Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Green Mountains, Green Fields (푸른산, 푸른들): Regrowing North Korea's Forests at Mashik Speed!

"Green Mountains, Green Fields" is a short story by Chŏng Yŏng Jo that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in November 2016.

KJU touring the Pyongyang Central Zoo in 2014.
Src: VOA
The story highlights the leadership's efforts to solve the country's serious deforestation problem, while simultaneously promoting the newly refurbished Pyongyang Central Zoo as a magical fun place to spend an afternoon - a place where, if you're lucky, you might even catch sight of Kim Jong Un!

Also in this story, we get more glimpses of Kim Jong Un missing his late mother and having flashbacks of working alongside his father. It is implied that Kim Jong Un has been involved behind the scenes in fixing the country's environmental problems for a very long time. We learn of two more fields in which Kim Jong Un is unexpectedly more knowledgable than the so-called experts: zoo-keeping and botany.


KJU is in his office when he gets word that the dolphins he ordered for Rungna Park are en route by air (from wherever you get dolphins, presumably). Unthinkingly he picks up phone to tell KJI the good news. Then with a pang he remembers: his father has been dead for half a year. He calls a KWP CC official instead, orders the Central Zoo people to the airport to take charge of dolphins, then sets up a meeting with Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng. The official reluctantly agrees, knowing it means the leader will have to skip lunch - again.
   The General (KJI)'s great task of building a strong and prosperous country had fallen on His shoulders. His will was firm. At the parade grounds on the Great Leader's 100th birthday parade, He had declared to the world: Our people, the greatest people in the world, have triumphed over countless adversities and faithfully upheld the Party. No longer will they need to tighten their belts; at last they will enjoy the blessings of socialism!
   This is why, despite America applying new sanctions in response to our satellite launch and growing ever more vicious in its threats to invade, He daringly pulled troops away from the front lines to work on construction Changjŏn Street and the amusement parks. In the same way, a little while ago when the food problem was bad, He put the troops to work helping farmers in a nationwide mass mobilization.
   But would that be enough to achieve the people's happiness?
   His thoughts turned to the dolphins being loaded onto the planes. Animals gave people joy; might there be some way to get all the animals of the country to help bring the people happiness? What sort of environment might they require?
Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng is waiting in his office when he returns from his many site visits. A gaunt, tall, stern old man who never tolerated a whiff of injustice, Dr. Cha has dedicated his life to studying forestry. KJU first met him years ago when he came to discuss the deforestation problem with his father. 

KJU visits the Central Tree Nursery, May 2015
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo
Not pausing to rest, KJU links arms with the old man and they walk together into the garden. Dr. Cha talks about article he was just reading in the Rodong Shinmun highlighting the recent Land Management Mobilization Event (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회).

As they stroll and talk of the reforestation efforts, Dr. Cha suddenly stops before a particular tree and gasps. It is a rare kind of pine (스트로브스소나무) that he recalls KJI had been particularly impressed by on his last visit to the Central Tree Nursery (중앙양묘장), the October before he died. It seems that, to honor his father's memory, KJU had the seedling shipped to his private garden and raised it himself.

   "What do you think?" He asks. "If we cover our bald hillsides with splendid trees like this, won't we really get a phoenix from the ashes (화를 복으로 만들다)?"
   Dr. Cha is momentarily speechless; his expression darkens. After a moment he mutters, "I know how You have suffered over the deforestation problem. I saw it all on TV last March. Planting trees at some random army post, You dismissed the idea of pretending to work in some pre-dug hole as 'formalism' and insisted on sweating for hours doing all the spadework Yourself. And here, Your labors have achieved such abundant growth, while the Central Nursery still hasn't paid off as the General had intended."
KJU indulging in a little formalism with his South Korean
counterpart. When in Rome?
Src: Reuters

KJU waves off his concerns. He recalls how, on guidance tours together, whenever they saw a particularly lush forest his father would always exclaim, "Green mountains, green fields!" He talks of the famed Russian botanist Timiryazev's theory on the relationship between sun, earth, and plants. Dr. Cha is suitably impressed that the Leader has mastered this very thick, high-level botanical text.

"But if a growing tree needs sunlight most," KJU continues, "then what is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?" 

Dr. Cha is stumped. The answer, which KJU keeps to himself, is animals. Just as the sea needs teeming schools of fish, a mature forest needs biodiversity to thrive. It's a big problem for the country, because when the forests were chopped down all the animals disappeared.

They move on to talk about Dr. Cha's grandson, named Forest (수림), who has just joined the Youth League. Dr. Cha complains that young Forest is disobedient. KJU replies: 
   "It's good to misbehave (벌찬거야 좋은 일이지요). The new generation must be bold and gutsy enough in their hopes and ideals to conquer and rule the world. That's why we must host a grand spectacle at the upcoming 66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League (조선소년단 66돐) - so they can proclaim to the whole world, 'Look at us, we're the generation that has inherited the most magnificent, strong and powerful socialist nation on earth!'"
66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League, Pyongyang, June 2012
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo

The demands of his busy schedule intruding, he bids Dr. Cha farewell, saying "Think of my earlier question as a kind of riddle. If you think on it a bit, you'll figure it out." He added, "By the way, I think you'll find the 'Illustrated Guide to Animals' useful."


Two days later, Dr. Cha visits the Central Zoo to borrow the book KJU recommended. It really is just a simple picture book, with no real scientific details. What did the Dear Leader expect a botanist like him to do with such a book?

The zoo guide suggests he talk with "Mother Kim Soon Bok," an animal handler with 50 years of experience working at the Central Zoo, known not only to KJU but to his father and grandfather as well.

Just then, he sees a short but sturdy older woman approaching; it is Mother Kim. They are introduced; her manner is curt and impatient as she leads him into the park.

