Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"Age of Reason" (철드는 시절): Boyhood in North Korea

For a change of pace, this month’s post looks at the lighter side of North Korean literature. The following story, from a children’s literary magazine, lends insight into the use of humor in North Korean fiction writing.

"Age of Reason" (철드는 시절) is a short story by Ri Gyŏng Ae that appeared in Adong Munhak (date unknown) and was recently posted on the North Korean website uriminzokkiri.

Adong Munhak (Children's Literature) is the Party’s monthly literary journal directed at children. Stories from this journal may be read and discussed in schools as part of either the national language or moral education curriculum. Compared to Chosŏn Munhak and Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, the stories are much shorter and usually cover lighter topics. The journal also publishes poems, serial novels, fables, interviews and essays.

This coming-of-age story is told from the perspective of a rambunctious nine-year-old boy, Chŏl Song, who longs to "grow up" and be respected as "a hero." The young narrator rumbles through several humorous Dennis-the-Menace-style episodes before finally reaching the moral of the story.


The Story

One snowy winter day, Chŏl Song sneaks out of the schoolhouse with his buddies Hyŏn Sŏng and Pyŏng Hun to play in the snow. In short order they stack three enormous snowballs to build a snowman.
   “Well, what sort of snowman should he be? Father Harvest? An Ottogi doll?”
   I slap my knee. “I know! Let’s make an American jackal soldier (승냥이 미군놈), then we can smash him to smithereens!”
   “What a great idea. Chŏl-song, you’ve got a mind like a ball bearing!”
   Portly Pyŏng Hun waddled off home to retrieve a pot and a radish. While he was gone we sculpted the body. The result looked a bit more like a bear than a jackal, but it suited our purposes. We turned Pyŏng Hun's pot upside-down for a helmet, and the radish made for a perfect jutting hawk nose. We got excited just thinking how we would smash him down.
   After preparing a good-sized arsenal of snowballs, we opened fire. After several fusillades, the snow soldier collapsed magnificently. We then “shot” at it with sticks. My buddies cheered and I felt my heart swell, just as if I’d become a real hero of the People's Army.
A North Korean girl shoveling snow. Src: Daily Mail
The boys' cheery mood is doused when Chŏl-song's last ball strikes a Young Pioneer cadet (단위원) named Il Shim full in the face. His companions flee, afraid that the older girl will report on them. But she just glares at Chŏl Sung in annoyance and asks, "When are you going to grow up?" She then continues about her task, doggedly shoveling snow off the roadway.

The boys meet up back at Chŏl-song's house, where they discuss her comment. It seems all of them have been hearing this "grow up" phrase a lot lately, whenever they get into some mischief.
   “Well, growing up means getting bigger, right?” said Hyŏn Sŏng. “So all we need to do is hurry up and grow some.”
   “That’s right. You guys need to grow fatter, like me, and taller too.” Pyŏng Hun shook his fat belly proudly and extended his fist above his head to illustrate.
   “And our voices need to get lower,” Hyŏn Sŏng added, dropping his normally piping voice an octave. We all tried to talk low like adults, but no matter how hard we tried the result sounded weak and raspy.
   “It’s no use. To get a deep voice, you have to grow one of those ping-pong ball things in your throat first.” Hyŏn Sŏng pointed to his throat. “Like our dads have. That’s where the deep grown-up voice comes from.”
   How mysterious the grown-up world seemed.
   “That’s not all!” Pyŏng Hun rubbed his chin. “We have to grow beards!”
   We laughed out loud. “Imagine Pyŏng Hun with a big beard like a billy goat!”
   “Well, we’ll just shave like our dads do. Do you have any ideas of your own, Chŏl Song, or are you just going to pick on us?”
Chŏl Song gets the bright idea to pull some of his dad's business clothes out of the closet and try them on. He struggles into the snow-white shirt, wraps the tie clumsily around his neck, shrugs on the heavy jacket bedecked with medals, and digs his father's spectacles out of his desk. Finally he hangs his father's physicians' medal around his neck. The boys are mightily impressed with the result, and a scuffle ensues as they all want to try the clothes on. 

Il Shim walks in to find them rolling on the floor fighting over the clothes. Again, she tells them to "grow up." They patiently explain to her that they were trying to do just that.
   She chuckled. “I see. So you decided to grow up in a hurry. And then what?”
   “We’ll be heroes, of course,” I said.
   “Heroes?”
    “Yeah. I’m going to be a doctor like my dad, and Pyŏng Hun’s going to be a farm hero like his grandfather.”
   Nuna [big sister] started putting the clothes back on the hanger. “That’s a fine dream. But do you think you can become a hero just by imitating adults? … Do you know the trees in your schoolyard were planted by our hometown hero Hyŏng Nam? The hero Hyang Rim, whose name is known all over our country, was your age [when she died], and the hero Cho Hyŏk Chŏl was just two years older than you [two children who perished trying to save portraits of the leaders]. Nobody would ever call them immature.”
   We thought about that. “Nuna, are you grown up?”
   “Me?” She gazed off hazily toward the window for a moment, then shook her head slowly. “No, I’ve still got a long way to go.”
The next day, Il Shim comes across the boys joyfully sledding down a roadway, where they've poured well water from the hilltop to make an icy track.

"Chŏl Song," she says, "Won't our moms and dads have to travel this road for the spring planting? When you ice it over like that, how will the tractors and carts get up it?" Chastised, the boys help her haul sacks of gravel to pour down the hill. Passersby, including their parents, are pleasantly astonished to see the normally rowdy boys doing something to help the community. They exclaim over how “kids grow up so fast these days,” and the boys swell with pride.

Grabbing Il Shim’s hand, Ch’ŏl Song thanks her for “helping us to grow up,” and asks her how she came up with the idea to clear the road each day. She explains:
   “My father was in charge of maintaining this stretch of road. One spring day two years ago, he left for an assignment far away. Since then I’ve been keeping the road smooth, clearing rocks and ruts, waiting for him to return.
   “One sleety winter day, I stared out the window and just couldn’t bring myself to move. How could I have known that I would regret that decision for the rest of my life? For that very morning, our Great Leader, our General traveled along that very dangerous road on his way to a guidance visit.
   “That day I beat my chest and swore an oath, that I would grow up fast and do everything I could to ensure the General’s happiness.”
Chŏl Song reflects on their foolish attempts to mimick grown-ups, dropping their voices and pretending to shave. He says to his friends, “Hyŏn Sŏng, Pyŏng Hun, I’ve figured it out. To truly be grown-up is to want only to bring happiness to the Fatherly Leader.” [아버지원수님께 기쁨을 드릴 때 사람들은 철이 든다]. The children all hold hands and vow to work together to bring the Leader happiness.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Hot Blizzard (뜨거운 눈보라): CNC, Sanctions, and R&D at the Taean Machine Factory

The Hot Blizzard (뜨거운 눈보라) is a short story by Kim Ch'ŏl Sun that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in June 2016 and was reprinted in Chŏngryŏn Munhak in February 2017. Through this story we see how US sanctions attempt to disrupt North Korea's heavy industries, but the country's intrepid engineers are able to overcome the difficulties and emerge all the stronger for the adversity.

KJI touring Taean in 2009.
The story follows a guidance visit by Kim Jong Il to the Taean Heavy Machine Factory complex in 2009 and highlights CNC technology as an answer to US sanctions. This factory is a longstanding showcase of North Korean heavy industry; it is even featured on the North Korean tourism website exploredprk.com, which boasts that "Employees of the Taean Heavy Machine Complex in the DPRK put spurs to boosting the production of generating equipment with the will to frustrate the U.S. and other hostile forces’ harshest sanctions and provocations in the spirit of self-reliance."

The story jumps back and forth in time a lot over a 20-year period, showing how the factory has triumphed through adversity and how the main character has grown from a headstrong young engineer to a capable and seasoned problem-solver.

The Story

KJI’s SUV struggled through the first big blizzard of the new year. He’d set off on another guidance visit, overriding the earnest pleas of his staff that he not travel through such a bad storm.
   Their concerns were not unfounded. He was emaciated from endless hard work. But He had decided that 2009 would be the breakthrough year for achieving an economically prosperous nation (경제강국건설). Last December 24th He visited the birthplace of the Chollima Movement and lit the signal fires of Kangsŏn, which then spread to Sŏnggang, Namhŭng, Hŭngnam, Tanchŏn; to strike targets at the front lines of the economic battle (경제전선의 주타격대상) and all across the land. To keep fanning the flames, the General carried on His hard march of extreme labor (초강도강행군길).
KJI was greatly troubled by a report from the Taean machine factory. It seemed they were unable to produce a turbine for a certain hydropower plant the KPA was building, and thus the plant could not be made operational in time for the KWP Foundation Day celebrations. The machinery problem was seriously delaying the top-priority power supply restoration effort.

