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: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.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Night Path (밤길): Hoop dreams on a North Korean manure farm

"Night Path" (밤길) is a story by Ri Yŏng Chŏl that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in July 2016.

This story uses basketball as a metaphor for collective work. The young, talented upstart soil technician visits a struggling collective farm and teaches its managers the true meaning of winning, both on the court and in the fields. 

It could be marketed as a sort of North Korean Hoosiers, in which a rural farm collective discovers the joy of basketball and in the process learns to work as a team to achieve their agricultural targets. Or it could be like a reverse Karate Kid - where the workers learn that the skills they honed through sports can also have practical applications in their everyday labors. Anyway, it's a sports story, and reading it taught me more than I ever wanted to know of the North Korean vocabulary for basketball moves and soil-mixing techniques.
North Korea farmers and the most majestic-looking pile of manure
you ever will see. Notice how it is surrounded by a pale aura of pure
 light and refracts a perfect rainbow.
Src: dprktoday

Story Summary

Team leader (분조장) Ri Ŭn Jin is returning late at night along the mountain path to his village. As he stoops to tie a loose shoelace, the beam of his flashlight illuminates his sweaty, sun-browned face. He springs back upright and treks onward with a vigor that belies his years.

He has trekked 60 li (1 li = 0.393 km) round-trip to the agricultural college for the final test run of a special fertilizer mixing technique (린회토분해균배합량).  It is the first step toward transforming their farm into the high-yield utopian collective they have planned, "a vision of a socialist fairyland," one worthy of a visit from the Leader. He thinks back on the long series of events that put him on this path…

It all started when Kim Myŏng Pil, a young soil technician from the famous Songhak Collective Farm which the Dear Leader once visited, was dispatched to their unit. 

KJU touring Songhak Collective Farm in 2013.
Src: Choson Shinbo
As they entered the farm’s bog fields, team leader Ŭn Jin proudly pointed out the 10-ton stacks of manure (거름더미) neatly lined up “like tanks awaiting the order to march.”
   “Since it was announced that the year of the 7th Party Congress shall be a year of increased grain production, our team has been fighting day and night to produce 40 tons per jŏngbo (9,917.4㎡). We’re the top producing team (분조) in the division (작업반). What do you think?” 
   Myŏng Pil glanced at the stacks of manure and gave his dimpled smile. "Isn't this the age of science and technology? Churning out mounds of manure is great and all, but shouldn't we be studying ways to boost production even more by using microorganisms and chemical agents?"
   Ŭn Jin laughed humorlessly, thinking of how his team had labored so many sleepless nights, fighting for every last gram of that manure. They were determined, by hook or by crook, to somehow raise their production to the level of Songhak Collective Farm, which the Dear Leader had visited. Such miracles had they achieved through the fierce competition between work teams... Then, just when they were so pleased with themselves for producing 40 tons, this new techie came in and acted like it was nothing!
The next morning Ŭn Jin woke to find Myŏng Pil practicing free throws at the basketball hoop outside the living quarters. The young engineer tossed the ball his way, challenging him to show off his skills. Ŭn Jin, who was once the pride of the farm's basketball team (농장롱구팀), tried for a jump shot; sadly the ball bounced off. He tried again; bounced again.

Determined now, Ŭn Jin stripped off his jacket and tried the one-handed jump shot that always worked back when he was on the team, three years ago; still no luck. Meanwhile, Myŏng Pil was getting nothing but net. Frustrated, Ŭn Jin monopolized the ball until he finally got a shot in; at that point they were playing in earnest. But Ŭn Jin kept screwing up, and Myŏng Pil won pretty easily.

His defeat brought back unwelcome memories.

Rice transplanting, usually done in May
Src: NK Chosun
Three years ago, just before rice transplanting season, Ŭn Jin organized a championship game between his team and the neighboring Songhak farm team. His teammates were all in their prime, young men recently discharged from military service. But they were no match for Songhak's superior ball handling and teamwork. He was so humiliated by their loss that he never played again.

The oblivious Myŏng Pil was full of encouragement: "Comrade team leader, you just need a little more practice. Right now the whole country is in a sports frenzy; we should put together a team!"

Changing the subject, Myŏng Pil showed him a soil fertility assessment he'd just ordered. Ŭn Jin was peeved, since he just done his own assessment six months ago. "Just like a new wife, meddling in her mother-in-law's kitchen," he muttered. To which Ŭn Jin placatingly replied, "Shouldn't a new wife help her mother-in-law?"

Several days later, a new farm plan appeared on the bulletin wall.
The blueprint for Dŏkwŏlsan village looked like a mother duck surrounded by her ducklings: neat homes laid out around a central structure with a basketball court, volleyball court, table tennis and various excercise areas. Off to the side was a scientific research facility, a threshing floor, animal pens, a greenhouse, and huts for cultivating mushrooms, earthworms and snails. A windmill spun beside the stream that flowed around the village and down into a series of catfish-breeding locks. 
Attached was Myŏng Pil's soil assessment, along with a detailed, plot-by-plot map of the various  fertilizers (유기질비료, 광물질비료, 미량원소비료, 흙보산비료) and soil preparation techniques (흙깔이와 소토구이, 소석회구이) needed to meet production targets. Ŭn Jin could hardly believe that the young technician did all this work by himself and wondered where he found the time, between rice transplanting, evening seminars and basketball practice.