"Sorry I've no time to be polite. I've just been scolded by the party secretary..." She chatters as they walk. "Animals and trees are like in-laws. It's not like they don't talk to each other..."

Dr. Cha figures she's a bit rough-edged from working with animals all her life, but he likes her. She mentions that she tried to resign her post. Dr. Cha cautiously asks if it was because of health issues. But she grins like a schoolgirl and whispers conspiratorially:  

   "When the General came to visit last summer, our Comrade Kim Jong Un came along too. He called me 'Mother of Beasts' and looked at me so affectionately. But since this morning, I've felt those eyes - those same eyes on me again. You get a lively intuition, working with animals."
   "But then, isn't that all the more reason to stay on?" he asked in confusion.
   "I don't particularly need to meet Comrade Kim Jong Un again. There are plenty of capable handlers on the team. Young women and housewives. But they'll get no chance at the honor while I've parked my butt in the spot. I feel guilty. Plus, I'm old."
  The woman's brusque but friendly manner made him laugh. But he also felt impatient. What was this "intuition" she spoke of, and how would it help him solve the Dear Leader's riddle? For he felt certain the two were connected. Comrade Kim Jong Un had clearly taken a particular interest in this zoo, and wanted him to take interest too.
Children on a field trip to the Central Zoo in Pyongyang.
Src: RFA
   Suddenly, Mother Kim cursed aloud, excused herself and rushed over to an enclosure, yelling for her assistant. Looking around, Dr. Cha noticed that the afternoon crowds had begun to thin, the visitors losing interest after yelling and throwing food produced no reaction from the listless animals...
   Soon Mother Kim and her assistant were busily driving some bears out into an enclosure. She explained to a curious Dr. Cha: "We're putting the boars and bears together in the tiger cage. That'll give 'em something to look at."
   "But won't the tigers eat them?"
   Mother Kim smirked impishly. "Bears are pretty tough. Those buggers can cover 100 li of forest in a day."
   Dr. Cha's brow wrinkled. Such wisdom from a crazy old harridan! (이 늙다리멍청이!) Suddenly Comrade Kim Jong Un's words echoed in his mind: "What is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?"
   A bear needs 100 li of forest in every direction to live. A tiger covers far more than that in its ceaseless search for food. But since the forests were cut down, tigers have disappeared from all but the most remote parts of Mt. Paekdu's forests.
   He realized now that this was the conclusion Comrade Kim Jong Un had been leading him toward when he recommended that animal guidebook. The secret to lush, thriving forests. What was it the old woman said about forests and animals being like in-laws? It was so simple, and yet he'd been so walled off in his own narrow field that he hadn't seen it!
Just then Dr. Cha receives an urgent phone call. He's told that KJU is at the zoo entrance and wants to speak with him immediately.


Dr. Cha meets KJU by the main gate as the Leader and several officials are discussing dolphin storage problems with the elderly party secretary of the zoo. Together they tour the zoo, which is organized in order of evolution.
   As they passed through the aquarium, the seal playground, and the reptile house, Comrade Kim Jong Un felt a strange perfume pervade his heart. These were the familiar paths he had trod many times as a child with his mother. Maybe that was why he felt such a pang when, nodding off over his work desk in the wee hours, he sometimes dreamed of her.
   In the dream, his mother would fret over him working too hard, saying that's the same way his father worked his whole life away. She was speaking of the General, who never lost faith in the people and the ultimate success of his great mission... There are those who say that the greatest power given to mankind is love, but she knew that an even more powerful and important force was faith. This she had felt deeply over the decades she spent working at the General's side.
   Why would he dream about that, of all things?
Vehicle drawn by miniature horses at the Pyongyang
Central Zoo.
Src: dprktoday.com
As they watch electric-powered cars and horse-drawn carriages zoom by filled with chattering visitors, the  zoo manager notes that these were a gift from the late KJI. KJU reflects on how much his father invested in this zoo - donating his own favorite white horse, sending his specially-designed animal transport aircraft all over the world to collect animals, devising scientifically advanced methods for their care and feeding, etc.

He asks Dr. Cha if he has solved the riddle yet. Dr. Cha replies that he figured it out with Mother Kim's help: a full-grown forest needs animals. KJU praises him for giving the correct answer, then takes his arm, saying "Come, let's go meet the king of this forest."


They meet up with Mother Kim, who is so thrilled to see the Leader that she is rendered speechless.

"Why, Mother of Beasts, we were just looking for you," KJU says, patting her familiarly on the back. "We must thank you for opening our dear doctor's eyes."

Overcome with emotion, she sobs noisily until he puts her at ease with a joke that the animals are losing respect for her. Then the whole group is distracted by the spectacle of a boar picking a fight with a bear in the tiger cage. They meet some cuddly baby bears, and KJU mansplains that Mother Kim should not be so careless around the dangerous animals, no matter how cute they are.

KJU asks Mother Kim if she needs anything. She says no, the General gave her warm winter clothes and furniture last year. He notes that she's a bit stiff and asks if her arthritis is bad, then harshly rebukes the zoo's party secretary for not getting her proper medicine. He wants her well enough to keep working for another ten years, "when everything will be much better."

Everyone is shocked the next moment when Mother Kim suddenly collapses, moaning she has "no right to such love." She confesses that earlier that same day she had talked of quitting.

