AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In the South Korean capital of Seoul, you can access one of the largest collections of North Korean propaganda outside North Korea. You can't find this spot in most city guides. In fact, many South Koreans have never even heard of it. But NPR's Elise Hu has and she takes us there.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Take a ride to the fifth floor of South Korea's National Library. And in a glass-enclosed space in the corner is the North Korea Information Center. Here, you can read every edition of North Korea's national newspaper, the Rodong Shinmun, 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.
JEONG HUI-SUK: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: Librarian Jeong Hui-Suk walks my interpreter and me through the stacks, which include children's books, vintage advertisements and textbooks. Documents dominate this space, but you can see some other stuff too.
JEONG: (Through interpreter) These are everyday artifacts from the 1990s. So there's Korea insang, which is ginseng tea. There's a fan - insam soap, ginseng soap.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN: And there are very few places worldwide where you can get most of the stuff that is surrounding us.
HU: Christopher Green is a North Korea watcher from the University of Leiden. He spends a lot of his time here doing research. Scholars like Green 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'd get in trouble for having these materials out in the wild.
These books and newspapers are essentially banned?
GREEN: Essentially banned, yes.
HU: A Cold War-era national security law here 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 available in the library be read online. South Korea blocks its Internet users from accessing North Korean sites.
GREEN: 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.
HU: The de facto censorship of this material makes it all the more surprising when South Koreans discover it. Librarian Jeong.
JEONG: (Through interpreter). They can feel that North Korea does have a culture too and maybe they can, you know, want to help the North Koreans and be more curious.
HU: Speaking of curiosity.
What's the most unusual or outrageous question you've gotten about North Korea from maybe a South Korean who's come?
JEONG: (Through interpreter) When they see North Korean books for the first time, they get really surprised because they say, oh, North Korea has books too.
HU: Stacks of education about the North found off the beaten track in the South. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
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