Friday, November 1, 2019

Eternal Life (Part 1): Introducing Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter

Eternal Life is the final novel of the Immortal History series, which chronicles Kim Il Sung's life from his days as a guerrilla fighter through the country's founding, war and reconstruction, and on through his later years.  It was published in 1997 and co-authored by Baek Bo Hŭm (who later contributed the short story "Green Land" to the first anthology of stories about Kim Jong Un) and Song Sang Wŏn.

This novel covers the events of the last two years of KIS' life, including the decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and his 1994 summit meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter.

Devoted readers of this blog might recall that this same summit was also the subject of the short story "Enchantment" (매혹), covered in one of this blog's earliest entries. That story took the point of view of First Lady Rosalynn Carter. This novel was written earlier, and the summit chapters alternate between the perspectives of KIS and President Carter.

In Chapter 15, we get a window on KIS' thoughts on the eve of the summit, as he sits in his office working and thinking through the night.

Chapter 15 Summary 

KIS recalls what he knows of the 39th president, including his childhood, family background, schooling (noting that he attended "a black primary school" in Georgia and later graduated 33rd in his class from the US Naval Academy), his early military career, his success in expanding the peanut farm he inherited, and his later political career.

The story lingers particularly on Carter's early encounters with nuclear technology as a young naval officer.
   That was when Carter became involved in the construction of K-1, the world’s first nuclear submarine. In the wake of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, the majority of America’s youth were basking in a sense of superiority as “citizens of the Great American Empire,” but the young Carter was filled with fear. He understood the horrific tragedy that the bomb represented for humanity.
   Five years later, participating directly in constructing another kind of nuclear weapon – a nuclear submarine – he wasn’t as fearful as he had been, but he felt a residual unease and a sense of emotional objection. Taking a sudden leave, he took his girlfriend Rosalynn (then a college student) and escaped to a resort in the South Pacific. Walking the beach, he tried to forget the 20th century evil that had so preoccupied his mind.
   At that time his views on nuclear weapons were not rooted in any political ideology. His objections stemmed not from politics but from his philosophy of humanism, or more precisely benevolence, which was a product of his Catholic faith.
KIS then recalls that he has heard that Carter is a friend of the Reverend Billy Graham, whom he has met twice before.
   “Billy Graham!” He whispered softly to Himself.
   In His mind’s eye He saw an image of Graham, his heavy build and fierce expression belying a gentle and charitable nature. As a Christian, Graham followed a creed of generosity. He had served as an army chaplain during the Korean War and faced censure for praying for KPA soldiers as well as American soldiers. But he did not waver, saying it was his duty to pray for all.
Reverend Billy Graham meeting Kim Il Sung.
Src: The Washington Post 
The story then delves into a history of McCarthyism in America, explaining how "Red Terror" caused innocent Americans to fall under suspicion. It notes that Graham would have been a target if it were not for his status as a Christian pastor, but that he sympathized with the victims and it was an important formative experience for him.
   Several decades later when Graham visited South Korea, he felt that he was seeing the rebirth of McCarthyism there. The “National Liberation” (주사파) furor strongly reminded him of American McCarthyism. This was a hysterical movement to round up and arrest the followers of Juche ideology. At the sight of so many Korean students, intellectuals, legislators and laborers being arrested, he saw the nightmare of the 1950s resurrected. And he began to wonder what it was about this ideology, this idea, that had the south Korean authorities so fearful and so many young people and citizen laborers (근로민중) risking bullets and violence to follow it.
Graham made his first visit to Pyongyang in March 1992. The story notes that this first mission, occurring just after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and amid expectations that the DPRK would soon follow, had an ulterior motive of observing the state of the country and assessing the likelihood of its collapse.

Dormitory in the American Compound of the Pyongyang
Foreign School, 1939.
Src: Shannon McCune Collection, UW-Madison
The story explains that Graham had a peculiar connection to Pyongyang because his wife Ruth had once lived there. The daughter of Christian missionaries in China, as a teen Ruth had attended the famous Pyongyang Foreign School for girls from 1933-36. The Pyongyang that Ruth had known, in those days before liberation, must have seemed shabby to her eyes. When she heard her husband was going there she had a lot to say about the city, none of it nice. 

But when Graham tours the city, he is impressed by the streets teeming with vitality, the tall new buildings emblazoned with banners reading “Long live our-style socialism!” Thanks to the devastation of the war, there are no buildings older that 30 years. 

With no old buildings anywhere, how is this place supposed to collapse? he thinks.

KIS then recalls his second meeting with Reverend Graham, which occurred just last January amidst preparations for the Three-Step Process meetings with the US. He recalls that "interest in the reverend’s visit was intense" because "Reverend Graham was the most popular and influential person in the US after the president himself."

After delivering the president’s verbal message of good will for the new year and passing a few pleasantries, they sit down to a banquet. KIS expresses to Graham “Since you are both Clinton’s friend and my friend, I hope you will help to make it possible for us to sit down together.” Graham promises to "carry your words with the same weight as the gospel.”

Now, as day breaks on the morning of the summit, KIS thinks hopefully that he can forge a friendship with Carter as he did with Graham.

Forging Friends among Enemies

This novel, the short story "Maehok," and the novel Ryŏksa ui Taeha (excerpted earlier in this blog) represent relatively rare examples of North Korean literature describing interactions between the Leader and foreign dignitaries. I have searched in vain for examples of stories that cover more recent summits, such as Madeleine Albright's 2000 visit, Koizumi Junichiro's 2002 summit, and the later brief rescue missions by ex-Presidents Clinton and Carter. It could be that I simply haven't found them yet, or it could be that these later meetings were simply not important or successful enough to merit literary treatment. As a general rule, North Korean fiction will not cover an event until it is far enough in the past to allow for a settled and resolutely positive interpretation.

In all of these stories, the Leader always blows away his guests with his hospitality and benevolence. The visitors arrive ready for a fight, for prevarications and insults, and are surprised to find a leader who is more honest and forthright than anyone they've ever encountered. Visiting to Pyongyang for the first time, Graham has a revelation:
   He never would have imagined it when he left, but he was completely won over by Comrade Kim Il Sung’s grace, honesty, kindness and benevolent presence. Graham had expected that He would try to conceal the serious problems brought by the collapse of the communist bloc when assessing the state of His country. But it was not like that at all. Comrade Kim Il Sung concealed nothing. He was extremely frank in describing the difficult straits the country was in. He was even more astute than Graham himself in evaluating the problems brought on by socialist malfunction in other countries.
   This was completely unexpected. Listening in astonishment, Graham sensed that this was a man who would always speak the truth no matter who He was talking with; at the same time, he realized that socialist Korea would never collapse as long as such a leader was in charge. It takes a truly strong leader to acknowledge tough circumstances. When Comrade Kim Il Sung said “Korea will fight to uphold socialism no matter what,” Graham was completely convinced.
The chapter ends with KIS looking forward to his upcoming summit with Carter:
   Recalling His days with Graham, He softly whispered to Himself: “Carter said he met with Graham before coming to Pyongyang… The time has come for me to meet him and speak the truth. Maybe I can build a friendship with him too.”
   The Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who had a gift for forging friendships among the enemy, felt confident that His hopes would come true. 
This image of the Leader "making friends among enemies" is clearly the central theme of this chapter and other summit stories. He is shown extensively studying his counterparts before each meeting, learning intimate details of their lives. Graham's and Carter's biographies are picked apart for clues as to why they may be more amenable than other foreigners. Everyone who meets the leader is instantly charmed and becomes a steadfast defender. It is only the implacable, inscrutable, faceless American government that stands in the way of improved relations.