Dr. Cha explains; once KJU understands that she was only thinking of her coworkers, he praises her motherly spirit:
   "Only a mother could be so generous. A team leader thinks of her team members as her children. She raises them well and supports them to the end. Carry on, I'm counting on you."
   Then Comrade Kim Jong Un turned to Dr. Cha. "You've seen for yourself: the tiger is listless. Because of that, our Mother of Beasts has to contrive these dangerous escapades to keep her visitors entertained. Can you think of a solution?"
   At a loss for words, Cha Ho Gyŏng just shifted nervously. Taking pity on him, Comrade Kim Jong Un jumped in: "A tiger that is taken out of the forest will lose its unique character and spirit. Instead of keeping him penned up like this, how about building a big tiger hill where he can hunt and run around to his heart's content?"
   Dr Cha could not lift his head. While he'd been laughing and having a good time, Comrade Kim Jong Un had been ceaselessly pondering on the nature and habits of beasts, all to help out one old woman. And not only that - within his plan was a hint of the very forest he was planning to create!
A scene at the Pyongyang Central Zoo.
Src: dprktoday.com   


The sun is setting by the time KJU finishes touring the zoo. In the aviary the birds sing of their lost forests.

It reminds KJU of one time when he was touring an army outpost with his father. The elder leader, hearing an owl's soft hoot from the woods behind the barracks, remarked "The birds fly here because our soldiers cared so well for this forest." The strain of a long day's work fell away as he listened, muttering "Green mountains, green fields!"

His mind made up, KJU announces a major zoo renovation. "We'll put together the necessary funding and materials. With a dedicated construction crew, the whole thing should be done in 3-4 months. Well, what should we build?"

KJU then explains how the global concept of zoos has evolved "from simply displaying animals, to keeping them in their natural habitat so they can be returned to the wild." Therefore, instead of arranged exhibits following the standard evolutionary order, they should build enormous habitats where the animals can roam freely through lush forests.

Everybody is awed by the epic scale and grandeur of the leader's vision, and they burst into ecstatic cheers. KJU cannot share in their joy, because he suddenly remembers how much his father would have loved to see this zoo rebuilt; working so hard on it was part of what caused his death.
   Dr. Cha stepped forward. "I see clearly at last. I'd been thinking if there's a forest, animals will just naturally appear. it hadn't occurred to me that it takes months for them to find a new habitat and adapt to it. Now I see a novel way to build a forest and breed animals at the same time."
   Kim Jong Un smiled to see the doctor's brimming enthusiasm. "I'm glad you finally figured it out. Of course, your most urgent task is to cover our bald hills with trees that grow quickly, like larches and pines. But if we're to create a proper habitat for animals, then conifers alone are not enough. We should also mix in leafy trees and shrubs with nutrient-rich leaves and buds. Remember this: a rich forest with abundant support for life."
Riding home from the zoo in the twilight, KJU sees a work unit of soldiers marching home through the rice paddies.  They're singing "With One Breath" (한숨에), one of his favorite songs. It's a song about finishing a big job all at once, the way they did with Huichŏn Dam, Changjŏn Street and the Rungra Amusement Park. The army is good at that sort of thing.

Yes, the road ahead will be tough. But with capable scientists like Dr. Cha and motherly, self-sacrificing team leaders like Mother Kim, he's confident they'll find a way to make lush, vibrant forests a reality in the near future.

Once again, he catches himself reaching for a phone to call his late father.  But why not? Isn't his father always with him in his heart?

Holding the receiver to his ear, he thinks a silent message: "General, today I took on another big task. It's a heavy burden. But our people take after You, with your selfless love of country and ceaseless forced march of extreme labor [초강도강행군길]. With the help of such people, I can solve anything. I shall define this selfless love of country as 'Kim Jong Il Patriotism'! [김정일애국주의]" 

And with that, he had the seed of the idea for the great treatise that he would soon write.

Reforestation Efforts

One of things that most surprised me, in my graduate comparative communism courses, was learning just how devastating communist systems are to the environment. One might expect capitalist systems to be worse, with their greedy corporations chasing profits. But empirically, the damage done in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the USSR during the Cold War period and in China today dwarf anything seen in the capitalist world. Pollution and land overuse are the most common culprits in such systems.
A denuded hillside near Wonsan. Src: PBS Nova

North Korea is no exception. The causes of its ecological disaster have been variously pinned on excessive tree-cutting for firewood, overuse of fertilizer, terrace farming and pollution. It's been well-reported that deforestation is behind the increasingly devastating flood damage the country suffers every year during the rainy season.

Several years ago Nova did a good report on North Korea's environmental problems. The report does a fabulous job of explaining how famine conditions lead to environmental destruction, using late medieval Europe as a comparison. It quotes foreign researchers who have noted the striking absence of animals, including frogs and birds, in the country since the famine.

Stories like this one show that North Korea has begun to take its deforestation problems seriously. Chosŏn Shinbo reported extensively on a visit KJU made to the Central Tree Nursery in May 2015, and Uriminzokkiri has posted numerous photos and reports on the project in the last four years. The Nursery was created in 1998 and is run by the Ministry of the Environment (국토환경보호성), but it got little attention until it was expanded and modernized in 2009. The first National Land Management Mobilization Conference (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회) was held in Pyongyang in 2012. At the Conference, KJU announced a mass mobilization plan for improving the country's environment. A report released two years later trumpeted progress in reforestation, road improvements, and river and stream ecology management.

The Central Tree Nursery. Src: Uriminzokkiri
This story does briefly acknowledge that North Korea's deforestation problems originated in excessive tree-cutting during the famine period after soviet fuel supplies were cut off, although in the story this is attributed to venal citizens selling wood for food, rather than using it to heat their homes.

In the scene where KJU is remembering how he first met Dr. Cha, he recalls the ecologist complaining bitterly to his father about people cutting down trees: "No matter how hard their lives are, selling off our nation's forests to fill their bellies - it feels like a piece of my own flesh is being carved off." This is the only time that a cause is mentioned; the solution Dr. Cha offers later in the story talks only of what sort of trees they will plant and makes no mention of how they will stop the same thing from happening again.