Collective work team bulletin board with progress chart
Myŏng Pil proceeded to assign tasks to each member of Ŭn Jin's former basketball team, matching their particular skills (the guy who's best at "driving and turnovers" [속공과 빼몰기] was put in charge of studying livestock rotation, etc). Ŭn Jin was tasked with investigating phosphorous-based fertilizers. Myŏng Pil himself took charge of designing a more efficient irrigation plan.

Ŭn Jin felt anxious but excited about the magnitude of the task. Rising by one's own bootstraps! (자강력제일주의!)

Just then Myŏng Pil quietly asked, "Team leader, why don't you join our basketball team. With you, we'll have a great three-man combo. Let's challenge Songhak Farm to a game on the next holiday." It seemed Myŏng Pil had taken charge of the team.

Ŭn Jin was flabbergasted. He was already at his wits' end trying to manage cold-frame planting, tilling, soil preparation, and acquiring some new source of phosphorous; how on earth could he find time for basketball?

"Do you really think we can beat Songhak?" he asked.

"Only one way to find out. But I'm confident," Myŏng Pil replied with his dimpled grin.

The two men made a bet: If they won, Ŭn Jin would approve all of Myŏng Pil's recommendations for the farm. (It's unclear what Myŏng Pil would forfeit if they lost, but I hope it involved dimple reduction surgery)


Paekdusan Championship match, March 2018; teams are
fielded with staffers from rival central agencies
Src: dprktoday

The game was very close; they ended up losing by only 4 points. Ŭn Jin was astonished at how pumped up everyone was by the game. It seemed like the whole farm was buzzing with "sports fever" (체육열풍).

Meanwhile the farm plans were proceeding better than expected, and the new soil formula was producing unbelievable growth. The basketball team was getting positively cocky, asking who they should play next; Ŭn Jin remained a spectator. His seedlings got transplanted late and were yielding poor-quality grain. Reluctantly, he invited Myŏng Pil over for beers to pick his brain and crib his notes on soil phosphorite.
   Phosphorite exists abundantly in inland areas along the east and west coasts of our country and can be unearthed with very little effort. As the name suggests, it is a natural mineral rich in phosphorous and nutrients essential for growing all sorts of crops and is useful in multi-element mineral fertilizers and organic fertilizers.
   Ŭn Jin felt like his whole being was aflame with the need to acquire this phosphorite. But where, oh where could he find it?
The next day Myŏng Pil showed up staggering and drenched in sweat, but with a joyous gleam in his eye. He brought news: there was a huge amount of phosphorite in the No.2 team's mulberry field! It seemed he had hiked  60 li overnight to the Agricultural College to review their land survey data.

Ŭn Jin went to the mulberry field and discovered that the rocky soil was indeed flush with phosphorite. A frenzy of activity ensued as his team leapt to the task of harvesting the precious mineral.
Soil preparation and fertilizer mixing
Src: dprktoday

He'd just hauled off a fresh load and was on his way back with the tractor when he heard a cheer go up. Scurrying to the field, he found that the four work teams had set up an impromptu pick-up game with a loop of cane attached to a tree trunk for a basket. Watching the action, he noted that Myŏng Pil and his star players were the very picture of disciplined teamwork and technique, while the other side was disorganized but enthusiastic.

Ŭn Jin returned from the field that evening a step ahead of the team, to find that his wife had only just started preparing dinner. He hurriedly helped her grind some soybeans for a simple porridge (콩비지). No sooner did he have the fire started than the work team tramped in, with Myŏng Pil announcing that he was in the mood for tofu. Ŭn Jin thought he was nuts - tofu at this hour! How's he going to make it? But just fifteen minutes later, Myŏng Pil and his teammates had produced some perfect cubes of tofu made from the pressed beans.

As the two men settled down to some bowls of spicy tofu soup, Ŭn Jin enthused, "Once we mix this phosphorite into our soil, we can get a much higher yield!"

Myŏng Pil replied with his dimpled grin, "I disagree. Why not process the phosphorite using our new method?"

Ŭn Jin was ashamed that he hadn't thought of this. Looking down at his soup, he realized that the tofu was a metaphor for their different approaches. Whereas he would have settled for simple pureed soybeans, Myŏng Pil made tastier tofu cubes; in the same way, he would have simply mixed the phosphorite into the soil rather than processing it. Once again, the young upstart technician had the better mentality.


Three days later, their basketball team finally defeated Songhak Farm. There was no time to celebrate, as the whole farm scrambling to finish their assigned tasks from Myŏng Pil's blueprint. "Everyone became team players, gunning for the championship."

Cold-frame seedling planting (벼랭상모판씨부리기),
a late-winter farm task
Ŭn Jin had his hands full with the cold-frame planting, but spent every spare moment reading up on phosphorite: technical data and reports from farms that had used it. He learned that it is most effective when roasted at a temperature of 400ºC.