Christian Faith and Juche

A young Billy Graham traveled to Korea to minister to
US troops in 1952. He was not an army chaplain, as this
story suggests, but a civilian.
 Src: Billy Graham Evangelist Organization
The chapter describes both Reverend Graham and President Carter as men of great faith and fairness. It notes that Carter's Christian faith led him to abhor the nuclear weapons that other Americans celebrated, and Graham was censured for praying for KPA during the war. It also notes that Graham's first visit to Pyongyang had an ulterior motive:
Let me see for myself. For 100 years communist ideology has rejected all religious faith; how long will it be until its last bastion collapses?   This was the question he was sent to answer by then-President Bush. But instead of being a government spy, he ended up forging a deep friendship with the Leader. 
On that first tour, Graham visits a Christian church in Pyongyang.
   After praying there, he asked Comrade Kim Il Sung, “What are you doing to guarantee freedom of faith?”
   He replied, “As you saw, we have built a Christian church, even though our construction needs are great.”
   Overjoyed, Graham then asked, “I suppose you’ve noticed the commonalities between Juche thought and the teachings of Christianity?”
   “Similarities?” Comrade Kim Il Sung thought a moment and then said modestly, “Thank you for holding Juche to such a lofty comparison.”
   Graham didn’t press the matter any further. But he privately believed that Juche and Christianity shared the same basic ideal. That ideal was love.
On his second visit, when Graham attends a banquet in his honor, the Leader makes an unexpected gesture.
   “Let us pray,”  Comrade Kim Il Sung said as they took their seats around the banquet table.
   “What?” Graham gaped, as if he could not believe his ears.
   “Isn’t it a Christian custom to pray to God before a meal?”
   Graham was speechless. He, who had affirmed his Christian faith at age 16 and preached to 110 million people in 84 different countries, could hardly forget this basic rule.
   “The food is getting cold,” he said.
   Comrade Kim Il Sung merely waited, not picking up His spoon.
   At last, Graham rose and lifted his glass. “I thought I’d forego that custom tonight. Instead, let us toast the health of the Chairman, who is like heaven to the people of this country.”
   Comrade Kim Il Sung stood, waving His hand. “No, no, I’m not these people’s heaven, I am their servant.”
   “Then I bow my head all the more to you.”
This and earlier stories suggest that, rather unusually for a socialist state, North Korea's propaganda does not treat religion with scorn. Rather, it depicts religion and Christianity in particular as a stepping stone for foreigners on the way to finding the superior ideology of Juche. Carter and Graham's Christianity is described as "a creed of benevolence" that enables them to see past political enmity and embrace common humanity.

In the North Korean interpretation, it is not in spite of but because of their devout Christianity that these men are able to see the truth of Juche, while the godless politicians back home remain stubbornly opposed to it. The text openly acknowledges similarities between Christianity and Juche, but rather than acknowledging that the latter plagiarized the former, it suggests that the former foreshadowed the higher truth of the latter. The passage tying together Graham's Christian faith, his abhorrence of McCarthyism, and his curiosity about Juche ideology is particularly revealing.

Of course, it must be repeated, the official propaganda position is far removed from the actual treatment of people of faith in North Korea.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"Green Land": North Korea Deals with Environmental Issues

KJU on a visit to the Central Tree Nursery in 2014.
Src: Tongil News
"Green Land" (푸른 강산) is a short story by Baek Bo Hŭm that appeared in Ch'ŏngnyŏn Munhak in October of 2014 and later was published in the collection A Promise of Fire (불의 약속).

The author is an eminence grise of North Korean literature, co-author of Eternal Life (영생), the final volume in the Immortal History series of novels chronicling Kim Il Sung's life. Born in 1938, he trained as a geologist but was scouted by the Korean Writer's Union at age 18 and has been a prolific contributor to the Party's literary journals since the 1960s. He would have been 76 when he wrote this story. Given his high profile and long history of literary achievement, I'd say he phoned this one in. It follows the basic template and seems unimaginative even by North Korean fiction standards.

There is a lot of overlap between this story and "Green Mountains, Green Fields" (2016) - both highlight the Central Tree Nursery, the new National Land Management Mobilization policy, and Kim Jong Un's priority of investing in re-forestation. There is also some thematic overlap with "Morning of Departure" (2016), particularly the depiction of new hydroelectric dam construction destroying woodland and creating flood problems.

The Plot

It’s October 8, 2011. The 66th anniversary of the KWP founding approaches. Environmental Ministry worker Kang Hyŏng Jun reads reports in his office. He’s absorbed in a book sent over personally by KJU; it's the first time he’s directly benefited from the new leader he’s heard so much about.

The book tells of the delicate, interconnected nature of the planet's ecosystems, and the relentless destruction being wrought by "capitalist monopoly industries" in selfish pursuit of profits.

Kang is interrupted from his reading when he is called to his Party Secretary's office and instructed to prepare for the Leaders' impending visit to the Central Tree Nursery.

On returning to his office, Kang finds a note from his old college friend Ri Song Mok. Once a gifted botanist, Ri had recently been dismissed from his post due to an unfortunate mishap at a hydroelectric dam. 

In cutting timber for the dam, the deputy chief of construction had unwittingly chopped down five experimental trees, the sole fruit of Ri's twenty years of work adapting semi-tropical hybrids to North Korean soil conditions. Ri had been unable to contain his rage and ended up brawling with the dam worker. For interfering with an important hydroelectric project, Ri's political loyalty was called into question, and he was fired.

The next day, KJU and KJI visit the Central Tree Nursery with a delegation of Environmental Ministry bureaucrats. Kang is introduced; KJI describes him to the assembled group as “capable but stubborn” and thanks him for agreeing to guide their tour. 

The Central Tree Nursery workers are delighted to hear KJU’s voice for the first time; he has a twinkle in his eye and a “dignity and fervor that could melt a rock.” They’ve all heard of his diverse knowledge in politics, economics and culture, and his skills in both literary and martial arts.

KJU tells the assembled, “More important than just loving trees, is understanding why we must love trees.”

Riding electric carts, the group tours the greenhouses, the central control room, and several vast fields of tree hybrids. Numerous recent improvements and "cutting-edge" facilities are described. Along the way, KJU repeatedly correctly identifies various trees which had special meaning to his father and grandfather. 

Relishing his role as tour guide, Kang gives the group an impassioned, slightly unhinged speech about the important role of trees to the broader ecosystem. 
“Those who don’t learn to love trees will surely pay the price. There was one district that cut down many trees to build a hydroelectric dam ‘by their own strength,’ but the next year during the rainy season they suffered severe damage from mudslides.”
At his words, KJU recalls recently seeing a briefing about a certain botanist whose experimental trees, 20 years of work, had been cut down to build the dam in Tokgochŏngrim. The botanist had been sentenced to one year of labor reform (로동단련) for assaulting the dam project's political director. 

Flood damage in the fall of 2013. Src: Yonhap

KJU regretted that the Party hadn’t been able to “see the patriotism of a botanist who spent twenty years of his life on trees” and thought “Why should he have to resign over a mistake? We must preserve our technical workers. If anyone is at fault, it is the workers of Tokgochŏngrim who destroyed the trees and ended up with a useless dam."

At the end of the tour, KJI gives a long inspirational speech to the assembled functionaries about the Party's environmental policy. KJU listens quietly and resolves to personally carry out the Leader's wishes.

The story skips forward one year to October 9, 2012. KJU paces in his office, remembering his visit to the tree nursery with his father exactly one year ago. 

He hasn’t seen the Environment Ministry workers since that day, except for briefly seeing Kang Hyong Jun at Kumsusan Palace that terrible December when everyone was in shock. KJU had promised him he would carry out KJI’s wishes for environmental protection.

He kept his promise, organizing the first National Land Management Mobilization Conference (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회). He took the opportunity of the festival on May 8, 2012 to announce a major shift in environmental policy through his treatise “On Bringing about a Revolutionary Turn in Land Management to Meet the Demands of Constructing a Strong and Prosperous Socialist Country” (사회주의강성국가건설의 요구에 맞게 국토관리사업에서 혁명적전환을 가져올데 대하여), announcing policies for flood control, anti-erosion land reform, and conservation of natural resources including mineral, fisheries, plant and animal resources. The speech was a big sensation among the delegates. 

After the festival the whole country was mobilized, and within months they had planted hundreds of millions of trees, restored 1000 km of roads and railway lines, and created hundreds of jŏngbo of greenspace. 

In his office, Kang Hyong Jun reads a letter from his botanist friend Ri Song Mok, now happily re-instated thanks to the intervention of KJU. The phone rings; it's KJU himself. Kang is stunned and tongue-tied. KJU asks after the nursery; Kang says they’ve been busy with tons of visitors lately. 