It was hard to believe that Manager Chang Tae Ch’ŏl could have overseen such a mistake. KJI had personally taken Chang under his wing many years ago. He recalled how they first met.

<20 years ago>
KJI received a troubling performance report about one Chang Tae Ch’ŏl, then 1st deputy production engineer (생산1부기사장) at Taean. The report recommended that Chang be demoted for "being overly pushy and causing mistakes."

Workers at Taean Factory. Src: dprktoday
The trouble started when the factory ran out of fuel for the transports that moved scrap iron from the freight station to the smelting furnaces. While waiting for the fuel truck to arrive, Chang proposed a little iron schlepping competition among the workers. By dawn they had manually hauled many tens of tons of scrap metal. But later that evening there was an accident, and management blamed it on Chang overtaxing the workers. It seems Chang lost his temper, slammed the table and used impolite language. This prompted his superiors to conduct a review, which found fault with much of his past behavior.

Reading this account, KJI saw an unseemly abrasiveness and uncooperative nature - but also a stubborn intensity and revolutionary fighting spirit that needed nourishing.

With a heavy heart, he wrote a recommendation for “criticism education” (비판교양). Then, on impulse he picked up his prized orchid cactus and handed it to the waiting factory rep, telling him to give it to Chang on his return. “Horticulture is a good hobby for correcting one’s rough edges.”

Several months later, in a phone call with the Taean Factory director, he learned that Chang's attitude had completely transformed. He recommended that the young engineer be sent to the People’s Economic University (인민경제대학) for further training. After Chang had completed the university course, KJI set him up as a manager at Taean, the country’s largest industrial complex (련합기업소). The Leader even helped out when he heard Chang’s division needed materials to renovate their 장비직장건물, personally sending a large order of wood, cement and steel.

KIS touring the Taean Machine Factory in 1980.
Src: Uriminzokkiri
One day, while retrofitting the factory under Chang's orders, a young technician named Shin Sang Ch'ŏl suffered a bad fall. The doctors at  Kim Man Yu Hospital said he might never fully recover the use of his legs. Chang brought him to his own house to tend to him personally. He bathed him in medicinal herbs and muds, massaged him and served him potent herbal teas, even read to him when he had trouble sleeping. In just a few months, young Shin made an amazing recovery.

KJI watched a TV documentary about this story, and noted with pride the cactus blooming in Chang’s window in one scene.

Years passed. Chang was promoted to a post in the Ministry of Heavy Industry; but bureaucratic work did not suit the hands-on engineer, so he soon returned to Taean.

<Back in the present>
KJI couldn’t believe his protégé Chang could be responsible for this failure with the military's equipment. Thus he decided to investigate the matter in person.

Arriving at the factory, he was disturbed by Chang's guilty, abashed, almost timid demeanor. He recalled a conversation with Chang in happier times, discussing how CNC could fix their assembly problems building large, complex machines like hydropower dam generators.

<Some years earlier>
Touring a dam site together, Chang explained to KJI how his team had set an ambitious plan to adapt their largest rotor assemblages to CNC. But they were only using two turbine assemblages; KJI thought they should aim higher.
   “Looking at the global trend, and in terms of production efficiency, you can’t expect much with just two. You really need five axes. Of course, only a few countries have been able to achieve a synchronized five-axis turbine assemblage, but we must find a way to do it. You never know if you don’t try, and we have to show the world what we can do. To do that, we have to set bigger, bolder goals (더 대담하게 목표를 걸고). I know you are up to the task.”
   Chang nodded vigorously. “Yes, General! Count on it!”
   KJI smiled at the chief engineer’s enthusiasm. “First, to broaden your horizons and get a feel for the tech, you should go abroad and see how other countries are doing this. Go ahead and put together a delegation of your best engineers. You can go wherever you like.”
<Back in the present>
A factory "history room" (연혁소개실), the first stop on any
 guidance visit
KJI met the factory managers, including Shin Sang Ch'ŏl, the once-injured worker who was now a lead engineer. He toured the factory history hall, where lovingly framed photos showing the Great Leader’s many guidance visits.

The next room showcased the many new inventions and scientific breakthroughs the factory had made over the years. KJI sloshed beakers and felt insulation materials with his own hands, asking astute questions. Then it was time to view the new CNC assembly.
   The General slowly approached the 5-axis assembly. Above the assembly hung the huge steel hydropower turbines, the five axes spinning smoothly, directing the spindle to work a complex curved surface according to the computer’s precise calculations. He recalled the story of how they first started building the 5-axis CNC assembly…
<Flashback several years>
As ordered, Chang Dae Ch’ŏl had led a delegation of engineers on a 40-day tour of neighboring countries and Europe. They found a European manufacturer of CNC devices that had the part they needed to achieve a 5-axis assembly and even offered show them the specs. They reached an agreement and returned home.
A CNC-adapted assembly at Taean.
Src: dprktoday
Chang soon departed again to purchase the part. On his way, he had a layover in Moscow.
   When his flight stopped in Moscow, he ventured out to find the city abuzz with the news: Our country [NK] had met the US’ nuclear provocations by declaring itself a nuclear weapons power.
    In Russia, the astonishing event was on the front page of every newspaper and the lead of every TV news show, with everyone offering their own take and predictions for how the situation would unfold. Through all of them there was a palpable note of thrill that Korea would once again out-punch the United States, and amazement about our unimaginable gutsiness and resolve.
    When he arrived at the export company, the CEO’s formerly open and affable attitude was nowhere to be seen. He tossed the EU ruling onto the table and offered nothing but apologies. Since the US was threatening them with COCOM sanctions, he could neither sell them the CNC device nor show them the specs.
    So they returned home empty-handed. The General received their report, and around midnight He called up Chang, asking calmly: “Well, what are you going to do about this?”
   “General, our engineers are furious about what the US bastards are doing, and we’re determined to get this done by our own power (우리의 힘으로).”
   “Good thinking. The more they try their nasty underhanded tricks, the harder we have to push back with our own strength (자력갱생)."
They discussed a lot of complicated technical details. There was a tricky problem with the circuit coupling method; KJI immediately offered a bold solution that none of the engineers had conceived of in all their days and nights of working on this problem.

Engineers test a CNC machine at the Institute of Machine
Automation. Src: Uriminzokkiri
Chang's team got to work, and KJI dispatched some engineers from the Institute of Machine Automation (조종기계연구소) to help. In three months, the 5-axis assembly was operational.

<Back in the present>
KJI gazed proudly at the huge, smoothly spinning assembly. Turning to the weary but triumphant team of engineers, he spoke:
   “Of all the CNC machines we’ve made to date, I’m proudest of this one. Only the most advanced nations have been able to achieve a five-axis hydropower turbine assembly; that our engineers were able to build one through their own strength is truly amazing. The enemy took forceful measures to stop us from importing a five-axis assemblage, but the engineers of Taean really bloodied their noses good... That you were able to triumph under such tough circumstances makes this all the more precious.”
The engineers protested, saying it was all thanks to the General, who found a solution and supplied them all the equipment they needed. Everybody had tears in their eyes.
   The General could read the hardships reflected in their faces.  “Look at me,” He said softly. “You’ve had a hard time, haven’t you?”
   The party secretary spoke up. “It’s true, there’ve been some hard sacrifices. One of our material supply engineers was diagnosed with a terminal illness but still spent his few remaining months working tirelessly here. We kept pushing him to go to the hospital, but he insisted he’d rather spend his last days at work than in bed; he died by his phone after successfully acquiring the ferromagnetic material we needed. Ironically, it was he who had reported Chang Dae Ch'ŏl for criticism twenty years ago. He’d since resigned from management and returned to engineering, achieving many breakthroughs in material supply. For years, he’d been caring for that cactus You sent to us. As he slumped over his desk, dying, he asked that the cactus be laid beside him. He asked us to take good care of the cactus, then died.”
KJI touring Taean in 2009. Src: uriminzokkiri
They continued on the factory tour, observing various CNC-operated lathes, milling machines and cutters, a smoothly spinning assembly churning out stators for Nyŏngwon Electric Dam, a shiny new computer lab where they could now do 3-D modeling and experimental turbine simulations. At one point an aide scurried over and asked, shouldn’t the General take a break and rest a while? KJI waved him off, absorbed in the tour.

KJI was impressed by all of this hard work; still, the elephant in the room needed to be addressed.