He suggested this to Myŏng Pil, but the young man just gave his signature dimpled smile and replied, "Roasting is fine, but would't it be even better to process it into fertilizer?" [at this point, I just wanted to smack that dimple off his stupid face].

Fed up, Ŭn Jin demanded to know just what Myŏng Pil wanted him to do.

The younger man replied, "Comrade team leader, why don't you try our own way (우리 식) of using phosphorus effectively? Why don't you think to dominate in agriculture?" Ŭn Jin is startled by the idea that farmers should seek to dominate (패권을 쥐다) just like athletes do.

Early the next morning Myŏng Pil produced a thick book of data on phosphorite-based fertilizer. Reading it, Ŭn Jin learned that the microorganisms in phosphorous have a strong decomposition effect. That made it ideal for developing organic compound fertilizers; but, he would have to travel to the provincial agricultural college to obtain the optimal mixing ratios based on their soil experiments.

He grabbed a quick dinner after that evening's study seminar, then took off, planning to walk all night to the college and back.  Somewhere along the dark mountain trail, he paused to check his watch. It was almost midnight. Even if he ran like the devil all night, he'd be late for the morning muster and disrupt his team's important soil treatment work.

As team leader, he couldn't bear to let his crew down. He hesitated, then turned and began reluctantly trudging home. Just then a light appeared on the trail ahead!

It was Myŏng Pil. He caught up and asked Ŭn Jin why he'd turned back.
   "Comrade team leader, if you turn back now, that blueprint will never be more than a pretty picture. What of our future then? What of our dream to see the Leader to visit our farm?
   Comrade team leader, I'm ashamed to admit it, but there was a time when I too turned back along the night path. But I guess somehow I knew the shame would stay with me for the rest of my life. This was back when I was a greenhouse engineer at Songhak.
   We had been charged with carrying out the General's dying wishes by building a massive greenhouse project that would be a model for the Sŏngun Era.
   I wore my soles out trekking around to universities, libraries and big greenhouse units, trying to perfect our design. But it just wasn't enough to get us where we needed to be. So I decided to walk a night path of 120 li to the Greenhouse Science Institute. But to get there I had to cross the treacherous Solhŭng Pass, and it was so windy that the rain was hitting me sideways. I decided to wait and set out in the morning.
The Greenhouse Science Institute in Pyongyang.
Src: Tongil News
   But, wouldn't you know, that very night the Dear Leader was on his way back from touring the eastern front lines, and decided to make a detour up Solhŭng Pass to the Greenhouse Institute.
   Hearing this unbelievable news, I took off and ran all the way up the ridge. There in the mud I clearly saw the unmistakable tracks of His car. On that dangerous road, on that miserable rainy night, our Leader carried on!?...
   It broke my heart to think of our Leader traversing such dangerous roads in the middle of the night, all for the sake of miserable wretches like me who balk at a little bit of rain.
   That's when I made the decision. To carry in my heart the same undying love for our people as the Leader, to walk the night path to build a fruitful greenhouse operation for them all. And to ensure that our Dear Leader never has to travel such a treacherous road again.
   And it wasn't just me; the whole farm stepped up its efforts: visited countless research facilities, walked endless night paths, built a greenhouse that would serve as a model for the Sŏngun Era, and finally had the honor of welcoming the Dear Leader to our farm."
   Myŏng Pil fumbled with something inside his jacket. He produced a small leather bag, from which he drew out a handful of something crumbly.
   "This is the mud from Solhŭng Pass, that bore the tracks of our Leader's car." 
Thinking back, Ŭn Jin recalled that Myŏng Pil had been walking all over the countryside lately fetching schematics and material for various other team projects. Suddenly he understood. They needed to wake up from their mindless deification of Songhak farm, and seek dominance for themselves.
NK farmers rejoice that all plots are 100% planted.
Src: Rodong Shinmun

Ŭn Jin reverently took the clod of dried mud from Myŏng Pil's outstretched hand. He thought of all the treks his team members had made down the night path over the past months, working on their assignments.

He looked up at the starry night sky and thought, "How beautiful is the future for our country, with these faithful young people who walk the night path! How bright and promising! ... When we walk the night path together, the sunrise of the strong and prosperous Korea (강성조선의 려명) draws closer, when our nation rises to become the dominant champion of the world  (세계의 패권국)."

Leadership Material

The central conflict of this story plays out between the main character, experienced team leader Ŭn Jin, and his new soil technician, young newcomer Myŏng Pil.

Myŏng Pil is the sort of person we all love to hate - younger, smarter, more innovative, more energetic and just generally better at everything, the sort who wins every competition without really even trying. He is dispatched from Songhak, which I gather is like the Harvard of North Korean collective farms, to improve productivity on the farm where our story takes place. He takes over the basketball team that Ŭn Jin had previously captained and leads it to greater heights than the older man could have dreamed, meanwhile capturing the loyalty of all of Ŭn Jin's so-called friends and enlisting them to help modernize the farm. Ŭn Jin suffers a series of humiliations before finally learning to accept that the younger man's thinking is just better and that's that.