KJU says that’s good, as 
“The tree nursery is not just a place for growing trees; it is also for cultivating patriots… not just the masses but especially bureaucrats, so they can learn the world view of the Great Leader and the General. Making bureaucrats into servants of the people is easier said than done. Sometimes bureaucrats think of the people as their servants instead. I’ve seen it happen many times, and it always grieves me.”
Kang thinks with shame that he, too, is guilty of this.

KJU apologizes that he doesn’t have time to talk more but urges Kang to keep giving good interpretative tours to “light the flame of KJI patriotism in people’s hearts.” Kang sobs his gratitude, but the Leader has already hung up.

As Kang heads off to the Central Tree Nursery, he remembers the words of KJI, “Because of Comrade Kim Jong Un, our revolution and our socialism is secure, and our future is endlessly bright and promising.” 


Understanding Environmental Problems

This story demonstrates the educational uses of North Korea's state fiction. It opens with a lengthy quote from the book that KJU sent to Kang:
   The third planet in our solar system, home to tens of thousands of organisms – this is our Earth. Of all the planets revolving around our sun, only the third has the heat, light and gravity conducive to life, and various life forms thrive there....
   For the life forms that are born and grow there, the sun is like a benevolent father and the earth is a gracious mother. Of all her hundreds of thousands of children, only one has the capacity for laughter and tears, for joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure – human beings. Humans are mother earth’s most precious and beloved children, and she surely believes that they will observe their filial duty to bring her boundless happiness forever.
   But today, because of human carelessness, the earth is suffering from terrible wounds. It has grown haggard, withered and infected with a sickness that threatens the existence of all life – and humans are no exception.
   Air and water cross national boundaries without a passport. Dust-filled sulfur dioxide gas can blow from London in England to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and polluted water from the US can follow the rivers to take a trip abroad. Poisoned air can travel freely from the western hemisphere to the eastern hemisphere. Therefore if a country is to protect its own environment it must consider the global environment, and in order to protect the global environment we must surgically remove the greed-organs of imperialists who care only about their own immediate interests. Imperialism is a malignant tumor on the planet as well.
    Botanists of the world, never forget! The same American imperialists who destroyed countless lives with atomic bombs and poisoned the air with radiation also spread poison to kill the primeval forests during the Vietnam War. Grass still won’t grow there.

In this passage, the reader is invited to look over Kang's shoulder as he reads up on global environmental problems. This form of political communication is perhaps marginally more engaging than simply sending the same text around as an intra-party document.


At the Central Tree Nursery tour, Kang makes a long speech to the group about the importance of trees.
The ozone layer, which protects all life from the sun’s harmful rays, is created by trees, and thus humans cannot live without trees. Not only that, they generate oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, absorb water, help prevent erosion, and remove toxins from the air.
The story is peppered with textbook-like sections like this, which seem intended to brush up the reader's general ecological knowledge.

It's interesting that the story refers to polluted air travelling across borders but refrains from explicitly mentioning China, whose dust North Koreans have been breathing for decades. It’s also interesting that the text identifies “imperialism,” rather than capitalism, as the root cause of environmental destruction, although the description of selfish corporations ruthlessly pursuing profits reads more like capitalism. 

Communicating Party Environmental Policy

Insofar as this story has a climactic moment, it comes when KJI gives his speech to the assembled tour group at the end of the Tree Nursery tour:
   "Planting and caring for trees is a ten-thousand-year long-term job that can only be done by a true patriot. Short-sighted people who live only for today can’t do it correctly. We must broadly promote patriotic people to care for our forests… Our generation must further beautify the 3,000 li of beautiful landscape (삼천리금수강산) inherited from our ancestors, to pass down to future generations. To do that we must adapt the best trees for our land, properly manage our seedling crops, and develop tree varieties with the most economic value…  Comrades, let us promote national land protection work around the country to fill it with blue sky and fresh air, to make our mountains into a socialist fairyland of thick forests, giving golden mountains (황금산) and treasure mountains (보물산) to our next generation."
A deforested hillside in North Korea.
In this straightforward way the story communicates a new policy priority of reforestation. KJI is the principal character who communicates this priority, while KJU takes on the role of quietly vowing to implement it out of filial duty. In this way, an essential policy correction is repackaged as a continuation of a goal that the late leader had simply not had time to implement.

In his phone call after his father's death, KJU tells an emotional Kang,
   “Only those who possess true Kim Jong Il patriotism can carry out the work of land management. I say it all the time, but our General really was a great man who led with his heart and his feelings. We must learn from Kim Jong Il patriotism, the sacred patriotism of the General who devoted his life’s labor to the fatherland and the people. Let’s create the socialist fairyland that was his dying wish.”
In this passage, we can see that the Party is trying to draw a connection between patriotism and environmentalism, specifically tied to the new propaganda buzzword "Kim Jong Il patriotism." In this way, even as land management is promoted as a major new priority of KJU's, this is portrayed as carrying on the wishes of his predecessor KJI. "Kim Jong Il patriotism" was also a key buzzword in "Green Mountains, Green Fields."

KJI did in fact visit the Central Tree Nursery in October 2011, two months before his death. According to this archived article from Yonhap, he was accompanied by KJU as well as Jang Song Taek and Party Secretary Pak Do Chun.

This fascinating article from Scientific American includes one foreign delegation's impressions after a visit to the Central Tree Nursery.


“On Bringing about a Revolutionary Turn in Land Management to Meet the Demands of Constructing a Strong and Prosperous Socialist Country”

KJU’s 2012 treatise on land management was his first published work. It was published on April 27th, 2012 and distributed at the National Land Management Mobilization Conference (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회) on May 8thBefore this, the most recent major  statement on environmental policy was a 1984 speech by KJI on land management. 


Some sample text: 
  • “The land that can be brought under cultivation can be found everywhere. A man who strives to find reclaimable land and increase the area of the land under cultivation even by an inch is a genuine patriot.” 
  • “[A]fforestation and forest conservation are not on a proper track now. Many trees are planted every spring and autumn, but there is no marked improvement in the afforestation of the country. Many mountains in the country remain denuded of trees. In provinces there are not a few bare mountains even among the ones with the signboards reading, 'Forest Conservation,' 'Youth Forest' and 'Children’s Union Forest.' Measures should be taken by the Party and the state to promote afforestation and forest conservation.”
  • “We should take careful measures to prevent earth and sand from flowing into rivers and landslides from occurring. To this end, we should plant many trees along rivers and build stone terraces or buttresses where necessary.”
Here we observe an implied problem that trees that are being planted are subsequently disappearing. This could mean either that desperate people are cutting down new saplings, or that the trees are not taking root due to the North's persistent soil problems. This problem is not referenced in the above story, which speaks only of the resounding success of the national tree-planting mobilization.


Dams vs Trees

This is the second story we've seen which describes the problem of overenthusiastic dam construction felling trees and causing soil erosion and flooding. We can assume from this level of literary attention that something like this must have actually happened in the recent past, and the Party is trying to correct its workers' awareness through depictions in state fiction.

Recall that in "Morning of Departure" (2016), the main character was a dam construction brigade leader who faced prosecution from the Ministry of Justice for cutting down trees for the dam project. After saying he would "take responsibility" for the damage, he was excoriated by the Justice Ministry officer:
"Responsibility? What good is responsibility, when the forests are destroyed and the land is unusable? Look, if the reservoir overflows before the hillsides are repaired, they'll wash out and destroy the forest. How can you possibly take responsibility for such a disaster? Of course, if you finish this dam you'll be commended and promoted, but what of the damage you do to the poor mountains that can't speak for themselves?"
The brigade leader ended up remorsefully accepting a demotion, but the bigger problem of how to build dams without destroying forests was never resolved.

In this story, which was actually published two years earlier that "Morning of Departure," it appears that the deforestation caused by the dam construction actually did result in severe flooding, which ended up destroying the dam itself. The story conveys a dual message: that it was wrong to cut down trees to build dams, and that it was wrong to punish the environmental workers who protested the damage.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

"Gold Medal": Kim Jong Un teaches his athletes the power of positive thinking

North Korean athletes Kim Jŏng and Kim Hyŏk Chŏl compete
in the 2013 Table Tennis Mixed Doubles World Championship.
Src: Yahoo! News Singapore
"Gold Medal" (금메달) is a story by Han Jŏng Ah that appeared in the May 2017 issue of Chŏngrŏn Munhak. It tells the story of a mixed-doubles table tennis team and their coach as they prepare for the World Championships, with more than a little help from the Great Leader.