   Taking a deliberately stern tone, He asked, “But why haven’t you built the generators for the military yet?”
   Chang hung his head. The party secretary answered: “General, we weren’t able to anticipate every circumstance. As soon as the new modernized process was ready we were planning to order the materials and start production, but we never imagined that the enemy’s sanctions would go so far. We were so focused on the modernization effort that we gave only secondary consideration to the people’s economic plan. I’m largely responsible. The manager said we should wait so that we could send the KPA more efficient generators made with modernized equipment, and I agreed.”
  Lead technician Shin Sang Ch’ŏl spoke up, his voice tight with guilt. “I’m also responsible. I supported the decision. Please punish me too.”
   Chang Dae Ch’ŏl lifted his head. “No, General, I am to blame for everything.” 
KJI ruminated for a moment. Of course it was wrong of them to ignore the economic plan, but their determination to secure a basis for better quality and efficiency was praiseworthy.
    The General suddenly stopped and turned to face them all. “The sanctions by the US imperialists and their followers will only get more severe.... At times like this, government must help our industries. As we have a planned economy, central guidance will always be important, but our enterprises cannot function properly if they are tied down by endless regulations in the name of central guidance. Now’s not the time to quibble about numbers and blame; we must match our economic policy with each factory’s management strategy and real circumstances.”
He declared that Chang was right to prioritize R&D and encouraged him to continue, offering to fully fund everything they needed for a top-of-the-line operation. Then, to their collective joy, he suggested that they all get their photo taken together in front of the 5-axis assembly. Chang began sobbing in an unmanly fashion.

Instead of punishment, KJI gave them a commendation. He told the workers that they had given him new energy and new faith that “victory in the construction of a strong and prosperous nation is certain.”

Finally KJI departed, looking hale and unshakable as he stepped out into the blinding snowstorm. As his car rolled away, he rolled down the window to wave at them, heedless of the snow and cold wind that swept into the car. The factory workers stood in the storm, but they didn’t feel cold at all. They were warmed by the General’s love.

R&D under Sanctions

This story is a prime example of North Korea's "what doesn't kill us will only make us stronger" propaganda approach to sanctions. We see how the factory is all set to import the technology they need from a European firm, when US sanctions (mentioned in passing to have been in response to the North's nuclear declaration) force them to develop the technology on their own instead. They succeed in short order, achieving a difficult piece of CNC technology that "only a few of the most advanced nations have been able to achieve."

At the climactic moment in the story, KJI makes a big speech:
   “The sanctions by the US imperialists and their followers will only get more severe. As long as we hold aloft the banners of self-determination and sŏngun, the enemy will never back down. That is why, now and forever, we must always believe in our own strength (자기 힘) and find solutions in our own style (자기식). Yesterday, today and tomorrow, self-rehabilitation (자력갱생) is our lifeline.”
This one speech includes most of the key late-KJI-era buzzwords and is a nice encapsulation of North Korean ideology at its core. To wit: it's better not to rely on other countries, even friendly ones, because the enemy can always cut off those sources. You may call it isolationist (and many do), but it is also the natural outcome for a country that has repeatedly lost vital supply lines throughout its history.

Of course, the reality is that being cut off from outside information and technology greatly inhibits R&D. But through stories like this, the Party reassures the domestic audience that its intrepid scientists are more than a match for US sanctions, and outside pressure only strengthens their resolve.

Lighting the signal fires of Kangsŏn

"Spirit of Kangsŏn" reads a banner in imminent danger
of combustion at Chollima Steel Factory.
Src: ournation-school.com
"The signal fires of Kangsŏn" (강선의 봉화) is a slogan associated with a late Kim Jong Il era economic revival policy that sought to emulate the earlier Chollima Movement of the 1950s, which drove a period of rapid reconstruction following the Korean War.  This slogan originated with an incident in December 2008 in which Kim Jong Il visited the Chollima Steel Factory, known as ground zero of the Chollima movement, and gave a speech invoking the "signal fires of Kangsŏn" - Kangsŏn being the factory's original name (http://nk.chosun.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=112379).

This slogan is clever in a couple of ways. Kangsŏn is a near-homonym for kangsŏng, "strong and prosperous," which had already become a big buzzword by 2008. "Signal fires" refer to a pre-modern Korean communication system of bonfires on high hilltops by which people could send warnings and mobilize forces across vast distances. Koreans are quite proud of this early signaling system, and it has featured in a number of movies and period dramas over the years - my personal favorite being the recent Netflix drama "Kingdom," in which it is used to warn the capital of a zombie outbreak in the southeast.

CNC revolution

I will admit to being so narrowly focused on North Korea that I was mistakenly under the impression that CNC (Computer Numerical Control) was just a North Korean thing. They certainly talk about it as if it was their own invention.

It turns out it is a rather universal term for the standardized system of automating the movements of industrial machines. A good short explanation (with animation!) can be found here. This site offers a bit more explanation about the whole deal with the axes. It seems that having more rotation axes allows for more efficient and precise work on complex surfaces. The things I learn through this blog project!

North Korea has promoted CNC technology heavily through a propaganda push since around 2009. Though KJI is the protagonist of this story, I strongly associate it with the rise of Kim Jong Un. NK Economy Watch did a long post about it back in 2010.

It is easy to see why an impoverished regime that is bent on rapidly catching up in manufacturing would seize upon automation as a sort of magic bullet. But CNC has taken on a broader meaning in regime propaganda, symbolizing all aspects of modernization and new technology. The Pochonbo Electric Ensemble even wrote a catchy song about CNC that provides a great compendium of KJU-related slogans.

It is interesting that this story shows North Korean engineers first going on a study tour of “developed countries” to acquire the CNC technology they need. It’s also telling that the unnamed European company seems cooperative and happy to sell them the technology at first, until they get threatened with US sanctions.

Seed Theory

This story is a good easy example of “seed theory,” the literary technique attributed to Kim Jong Il. Every story must have a “seed,” some small symbolic element that appears throughout the story, ties the narrative together, and represents the overall meaning. In this story, I believe the seed is the orchid cactus. It’s lurking in almost every scene, and gets the spotlight at important moments. As the party secretary explains, “That cactus has become a symbol of our General’s love for and faith in factory workers, and of our devotion to our General.”

Seed Theory was first promulgated through Kim Jong Il's treatise On the Art of the Cinema, published in 1973. According to the North Korean Literature and Art Dictionary, "The seed, which forms the core of any literary and art work, is a fundamental element that determines the value of the work and the authors and artists must hold the seed straight in order to convey clearly his thoughts and aesthetic intention and assure the philosophical value of their work."

In his memoir, defector Kim Ju-sŏng writes about how much of his literary training as a member of the Korean Writer’s Union revolved around trying to identify the "seeds" in various famous literary works. The seed in The Flower Girl, for instance, is the basket that the girl carries with her everywhere.

I got some further clarification on Seed Theory from Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and current MA student in literature at Kim Il Sung University. In his literature classes, he was taught to identify the seed (종자), the subject (주제) and the ideology (사상) in a story.

Sigley’s literary theory textbook quotes Kim Jong Il as writing, “The seed is the basic idea at the core of the story that the author is trying to communicate; it is the ideological kernel upon which the entire story is rooted.” The textbook gives an example analysis of the novel/play The Destiny of a Self-Defense Corpsman [한 자위단원의 운명], one of the five "immortal classics" (불후의 고전적명작) attributed to Kim Il Sung. The seed of this story is explained to be the main character’s realization that he will lose his life whether he fights in the corps or not - that life under Japanese occupation is no true life at all.

Revolutionary Mentorship

It has not escaped my attention that each of the last four stories I've reviewed features a close, emotionally fraught relationship between two men. "Night Path" depicted the rivalry between an older manure farmer and his dimpled young frenemy, with the younger man oddly playing the role of guide and mentor. "Morning of Departure" painted a portrait of two old army buddies reuniting under tense circumstances, as one had to bring the long arm of the law down on the other. "Unification Arirang" followed the reconciliation of two old friends, a musician and choreographer, who had been separated since the Korean War. Each of these relationships had elements of admiration, envy and rivalry.

Commemorative stamp promoting CNC
In this story, KJI mentors Chang and is pleased in turn to see Chang mentoring young Shin. After hearing about how Chang nursed Shin back to health, he gazes at Chang proudly, "like a parent seeing his child all grown up" (성장한 자식의 모습을 보며 기뻐하고 대견해하는 친부모의 심정).
   “To think that the young engineer I once knew has now become a chief engineer, and a manager who mentors others (사람을 키우다) in his own right. No true revolutionary can be disinterested in mentoring others. And to mentor someone takes great compassion and love.” 
In almost every story where they appear, the Leaders are depicted as mentors - not merely guiding, but getting personally invested in the long-term life trajectories of key individuals. They are always there to offer the spark of inspiration at the critical moment so that the main character can make a breakthrough - be it forestry, weather prediction, mass games choreography, or 5-axis CNC. It is difficult for any character to achieve unalloyed success without some sort of help from the Leader along the way. That is why Kim-free stories tend to have much more ambiguous endings.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Tongil Arirang (통일아리랑): Choreographing the Arirang Mass Games

Cover art of Arirang, a novel by
Ri Ryŏng Chŏl published in 2013
"Tongil Arirang" (Unification Arirang) is a short story that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in February 2009 (after KJI had his debilitating stroke, but over a year before his son was appointed successor). It tells the story of Kim Jong Il's efforts to assist his choreographers in planning the Arirang Mass Games while hosting ethnic Koreans from around the world.