While his age is never given, Myŏng Pil is described as having "a firm body like ripened grain and a sweet, pleasant face like a girl's, with a striking dimpled smile." This dimple shows up every single time Ŭn Jin asks him a question (I checked). It's part of his personality; the dimple says that he knows Ŭn Jin is a moron but is too polite to say so outright.

Knows everything, loves basketball, and has a dimpled smile - who else do we know who matches that description?

Symbolism of the Night Path

"To walk the night path" (밤길을 걷다) is a phrase that recurs throughout the story. Early on it becomes clear that it's not just some random path that happens to lead to their particular village; it's the symbolic path that all North Koreans collectively walk for the sake of developing the country: "Everyone was walking the night path to bring that blessed day closer [when KJU would visit the farm]." The phrase may be intended as an echo of the "forced march" (강행군) term that is associated with the Leaders' guidance visits.

Here "night" seems to imply overtime, extra work that is done in addition to daily tasks. The last two pages of the story really drive home this message, talking about how each team member "walked the night path" to do extra research on their assigned tasks. Ŭn Jin's choice in the climactic final scene - continuing to walk to the university, even when it means being late for work the next day - implies that "walking the night path" (doing extra research, taking a chance on a new method) should take precedence over slavishly executing one's daily tasks.

North Korean farmers always max out their Fitbit step goals.
Notably, the "night path" is associated with innovation, rather than labor. For instance, Myŏng Pil disparages the team's record-breaking manure production for failing to use new technology. When Myŏng Pil presents his blueprint to the farm, the unit supervisor (반장) praises his initiative by saying: "In today's knowledge economy, a true model worker (혁신자) does not simply double or triple output, he uses science and technology to get the job done. The key to victory is not hands and feet; it is cutting-edge technology. In the final battle for victory, everybody has a job to do."

In the closing lines, the "night path" is tied directly to the "strong and prosperous" slogan: "When we walk the night path together, the sunrise of the strong and prosperous Korea (강성조선의 려명) draws closer, when our nation rises to become the dominant champion of the world (세계의 패권국)."

National Sports Frenzy

The characters in the story refer to a "sports craze" (체육열풍) that is sweeping the nation. Since Kim Jong Un took over, the regime has invested in several high-profile new athletic facilities, and North Korean media reports have increasingly highlighted both national and local sports.

In October 2014 Rodong Shinmun posted an editorial entitled "온 나라에 체육열풍을 더욱 세차게 일으키자" (Let's Foment Sports Fever More Strongly across the Entire Nation) that is not available online but was covered by both Tongil News and Daily NK. The editorial highlighted the growing interest in amateur sports and sports festivals, and was viewed as heralding a new emphasis on athletics reflecting the new leader's personal priorities. South Korean researcher Hyŏn In-ae has noted that in the early KJU era some state resources were diverted from the arts to promoting athletics.
Spread of various amateur athletics in NK
Src: tongilnews

A March 2018 post on dprktoday entitled "February boils with sports fever" includes some nice color photos and a rundown of the "Paekdusan Championship" basketball finals, as well as national volleyball and taekwondo championships. This October 2018 article from Uriminzokkiri continues in a similar vein.

NK's Alternative Soil Technologies

I couldn't figure out exactly how they were producing the manure piles on the farm; the text said something about "통이 실한 김발" (??) growing in a "포전", which could mean a truck garden or some sort of bog.

The latter would make some sense, as algae fertilizer is one strategy that North Korea has devised to counteract the effects of international sanctions (as detailed in this very technical report from 38 North). Sanctions have made it more difficult for the North to import the petroleum and chemicals it needs for its traditional chemical fertilizer. To compensate, North Korea has been promoting the development of compound fertilizers from organic materials. They have particularly focused on developing algae farms in lowland areas.

In February 2018 Uriminzokkiri posted this Rodong Shinmun editorial on advances in microorganism-based fertilizer. A 2017 post from DPRK Today on "cutting-edge" advances in cold frame seedling planting goes on at length about how agricultural scientists and farmers are working together to increase yields.

The farm in this story seems to be mainly involved with the manure-producing operation, although they also apparently grow rice and raise livestock. It is unclear if all collective farms are expected to produce their own manure, or if this is a special farm dedicated to producing manure for the wider region.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Linkfest 2018: Tooting My Own Horn

2018 was a banner year for us here at the North Korean Literature in English project. I published several articles related to the blog project and had the opportunity to present my work at several forums.

In January I published a short article with The Conversation introducing the blog project. That article caught the attention of someone who got me connected with the good folks at Global Asia, who invited me to do a longer feature article with them that was published in June.

Talking at GWU Elliot School
Meanwhile, in March I traveled to Washington DC to present a research paper based on the blog project at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference, then crossed town to GWU to present at the "Beyond the Nuclear Issue in North Korea" conference sponsored by the National Committee on North Korea and the GW Institute of Korean Studies. It was a thrill for me to meet many scholars working in various areas of North Korean society and culture.

My big week in DC yielded an invite to submit to the Korea Economic Institute's Academic Paper Series. Working with KEI helped me to put my research into a policy-oriented context for the first time, and I'm pretty proud of the resulting paper. In early December I again flew to DC to present the paper for KEI's lecture series and also did an episode of their Korea Kontext podcast (forthcoming).