The plot is fairly standard, but the story demonstrates how the new prioritization of sports under KJU's leadership has to some degree supplanted the old priorities of film and the arts. It is also a good example of the use of military metaphors to describe non-military endeavors.

Most of all, this story is a prime example of how recent events (usually 4-7 years in the past) are re-interpreted via fiction in a way that reflects maximum glory on the Leader.

The Plot

The story opens with a familiar trope from North Korean fiction: The leader (KJU in this case) stops his motorcade on a country road to offer an elderly citizen a ride. Not realizing that she is in the presence of her Leader, the old woman airs her family laundry. She is headed to Pyongyang to fetch her granddaughter, Kim Yŏng, a table tennis player who recently failed spectacularly at the Pyongyang Invitational, before she can further embarrass her nation on the world stage. Without revealing his identity, KJU convinces her to return to her worried family, reassuring her that her granddaughter will soon be victorious.

The 4.25 Sports Club is most well-known for its soccer
team, but it includes many sports. It is named for the day
the KPA's predecessor was first formed.
Src: Choson Shinbo
The perspective shifts to Pyongyang, where Kim Chŏl Guk is the coach of the mixed-doubles table tennis team at the prestigious 4.25 Sports Club (4.25 체육단). His team consists of Kim Yŏng, a woman approaching 30 without marriage as she devotes herself to the goal of winning a championship, and Kim Hyŏk Chŏl, a married man with a 1-year-old son and a wife who has grown impatient for him to give up the life of a professional athlete and get a real job.

Coach Kim has been working with them on a radical new game strategy that messes with the traditional gender dynamics of mixed doubles; instead of having the female set up for the male's attack, he has them both attacking. Unfortunately this requires more physical stamina than his players have in them, and they suffer a humiliating defeat at the 2011 Pyongyang Invitational.

Even though his team has earned a place at the 2013 World Championships, they are getting on in years, and many of the other coaches argue that they should retire rather than face another humiliation on the world stage. Coach K is inclined to agree.

But then one day, on the lonely stretch of mountain road where he has his players doing strength training, he is met by none other than Kim Jong Un. Still in grief over the recent National Tragedy (the death of his father Kim Jong Il), the Leader nonetheless makes time to give the coach and his players a pep talk.

He says he just came from a visit to the front lines, and the athletes remind him of the soldiers he met there. Both are fighting to defend their homeland; one from military conquest, the other from humiliation in the eyes of the world.

After this pep talk, both coach and players attack their training with renewed vigor. Kim Yŏng and Kim Hyŏk Chŏl both ask to extend their training hours even beyond what they are already doing.

KJU speaks at the 4th Meeting of Secretaries of
Party Cells (제4차 세포비서대회) in January 2013
KJU's intervention goes beyond mere pep talks. At the 4th Meeting of Secretaries of Cells of the Korean Workers' Party, among all the other momentous new policies, KJU unveils a plan to boost all areas of sports in the country. He has top equipment sent to each athletic training center, including TVs and DVD players so that they can learn from recordings of leading world competitors and develop "Our-style Attack Methods."

He also has an aide personally deliver a record to Coach K, one that he says will surely inspire them to victory. It's a song the soldiers used to sing during the Fatherland Liberation War, "My Song from the Trenches" (전호속의 나의 노래).

With the world championships just months away, the athletes train hard against other players who mimic the features of leading foreign competitors. They get better and better. But still, Kim Yŏng's strength fails in the face of a strong attack from a male competitor.

Then just when Coach K's faith is ebbing low, he gets a call out of the blue from KJU. He has reviewed the tapes and identified the problem. Kim Yŏng's failure is not due to her advanced age, but rather a lack of spirit. The Leader notices that she starts out strong but loses all hope after a few mistakes.

KJU then makes a speech that I'm pretty sure is ripped verbatim from one of the Rocky movies, about how true champions are people who can get knocked down and get right back up again. He also tells the story of seven soldiers during the War who fought to the last man to defend a certain hill from the enemy. That last man? Kim Yŏng's grandfather.
North Korean champions on the medal stand at the 2013
World Table Tennis Championships in Paris.
Src: Sina 

At last the team takes the stage at the world championships in Paris. They make a gutsy comeback against Hong Kong in the semifinals before going on to beat South Korea in the finals.

The story lingers on the scene of the athletes saluting from atop the podium as their national flag flies high overhead and foreign sportscasters look on in uncomprehending awe.



Fact and Fiction

This story provides a good example of the limits on naming names of actual people in North Korean fiction. As this blog has noted many times before, with the exception of the Leader Kims, characters based on identifiable individuals are usually given pseudonyms. In this case, the actual athletes who won the mixed doubles table tennis event at the 2013 World Championships, Kim Jŏng and Kim Hyŏk Bong, are given the pseudonyms Kim Yŏng and Kim Hyŏk Chŏl respectively.

It's anyone's guess what the average North Korean reader makes of these name changes. By all accounts the two champions were feted with a lavish homecoming after their victory and are presumably household names. It seems impossible that anyone could mistake the characters for some other mixed doubles table tennis players who won gold at the World Championships in 2013.

Giving them pseudonyms perhaps allows the author some artistic license with the details of the players' lives; for instance, the real Kim Jŏng would have been only 22 when the story opens in 2011, not "approaching the summit of 30" (서른고개에 접어들고있었다) as the story has her, making her lack of marriage prospects and flagging strength more immediate concerns. But other facts about the player, like the fact that she is left-handed, are reflected accurately in the story.

Pak Yŏng Sun was a North Korean table tennis star in the 1970s.
Src: Choson Shinbo
Other, slightly more distant, sports figures are mentioned in the story by their real names: "Table tennis queens" Pak Yŏng Sun, Ri Bun Hui, and Yu Sun Bok, as well as track star Shin Kŭm Dan, speed skater Han Pil Hwa, and marathon runner Jŏng Sŏng Ok. All are mentioned in passing as examples of North Korea's dominance on the world sports stage in times past.

The story accurately states that the North Koreans played the strong Hong Kong team in the semi-finals, and that they lost the first three rounds before coming back to win in a stunning upset. It also mentions that they defeated the South Korean team in the finals, which had earlier defeated the "top-ranked" Chinese team. At the end, the story adds that the pair went on to win gold at the Asian Games the next year.

Choson Shinbo uploaded a video from Choson Central TV in 2015 in which you can see the real Kim Jŏng talking about how her mother encouraged her to play table tennis against her grandmother's wishes, how it felt to meet the Leader, and her relationship with her boyfriend. There is also a video of the real Kim Hyŏk Bong talking about his inspirations in the sport, how his career affects his marriage, and his hopes for his young son, as well as deflecting a pointed question about his relationship with teammate Kim Jŏng. They both confess to crying when they met the Leader, though they don't mention having ever met him before becoming world champions.

Athletes as War Heroes

The story hammers again and again at the theme that athletes are like soldiers fighting in a war. KJU diverts his motorcade to meet Coach K and his players with the words "Comrades, let's meet our warriors of the sports battlefield" (우리 체육전장의 전우들을 잠간 만납시다). Observing Coach K's glum look on the practice field, KJU jokes, "How grim is the commander's face before battle." When he meets the athletes he tells them,
   "When our people sent their sons and husbands to war, what did they hope for most? That even if they gave their lives, they would acquit themselves without shame before the nation.
   "You could say that sports are a battlefield without the sound of gunfire. There's no other arena where people come together in peacetime to compete for the right to fly their nation's flag and play their nation's song.
   "Athletes who compete at international championships are just like soldiers on the front lines defending their county. And so I think of you as my war comrades (전우) just the same as those soldiers defending our most forward outposts."
"War comrades" (전우) have a special meaning in North Korean propaganda as the only kind of common folk with a direct connection to the Leaders.

The players are amazed that KJU knows all the details of their family lives. He tells them, "Family bonds are what give our athletes their strength. During the Fatherland Liberation War, even when communications were at their worst, the Great Leader made sure to keep the mail cars running above all else."

He recalls that Kim Yŏng's grandmother mentioned that her husband died during the war defending a place called Chŏlbong pass, near Hill 1211. He tells them, "You have inherited the legacy of victory from the heroic soldiers of the Fatherland Liberation War."