This story appears to be a condensed version of Ri Ryŏng Chŏl's 2013 novel "Arirang," part of the "Eternal Leadership" (불멸의 향도) series. The ambitious reader can find the entire novel on uriminzokkiri.

The story is unusual in having a Korean-American as a semi-sympathetic character. It follows the reconciliation of two old friends who were separated in the chaos of the Korean War. One went South and then emigrated to the US, becoming an accomplished composer and pianist. The other went North and became the foremost choreographer for the Arirang Mass Games. Through the two artists, we get a sense of North Korean archetypes of artists in the socialist and capitalist worlds. Through their eventual reconciliation, we also catch a glimpse of the Party's ideal vision of national unification.

Story Summary

KJI is up late at night looking over the script for Arirang. He calls up Culture Minister Wŏn to discuss final arrangements, which are proceeding despite "the difficult international situation."

They discuss the various foreign delegations that are visiting, particularly the Korean compatriots from the South and overseas. Many of them have been asking after old relatives and friends, not knowing if they are still alive. A Korean-American musician by the name of Chŏn Sang Ŭm had wandered into the Office of Overseas Compatriots (해외교포사업국) asking after his old friend Rim Jin Woo, who was the lead choreographer for Arirang.

KJI recalls hearing a sad story from Rim about his friend Chŏn ten years ago. Rim was quite bitter about it, but he's an amiable enough fellow so KJI figures he'll have welcomed his old friend back by now. He smiles, thinking about the two artists lounging together on a grassy knoll sharing old memories and talking shop.

On the subject of Arirang, KJI asks Wŏn about the problematic "unification scene." Wŏn confesses it's already undergone three revisions. Rim Jin Woo, the choreographer, seems stuck; hence, the committee sent the script to the Leader for advice.

KJI asks to meet Rim and is informed that the choreographer has been sleeping at May Day Stadium lately, engrossed in his work.

An Arirang performance at May Day Stadium, July 2013.
Src: RFA
KJI decides to watch the rehearsal DVD one more time before paying Rim a visit. He reviews the scene where the "wall of division" crumbles. Amid a patriotic chorus, the scene fades in to a riot of dancers in pink, yellow and white skirts twirling against a backdrop of Mt. Paekdu and Mt. Halla. In the middle, they flip their colors to form a red map of unified Korea on the field.

KJI knows what's wrong; the choreography is formulaic and limited, and the most vital message, about "the need to assist our people's self-determination and independent development in the 21st century," is too abstract. The scene fixates on the historic events of the year 2000, but "unfamiliar political slogans cannot stir a crowd."

He turns off the video and listens to a recording of the orchestral score "Bumper Year Comes to Chŏngsanbŏl" (청산벌에 풍년이 왔네), a hybrid folk opera from the 1960s. The dynamic, stirring melody, played by a mixture of Korean folk instruments and modern instruments, calls up a sweeping vision of a misty country morning at harvest time, craggy mountains and roiling rivers. The 룡강기나리 main melody and the constant 휘모리장단 rhythm always fills him with nameless joy. The central theme coalesces in a grand finale evoking the Chollima horse descending from heaven.

This recording shows just how music can move people. Why can't Rim Jin Woo create something like this for Arirang?

Opening Ceremonies of 13th World Youth Festival in
Pyongyang, 1989; a precursor to the Arirang Mass Games
Src: dprktoday
KJI first met Rim when he was choreographing the opening ceremonies for the 13th World Youth Festival (제13차 세계청년학생축전). He immediately sensed that this was an earnest and devoted young artist with a discerning eye and a great sense of mission. Afterward he talked with him at length and learned of his tragic personal history, deeply affected by the nation's division. No doubt, it was this tragic past that enabled him to create such moving art.

KJI checks his schedule; sadly, he has no time to meet with Rim Jin Woo today.

But driving past the Paekŭntan neighborhood in the pre-dawn light, he spots Rim in workout clothes, jogging along dejectedly. He accurately surmises that Rim is troubled about Arirang, and the two men sit down in a nearby riverside park to discuss it.
   "Basically, what you're trying to say in this scene is that our republic, as the leader of its own history, has the power to end our nation's division. ... But the inspiration just won't come. The desire for unification is too abstract and subjective. The passion and joy infusing the whole scene, the way the whole Korean map turns red, it's all very symbolically meaningful - but you need a great story to bring a huge crowd to their feet.... To get it right you'll need to study more about Arirang and our people's history."
Changing the subject, KJI asks about Rim's old friend visiting from America, and learns that Rim refused to meet him. A disappointed KJI asks why, prompting Rim to recall the whole story.

Chŏn Sang Ŭm had been Rim's closest childhood friend. His father, who had gone to Japan to study Koguryŏ era court music, was butchered in the anti-Korean rioting after the Great Kanto earthquake, and his mother died of grief soon after. The orphaned Chŏn came to live with Rim's family, becoming like a twin brother.

A colonial era water carrier
Rim's father worked in the streets of Seoul as a water carrier (물지게장수) until he died in a car accident. After that, Rim Jin Woo and his little sister Jin Ae both quit school, and Rim took work as a dockworker and porter to support Chŏn's piano lessons. Jin Ae even sold her blood to help pay Chŏn's school fees, and the two of them fell in love.

After unification, the two friends fell out. Chŏn was studying under an American professor who taught him to separate art from politics and pursue "art for art's sake" (예술지상주의), and Rim resented his friend's new reverence for American culture. Chŏn disagreed with Rim's political activism, his anti-Americanism and his full-throated opposition to the Syngman Rhee regime.

The trials of the war would soon reveal the true colors of the two men.

During the "strategic short-term retreat" (전략적인 일시적후퇴), Rim got recruited into the  National Security Command Choral Group (경비사령부협주단)  and went North with his sister. Chŏn joined their convoy, but they got caught up in a USAF strafing attack near Sunchŏn. They got separated in the confusion, and Jin Ae was shot.

For some time Rim did not know what became of his friend. Then one day, to his shock, Rim heard Chŏn's amplified voice from overhead.
   There was Chŏn Sang Ŭm, riding above their heads in an American helicopter, calling out to them by name and urging them all to "escape" to "the free world."
   This was the same Chŏn who had praised the North's land reform policy and cheered for the Northern performers (북반부예술인들) at the Bumingwan Concert Hall! How could he leave his beloved Jin Ae bleeding on a stretcher and go join the Americans? His blood boiled as he recalled his friend's admiration for American bourgeois culture.
The enemy opened fire and Rim was hit in the stomach and shoulder. Several days later, his sister Jin Ae died from her wounds.

Now, Rim confesses to KJI that he went to the Koryo Hotel but couldn't bring himself to confront his erstwhile friend. "No matter how bad things were, how could he desert his homeland and run off to play piano in a foreign country?"