Kim Jong Il Patriotism

In addition to the usual "Strong and Prosperous" and "cutting-edge" motifs, this story emphasizes two other new catchphrases. The Forced March of Extreme Labor [초강도강행군길] is North Korea's euphemism for how Kim Jong Il died. It carries echoes of the "Arduous March" [고난의행군], the euphemism for the famine of the 1990s that killed so many of his people. The story as North Koreans heard it is that the Leader collapsed on a train while traveling the country doing his endless sequence of on-site guidance visits, and that the strain of overwork killed him.
Let's arm ourselves firmly with Kim Jong Il Patriotism!
"What have I done for my homeland?"
Src: Alamy photos

"Kim Jong Il Patriotism" [김정일애국주의] is another important new slogan of the Kim Jong Un era. South Korean scholars have spilled much ink already trying to interpret what this is supposed to mean. It seems to be tied to ideas of self-sacrifice and feats of extremely fast-paced labor. By attaching the name Kim Jong Il, the regime reminds people that their last leader allegedly killed himself by working too hard, setting that up as the ultimate example of patriotism. Thus, performing superhuman feats of labor is the best way to carry on the late Leader's legacy.

KJU did indeed write (or at least, was credited with) a treatise on the subject of "Kim Jong Il Patriotism" which he presented to the KPA Central Committee in July 2012. The full text can be downloaded by clicking this link. It seems that this story was intended in part to promote this treatise as Kim the Third's first great philosophical treatise, carrying on the tradition of his father's works on Juche film and literature and his grandfather's many works of political philosophy.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Translator's note: Why are some pronouns capitalized?

In the process of translating North Korean fiction, attempting to capture this complex hybrid of political communication, literature, and religious text, I've been forced to make several editorial choices.

The first was that, since I simply did not have time to translate entire stories, I would simply summarize the boring sections and put greater effort into translating the particularly interesting sections verbatim, taking as much care as possible to faithfully represent the original Korean text. These "faithful representations" are indented to distinguish them from summary text and editorial commentary.

But faithful representation is particularly difficult with certain aspects of Korean that simply do not exist in English. For instance, the use of honorific/humble speech is of particular importance in these stories - Kim Jong Un uses honorific speech so rarely that when he does so it makes a crucial statement about the social status of the individual he is addressing. And yet there is no good way of rendering such distinctions in English.  I have occasionally used parenthetical notes for this purpose.

Text from "Our Heavens"
Another aspect that I deemed too important to ignore was the various titles and ways of addressing the Leaders in the texts - particularly as these change over time. Kim Jong Il, for instance, has by turns been "The Dear Leader," "The Great Leader," and most recently "The General." Kim Jong Un is now usually "The Dear Leader," "The Supreme Commander," or "Comrade Kim Jong Un." But when the author uses a pronoun to represent one of the leaders, it is always "그이" (honorific for "him"). This is one of the key distinctions between South and North Korean; South Korean writing uses "그이" to refer to various people particularly worthy of massive respect, such as famous philosophers, kings and gods. North Korea uses this term exclusively to refer to the Leader Kims.

I decided that the closest (albeit imperfect) English equivalent would be the capitalized "He" used to refer to certain deities in religious texts. Therefore, in the indented verbatim texts, wherever you see a capitalized male pronoun, this indicates that the original Korean used the term 그이.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"The Old Soldier" (로병동지): North Korea's Greatest Generation

"The Old Soldier" (Robyŏng Dongji) is a short story by Baek Sang Gyun that appeared in Choson Munhak in 2017.

The heart of the story follows a senior military official's efforts, at Kim Jong Un's behest, to track down an elderly veteran so that he can be honored properly. The story's main purpose seems to be to illustrate the young leader's devotion to the country's aging veterans. Along the way it also manages to highlight the boost in construction projects (particularly hydropower), several new leisure and entertainment facilities in Pyongyang, and the increasingly ostentatious Victory Day festivities in the capital.


Along the way to visit the front lines, KJU’s car passes a construction site. He sees a group of elderly citizens stepping off a tour bus, their chests jangling with medals, tambourines and accordions in hand. It is a veterans' art agitation troupe (로병기동예술선동대), heading to an event to educate the young laborers about the war.

A student art agitation troupe performs to encourage construction workers
Src: Tongil News

KJU privately contemplates the unflagging energy of the nation’s veterans. There was that group in Yŏngchŏn who formed a tree-planting brigade and covered hundreds of hectares of once-barren hillsides with trees. And that group from Myŏngsŏn County who gathered tens of tons of scrap metal to donate to the steel mill. He must find a way to celebrate their contributions at the upcoming Victory Day (전승절) ceremonies.

2013 Victory Day celebration in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
Src: RFA

The car rocks along the bumpy rode, jolting him from his reverie. As if apologetic for disturbing the Leader's thoughts, the driver slows down.

"Why are you going at turtle speed?" KJU complains. "As the saying goes, a horse responds to the whip, and a car responds to the jolt of the road. Speed up! The country's development follows our pace."

Turning to General Ri Jŏng Mook, who is accompanying him, KJU asks about the preparations for the elderly veterans' participation in the Victory Day festivities. "We must take their health into account." Then, a non-sequitur: "I guess we'll see that old fellow from Sŏkgaryŏng again?"

Jŏng Mook draws a blank, so KJU reminds him. "You know, the old codger who had been drinking and wandered into the road that night."


Flashback: It was a cold mid-January, and KJU was on the road with Jŏng Mook, having just reluctantly left one barracks full of sobbing, adoring soldiers behind to visit another. They were headed to Ch'ŏnhabong, a mountain post so rugged and remote that no roads can reach it; they get all their food and supplies delivered by cable ropeway.