At the Party Secretaries' Meeting, he tells the assembled KWP leaders: "The athletes who represent our country in international competition are just like soldiers fighting on a battlefield. Therefore you should treat their families just like KPA soldiers' families." Later Kim Yŏng is amazed to hear that the provincial authorities have been lavishing attention on her relatives "just as if they were a soldier's family" (후방가족과 같다).

Coach K, contemplating his players' sacrifices, thinks to himself: "Just as our soldiers fought for the day when they could stand proudly before their families wearing their medals, our athletes also fight as sons and daughters of the nation."


The Power of Positive Thinking

The other big message of this story is that if you can visualize victory in your mind, you will achieve it in real life. In his pep talk to the athletes, KJU says:
   "I just came from a forward outpost, and I was amazed by what I saw there. Those soldiers, even as they faced down the enemy, held the Dear General (KJI) in their hearts and were overflowing with faith in their victory.
   "The patriotism of the Dear General who gave his life for our nation has taught us this: that if we are firm in our faith, victory is certain. That is the wellspring of the strength of our people, who don't know the meaning of 'impossible.' Before technique, before physical strength, it is our faith in victory that allows us to win under any circumstances."
Through this pep talk, Coach K realizes what he was missing: he had lost faith that his athletes could win.

KJU also tells his athletes,
   "A gold medal is not just a symbol of being number one, it is like a gold brick in the fortress of our nation's psyche. The more gold medals we pile up, the stronger we will be in spirit. There is nothing stronger than a nation with a strong spirit.
   "In our history, our nation was strongest during the Koguryo Era, when martial spirit (상무기풍) was at its zenith.
   "Therefore athletes must develop their spirit alongside their physical skill." 
KJU leaves them with this parting thought: 
   "Our nation's history has been nothing but victory since the day of its founding, and we will continue to be victorious. But to win we must first have victory in our hearts.
   "When the Great Fatherly Leader organized his first platoon, even though it was tiny compared to the million-strong Japanese army, he already had a vision of his ultimate victory. And the Dear General,  even during the darkest days of the Arduous March, already foresaw a strong and prosperous nation and spared no expense investing in cutting edge technology.
   "Comrades, if we fight with the indomitable will of the Great Leader, we will surely be victorious."

New Emphasis on Sports

This story bears many of the hallmarks of past stories heralding the nation's achievements in the arts and sciences. One can clearly see how the new priority for sports achievement has been layered onto the same story format that was used in the past for artistic priorities like architecture and the mass games. The story also takes pains to explain how sports achievements will benefit the nation as a whole.

A new facility for the 4.25 gymnastics team, shown in 2018.
Src: Sogwang
In an early scene, Coach K remembers the late KJI visiting the 4.25 Sports Club syhortly before his death and giving the following speech:
   "In the near future our nation must achieve the status of a sport powerhouse. In order to do that, we must first promote events where we have a good chance of winning, before expanding to other sports. Table tennis is one of those events. After all, we've won two world championships in the past.
   "Sports are important to give our people pride and confidence in the task of socialist construction. With every victory our athletes achieve, our national status rises and our whole nation basks in the glory of victory."
The story takes pains to mention that it was KJI who first took an interest in the sports club and in
Coach K in particular before his death, and that KJU is just carrying through with his late father's wishes.

Later KJU is shown thinking to himself,
   Lately, as the military pressure and sanctions by the imperialist forces has thrown up barriers to our economic construction, some in the sports field have given in to defeatist thinking - suggesting limiting our delegations to championships and paring down the renovations of sports facilities.... But in hard times past, like the Chollima era and the time of the Arduous March, how many great sports figures emerged? ... All these victories were made possible by the victorious spirit passed down from the Great Leader through the anti-Japanese struggle and the Fatherland Liberation War. Without faith in the victory of our Revolution, our people would have no confidence. 
KJU views an archery demonstration
at the 4.25 Sports Club in 2013.
Src: UriDongpo
At the 4th Meeting of the Secretaries of Cells of the KWP, which was held a little over a year into KJU's reign and was one of the first publicly televised party meetings under his command, KJU delivers a speech to the assembled Party secretaries in which he says:
   "Sports aid our people's solidarity and sense of collective purpose.
   "A year ago, when I asked a local party secretary how the county electric grid was completed so quickly, he said it was through the power of athletics. It seemed he had led a rope-pulling team (바줄당기기, a traditional Korean sport) to victory in the regional championships. They'd always been dead last in the past, so that victory inspired everyone. In the end, the people of Sangan County learned that if they set their minds to it, they can accomplish anything (마음만 멀으면 못할 일이 없다).
   "And yet, there are some party secretaries who don't even know how many athletes from their province are on the national team."
In conclusion, KJU tells the Party secretaries to devote their energy to developing sports in all regions, and to treat athlete's families with as much respect as front-line soldiers' families.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Black Blood" (Part 2): The Fate of Japan's Last Good Man

This post covers the second part of the story "Black Blood: From a Japanese Reporter's Notebook" (흑혈: 한 일본인기자의 수기중에서) by Choe Su Bŏm, which appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2018. Part One can be read here. The story is set in Tokyo, alternating between the present day and colonial era.

We pick up where we left off last month, as the narrator, a Japanese "progressive reporter" for Asahi Shimbun, has just read a section of his grandfather's diary describing atrocities perpetrated by Japanese against Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.


Story Summary (continued)

Just as he sets down the diary, there's a knock on the door. It's the reporter's old friend, Ri Ra Song, a writer for Chosŏn Shinbo

Front page of Choson Shinbo, a pro-Pyongyang
newspaper published by Chongryon
Ri had been a key mentor and source, providing invaluable material evidence of collusion between colonial era war criminals and the Japanese Far Right. That article had vaulted him out of obscurity to become one of Japan’s most highly-regarded progressive reporters. Ri had also provided reliable evidence to counter the anti-Chongryon lobbying effort last March, helping cement the reporter’s reputation as an objective authority free from ideological and nationalist biases.

Without mentioning his earlier encounter with Ozawa, the reporter presses Ri for fresh scoops. Ri obligingly dishes that there's another plot in the works by the Japanese government and far-right groups to trump up yet more charges against Chongryon. Handing over a stack of documentary evidence, Ri says, “I know your pen won’t rest until you’ve seen this through to the end.”

“You can count on it,” the reporter replies. 

After Ri departs, the reporter examines the evidence with growing agitation. It makes it abundantly clear that Ozawa’s “evidence” was a pure fabrication. Still, something makes him hesitate to take up his pen.

He picks up his grandfather's diary again.

  ---Grandfather’s diary---
   It was just after the war’s end; Tokyo had been reduced to rubble by American bombs, and everyone was starving. We Japanese, who had once tramped over all of East Asia and the Pacific, had been transformed from “masters of the East” to human hyenas picking through the Americans’ trash. Our fangs, which had once chewed on the rich fat of “Greater East Asia,” now gnashed on American excrement, trailing thick ropy saliva. By the by, it’s a wonder how we islanders have survived with such messed-up teeth....
Having lost everything to the firebombs, the grandfather went in search of his son and only surviving child Suzuki (스즈끼), who'd been drafted into the war. He heard the boy had been stationed on a remote northern island, and so he traveled to a miserable little fishing port in Hokkaido where any returning troops would surely dock.

One day he spotted a ragged, skeletal pair coming up the rocky shoreline. Their uniforms hung in tatters like shrouds, and the taller one was all but carrying the shorter one. 
Japanese soldiers returning after WWII surrender

They begged him for food, but he had none. Crazed, the shorter one brandished his weapon and wailed "Give us something to eat, old man, or we’ll chew on you!” 

As he brandished his gun, the tall one held him back, saying “Stop, Suzuki, what are you doing?” At those words, the grandfather looked closer and recognized his son Suzuki. 

Father and son embraced, but Suzuki was still delirious and ranting about food. His companion, a peasant lad from Okinawa named Nomura, explained that they'd been adrift for days and were nearly dead from starvation.

Then Suzuki spotted a dog tied up outside the village chief's home across the street. After a brief struggle with his comrade, he lifted his gun and fired on the dog. Tragically, just at that moment, the village chief's 8-year-old son ran around from behind the house and into the line of fire. The bullet pierced the boy's heart and killed him instantly.