KJI learns that Chŏn had left a letter for Rim at the Overseas Compatriots Office. He cancels all his important plans for the day and reads the letter.
Dear Jin Woo,
   I know what you must be feeling as you receive this letter, and of course your feelings are completely correct.
   But I write in hopes that, even if I can't be forgiven, I can at least offer some consolation to you and relieve some of the horrible guilt and pressure I have suffered over these many years. If you have any leftover affection deep in your heart, I beg you to hear what this miserable human has to say.
   I don't sleep much anymore. In my head I relive endless scenes from those days I spent living off your family's mercy. How we used to fight over our one ragged blanket, until one night you wrapped it completely around yourself. The next morning you were so apologetic... I'll never forget your kindness or the pure heart of Jin Ae, who gave her blood for my school fees.
   After the dream passes, I awake to terrible sorrow at what I cannot change...
   Jin Woo, do you remember? When I said I'd follow you north, you slapped my shoulder heartily as if you'd been worried. To be honest, what I was feeling at the time was total antipathy; I hated being swept up in the tide, just blowing this way and that. I went with you purely out of love and friendship.
   But on the road north I had time to coolly assess my situation. All the things we saw on the road - the streets and towns turned to rubble by American bombs, the corpses strewn all over the place, the crying baby clinging to its dead mother's' breast - I saw the true evil that lurks in the human heart and was chilled by the terrible force behind it. And then I worried what my life would be after it was over. You all seemed so certain that the People's Army would strike back and win, but I knew that either way more blood would flow. Which side would prevail, only time would tell; but I couldn't just drift along with it any more. I'd rather escape and seek solace in my music, free from ideological intrusions...
   I didn't get far on the road back to Seoul before I was detained by the Americans. The agent in charge of my case asked me to join the "open arms program" (귀순공작). Of course, I had no real choice...
   After that my life went smoothly, "without obstacles." I became a US citizen, created my own world of music, and gained adulation and riches. But I've never stopped secretly feeling deep sorrow and doubts about my life's meaning. It pours out of me during my long lonely nights at the piano keyboard, burying my mind in waves of emotion, and it's never left me through all these years.
   One year my concert tour took me to a certain country. We performed only one concert there, but the audience reaction was unexpectedly intense. It was the retirement concert of the great composer and cellist Rostropovich, who had once performed at the American White House.
   That day he performed all his greatest works, including his arrangement of the 2nd movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony. After he finished, someone asked why he was so attached to that piece.
Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the New York Philharmonic in April 2005.
Src: New York Times

   Rostropovich replied: Every artist hopes to create a masterpiece, but the opportunity comes maybe once in a lifetime. Why? Because art is the expression of all things human, and to create great art one must first refine one's humanity. If this work of mine gives you joy, it is probably because I composed it as a son's final farewell to Mother Russia.
   Later I learned that he had applied for permanent residency status during that visit to his homeland, hoping to live out his last years there. The Soviet officials refused his request, on the grounds that he turned his back on his homeland at its most difficult time and greatly aided the United States' anti-Soviet policies.
   But his words that day really shocked me. In that instant, I understood the source of the nameless oppressive feeling that had plagued me for so many years. Rostopovich had walked the path of anti-Soviet anti-communism, building an ivory tower to his own art, all because he, too, had sacred feelings that transcend ideology.
   From that day on I asked myself: Who is my art for? What is my music really about? How many of my creations can I really, unreservedly take pride in? Not one. It was all for myself, all these so-called "humanistic" (범인류적) works to dress-up the big powers' hegemonic ideology of "globalism" (대국의 패권적리념인 "세계화").
   I was filled with terrifying remorse. My conscience had negated everything I once took pride in.
   I gave up everything - performing, composing, music itself. My only task was to seek out my true self, right my wrongs, and start anew.
  So much time had passed. What had happened? That part of my homeland called "South Korea," which I had left in disgust, continued to wear the guise of an independent country, but everything that happened there aroused the same feelings of hatred in me as before. But the North was the opposite. The more I learned of the North's history, the clearer it became that its government truly gives its all for the people and humanity, just as we had experienced under the Republic's rule during the war. And the Northern Fatherland (북부조국) is truly a great country, a land whose people live with a noble mission and a strong will.
   And in its decades-long nuclear confrontation with the US, I saw the strength of the North's resolve.
   Jin Woo, I must make a shameful confession. When American jets, ships and missiles threatened the Republic and the nuclear tensions ran high, I sat in the corner of a back-country diner outside of Kansas City crying into my beer, bemoaning the weakness of my people. But the Republic spectacularly defied my expectations.
   When it withdrew from the NPT, and when it declared a quasi-war footing - Jin Woo, how can I express the passion and joy I felt? The earth-shaking developments continued to unfold, amazing the whole world.
  I couldn't figure it out. How can the nation that considers itself the "world's sole superpower," that thinks nothing of trampling a whole sovereign nation in a morning whenever it has a bellyache, be outmatched by this one tiny nation? Because of its military power? Well, that makes sense. The US and the Western powers all acknowledge the North's great military force. But that's not the true reason.
   Then one day when I was in Hong Kong for medical treatment, I saw an ad for the "Arirang" mass gymnastics performance and concert.
  It was just a few pages in a magazine, but it gave me a revelation. I felt the truth communicated through art, the truth of a spirit that stands up proudly before the whole world in its endless struggle for justice in the new century.
   Here were creators with a true understanding of the value of culture. I wanted to meet them immediately - all the more so when I saw that my old friend was among them. I had some worries because of our past, but I requested a meeting anyway.
   Jin Woo, what kind of human being am I? What right do I have to stand before you and talk about art and humanity?
   Once I saw a trout struggling to swim through some rapids, going upstream to lay its eggs. Its skin was torn and its scales were shredded.
   Back and forth it went, slowly losing energy. But finally, with a great push, it reached the top of the rapids. Thinking back on it, I figure I'm more worthless even than a trout. From what I hear, a trout knows where its home is and even goes hungry just to return there to lay eggs, bringing new life back to its birthplace.
   Even though I have been unfilial to my fatherland in everything, I can only hope you will hear my plea.
   I heard the whole story from the Overseas Compatriots' Office. About the horrible events that happened after I went south; about how you suffered false charges because of me. How could you meet me with an easy heart after that?
   It's too late now. I'm too imperfect a human to create art, and the sunset has deepened too far for me to redo my life. I wanted to face my shame and apologize to you a hundred times, but my crime is too great. My only wish is to call out "Jin Woo!" once more with all my soul, like in old times.
   I pray that Jin Ae is at peace. I pray that you are well.
   A sinful human,
   Chŏn Sang Ŭm.
Sword dance performance at Arirang Mass Games
Jin Woo is disturbed from his reverie to find himself staring blankly at the young dancers rehearsing on the field. A hopeful assistant choreographer asks his advice about a revision, but he waves her off, saying "Why are you asking someone who can't even get his own job done right?" He's been moody lately, blowing up at everyone.

Last week KJI read Chŏn's letter and returned it to Rim via the Ministry of Culture, along with a message: "Whether Jin Woo meets with his friend is not important. What matters is finding a way to deal with the problem of unification and the fate of our people. Tell him to search for the solution in his life, in the life paths of him and his American kyopo friend."

Taking the Leader's advice, Rim Jin Woo looks back over his life with an artist's eyes. The nation's division cut him off from his mother, he couldn't even write her a letter. When he finally visited the South for a separated families reunion, his nephew told him that she had cried out for him with her dying breath. He sobbed at her gravesite, remembering how she toiled wordlessly, stealing crusts to feed them and doing laundry to cover their school fees. During the war, he'd told her "The good times are here, so don't worry anymore. Soon I'll be a big man and you'll live in luxury." Those were the last words he said to her.

But really, his experience not so extraordinary. Everyone who lived through that time had a sad story to tell.

As winter deepens, KJI continues his ceaseless guidance tours around the country, visiting mines and mountain military bases, but he never neglects the Arirang planning. The Unification scene remains problematic.

One night on the road in to Pyongyang, he dispatches an aide to run to the stadium and fetch Rim Jin Woo. When Rim arrives, KJI has an impromptu roadside conference with him while his accompanying officers wait.

Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, where the
Arirang performances are staged

When KJI asks him how the work is going, Rim confesses he's lost confidence, and begs to be taken off the job. KJI tells him "Don’t despair, every artist has these sort of problems." He then talks at length about the nature of art and human feelings.

He asks Rim what he felt when he read his old friend's letter; Rim responds, "I realized that even someone like that, in the end, is just seeking his own land." KJI tells him to ground his work in that idea, in the personal tragedies of division.

Rim finally feels inspired; pleased, KJI tells him to go back to work and “make ‘em cry.”

But Rim still lacks confidence and begs the leader for more specific advice on various scene elements. So KJI, after some teasing, hunkers down and offers his own detailed advice on song order, color, and background transitions.

In parting, KJI asks Rim again about reuniting with his old friend Chŏn Sang Ŭm. The Ministry of Culture has arranged for Rim to join its delegation to Austria next month so that he can meet Chŏn there. KJI encourages him to be magnanimous toward his reformed friend.

KJI is unsatisfied with the idea of a third-country meeting, and suggests giving Chŏn a special invite to attend Arirang and do a concert of his own works. “Then we’ll settle the score. Give him a little scolding. But don’t be too hard on him.”

One year later, Rim is reunited with Chŏn Sang Ŭm and they watch Arirang together. The story ends with Chŏn's glowing review of the performance.

Creative Differences: Politics in the Arts

The story highlights an important ideological difference between North and South: Where South Korean artists have largely fought to keep politics out of their creative process, North Korea disdains "the ideology of art for art's sake" (예술지상주의).