Suddenly sensing danger, KJU snapped alert. "Driver, slow down. I think there's someone in the road ahead." The driver slowed. Jŏng Mook craned to peer out the window.

The car's high beams illuminated the figure of a man, staggering down the center of he road, oblivious to the car approaching behind him. "I think he's been drinking," KJU observed.

He ordered the car to stop and got out. Following after him, Jŏng Mook heard a shout and a thud. It seemed the man had belatedly moved to the side of the road and promptly fallen over.

"Are you okay?" KJU asked, helping him up. Reeking of alcohol, the drunkard (술주정뱅이) lurched upright and muttered thanks.

It was too dark to see his face, but he sounded ancient. Jŏng Mook asked if he's been to a "daesajib" (North Korean type of pub).

"Wharrya mean, daesajib? D'ya think an old guy like me'd be out drrinkin' this late atta place like that?"

Jong Mook was so offended by his rough speech that he started to berate the old man, but KJU restrained him, reminding him to respect his elders.

The old man settled down a bit. "Truth is, I's just sharin' a drink with my old departed war buddies (먼저 간 전우들)." After a pause: "My war buddies, they're all sleepin' up on yonder ridge."
A KPA machine gun unit during the Korean War.
ⓒ NARA, via OhMyNews

At his words, KJU remembered hearing that during the War of National Liberation, a group of resistance fighters died protecting the ridge they just crossed. This must be a survivor of that battle.
"T'was October 1950. The eight of us were headed back from patrol when we met up with some American bastards with a tank. We could see they were trying to open a route to Pyongyang. Were we supposed to stand for that? Just let 'em march right into Pyongyang, where the great General Kim Il Sung was? We swore to protect that road with our lives, so we opened fire on the bastards. That was a ferocious fight; we were way outgunned. When I think how my buddies said I had to come out alive, 'cause I was the youngest..." The old man's voice broke.
KJU held his hand and praised him for remembering his fallen comrades. But the old man shook his head.
   "Truth is, I've no right to stand before them. Didn't fulfil my pledge, did I? Swore to honor the Great Leader and the Party... So I went to them to do my penance and swear, to my dying breath, to revere the heaven and destiny of our people, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Un."
KJU was overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to meet this wonderful old soldier, and wanted to talk with him some more. They offered the old man a ride, but he adamantly refused, saying he lived just up the road. So they parted ways, never revealing KJU's identity.


Roused from the memory, KJU suddenly orders Ri Jŏng Mook to go pay the old man a visit. Jŏng Mook returns to the same stretch of road to find no dwellings anywhere nearby, not even a hint of a human presence. "So the old man lied," he thinks.

Upon questioning one of the rare passers-by, he learns of an electric line repair station in a lonely place a ways down the ridge. Sweating bullets, he finally reaches the place to find a 50-something man just exiting, who greets him cheerily. After hearing Jŏng Mook explain his business, he looks befuddled.

"That old man comes round every Chusŏk, he stays here overnight after visiting the graves on the ridge. Never asked his name, I just know he lives up north in Kyŏngp'yŏng..."
A rural village in North Hamgyong Province.
Src: AP

So Jŏng Mook travels to Kyŏngp'yŏng, where he learns that the man's name is Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng and he is 78 years old. He hurries to the man's house and eagerly knocks on the door. To his dismay, the woman who answers informs him that the old man, her father-in-law, left home a month ago and never came back.

"It's all my fault," she mutters, then begins telling him the whole story.


About a month ago, the old man gathered up his battered toolchest and took off, mumbling something about "paying of my debt to the nation while I still can." She ran after him but couldn't catch him to get a clear explanation.

The old man had been on pension (년로보장) since before she joined the family 10 years ago. After the war, he had worked as a highly skilled machine repairman on everything from cars to construction cranes. He had four children, but his wife perished during the Arduous March and his three daughters had all completed their military service and then (at his insistence) all married officers deployed at the front, leaving the old man alone with just her and her husband, who worked as a supplier [자재인수원] at a chemical plant and was away most of the time.

At first she took good care of him, but after having a few kids, she grew indifferent. He kept going round to the local work sites, asking if they had any machines that needed fixing, trying to be useful. She wished he would put his talents to use on little home improvement projects, like some of the other old-timers in the neighborhood.

Hearing her story, it seemed obvious to Jŏng Mook that the old man must have run off to some construction site. But such sites were as numerous as the forests; inquiring at each one would take forever.


KJU is grieved to hear Jŏng Mook's report. Undeterred, he orders a nationwide search for Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng, instructing aides to contact construction heads in every county, city and township until they locate the old man.


At last Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng is found. The old soldier has been working at the Sŏngsan hydroelectric plant construction site.

Construction of Huichŏn Hydroelectric Dam.
Src: Chosŏn Pub
According to the site manager, he showed up two months ago offering his assistance, but the site planners treated him like a "leftover stone from the castle" [성쌓고 남은 돌]. This kind of work was tough even for young men, so what could an old geezer like him do? They thanked him for his offer and advised him to go home. Ch'un Sŏng said not a word in reply, but left the office to find transport to the work site.

In the parking lot a small group was crowded around a broken-down freight transport, arguing over how to fix it. After eavesdropping a bit, Ch'un Sŏng put in some advice. At first they all wondered where this old geezer came from; but upon hearing him speak sensibly and competently of various auto parts, their "mouths hung open" in astonished respect. Following his advice, in short order, they had the engine roaring back to life.

Soon word circulated of an "all-knowing machine guru" (만능기관박사) who "could repair anything with an engine, with his eyes closed." Soon the various work units were vying for the old man's time.

