all written for him."

How many did you write? I asked.

"All told, I think we wrote all 1,500 of them. Pretty soon, the books were being traded like baseball cards on the black market."

So what purpose did it serve, other than to make him look like a genius?

"Well, for one thing, no one in the government read them. So we wrote stories that contained these little philosophical messages that were always slightly sympathetic to the West. A lot of them were disguised as pro-US rhetoric. The plan was for people to begin to understand and appreciate our way of thinking as they read the stories.

Did it work? By this time, we had a small crowd gathered around us, and Kurt had been polishing the same glass for the last ten minutes.

"Not as well as we would have liked. It never fomented a rebellion, but I like to think that people began to see through some of their government's more obvious lies, like the one that Kim Jong-un learned to drive at age three, or at age nine, beat the CEO of a yacht company in a yacht race.

I don't know if I believe that, Karl, I said, finishing the last of my beer. That sounds pretty far-fetched to me.

"I don't make up those stories, Kid," he said. "The North Korean leadership did."

Not those stories, your story. You mean 12 guys wrote 1,500 books in 12 months? That's 10 books each in a single year.

"They didn't have to be masterpieces. We just churned them out, like the old pulps from the 1900s. If you stuck with the formula, and wrote for eight hours a day, you could get it done."

It all sounds pretty fishy to me.

"We also never had to go to any meetings."

Now I know you're lying!

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