Chŏn and Rim have their initial falling out in colonial Seoul after Chŏn is seduced by American culture and decides to pursue "art free from politics." In his letter, the aged Chŏn looks back over his successful career in America and laments, "How many of my creations can I really, unreservedly take pride in? Not one. It was all for myself, all these so-called 'humanistic' (범인류적) works to dress-up the big powers' hegemonic ideology of 'globalism' (대국의 패권적리념인 '세계화')."

At the end, after Chŏn has finally been reunited with his friend and seen Arirang, he writes of the performance:
   “I’m endlessly amazed. Lofty political meaning expressed through art, refreshing art seasoned by politics; they seem as discordant as the Tristan Chord, and yet, hearing them together fills me with an irrepressible joy… Even Apollo, the god of art himself, could not produce such a work...”
Artistic differences were apparent at the first joint concert between North and South after cultural exchanges were initiated in 1985. Hwang Byung-ki wrote in Korea Focus:
   The response from each side to the music of the other was quite unfavorable. South Koreans spoke critically of North Korea's music and musical instruments for distorting tradition and betraying our nationality, while North Korea berated the South's music for its vestiges of feudalism. As such, the political situation of the time and the atmosphere of confrontation between the two Koreas spilled over into the exchange of art groups, as this effort indeed failed to promote reconciliation. 
It is of course important to remember that the South Korean state was not always as hands-off toward the creative arts. The Yushin dictatorship had its own "Cultural Five-Year Plan" and state-produced cultural ventures, particularly in film, painting and music. Perhaps because of this, in the democratic era South Koreans have become adept at sniffing out political subtext in their own cultural products.

Art through Suffering

The main characters in this story are both artists whose primary motivation is to create a "masterpiece" to last for all time. They repeatedly express the idea that the best artists are "refined through suffering" and suffering is needed to inspire great art. As Rostropovich says: "Every artist hopes to create a masterpiece, but the opportunity comes maybe once in a lifetime. Why? Because art is the expression of all things human, and to create great art one must first refine one's humanity."

After receiving Kim's guidance, Rim ponders what he considers the greatest revolutionary performances of his time – the five great revolutionary plays, the 13th Youth Festival, Arirang. "Extraordinary works of art only came from those who lived correct lives and had true love of people," he thinks.

After hearing of Rim's reluctance to meet Chŏn, KJI is very disappointed with his top choreographer. "A true revolutionary must be able to overcome issues of system or ideology, and acknowledge reality of our national struggle."

KJI encourages Rim to use his personal sorrows as inspiration in his work.
   “With any work of art, no matter what kind, if it fails to stir people emotionally it loses its purpose. But what is emotional impact (정서적감흥)? Is it not the true expression of real life? That’s why your work is stuck, because it lacks this element. Now, let’s look for elements of the 'unification scene' in your own life.
   “When I read your friend’s letter, I got a glimpse of your life... How did it feel, lugging around water pails on the streets as a child? What was it like going back to Seoul with the Family Reunion group? ... And what did you feel when you read your friend’s letter?
   “In your life there is the sorrow of the past and the pain of the present. But is that limited to just one person? No; as I said before, though each path may be different all of our people have come the same way; these officers here, you, and your friend."
Later on, when Rim still isn't getting it, KJI elaborates:
Childrens' gymnastics performance at Arirang Mass Games
“Listening to the main ‘Arirang’ theme the other day I really felt the tragedies of our people’s history. Yesterday the sorrow of having our country stolen, today the pain of division.
   “The sorrow you experienced as a child without a country, your mother who waited so many years and passed away without seeing you, your friend who finally found the truth as a grey-haired old man. Comrade Rim Jin Woo, I think you can express our nation’s sad history through your own life story, no more and no less.”
As usual, KJI has the right idea from the beginning, but he has to almost rub his lead choreographer's nose in it before the man takes the hint. It is easy to see how such a story is meant to inspire North Korean readers. If great suffering is necessary to create great art, then North Korea must have some of the greatest artists in the world.

National Reconciliation

From its theme of redemption and forgiveness, we can conjecture that this story (and the later novel) were aimed at both North Koreans and the extended Korean diaspora overseas. By following two characters who both originally came from Seoul, the story clearly promotes the North as the true homeland of all the Korean people, regardless of birthplace.

The story suggests that the Party will offer forgiveness towards those Koreans who seek it. At their roadside meeting, KJI tells Rim:
   “During the 13th Festival, when our Great Leader heard that the south was sending some religious groups and the National Council of Student Representatives (전대협), what did He say? No matter how extreme their anti-communist sentiment, no matter how great our differences, the feeling is still there. And the way to achieve unification is to revive that feeling of nationalism (민족애) in every heart; this is the truth of unification that transcends all ideology. To awaken them to their identity as Koreans, and to their love of their people. Comrade Jin Woo, wasn't that what brought a Korean American musician and native of the south to come and visit our Republic?"
After hearing that they have planned to meet at last in Austria, KJI again urges compassion:
   “Think how amazing it is, that he saw the truth after only experiencing a few months of life in our Republic. There are some who have done worse than him and been forgiven. How wonderful that he was able to visit his homeland finally in his old age. Just as floodwaters appear muddy in the rainy season, but the groundwater stays clean.
   “Jin Woo, they say a bowed head doesn’t get cut off. Be magnanimous, forget what’s past, and have an open mind.”
With the discursion about the composer Rostropovich getting denied Soviet citizenship, the story warns diaspora readers that they should turn back to the homeland before it is too late. It also hints that, unlike the Soviet Union, North Korea is willing to take a more compassionate attitude toward its many prodigal sons and daughters, if they return now.

Through this story, the Party seems to be sending the message that Koreans are still welcome in the DPRK no matter how many years they've spent in the decadent capitalist world (particularly those who found fortune and fame in their years abroad).

Notes and Links

"Bumper Year Comes to Chŏngsanbŏl" (청산벌에 풍년이 왔네) is the final passage of the North Korean orchestral suite "청산리 사람들", an important 1960s-era work of hybrid folk/modern music combining traditional Korean percussive instruments with modern Western opera instruments. Though the composer passed away over 40 years ago, North Korea's Naenara website published a lengthy epitaph to him in English in 2013. A 2011 performance can be viewed here.

According to this article, 룡강기나리 is a kind of folk melody beloved by North Korean singers that evokes the peasant traditions of South Pyŏngan Province. It has been used as the base melody for several orchestral arrangements, including "Bumper Year Comes to Chŏngsanbŏl." A concert performance by the South Korean Bulsechul Ensemble can be viewed here.

The "Arirang" Mass Games had been a key part of North Korea's foreign tourism outreach every year from 2001 to 2013, after which they abruptly stopped. They returned in 2018 with  a brand new show titled “Bright Fatherland” (빛나는 조국), which was attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. An abridged version of the performance and Moon's entrance can be viewed here. On 38 North, Andray Abrahamian posted an excellent summary of how the new show differs from those of the past.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Morning of Departure (출발의 아침): Overcoming hunger and sanctions to build a hydropower dam

"Morning of Departure" (출발의 아침) is a story by Pak Sŏng Ho that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in September 2016, coincidentally the same month when North Korea conducted its fifth and strongest nuclear test, a high point of international tension and sanctions.

A Youth Brigade speed battle dam construction team
Src: Yonhap
The story alludes to various shortages brought on by sanctions and illustrates how the state would ideally like communities to deal with them. It highlights the drive for local self-sufficiency and "자력갱생" (a common slogan that is best translated as "revival by one's own strength" or "rising by one's own bootstraps") in the context of a hydropower dam construction project in a remote county.

The story provides one of the more forthright portrayals of deprivation that I've seen in recent North Korean state fiction. Work teams are plagued by broken machinery, and workers are shown collapsing from hunger. The story also illustrates the trade-off between economic development and environmental damage as a very serious problem that is never really resolved.

Story Summary

At dawn, two officers of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Work Brigade headed back from Tŏkchŏn to their work site at the Sujŏng hydroelectric dam.

Brigade Commander (돌격대 대장) Ri Myŏng Sŏk  planned to stop by home and pick up a pig, "since we got the truck going and my wife worked so hard raising those pigs." Supply Chief (자재참모) Kim Jŏng Ho pointed out that Myŏng Sŏk must be really dedicated to his troops, given that he can't even eat pork.
A hydropower dam construction site in North Hamgyong, 2018
Src: Jaju Shibo
Myŏng Sŏk ignored him, lost in thought. Things had been tough at the dam project lately; everything was in short supply. Even the few trucks they had had busted wheels, so for the last few months they'd been moving tons of earth and rocks using only logs and burlap sacks. He'd repeatedly contacted the county and provincial offices for vehicle replacement parts, with no success. Finally, he decided to travel to the distant Tŏkchŏn auto parts factory himself.