Meanwhile, the project expanded further into multimedia in December when the USC Korean Studies Institute produced an interview with me as part of their YouTube series. They made me look good!

All this in a year when I also finished my Ph.D., moved to a different country, and started a new job! And continued translating North Korean works of fiction in various coffee shops and pubs around Tokyo. It's been quite a year.

I'd like to extend my gratitude to the many people who have supported this project by liking, retweeting or sharing my posts. I'd also like to thank the managers of the dprktoday website, who have made an increasing amount of North Korean literature available for free online. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not offer a very sincere thank-you to the hardworking North Korean fiction writers, without whom this project would not be possible. I know that writing is not easy even under the best of conditions, and I hope that my translations have done justice to your work.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kim Ju-sŏng on writing fiction in North Korea

I recently got my hands on North Korean defector Kim Ju-sŏng's new book The Frog that Couldn't Jump: The Reality of North Korea's Brainwashing Literature. The book was published in Japan earlier this year and provides a very compelling account of Kim's life as a Zainichi Korean transplant in North Korea, including details about his efforts to join the elite ranks of the Korean Writer's Union. 

Unlike other, more successful, more famous ex-KWU defectors I could talk about, Kim Ju-sŏng represents the experience of the rejected, downtrodden writer struggling and ultimately failing to climb the ladder of North Korea's state-controlled cultural production system. He writes with an amiable and self-deprecating style that hints at some of the creative inhibitions North Korean writers feel, without being too obvious or angsty about it.

The Frog that Couldn't Jump by Kim Ju-sŏng
Kim Ju-sŏng grew up attending a pro-North Korean school in the Kansai region. As a kid growing up in Japan, his loyalties had been torn between his paternal grandfather, a devoted Chosen Soren cadre who raised him to revere Kim Il Sŏng while slowly giving away the entire family fortune to pro-North Korean causes, and his father, a debt-ridden gambler and largely absent parent who warned him that the regime was a lie. In 1978 at age 15, he ended up boarding the infamous Mangyŏngbong ferry for a one-way trip to North Korea alongside his grandparents. They were among the last wave of Zainichi Koreans to be tempted away from Japan by the promise of socialist paradise in North Korea.

Kim paints a memorable image of his grandfather on the night of their arrival in Chŏngjin, smoking by the window and muttering "aigoo!" (alas). The old man had devoted his entire life and fortune to supporting the regime across the sea, convincing as many friends and relatives as possible to migrate to a land he had never actually seen. But apparently it didn't take long after his arrival for him to realize that he'd made a terrible mistake. Both grandparents died within two years of arrival, leaving Kim in the indifferent care of his aunt and uncle.

Author Kim Ju-sŏng
It was Kim's homesickness that drove him to write fiction; he wrote stories set in Japan so that he could vicariously visit his childhood home through his characters. As an adult he got a good job teaching physical education at a local college. However, after a few years of this he realized he would never become a professional writer that way, so he took the unusual step of quitting his job.

With his eye on winning admission to the prestigious writing program at Kim Hyong Jik University in Pyongyang, Kim decided to "step into the tiger's lair" and took a clerical job at the local KWU offices. This gave him abundant time to write in a supportive environment with feedback from professional writers.

Within two months, he had successfully published an essay in Chosŏn Munhak about a young Zainichi Korean making his first visit to to North Korea.  In the next three years he managed to publish four short stories in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, all featuring Zainichi characters and set in Japan, but sadly none of these won any national awards. He took the qualifying exam for the Kim Hyong Jik writing course and scored well, but was passed over in favor of a hack who "couldn't write the 'mun' in 'munhak' (literature)" but had the advantage of high sŏngbun (class ranking) and party membership.

Kim slaved away for the next seven years trying to become a party member. In addition to bribing people left, right and center, he signed up for every kind of manual labor - asphalt pouring, welding, street cleaning, streetlamp maintenance, etc.  Meanwhile he wrote tirelessly, with the goal of producing a "talked-about work" (話題作) that would force the establishment to notice him.

Finally, a senior KWU cadre dropped him a hint: If he would just drop the Japan stories and write something set in North Korea, he would surely be promoted to professional writer on the spot. So he wrote a story titled "Two Pillars."

The story centers on a Zainichi grandfather who has two granddaughters in North Korea. Hearing that they are bound for college, he travels to North Korea to see them enrolled - but finds them dressed in construction uniforms. He is puzzled, but eventually they convince him that their country needs construction workers more than college girls.

Kim put his all into the story, but it was rejected at the draft stage for "lacking originality." Apparently a famous Zainichi returnee writer, Kang Gui Mi, had written a similar story many years before.

After Japan cut off the Niigata-Wonsan ferry connection as part of its sanctions in 2005, life for Zainichi returnees in North Korea became increasingly untenable. Kim tried his hand at trading with Chinese enterprises and became familiar with the seamy underworld of cross-border trafficking in materials and people.