At the sound of the shot, an angry mob of villagers came boiling out. Suzuki tried to flee, but the villagers quickly surrounded both soldiers. With fire in his eyes, the village chief snatched up his katana. “Who did it? Who fired the shot?”

A quick-thinking Suzuki pointed the finger at his comrade Nomura. He got the villagers on his side by claiming that Nomura was "not a pure Yamato" but rather "a filthy Okinawan dog." In the end it came down to the only other eye-witness, the grandfather, who sided with his son and allowed the villagers to butcher the hapless Nomura.

---End grandfather’s diary---

The reporter gets a call from Ozawa, asking if he's finished writing up the Chongryon mushroom story yet. He informs him that at dawn, the Joint Investigation Bureau plans to arrest two executives of Korean Foodstuffs Import Company Ltd.
   “That’s right! Let’s show them what this 'nation of laws' is all about. The order has already gone out to every newspaper and broadcaster. You can bet Asahi Shimbun won’t want to miss out on this scoop. Better write fast. ‘Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested!’ will make a nice splashy headline. Rip ‘em to shreds, Chongryon and the Republic both.”
The reporter hesitates, conflicted. Suddenly he recalls how Ri had stood up for him several years ago, when Ozawa was trying to silence him through blackmail. Ozawa's gang had fabricated photos showing him taking bribes from Chongryon's director and sleeping with prostitutes. They were going to publicly slander him as a sex addict who sold his pen for cash.

The two men had gone to face Ozawa together.

“So, you think to gamble with your lives?” Ozawa smirked, flanked left and right by yakuza thugs brandishing deadly weapons.

Ri shrugged. “You’re the ones who are into gambling. I have Chongryon and the Republic at my back. I have the power of truth and righteousness. Listen well. If you release these disgusting photos, I'll expose the connections between your Far Right forces and the yakuza." Ozawa had no choice but to abandon the plot.

Ri had saved his reputation; how can he now betray him?

But then in his mind's eye he sees the pile of money Ozawa had promised and remembers his threats. He agonizes for a long time, but ultimately decides that "No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins."

The story ends with him sitting down to type: “Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested! Chongryon a Criminal Org….”


Japan's Minorities

This story segment follows a longstanding North Korean tradition of zooming in on minority ill-treatment in foreign countries. For instance, as the grandfather's diary describes the northern fishing village where he awaited his son Suzuki's return, he makes a point of mentioning that "The Emishi people (Japanese aboriginals) who had once lived there had long ago been driven off by the Japanese."

The treatment of the "Okinawan peasant" Nomura  is even more illuminating. As the villagers surround the two soldiers and demand to know who fired the fatal shot:
   A peculiar smile crossed my son's face. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t shoot him! It was that son-of-a-bitch, that guy over there.” He waved his hands frantically. “He’s not a pure Yamato. He’s a filthy Okinawan dog!”
   Even I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by this spectacular delusion. Okinawa had been absorbed into Japan over a century ago. There was nobody, even among the Okinawans themselves, who still believed they were not Japanese. But Suzuki’s desperate words, spoken with the sword over his head, had a spectacular effect. Just as a son of a concubine is not a true son of the emperor, the Okinawans were not true-blooded descendants of Amaterasu Omikami but only a bastard offshoot.
   “The Okinawan dog killed a Japanese child,” he cried, pleading with the crowd. My son’s familiar features had twisted into the exact same fawning supplicant expression I’d seen so many years ago on Ishikawa’s face....
   The village chief seized Nomura by the collar. “Is it true? Are you a Ryukyu bastard? Did you kill my boy?”
   Nomura suddenly shouted. “That’s right, I’m Okinawan. And I’m a fool who believed I could be every bit as Japanese as you. I went off to war with you, boasting of the Yamato spirit, invading other lands, dragging blameless Koreans back for slave labor, burying them in secret mines on remote islands. My hands are covered in blood. And what do I get for it? I get to be Japanese when it’s useful, and when it’s not I’m just a Ryukyu dog. That’s the real Japanese spirit; jackals who don’t hesitate to gobble up your compatriots to save your own skin.”
   He turned his crazed eyes to me. “You, old man, you saw the whole thing, didn’t you? Speak up. Prove that some island folk have a shred of humanity.”
   I looked at him and thought about Chŏng Sam and Ishikawa; about the evil black blood flowing in my son’s body. I realized that he’d inherited it from me, as I’d inherited it from the long line of my ancestors. And suddenly it seemed appropriate that Nomura, who’d taken such pride in being Japanese but been betrayed by his impure blood, should meet his death on Japanese soil.
   His blood on the rocky shale looked almost black.
An Okinawan family in the 1900s.
Src: Taiwan News
In the past North Korean propaganda has often highlighted racial injustices in the West, particularly in America. These passages indicate an interest in Japan's minority policies as well. 

On top of the treatment of the hang-wae character Ishikawa in the earlier installment, this story puts together an image of minorities in Japan striving to fit in and prove their Japanese-ness, even as the pure-blooded Japanese disparage and mistreat them. The Japanese characters, by contrast, seem simultaneously proud of and disgusted by their own "black blood."


Problematic Japanese Narrator

This story really illuminates a key shortcoming in socialist realism: that it cannot depict an unreliable or dishonest narrator. This helps explain why North Korean stories so rarely take a foreigner's point of view. Recall how Ryŏksa ui Taeha showed the Clintons expressing grudging admiration for their North Korean adversary and disgust with their own devious tactics. Similarly, Maehok took First Lady Rosalyn Carter's point of view and showed her honest disappointment in her husband's weakness as contrasted with the greatness of the Great Leader. 

In this story, you can sense how the author struggles to frame believable motivations for the two Japanese narrators, without exposing them as virtuous or good. The result is that both the reporter and his diarist grandfather appear to struggle but ultimately succumb to their own evil natures, simply because they cannot escape their genetic destiny.

For example, after reading of the shooting incident in the fishing village, the reporter/narrator closes his grandfather's diary and thinks:
   What an extraordinary story, told by a common Japanese.
   Or was it a common story, told by an extraordinary Japanese?
   I felt that my grandfather’s character – his capacity for remorse and self-awareness, for seeing faults as faults – was really unusual in this land whose folk praise betrayal and shamelessness as features of the national character. I had little doubt that incidents like those described in the diary occurred every day, every hour in our country.
   Was I, too, destined to stab generous and righteous people in the back, just like my father and grandfather and Ishikawa?
   I gathered Ri Ra Song’s materials and turned on my computer. No, I decided. For once I would not to take Ozawa’s bait. But then, why were my fingers frozen over the keys?
The narrators, though Japanese themselves, never miss a chance to take a shot at the physical features of the Japanese - their short stature, their bad teeth. In his diary, the grandfather lingers on a disparaging contrast between his two young boarders: Ishikawa is dark, short and ugly, with a sloped forehead and squinty eyes, while Chŏng Sam is tall and distinguished-looking, popular with girls.

In the later diary segment, he goes on a long tangent about how Japanese teeth resemble those of a hyena, being crooked and over-long. He repeatedly comments with loathing on Ishikawa's groveling, obsequious expression, and is distressed to see the same expression on his own son's face - and realize that he wears it himself.

In the present-day, the Asahi Shimbun reporter describes how he "scuttled to keep up with Ri Ra Song's long strides" when they marched off to confront Ozawa over the fabricated photos.

At the story's climax, as the narrator agonizes over whether to write Ozawa's fabricated Chongryon story or Ri's true story, he ponders his genetic destiny:
   It’s a truism that those who do not willingly embrace their odious fate are dragged into it nonetheless. No matter how I agonized, struggled and regretted, I could never escape the destiny of the Yamato folk.
   Just then fate knocked on my door, in the form of one of Ozawa’s yakuza thugs. He thrust a single sheet of paper at me; it read, “Preserve the Yamato spirit!”
    Ah, the black blood that twines through the people of Yamato like Laocoön’s snakes.
   Who was I to try and cure Japan of the poisonous mental illness of nationalism that had afflicted it throughout history?
   No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins. Oh, the wretched providence of Amaterasu Omikami, afflicting her people with the incurable disease of nationalism!
Amaterasu Omikami is the foundational kami spirit of Japan, from whom the imperial line was said to be descended. Koreans may think of her as analogous to Tan'gun
Screen depicting Amaterasu Oomikami
The story uses this and other outdated references to Japanese mysticism (e.g. Yamato spirit) to suggest that Japanese beliefs are essentially unchanged from pre-war times. A social anthropologist could have a field day with the ways that this story recycles elements of the same blood nationalist mythology of imperial Japan to make the case for a Japanese genetic predisposition to deceit and treachery.