When the factory workers heard the story of the isolated county working so hard to build a hydroelectric dam all on their own, they were so moved that they worked for days to supply all needed parts, as well as an abundance of spare tires.

Exhausted from the long journey, they pulled into the Sujŏng County People's Committee headquarters. Myŏng Sŏk pulled the tarp off and regarded their haul of tires and well-oiled machine parts, "grinning like a victorious general."

KJU complained about construction delays during a July
2018 visit to Ŏrang River dam, a hydropower plant under
 construction since 1981.
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo
The Party receptionist nervously approached. "Some people from the Provincial Ministry of Justice are here for you," he informed Myŏng Sŏk. "They know you're expected this morning... They said if you showed up here, we're not to let you go on to the work site. Orders from the higher-ups."

Myŏng Sŏk's good mood evaporated. He knew nobody at the Ministry of Justice who might have personal business with him. And that "don't let him leave" command did not bode well.

Myŏng Sŏk was led into a room where he was surprised to find his old army buddy Chŏl Yŏng. They greeted each other warmly, and Myŏng Sŏk suggested they go to his place for some roast duck.

But theirs was not a social visit; they'd come to investigate the situation at the dam. The mood grew tense; Myŏng Sŏk asked if they'd come to investigate some "economic crime" (경제건).
   "It's nothing so serious as economic crimes. Pfft, regular people have no idea what we do at the Ministry of Justice. First, why don't you tell us your motivation in building this dam."
   Myŏng Sŏk's face reddened. "Motivation? During the Arduous March, our General said his heart ached to see the factories shuttered for lack of electricity, and he urgently called for the construction of small hydropower plants across the land. Our project was grounded in the Party's own policy."
   As he grew agitated, their gazes hardened. Chŏl Yŏng replied, "Then how is it that you fail to understand what even a small child knows? Comrade commander! How can you know one thing and not the other? The land is the nation's first and greatest resource. What of the land destroyed by your construction project?"
   Myŏng Sŏk was nonplussed; then he surmised that their work must have caused some damage on the hillsides surrounding the work site.
   "Comrade director, I don't think 'destroyed' is the right word for it. When building an earthwork dam, it is unavoidable that we must excavate earth and cut down some timber. If you're going to label such necessary acts as 'destruction'..."
   Chŏl Yŏng's eyes narrowed; he reached for his bag and brought out some papers. "It seems you don't know what you've done. We've come to investigate charges of 'unplanned, unscientific' intrusions causing serious damage to the nation's land."
   Myŏng Sŏk carefully paged through the documents. Why, these are records from our construction work on the core walls and the earth berm. Is that what this is all about?
   "Comrade commander, you must have some basic knowledge of our country's environmental laws. And you've no doubt heard the talk of forest restoration. Let's speak plainly." Chŏl Yŏng exploded with anger, "It's the nation's land! The nation's land!"
Having been chewed out by his old buddy, Myŏng Sŏk stepped outside for a smoke.
Dam construction site of Baekdusan Sŏngun Youth Brigade
Src: Rodong Shinmun via NK News

After he left, Chŏl Yŏng noticed his companion Jŏng Ho sitting unobtrusively in a corner like a sack of grain. "You're the supply chief, right? Kim Jŏng Ho?"

"Yes, that's me. I was a squad leader until last month, when I was promoted."

Chŏl Yŏng and his young assistant exchanged a look. "Ah, then you were the ringleader of the incident with the pig, correct?" They pressed the reluctant Jŏng Ho for details.
....
It happened two years ago, during the rainy season. The downpour washed out the only road from the village to the worksite. With their sole supply route cut off, the workers rationed their diminishing food supplies and continued with construction. Myŏng Sŏk ordered a few men at a time to hike a roundabout route to the support vehicles and carry food back, but eventually even that route got cut off.

After three days of this, workers started collapsing from hunger. The younger men of Jŏng Ho's squad were particularly hard hit. Myŏng Sŏk chewed him out at the evening meeting: "What kind of squad leader are you?" Later on in private, he said, "We have to do something about this malnourishment problem. But the only livestock we have left are breeding stock. What should we do?"

Illustration from NK monthly "Soldier's Life" (군인생활)
magazine, June 2004
Src: RFA
The two men thought in silence for a while. As he always did when he was hungry, Myŏng Sŏk took several chugs of cold water from the kettle.

Jŏng Ho went to the kitchens, took the cook Ŭn Shim aside and whispered in her ear. Her eyes got round as saucers, but he told her not to worry, he'd take responsibility, just get a pot boiling.
---
Early the next morning, Myŏng Sŏk was interrupted by a knock on his office door. An orderly entered escorting a bedraggled old woman, her clothing torn and muddied from bushwalking 20 li from her home.
   "Commander, this grandmother says someone stole her pig last night, a 50 kg pig she had been raising for her grandson's wedding. Says it was brought back here. What nonsense! I told her nobody at our base would do such a thing, but sure enough there were tracks in the mud leading straight here."
   "Wait, are you saying you followed the tracks all the way here?" He asked the old woman.
   "There's no doubt. Do you think my sight's failed along with everything else? I raised that pig for my grandson's wedding, so you'd better find it. Folks can't just steal an old woman's pig without a word." And with that she plopped down angrily in a chair.
From the word "pig," Myŏng Sŏk had an uneasy suspicion. He called an emergency meeting of all the squads, declared that the culprit had shamed the good name of the Kim Hyok Brigade, and demanded that he be found and brought to justice.

Barely holding his anger in check, Myŏng Sŏk returned to his office to find the cook Ŭn Shim sobbing and clinging to the old woman.
   "This is my grandson's bride," the old woman said. To the bewildered Myŏng Sŏk, she explained, "Jŏng Ho is my grandson."
   Like a tiger that hears its name called, just then Jŏng Ho appeared. The old lady lamented: "Oh, Jŏng Ho, your poor granny's really lost her marbles. So it was you took my pig. If only I'd known."
   "Jŏng Ho, is this true? Did you take your grandmother's pig?"
   "Yes, sir. It seemed a good time, as Ŭn Shim had cooking duty. Sorry my granny caused such a fuss. But how else was the squad to get any meat?"
   Hearing this, Myŏng Sŏk apologized to the old lady and announced that Jŏng Ho had acted on his orders.
   "No matter," she said. "I heard the whole story from Ŭn Shim, how your supply route got cut off and you were all suffering here. If I'd only known, I'd have brought the pig myself. I was part of the Chollima Struggle in the '50s. It seems my grandson is not as worthless (시러베자식) as I thought, that he can put the group's needs above his own, and that gives me more joy than any number of pigs."
All was forgiven, and they decided that once construction is done, they would hold the wedding ceremony on top of the dam.
   As Jŏng Ho finished his story, Chŏl Yŏng and his assistant burst out laughing.
   "But you shouldn't have taken the pig without a word. If you'd just explained the situation, surely she would have given you the pig."
   "Yeah, that was my bad. I guess I was a little worried that she'd say no, and then when I found the place empty I remembered she'd mentioned going to town for some fabric. So I figured I'd best just take the pig and tell her later."
   Chŏl Yŏng felt his heart lightening. "So it wasn't your commander's order."
   "What? Of course not! Actually he'd told me to take a pig from his own home, a breeding sow. But I couldn't do that to his poor wife, when she was already making such a sacrifice of raising pigs just to give them to the army, without even a taste for herself. You know how women feel about their animals. So I took my granny's instead, forgetting how the commander'd react. Then the commander made the political commissar (정치부대장) swear to secrecy, so the others wouldn't get it in their heads to do what I'd done. Didn't want to burden their poor families...
   "I found out later that the commander's wife brought her breeding sow to my granny's house. Said to serve it at my wedding feast. That's the sort of guy our commander is."
Youth Brigades are supposed to maintain their own self-sufficient
"rear support" (후방사업) for food and supplies, as highlighted in
Rodong Shinmun (via NKNews)
Myŏng Sŏk re-entered the room and ordered Jŏng Ho to go on ahead to the construction site, saying he'd be along shortly. He felt awful about causing this problem. From the beginning, they'd worried about the environmental damage, but he'd been so focused on meeting the Party's construction schedule that he told his officers to focus solely on the dam.
   "I've been so focused on building the dam, I never thought this would happen. I figured there'd be time to restore the damage later. I take full responsibility."
    At his words, Chŏl Yŏng pounded on the desk. "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? What would become of our Party's policy, if everyone thought like you? Did you ever consider that?"
   Myŏng Sŏk felt like his chest was full of ice water. He hung his head in shame.
---
Early the next morning Chŏl Yŏng entered the office to find Myŏng Sŏk waiting for him with an earnest request:
"I know I'm in no position to make demands. I'm a wretch unworthy of being even a part of this brigade, much less its commander. But if you give me a chance to clean up the crime I've committed, I'll ask for nothing more."
Unbeknownst to him, Chŏl Yŏng had traveled to the construction site and spoken with the county's Party headquarters. The workers all took responsibility for the damage and staunchly defended the commander's leadership. The Party headquarters expressed regret that they had been unable to support Myŏng Sŏk's shock troops better.