Kim eventually left North Korea and arrived in the South in 2006 at age 42.  The long, convoluted, fascinating tale of his escape is recounted in detail in here (from 30:00, in Korean with English subtitles). He was eventually reunited with his mother in Japan, but his father had perished in the Kobe earthquake in 1994.

The KWU Hierarchy 

According to Kim, writers in North Korea are referred to as "professional revolutionaries" and enjoy unusual perks. The first step to becoming a writer is registering as a "popular literature communicator" (群衆文学通信者) with the Korean Writer's Union, which is organized along with other artists' unions under the control of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers' Party.

Anyone can register with the KWU regardless of age, profession or gender. Once a year, registered members must attend a month-long training camp held at the KWU offices in each region. During this time, the writers live in a dorm together, attend writing seminars led by the Party, and workshop their writing. If one's work gains KWU approval, it gets published in the monthly KWU journal Chŏngnyŏn Munhak (청년문학).

A North Korean bookstore
Once a writer has published three short stories and two essays in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, he or she is promoted to "candidate member" of the Union and is given the title "employed writer" (現職作家), indicating someone who writes part-time while continuing to work in another profession. "Employed writers" are able to publish their work in the main Party literary journal Chosŏn Munhak, which is distributed only to members of the KWU. After publishing a requisite number of short stories in Chosŏn Munhak and at least one novella, one advances to "professional writer" (現役作家), indicating someone whose sole job is writing.

"Professional writers" are counted as civil servants (公務員) with all the associated privileges. But even "employed writers" enjoy considerable perks - including three month's "creativity leave" from one's main job each year, permission to travel freely anywhere in the country for research, and an invite to the annual week-long national writer's seminar in Pyongyang. There are four ranks of "professional writers," and the highest-ranked may be granted the status of "merited writer" (勲功作家) or "laureate" (桂冠作家). Above that, a few of the greatest writers have been honored as "Kim Il Sung Laureate" (金日成桂冠作家); these are considered "human national treasures." Chŏng Ki Jong, author of Ryŏksa ŭi Taeha and "Sky, Land and Sea," was one such laureate.

Pathways for Aspiring Writers

Though he started writing out of pure homesickness, Kim makes clear that his major motivation for aspiring to be a professional writer was the opportunity to live in Pyongyang. As mentioned above, to become a professional writer one must first climb the KWU hierarchy by publishing a specified number of stories.

Getting even one story approved by the KWU is quite difficult, and most aspiring writers burn out before reaching the "employed writer" stage. He discovered a short-cut: at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in Pyongyang, there is a 3-year creative writing course sponsored by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the KWP. By completing this course, one automatically advances to "professional writer" status, with a good chance at securing a Party appointment. The program is very hard to get into, and the entrance exam is held only once every three years.

He saw the Kim Hyong Jik College writing course as the best guarantee of obtaining a Pyongyang residence permit. Since he understood that the KWU stood as the gatekeeper of admissions and publications, all of his creative decisions on content, setting and style were shaped by what he knew the Party would reward.

Han Man Yu, winner of the 2017 Our
Schoolroom Prize junior division
Src: dprktoday
Early on, Kim figured his best chance at admission to the college writing program would be winning a national literature prize.

The most illustrious of these is the 4.15 National Representation Literature Prize [4.15전국형상응모문학상]; the KWU also offers the "Our Schoolroom Prize" and the "6.4 Literature Prize." Anyone in the country can submit for the 4.15 Prize in one of four divisions: adult, youth, child and professional. The "Our Schoolroom Prize" is named after a famous poem that Kim Jong Il allegedly wrote in gradeschool, and the 6.4 Literature Prize is named after the date that Kim Il Sung's guerrilla unit attacked the Japanese army outpost at Pochonbo.

Kim ultimately failed to win any of these prizes, although one story earned third place for the 6.4 Literature Prize. 

North Korea's Literary Production 

According to Kim, North Korean fiction can be divided into seven genres, roughly in order of acclaim:
1) "Number One Literature" - stories about members of the ruling Kim family
2) Anti-Japanese partisan era stories
3) Korean War stories
4) Historical fiction depicting pre-colonial, dynastic Korea
5) "Reality stories" about regular people's lives in North Korea
6) Stories set in South Korea
7) Stories set anywhere outside of Korea

With the exception of Number One Literature (which is reserved for the most elite authors), aspiring authors can choose from any of these genres, but the last two tend to get poor reviews from the KWU and are considered ideologically inferior.
Cho Ryŏng Chul (1913-1993), one of North Korea's
successful writers, pictured with his wife Kim Gwan Bo
(a renowned opera singer)

Kim writes that the highest level literary magazine, Chosŏn Munhak, is distributed only within the KWU and is inaccessible to ordinary citizens. At the next level down, Chŏngnyŏn Munhak is distributed to the general public and sometimes publishes amateur work. This writing has only one objective: to mobilize the masses. Kim writes: "There are only two types of North Korean publications: 'for study' and 'for agitation/propaganda.' There is no concept of entertainment purely for the purpose of enjoyment."