Receiving this report, a delighted KJU thanks the Sŏngsan County party secretary, who provided the information. He promptly sends Jŏng Mook off to fetch the old man to Pyongyang.

As he leaves, the desk phone rings. KJU answers, listens briefly, and hangs up. Apropos of nothing, he announces,"Gotta go, the dolphin circus is starting," and dashes out. [I've decided to start using this as my new excuse to get out of any conversation.]


Returning to his office after giving final instructions at the newly-constructed Rŭngna Dolphinarium [릉라곱등어관], KJU thinks over his impressions.
A show at the Rŭngra Dolphinarium.
Src: Uriminzokkiri, May 2015
He had been standing before the water tank, when suddenly the calm water bubbled up like a bowl of juk, and the dolphins leapt into the air. They swam right up to him and bowed their graceful heads, as if thanking him for giving them such a splendid home.

The facility is set to open on Victory Day, and the old veterans will be in attendance to see the fantastic show. KJU realizes that most of the veterans should have arrived in the city by now, and he wonders if their lodgings are comfortable enough. He immediately dials up the hotel manager.
"Comrade hotel manager? This is Kim Jong Un."
The hotel manager's joy and astonishment blares from the receiver. "Dear Leader, hello!"
War veterans transported by bus to the 5th National Veterans'
Conference, July 2018.
Festivities. Src: Hangyoreh

KJU asks if the veterans' lodgings lack anything. The manager replies that no, all is well. After some hesitation, he carefully adds that all the old soldiers are settling comfortably - except Chŏng Ch'un Song, who is not eating well and seems depressed. They've tried talking to him, but he has completely clammed up.

A worried KJU immediately calls Ri Jŏng Mook to his office. As KJU explains the problem, Jŏng Mook visibly blanches. Suspicious, KJU asks him if he knows anything about it.
Veterans bound for Victory Day festivities arrive at
Pyongyang Station, July 2015
Src: Uriminzokkiri

Jŏng Mook confesses that when he went to greet the veterans arriving at Pyongyang Station, he was hauled aside by Chŏng Ch'un Song. The old man explained that he had been too bewildered to ask any questions on the day the officer tracked him down, but now he wanted to know how the Dear Leader knew of him.

Jŏng Mook reluctantly told him about the circumstances of their meeting that night, including his drunken stumbling along the road in front of the Leader's car. The old man shook his head in disbelief.
   "It's true I'd been drinking that night, but how could I have been so impertinent in front of the Dear Leader?" Finally acknowledging the reality of the matter, he slumped down in his chair.
   "Aikoo! What kind of senile haze was I in that night? To think that I gibbered on like that while the Dear Leader stood out in the biting wind on a cold winter night! What would people think of me if they knew? That I couldn't even protect Him..."
   After berating himself at some length, he suddenly sprang up and turned on Ri Jŏng Mook. "Hey! Why did you just stand there? No matter how dark it was, you could have given me some kind of hint that I was in the presence of the Dear Leader. Why didn't you slap my worthless face?"
  Jŏng Mook just sighed, regretting that he had said anything.
Veterans being féted in Pyongyang during the 2015 Victory
 Day Celebrations.
Src: Uriminzokkiri
Hearing this story, KJU realizes that the old man must feel terrible, but he is deeply moved by his devotion. He scans his desk calendar; Jŏng Mook knows he is trying to find a free moment in his packed schedule to meet with the old veteran.

At length he sighs and shakes his head. There's just not a minute to spare to visit the veterans' hotel. Jŏng Mook offers to go in his stead.

"Very well. Go and tell them this: I, Kim Jong Un, am grateful to all the veterans for their sincerity, so they are to not worry about anything and just enjoy themselves."


Kim Jong Un devotes himself wholeheartedly to the elderly veterans throughout the Victory Day celebrations, joining them at various performances and festivities. All the old soldiers are overwhelmed by the Dear Leader's tireless devotion and thrilled to hear that they will have a commemorative photo taken with him.


KJU arrives for the photo shoot and warmly greets Ri Jŏng Mook.

Jŏng Mook has been continually amazed by the Leader's detailed attention to the veterans' comfort; he even arranged the veterans' meals to match their various palates and health conditions. He attended every event with them, including the visits to Rŭngna People's Pleasure Park, Okryugwan, and Ch'ŏngryugwan [all relatively new prestige structures in Pyongyang - an amusement park and the two most famous restaurants in Pyongyang, respectively].

KJU honors war veterans at the 4th National Veteran's
Festival, held in Pyongyang in July 2015.
Src: ifeng.com

KJU asks after Chŏng Ch'un Song. The old man is still as depressed as ever, saying he's not worthy of standing before the supreme commander.