Understanding of the Press

It is interesting that the narrator, described in the story as one of Japan's few "true progressive reporters," works for Asahi Shimbun, which is generally regarded as left of center but hardly the most progressive paper in Japan. The story seems to imply that subversive anti-government reporting does get published in major Japanese newspapers with no legal consequences, although the narrator does get threatened with blackmail by Ozawa and the Far Right. One wonders what a typical North Korean reader would make of this.

The narrator appears motivated to make a name for himself as a truth-telling progressive. He despises Ozawa but continues to use him as a source. But he also relies on Ri Ra Song, who gave him the source material for a ground-breaking exposé of the Japanese right-wing that launched his career. At one point, he recalls that he wrote the story "not out of any sense of justice but just to test the limits of my own power.

Choson Shinbo, the newspaper Ri Ra Song works for, is a Tokyo-based newspaper operated by Chongryon that publishes pro-Pyongyang stories in both Japanese and Korean. Its website tends to be more graphically advanced than the North Korea-based sites, and I have used its images as illustrations in several previous blog entries.

Friday, June 7, 2019

"Black Blood" (Part 1): Japan can't keep a good Korean down

"Black Blood: From a Japanese Reporter's Notebook" (흑혈: 한 일본인기자의 수기중에서) is a short story by Choe Su Bŏm that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2018.

The story is set in Tokyo, alternating between the present day and colonial era. It is rich in anti-Japanese epithets and  North Korean interpretations of various historical and current events, from the Imjin War to the Great Kanto Earthquake to a recent mushroom smuggling scandal.

Since there is quite a lot of meat in this story, I am dividing my summary into two parts. The second half of the story will be posted at a later date.

Story Summary

The story opens on the narrator, a Japanese journalist, meeting in a smoky Ginza nightclub with a man named Ozawa Kenichiro.

A Zaitokukai protest in Tokyo
Ozawa is introduced as “a central figure in the far-right group Society for Thinking about Japan’s Future (日本の未を考える), active on such issues as history textbook revisions and constitution reform,” who serves as the narrator's “thermometer for far-right sentiment in the Diet.” An active figure behind the scenes in the Zaitokukai (Society against Special Privileges for Zainichi), he’d gained notoriety for publicly making anti-Korean remarks after the matsutake mushroom incident (in which North Korean mushrooms were being illegally sold in Japan under the label Made in China).

   “Listen up, Mr. Fancy Reporter, you pay your respects at Yasukuni; if you have a speck of the Yamato spirit left in you, you’ll help us out.”
   “What do you want from me?”
   “Write an expose on the Eastern Trading Company violating trade law. Under your name as an elite Asahi Shimbun reporter. We’ve prepared all the materials for you.”
   The Eastern Trading Company was a minor zainichi-owned firm unrelated to Chongryon. It had garnered public scrutiny for its role in the matsutake mushroom import scandal.
   Matsutake mushrooms are delicious and high in calories; you may wonder why it should matter whether they came from China or Korea. Apparently, the sensitive Japanese palate could even detect a food’s nationality.
   It was as if the Japanese authorities saw these mushrooms as some sort of special forces sent to penetrate their net of sanctions. Or did they think the stems were missiles, and the caps were the DPRK’s increasingly advanced ballistic warheads? At any rate, the whole Japanese archipelago was aflutter over these mushrooms.
   The forces behind this mushroom-phobia had sought to stir things up further by raiding the heads of Chongryon. Since they had no connection whatsoever to the Eastern Trading Company, the raid was hard to explain.
   Their raid hadn’t proven anything and had only given Chongryon and North Korea another cudgel to beat Japan with. 


Ozawa supplies the reporter with detailed notes for another story on the matsutake scandal, this time directly implicating the son of the director of Chongryon (the main pro-NK organization for Japan’s resident Koreans). When the narrator hesitates, calling the story “boring” since the investigation has yielded no real evidence, Ozawa prevails upon him to “Do your national duty as a Japanese.”

Troubled, the narrator returns home and contemplates Ozawa’s words.

Our national duty? 
In the whole world, is there any other people who use that phrase as much as us Japanese? Even in this age of globalization, our nation’s blood nationalism has not changed. 
The same words rang like a tired refrain through every newspaper and TV broadcast.Revering fallen soldiers, paying respects at Yasukuni – all part of our ‘national duty’! Sending SDF troops abroad, revising the constitution, claiming neighbors’ territory as our own, distorting history, on and on. With the recent anti-Chongryon craze, this exclusionary sentiment had only become more overt. 
We were all drunk. Intoxicated by militant nationalism, staggering around with our haorijackets untied, hollering at the world.
We were all crazy.Shuffling our getaover the world again just like in the old days, when we brandished our bamboo spears and katanas, waving the hinomaruflag and belting out kimi-ga-yo
And this intoxication, this craziness, was paradoxically justified as part of our “national duty” in the name of building “Strong Japan,” “Beautiful Japan.”
Just what was this duty?
In search of inspiration, he takes up his grandfather’s diary from 1923 and begins to read.

–Grandfather’s Diary–

The grandfather, a landlord in a Tokyo shantytown, writes of two young students who rented a room above an inn he owned by the river. Both were students at Tokyo Imperial University. 

One, named Ri Chŏng Sam, was a tall good-looking young man with striking clear eyes, quite popular with the young ladies. The other was a swarthy fellow with a prominent forehead named Ishikawa Shintaro. He was Japanese but had been raised in Korea and was very vague about his origins.
Students at Tokyo Imperial University, 1917

The diary described an encounter with a very inebriated Ishikawa, who raged about being bullied at school and called a “bat brat.” 
   “Why a bat?”
   Ishikawa downed his cup of masamune [North Korean word for Japanese sake] in one swallow and sighed. “It’s ‘cause I’m from an immigrant family.”
   “Huh, what, then all the thousands of people who’ve migrated to the continent are all bats? Such bullshit.” I refrained from mentioning that his dark face did remind me of some kind of rodent excrement.
   But he just got even more upset. “That’s not it! It’s 'cause I’m hangwae, y’see! Hangwae!”
   That was the day I first learned of a small offshoot of Japanese migrants to Korea known as hangwae.
   During the Japanese invasion of 1592-98, known in Korea as the Imshin Waeran and in Japan as Bunroku- or Keichō-no-Eki, Ishikawa’s ancestor had been among those samurai who grabbed their katanas and muskets and gleefully joined in the fight. There’s no accounting of his deeds or how many Korean ears and noses he lopped off.
Korean artist's depiction of Japanese soldiers during Imshin War
   But somehow, at the end of that miserable war that killed or maimed some 300,000 of our ancestors, he escaped with his life as a POW. That’s all that is recorded in the family register.
   After the war there were some few Japanese prisoners who, deeply impressed by Korea’s advanced culture and refined etiquette, and fearing persecution by the ham-fisted daimyo government, refused to return to Japan and asked to become naturalized Koreans. For Koreans, allowing these mortal enemies to remain on their soil was about as fun as getting pricked by a chestnut burr, but in an excess of generosity they allowed it.
   Like a bad penny, this vomit leftover from the war kept causing problems in society again and again, but they were always treated magnanimously on account of being “naturalized.” Every step of the way, they were never forced and received nothing but kindness. Eventually, over hundreds of years, these hangwae (defeated Japanese) became almost completely transformed into Koreans. They took Korean names, spoke Korean, wore Korean clothing, and adopted Korean mannerisms. Then Japan annexed Korea, and suddenly they began swaggering around with big bloated heads.
   They dug out their old moss-grown family registers from their hiding places in crock pots and buried caches, assiduously traced their genealogy lines back hundreds of years, and scuttled off to the Government General to certify their Japaneseness based on their ancestry. In a single morning, Kim-this and Lee-that became this-and-that Japanese surname.
   These upstart Japs became the islanders’ scouts and guard dogs on the mission to rob the country that had fed, clothed and cared for them. So went the history of the hangwae, who are called “bats” on account of how they flit back and forth between sides whenever it suits them.
Through a series of other encounters, the landlord learned the tangled history of the two boys’ families. During a peasant revolt just before the first Sino-Japanese war, when anti-Japanese sentiment was high, Chŏng Sam’s father (who was head of the Ri clan) had saved Ishikawa’s father from an angry mob. Since then the Ri family had always protected the Ishikawas. 