In addition to fiction, the KWU also contains divisions for poetry, theatre, foreign literature in translation, children's literature and writing for the masses. Around 1980 there was a big reorganization as Kim Jong Il prioritized film and added a screenwriting division at the same level as the literature division. From that time on, screen-writers dominated the KWU's resources, and all writing became focused on promoting the objectives of the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Kim describes the production process thusly:
   After finishing a manuscript, the writer first sends it to the state-run publishing agency, where it is edited. After that, if it passes evaluation by the National Review Committee (国家検閲委員会), it gets printed in one of the Party circulars like Chŏngnyŏn Munhak or Chosŏn Munhak. Every three months, all the published stories are evaluated and categorized as '話題作' (talked-about work), '成功作' (successful work), or '問題作' (problematic work).
   In Japan, a 'talked-about work' suggests something that garners public attention, but in North Korea, the criteria for a 'good review' are fundamentally different. In the North, fiction is judged not on circulation, sales, or reader responses, but on its evaluation by the Leaders and the higher-ups. Stories that gain the personal approval of Kim father-or-son are branded 'talked-about works,' and stories that score above a certain level are 'successful works'; such stories become required reading at all citizen's reading groups (読書会) and criticism groups (感想発表会). They are treated like some sort of school text.
   Meanwhile. the author of a 'talked-about work' suddenly gets treated differently. If Kim father-or-son reviews a work personally, it's like winning the lottery. I've seen writers who became superstars overnight, given personal cars and apartments.
   As for 'problematic works' - often stories deemed to have capitalistic elements or expressions may get this label. Among these, if works are judged as 'politically problematic' the writer may be purged or sent for reform through labor... We are literally writing 'as if our lives depend on it.'
Among other things, stories are expected to reflect revolutionary optimism and praise the works of the KWP. Among themselves, after a few drinks, writers may jokingly refer to this as "kiss-ass literature" (おべんちゃら文学). Kim believes that the reason his career never took off was that he was unable to convincingly deliver this kind of kiss-ass flattery.

When Kim began writing as a defector in South Korea, his South Korean editors were surprised that he was unfamiliar with the concept of royalties. In North Korea, writers are paid by the page (1 page = 200 characters). At the time he was writing in the 1980s, a short story might earn 300-400 NK wŏn, a novella could earn 1000-1500 wŏn and a full-length novel could earn several thousand wŏn. However, "Number One Stories" got paid four times as much and could be twice as long. (For context, at the time Kim was writing, 1kg of rice in the market cost 40 wŏn and a pack of foreign cigarettes cost 120 wŏn).

Needless to say, in order to get a story published Kim had to pay far more than he earned in bribes to his editor.

Korean Writers' Union Editors

Kim describes his complicated relationship with his KWU editor in humorous terms. "For a North Korean writer, the editor (編集員) is simultaneously one's closest partner and greatest foe. In that country, writers' personal opinions are decried as individualism, while editors hold the key to publication and represent the will of the authorities. The editor is both teacher and tyrant, and also like a flea on one's side."

As an example, Kim wrote a story from the perspective of a North Korean official who travels to Japan with the national soccer team, on which his son is a star athlete. He has a long conversation with an elderly Zainichi Korean man seated beside him, pointing out his son on the field. At the end of the story the old Zainichi stands and fumbles for his cane, and the official realizes that he is blind and has been unable to see any of the game; he just came out of a sense of patriotism. Kim was particularly proud of this O. Henry-esque "twist ending." But his editor made him rewrite the story from the blind man's perspective, emphasizing how he pined for his homeland, the better to hammer home the ideological message. This of course completely ruined the "twist ending" and undid all of the clever work of setting up the surprise.

In the case of Number One Literature, it seems the editor-writer relationship is reversed. Kim writes that Number One authors are of sufficient status that their editors have to treat them with respect and not be overly critical. Also, editors have to be extremely careful about suggesting cuts to any part of a manuscript that portrays the Leaders. They, too, risk their lives with a single misstep in the high-stakes world of North Korean fiction writing.

Other interesting tidbits:

At the time Kim was writing, in the early 1990s, KIS' age was becoming more apparent and the succession issue loomed large. Because of this, the Propaganda and Agitation Department began a campaign to foster the idea that "Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the same person." This explains why their speech patterns, mannerisms and general descriptions in the stories are all identical.