They enter the photo shoot area, where the Leader is greeted by the waiting veterans with thunderous shouts of "manse." As KJU grins and clasps their aged hands one by one, he notices one veteran standing aside with a hangdog look. He casts a questioning look at Jŏng Mook, who quietly confirms that that is Chŏng Ch'un Song.
   With a nod, Comrade Kim Jong Un sought out Chŏng Ch'un Song.
   "Comrade Veteran!"
   At the sound of His booming voice, everyone fell dead silent. At Comrade Kim Jong Un's call, Chŏng Ch'un Song lifted his head and gazed at the leader with tear-filled eyes.
   "Dear Comrade Supreme Commander!" Chŏng Ch'un Song stuttered in a strangled voice, then bit his lip as if biting back a sob.
   Comrade Kim Jong Un warmly grasped both his hands. "Comrade veteran! Welcome. I wasn't able to greet you properly when we last met at Sŏkgaryŏng, so I'm happy to greet you now."
   Chŏng Ch'un Song shook his head vigorously, fighting back tears. "Comrade Supreme Commander! How can this be? I should be the one... That night... that night when I... I acted like an old fool..."
   But Comrade Kim Jong Un shook his hands firmly. "Comrade veteran! Stop this talk. You have no idea how much your words that night gave me strength."
   Overwhelmed by emotion, Chŏng Ch'un Song buried his face in Comrade Kim Jong Un's bosom. "Dear Leader, thank you so much. Thank..."
   Comrade Kim Jong Un gently patted his shoulder. "I've heard a lot about you, comrade veteran. How you went to the hydropower plant and tried with your remaining strength to give back to your country. That's really great." [KJU is using honorific speech here]
   Chŏng Ch'un Song raised his tear-stained face. "No, no it's not. Compared to the way you go around on dangerous roads, never resting, giving guidance so that our people can finally live well, what have I ever done?
   "Dear Leader! Until our strength fails us, we'll keep on doing whatever we can to carry on the Great Leader's wishes, and we'll make our children do so too. So please, don't walk those dangerous roads anymore."...
   Kim Jong Un turned to address all the assembled veterans. "Comrades! You veterans are a treasure more precious than gold and jewels to our Party. I honor you not just out of filial obligation but also in a human sense, because I think of you as my fathers and grandfathers."
An elderly North Korean war veteran speaks at a middle
school about his experiences of war and reconstruction.
Src: Rodong Shinmun 7/24/2014 via nknews.org
Everybody goes nuts. When the cheering finally quiets down, KJU instructs the veterans to "pass on the spirit of the 1950s to the next generation, so that the Great Work of the juche and songun revolutions can continue."


That night, the family of Chŏng Ch'un Song watches with joy and tears as their father and the other veterans appear on the evening TV broadcast, meeting with KJU.


Celebrating Veterans

In North Korea, the generation that fought in the Korean War and then achieved the remarkable reconstruction of the 1950s is considered the country's greatest generation. Not only did they emerge triumphant (so the story goes) from a death struggle with the world's greatest military power, they then rebuilt from the ashes an industrialized socialist economy that, for a time, outperformed the South.

The Kim Jong Un era has seen a marked acceleration in efforts to honor the country's ageing veterans. Rodong Shinmun has run several full-page spreads in recent years highlighting veterans' activities, and war testimonies by elderly citizens have been featured prominently on the pages of literary magazines like Choson Munhak.

An elderly veteran's educational outing covered in Rodong Shinmun.
Headline reads "Learning Spirit of Struggle from War Heroes' Example"
Src: Rodong Shinmun 7/24/2014 via nknews.org

In a prominent example of this trend, last summer Pyongyang hosted the 5th National Veteran's Festival [제5차 전국노병대회]. This is a multi-day event in which veterans from all over the country are assembled in Pyongyang for various ceremonies and photo-ops.

The first and only such festival of the Pre-Kim Jong Un era was held in July 1993 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Since Kim Jong Un took power, it seems the idea has been resurrected; the 2nd National Veteran's Festival was held in 2012, the 3rd in 2013, the 4th in 2015, and the 5th in 2018. The event always occurs in conjunction with the nation's annual Victory Day celebration on July 27th, which North Korea marks as the official end of the Korean War. A 2015 RFA article talks about North Korea's Victory Day celebration.

South Korean researcher Kim Sŏng-su has written that, at the time of succession, Kim Jong Un’s youth was problematic from the point of view of North Korea’s aged senior officials, many veterans of the Korean war, who might reasonably have resisted the succession on the grounds that the young leader would disrespect them and eject them from positions of power in favor of younger cadres. Perhaps to combat this fear, Kim Jong Un has been depicted showing extreme deference to the elderly and particularly veterans. Many recent works of fiction such as “Our Succession” and “Sky, Land and Sea” have depicted Kim Jong Un going out of his way to honor veterans and flying into a rage when they suffer the slightest hint of an insult. Thus new fiction toes a fine line between depictions of older officials as ossified, inflexible and incapable of absorbing new ideas on the one hand, but still worthy of respect and gratitude on the other.

The Rŭngna Dolphinarium 

Completed in 2015, this was part of the ever-expanding Rŭngna complex of leisure and entertainment facilities - the same Rŭngna complex mentioned in Blossoming Dreams. This article posted at Uriminzokkiri describes the dolphin shows: "On Rŭngnado, the island like a flower barge floating on the river, one of the main attractions is the Dolphinarium. Since 'moving' to Rŭngnado, the dolphins' skills have improved and they constantly get thunderous applause from the audience. Foreign visitors who witness the happy world and cultured lifestyle of our ordinary workers at the Dolphinarium note approvingly that that this is the sort of benefit that only socialism can provide."

The dolphinarium's appearance in this story is the mother of all non-sequiturs. The author spends about three paragraphs talking about how much KJU enjoyed the dolphin show, but this interlude has no bearing whatsoever on anything that comes before or after it. It reminded me of the old Monty Python transition, "And now for something completely different." I can picture this author, after having the story mostly written, getting a note on his desk saying "Throw in something about the dolphin show."

New Construction Efforts

Ri Jŏng Mook's observation that construction sites are becoming "as numerous as the forests in this country" can be considered somewhat ironic, given that deforestation has long been a serious problem in North Korea. But the story does an admirable job of inserting a message that construction is on the rise, not just in the capital, but in rural places. Readers are expected to be particularly encouraged by the message that power projects are making progress, like the hydroelectric dam where Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng washes up.

While many foreign observers continue to express skepticism about their quality and durability, it is undeniable that the Kim Jong Un era has seen a dramatic rise in new construction projects in the capital. An interesting 2017 RFA article provides some detail on the human cost of the recent breakneck construction drive, particularly focused on the effort to spruce up Kim Jong Un's birthplace.