Chŏl Yŏng understood Myŏng Sŏk's need to provide for his troops. But that just made things harder. Whatever else he achieved, the fact remained that he had damaged public land - a grave crime.

The next day, as requested, Myŏng Sŏk was allowed to return to the work site as a regular worker. The story ends with him slinging his bag over his shoulder and heading out to the work site.


Youth Work Brigades

The workers in this story are members of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade, one of several such "shock troops" that get deployed to priority construction projects around the country. The members are organized into military-style ranks and approach construction as a "speed battle." The first formed in 1946, and they fall under the jurisdiction of the Youth League. Facilities will often have the word "youth" in their name indicating that they were constructed by a youth brigade.
Baekdusan Youth Brigade at a dam construction
 site in Ryŏdan, N Hwanghae
Src: Rodong Shinmun via NK News

The brigade in the story is named after Kim Hyŏk, a fighter in Kim Il Sung's partisan unit in the 1920s and 30s who later became a core member of the early KWP. The workers are motivated not to sully the illustrious name of their brigade. After hearing that the old woman's pig has been stolen, Myŏng Sŏk delivers this impassioned speech:
   "Comrades, I'll be brief. Look what it says on that banner there. We are the workers of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade (김혁청년돌격대), inheritors of the revolutionary anti-Japanese struggle. You all know the story of how the Great Leader, during that time of deprivation and hardship, sent back the cow that had been donated by the farmers of Yaksudong, and then he and his fighters gathered radishes in the fields instead.
   Why? Because he recognized the hardship of the farmers, who would have to plow the earth with their bare hands once the cow was gone, and the sacred fellowship of his fighters, who were themselves sons of the people. In this way he showed the true colors of his guerrilla army, who took up arms for the freedom and liberation of the people.
   Our battalion was given the sacred charge of bringing the people a better, more cultured lifestyle by building this dam. And yet, on this sacred battlefield, one of our number has taken the people's pig without a word of apology. Can such a comrade be forgiven?
   Absolutely not! Find out who it is right away, and cast him out."
   The room erupted in a violent clamor. "Who is it? We'll tear his legs off!"
   Holding his hand up for silence, Myŏng Sŏk said, "If such a person exists in our battalion, we'll find him. But this I swear: no matter what happens, yesterday, today and tomorrow, we are always the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade."
KCTV has broadcast several documentaries in the last year highlighting the work of youth brigades, which can be viewed on the dprktoday YouTube channel. This one posted last August follows a similar youth brigade's achievement in constructing a dam in South Pyongan. And this Ken Burns homage depicts a proud young brigade member's letter home from "the front."

South Korean defector variety show 이만갑 featured the youth brigades in this episode (with an appearance by our friend Kim Ju-song!).

A list of all known Youth Brigades is available at namuwiki: https://namu.wiki/w/속도전%20청년돌격대


Land versus Infrastructure

The Justice Ministry officials are dispatched to Sujŏng after receiving a report from the Bureau of Forest Management alleging destruction of public land. The report alleges that dam workers had excavated hillsides and downed trees all around the construction site, and made no move to repair the damage.

Damage to trees and earth is a particularly heinous crime as it exacerbates flooding, a killer problem in North Korea. Notably, it is flooding that causes the team's malnutrition problems in the first place, by cutting off their main supply route.
Village washed out by severe flooding in Sept 2016 
Chŏl Yŏng is enraged that his old buddy Myŏng Sŏk could be so irresponsible, and delivers an impassioned speech:
   "See here, Comrade Myŏng Sŏk, the treasures of the Sujŏng River Valley do not belong solely to you or your team; they are the shared property of all our people. As I was reading this report, I thought back to when we were in military service together. That time I chopped down a young pine behind our barracks to replace a shovel I'd broken, what did you say? That I could get all the wood I needed from the fallen brush up in the hills, instead of chopping down a young tree close at hand; what if a thousand, or ten thousand, other soldiers did what I'd done; that I should remember our mission was to protect the homeland. Your words really cut me to the heart. Remember how happy you were after I walked 30 li to the tree nursery and came back with a new pine sapling? ... Where'd that guy go? Did you lose your soldier's heart along with your uniform?"
This is probably the most interesting and innovative part of the story. Both men are sympathetic characters representing socialist ideal types. The brigade commander's good work under harsh conditions is praised, and the urgent need for electric power is acknowledged. Yet their dam project comes under fire for damaging the environment. Chŏl Yŏng represents the fair-minded Justice Ministry official who cannot circumvent the law, even for the sake of an old friend.

I've previously covered the land preservation campaign aggressively promoted under Kim Jong Un's leadership and the toll that deforestation and flooding has taken on the country. But I've also highlighted several stories depicting hydropower as an urgent priority. This story brings these two issues into conflict, with no satisfying resolution. The ending comes off as strikingly half-hearted compared with most other Chosŏn Munhak stories, which typically end with everything fixed and the characters cheering, crying, and rattling off revolutionary slogans.

Sanctions and Self-Sufficiency

The story describes several creative ways that characters deal with material shortages and lack of public support. As more and more vehicles break down, the workers are forced to move tons of earth and rocks using only logs and burlap sacks. Lacking proper tools, Myŏng Sŏk sets up a forge and wields the hammer himself to sharpen old pickaxes and chisels and repair what he can.

These shortages are directly tied to the external sanctions placed on the country:
   The Arduous March (고난의 행군) was over, but the Hard March (강행군) continued. The US imperialists' harsh policy of isolation and pressure (고립압살책동) only made the job harder for the county's people in their struggle to defeat nature through their own strength.
   The brigade had been laboring determinedly under tough conditions to achieve its targets, but everything was in short supply.   
At Tŏkchŏn, the auto parts factory workers are moved by the brigade's plight that they work overtime to complete the whole order in three days. When Myŏng Chŏn tearfully expresses his gratitude, the factory's Party secretary replies:
"Comrade Commander! Our drivers have even donated all their spare tires. We're helping because the work you do brings joy to the General. Know that our workers here in Tŏkchŏn are awaiting news of your dam's completion. We're counting on you!"
When the brigade workers begin collapsing from hunger, Jŏng Ho adds meager spoonfuls of brined corn to  the meals of the youngest workers, "since the youngest ones are hardest hit by malnutrition." He finally decides to slaughter the pig from his own wedding feast to feed the brigade, leading to the misunderstanding with his granny.

As Chŏl Yŏng travels 20-li to the construction site, he observes various signs of the brigade's efforts to become self-sufficient. The road in is lined with neat rows of acacia trees, an auto repair shop, greenhouses bursting with ripe greens and tomatoes, mushroom cultivation sheds. "They had transformed the whole area around the dam site into a base of self-sustaining revival (자력갱생기지)," he notes approvingly.

Brotherly Love

If I was a proper literary analyst, here is where I would dive into the homoerotic undertones of Myŏng Sŏk and Chŏl Yŏng's relationship.

After their awkward reunion at Party headquarters, Myŏng Sŏk reflects on the last conversation he'd had with his friend, a few days before their military discharge. Sitting on the grassy riverbank surrounded by dragonflies, Chŏl Yŏng asked him what he wanted to do in the future.
   "I'll go into construction. I want to build grand, modern buildings with my own hands on this land that we've been defending. Buildings imbued with the spirit of the soldiers that protect the fatherland. What about you?"
   "Me? I'll become a flower."
   "?"
   "A single bright, fragrant flower to congratulate you on all those grand buildings you've constructed."
The flashback to a bucolic riverbank conversation from one's younger days is a staple of Korean romantic dramas. The flower metaphor seems like a weird thing to say to one's army bro, but Chŏl Yŏng remains committed to the image. At the story's end, as the two men part, they have this exchange:
   "See you at the dam's opening ceremony," Myŏng Sŏk said lightly.
   "Why wait til then? I'll visit all the time. And when it's completed, I'll be the flower of congratulations held to your bosom. Let this be a fresh departure for both of us."
   The two men embraced. 
I imagine that 11 years of compulsory military service often leads to some pretty close friendships, and it is intriguing to think that this could be one North Korean writer's subtle way of alluding to such relationships. Then again, in South Korea the bar for what two guys can do together before they are suspected of being "gay" is much higher than in the West, and North Korea may be the same way. But this is all a bit above my pay grade, so I'll just leave it there.