Kim recalls a very melodramatic story that was told at his Korean school in Japan:
   One day, when the whole country was struggling to rebuild after the war, the top officials gathered for a meeting. Receiving the budget report, Kim Il Sung turned to his economic advisor and asked, "Why is there no allocation for Zainichi education support in this budget?"
   The assembled advisors were stunned.
   Chŏng Jun Taek (later vice premier) spoke frankly. "Why, Mr. Chairman, at present we have not even one cent to spare from the reconstruction effort. Food is short, and countless numbers of our own citizens are homeless. Now is not the time to discuss our overseas compatriots."
   Next Choe Hyŏn (a top military official, father of current number-two Choe Ryong Hae) launched into a tirade. "Comrade Kim Il Sung! Are you out of your mind? The scars of war are still raw, and you care more for distant children overseas than our own children near at hand!" Choe was a soldier to his core, an old friend from their partisan days, Kim Il Sung's elder and former superior officer in the Chinese Red Army, perhaps the only person who could speak to the Leader without restraint.
Han Dŏk Su meeting Kim Il Sung.
Src: Wolgan Chosŏn
   After hearing out all these objections, Kim Il Sung turned to the window and spoke quietly. "Why do none of you understand how I feel? Even if our people must chew on grass roots to fill their bellies, even if they sleep on the streets with rocks for their pillows, consider this: at least they have the grass and rocks of their homeland. Their own native land!"
    At his words, the officials were stunned to silence. When the Leader turned from the window, they saw tears streaming down his cheeks. "Right now, our comrade Han Dŏk Su (Chosen Soren leader) is boldly organizing and building a school for our children in Tokyo. Right in the heart of 'that country'! The fates of 600,000 of our compatriots and their children depend on him. They are our citizens overseas. As your leader, and as a parent, how can I ignore them!" And with that, he kicked open the door and strode out of the room.
Kim's first job was as a physical education teacher at a regional college. He writes that in North Korea, physical education is taken very seriously; in order to graduate every student must pass a series of physical tests. This is considered part of military readiness, that every citizen be in sufficient physical shape to take up arms if need be.

On why so many North Korean defectors choose to settle in Seoul: “If you ask them, they will all say the same thing: 'In North Korea we always dreamed of living in Pyongyang. When I visited on a school field trip as a kid, I ate ice cream for the first time in my life and visited the amusement park. I thought I was in heaven.' Since there is freedom of movement in South Korea, it just seemed obvious that everyone would want to live in the capital.” Part of Kim's reason for wanting to become a writer in the first place was in hopes of getting to live in Pyongyang.

In the 1990s Kim spent a lot of time hanging out with his Zainichi friends in the lower levels of the Koryo Hotel, where he frequently encountered Fujimoto Kenji (KJI’s personal sushi chef), and caught glimpses of KJI's firstborn son Kim Jong Nam (a solitary, sad figure) and later number-two officials Jang Song Taek and Choe Ryong Hae (always greeted with great fanfare and a reception line of beautiful women at the hotel entrance). It was generally understood that regular people were not allowed into the Koryo, but apparently Zainichi returnees with rich overseas relatives were welcome to spend their money there.

The Zainichi transplants had their own code words for the high-ups based on the Japanese reading of their names: Kim Jong Il was "Masa-chan," Kim Kyŏng Hui was "Keiko-san,"  Jang Song Taek was "Chō-san" etc. One of Kim's Zainichi friends got in deep trouble with State Security for using these code names.

Kim tells the story of one of his closest friends and fellow writers, a man who one day discovered that his editor had been regularly raping his wife. Knowing that her attacker held her husband's career and fate in his hands, the wife had kept silent. In rage and despair, the man tried to flee the country but was caught by State Security. Kim later heard that he had been sent to the infamous Yodŏk Prison Camp. This friend had been Kim's confidant and the two had often discussed their dissatisfaction with the regime, so for years afterward Kim lived in fear of every knock on the door.

One of Kim's responsibilities in his job at the KWU was maintaining its small lending library. In one corner of this library sat an unassuming safe which, it turned out, was packed full of mimeographed, Korean-translated copies of foreign novels: Matsumoto Seichō's Points and Lines, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, O. Henry's The Last Leaf, Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, Kobayashi Takiji's Crab Cannery Ship, Dante's Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's Decameron, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and Morimura Seiichi's Proof of the Man. These were exclusively for the KWU authors' use; the only foreign literature ordinary North Koreans had access to was Russian and Chinese. Though the safe's existence was a secret, somehow word got out, and Kim was constantly rebuffing under-the-counter requests from Party officials and their children. It would be his funeral if any of the materials turned up in the wrong hands.

Kim tells of numerous writers who fell out of favor and got purged or sent to reform-through-labor, including the screenwriter of the popular series "Unsung Heroes" (이름없는 영웅). One promising young Zainichi writer was studying literature at Kim Il Sung University when he had the misfortune to fall in love with Kim Il's daughter, at a time when the former partisan fighter was vice premier at the height of his power. When he found out about the romance, Kim Il had the lad sent to a labor camp and shipped his daughter off to school in Russia. The boy's father, a high-level Chosen Soren official in Japan, eventually found out and complained to Kim Il Sung, who harshly rebuked Kim Il. The boy was then allowed to return to school and went on to write a famous novel, "Hymn of Youth" (청춘송가), about his experiences - but the couple never got back together. Among the writers of North Korea, the back-story to this novel is well-known and considered the greatest love story of all time.


Author Kim Ju-sŏng has made the rounds of the defector variety shows. He appeared on ChannelA's "이제 만나러 갑니다" ( and has made numerous appearances as a contributor to Bena TV, giving extended interviews in both Korean ( - English subtitles) and Japanese ( - Korean subtitles).

Full citation:
Kim Ju-song, Tobenai kaeru: Kitachōsen sennō bungaku no jittai (The Frog that Couldn’t Jump: The Reality of North Korea’s Brainwashing Literature) (Tokyo: Futabasha, 2018). link