At first both boys received monthly remittance checks to support their studies, but Ishikawa’s support dried up after his father lost all the family land to loan sharks from the Dongchŏk (Oriental Development Company). Chŏng Sam took on part-time work to help cover the shortfall. Moved by his selflessness and industry, the landlord gave the boys a break on their rent deadline.

Meanwhile, it became clear that Ishikawa was hiding something from Chŏng Sam; he asked the landlord to deliver all their mail directly to him.

   Finally, the terrible day of judgement arrived.
   September 1, 1923!
   A vast force exploded on that harsh, brutal land. In one instant, the great city was leveled.
   That day, nature itself visited a calamitous holy war upon the island whose people had only trampled and destroyed other lands. Every passing second was filled with towering rage and violent judgment. The earth sank and the sky fell. It was as if an underground giant had twitched his finger beneath the city. The whole city was reduced to ruins, and everything melted into a sea of ash, flame and blood. In that city that had been gripped and crushed by an irrestible force, a bone-deep bitter despair and fear lingered.
   They should have carefully heeded this murderous warning of nature. But instead, a deep resentment belched forth like sewage from the rotten hearts of the Japanese and fell upon the Korean people.
   “Koreans started the fire!” “Koreans poisoned the wells!” “They incited the riots!”
   The Great Kanto Earthquake set the opportune conditions for a kamikaze wind to fall upon and slaughter the Koreans. The whole Kanto region transformed into a heap of skulls and a banquet of blood as the “samurai” feasted on Korean flesh and sucked Korean blood.

Great Kanto Earthquake scene by Kanokogi Takeshiro.
Soon roving gangs formed militias to hunt down Koreans in the shantytowns. The landlord urged Chŏng Sam to lay low for a while, and Ishikawa stoutly declared “I’m here for you.”

When a gang of hoodlums came to the inn demanding that they “turn over that Korean,” the landlord initially lied and said he was gone. But the cowardly Ishikawa promptly gave him up.

The hoodlums tromped upstairs, and the sounds of violent struggle ensued.

Eventually they came back down, dragging a tightly bound Chŏng Sam. It seemed he’d put his wrestling skills to use; many bled from their mouths, eyes and noses, and their dwarfish leader appeared unconscious or dead.
Illustration of Koreans and Chinese being rounded up after
the Kanto earthquake, by the Japanese artist Kayahara
Hakudō, who witnessed the slaughter as a young man.

As they dragged him out the door, Chŏng Sam glared at Ishikawa and asked, “How could you do this?” 

“Because you’re Korean,” was Ishikawa’s cold reply.

The next day Ishikawa was seen leaving with a bunch of bundles and a trunk. The landlord realized with disgust that he was selling off Chŏng Sam’s possessions. He went up to their room and, sure enough, all of the Korean’s things had been cleared out.


He discovered three revealing letters that painted a very different story of Ishikawa’s family circumstances back in Korea. His father had indeed lost all his money gambling, but then he used his Dongchŏk connections to claim the Ri clan’s ancestral burial land as his own. There was a lawsuit, but the colonial government always favored the Japanese claimant in such things. In a fit of rage, Chŏng Sam’s father assaulted Ishikawa’s father and ended up getting thrown in jail. Ishikawa had been warned to keep this news from Chŏng Sam, because it would complicate their legal rights to the land if another claimant with the right family name showed up.

And now, Ishikawa had seen an opportunity to get rid of his problematic roommate. 

Soon after, another gang of Japanese hoodlums showed up at the door, hauling Ishikawa in by the scruff of his neck. 
   “Hey, you! You know this guy? You’re the landlord, right? Tell us, is he Korean or Japanese?”
   Ishikawa pleaded, “Oh, sir, please! Explain to these guys about me. They heard me say ‘15 yen and 55 sen’ and thought my pronunciation was weird. Help me!” Ah, Ishikawa, done in by the infamous “15 yen and 55 sen.” That misbegotten hangwae had never been able to match the nasal g of a pure-blooded Yamato.
   “You’re not hiding Koreans again, are you?!”
   “Sir, please tell them. You know my whole story better than anyone.”
   As I looked down at him, my mind flashed an image of Chŏng Sam’s face, smiling in the sun. And on top of that came the image of Ishikawa blustering about “our national duty.”
   I realized then that betrayal was not “our national duty.” It was our people’s destiny, part of our genetic makeup – the demon blood, the black blood passed down continuously from the beginning of time.
   We could never resist fulfilling this treacherous duty, bringing down heaven’s divine punishment.
   It was Ishikawa who helped me to realize it.
   And I faithfully executed that duty.
   I bit off the icy cold words: “This one is no Japanese.”

   The story continues in Part 2....



Depictions of Japanese

This story illustrates some of the ways that language is employed to paint the Japanese as simultaneously conniving and foolish. Examples include: repeatedly referring to Japan as “that island country” (섬나라) and  Japanese characters as “islanders” (섬나라사람); ironic repetition of well-known Japanese terms like “kamikaze” and “samurai,” and idiomatic phrases like “swishing the hems of their haori” and “brandishing their katanas,” invoke a sense of ridicule behind the menace.

Ishikawa, the hang-wae descendent, gets the business end of most of this negative description. For instance, here's how the grandfather's diary describes him begging to hide mail from his roommate Chŏng Sam:
   In his face I saw that hateful dog-like look, that pleading expression meant to appease and persuade. It was a familiar look. It was the same anxious and guilty look that was a characteristic of all our kind, myself included. 
The landlord resents Chŏng Sam’s popularity with women but can’t help admiring his strength of character, clear eyes and upright bearing. He finds himself instinctively using polite speech forms with him as if speaking to an equal or superior, while talking down to his roommate Ishikawa and privately scorning his ugliness and cowardice. 

Nevertheless, in several ways I feel like this author has skated up to the edge of what may be permissible in terms of depicting Japanese favorably. The narrators are both Japanese – the reporter and his diary-writing grandfather – and since the narrative takes their point of view, they become at least quasi-sympathetic characters. 

When the reporter reflects on Japan's various misdeeds - "sending SDF troops abroad, revising the constitution, claiming neighbors’ territory as our own, distorting history" - he does so with remorse rather than exaltation. The grandfather's diary expresses similar sentiments about the anti-Korean violence he witnesses after the Kantō earthquake. Both narrators can’t help but grudgingly admire Koreans, suggesting that they have enough humanity to recognize inherent value and to struggle against their prejudices. I wonder if North Korean literary theory does not have the concept of an unreliable narrator.

Based on what we know from Kim Ju-song's memoir, I would guess that this story was labeled a "problematic work." Recall that Kim's fiction was frequently given bad reviews for being set in Japan. Even though he depicted the Japanese purely in negative terms, his editors preferred for him to write stories set in North Korea.


Links
The scandal of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea being re-labeled "Made in China" fell out in 2015 and prompted a police raid on Chongron. Here is NK News on Japan’s matsutake smuggling ring: https://www.nknews.org/2015/06/the-prized-mushroom-that-may-help-fund-pyongyang/
And the DailyNK covered the story here: https://dailynk.jp/archives/57976

Illustration from the serial novel "Hangwae Kim Chung-Sŏn."
Src: Chungang Ilbo
Hang-wae have been dramatized in South Korean historical fiction and dramas, particularly well-known is the story of Kim Chung-sŏn, which was the subject of a popular serial novel. The Korean Wikipedia page on hang-wae offers more information: https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/항왜

Some explanation in English can be found here

The Dongchŏk (동척 - Oriental Development Company) was a colonial institution set up by the Japanese to implement their land reform and fund economic development projects in Korea. Ishikawa's father's experience - getting bilked out of his family land after taking a dongchŏk loan that he was unable to repay - is a common story told by Koreans of that era.