As far as I can tell, there is no Sŏngsan Hydroelectric Plant in North Korea, nor is there a Sŏngsan County. There is a small hydropower plant in Sŏngchon County, South Pyongan Province,  but it was completed with UNIDO support in 2008. The plant in this story was more likely intended as a fictional representation of the Huichŏn Hydroelectric Power Plant, a major project that has been under construction since the 1980s. Construction at Huichŏn has been ramped up in recent years after lagging throughout Kim Jong Il's reign. Here's a good 2011 article from Ohmynews with details on it, and an article in English at RFA. A 2015 article from the Telegraph details Kim Jong Un's efforts to ramp up hydroelectric power production.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Uri ŭi Hanŭl" (우리의 하늘): North Korea battles its greatest foe - the weather

"Uri ŭi Hanŭl" (Our Heavens) is a short story by Ju Sŏl Woong that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in November 2017. The title has a dual meaning in Korean as "Hanŭl" can be variously translated as sky, heaven, or god, depending on the context. 

A North Korean weather forecast.
The story follows a mother who works as a mid-level official at the central Weather Bureau (종합기상수문국), carrying on her father's legacy in developing the country's weather forecast technology. A subplot highlights parent-child struggles over career choice. This story delves into psychology and human relationships much more deeply than most stories I've read so far, and several passages lead me to suspect that the author is something of an armchair psychologist.

North Korea has long blamed droughts and floods for its food supply woes, and the almost annual flooding has taken an increasingly heavy toll on infrastructure due to the severe deforestation of the countryside since the 1990s. Consequently, advancing the accuracy of weather forecasting has been emphasized as one of the Party's key priorities since Kim Jong Un took power.


A line of vehicles winds down from the mountains and turns onto the road to Wonsan. The lead vehicle brings the train to a halt, and out steps KJU, shading his eyes, to gaze out over a field of withered corn. “Doesn’t look likely to rain,” he remarks. 

Drought-stricken North Korean farmers struggle to
water crops.
The accompanying officials nod. They have been suffering through an unusual drought brought on by global warming (지구온난화). It hasn’t rained in a month and the reservoirs are drying up. 

Kim stoops to touch one drooping stalk, observing, “The corn is withering in this heat. But probably the farmer’s hearts are hurting even more.”

An aide from the general political bureau (총정치국) remarks, “The weather report said there’d surely be rain this afternoon.”

Deputy Cabinet Minister Kim Myŏng Shik feels remorseful; the Weather Bureau is his responsibility. KJU knowingly comments, “Predicting the weather is not as easy as it seems.” 

Kim Myŏng Shik hangs his head in shame. The Leader had ordered the Weather Bureau modernized back in early 2012, calling for better measurement and predictive techniques. But despite the Leader’s direct and intensive guidance, their progress has been slow. The department director had taken charge of setting up 45 measurement points along the Daedong River, and the vice-director oversaw development of new automated meterological readers. But the greatest achievement was the real-time weather data analysis system (기후관측과예보의실시간정보화체계) that Rim Ki Ok, head of the Central Forecasting Agency (중안예보실의 실장), had developed in cooperation with top scientists from Kim Il Sung University.

It was indeed a non-trivial achievement. But as Rim Ki Ok’s old friend from college, Kim Myŏng Shik knew better than to give her too much praise. She had inherited her father’s sense of personal responsibility and drive. 

After the previous day’s failed prediction, Kim Myŏng Shik had commented “A wrong report is just as bad as a misfired weapon.” To which Rim Ki Ok replied, “It’s worse than that. A misfire is a single person’s mistake, but this report was our collective failure.” When Kim suggested that the fault lay in their outdated equipment, Rim rejected that explanation saying “How can you blame mute instruments for a false report?” 

KJU interrupts his reverie, saying “Why so serious? If only the sky was as overcast as your face.” He asks Kim Myong Shik what he thinks is the cause of the latest mistake, to which the minister replies “inadequate support from the Cabinet and lack of personal responsibility.”

A rainy day in Pyongyang.
Src: VOA
This reminds KJU of an encounter he had with a KPA work crew one rainy day. Seeing that their clothes were soaked, he asked the workers if they’d been working outside. They explained they’d been caught in the rain while stacking materials into storage. 

“We are to blame, for believing the weather report that said it would just be cloudy.” The worker added that they got the construction materials stored just in the nick of time, thanks to a woman from the Weather Bureau who had come running after them and warned them it was going to rain.

“Did you catch her name?” KJU asked.

The worker replied that they’d all been in such a rush to get the materials stored, they’d forgotten to ask her name. She’d stayed to help them finish loading, but by the time he thought to thank her she had already disappeared.

KJU admires the woman’s work ethic and thinks, How can there be "a lack of personal responsibility” in a department with such conscientious employees? Clearly something is amiss here, and he must figure it out. Otherwise, how will he be able to face all his people exposed to the cold wind and rain?

In the car on the ride back, he quizzes Myong Shik at length about the inner workings of bureau. He learns that the Forecasting Office manager, Rim Ki Ok, is the daughter of former Weather Bureau Director Rim Hak.
   “Ah, Comrade Rim Hak? I know of him. Our General always remembered him fondly, said he was stubborn but earnest, and so meticulously precise people called him ‘the rain gauge.’” A smile crossed His face. “So she’s his daughter.”
   “Yes, indeed. And I hear they’re calling her ‘the thermometer.’”
   “Why is that?”
   “Well, in the kinder interpretation, it’s because she’s so essential and so precise.”
   “A chip off the old block, it seems. And what’s the ‘unkind' interpretation?”
   “Well, they say that her facial expressions can change very suddenly, especially around men.”
   At this, Comrade Kim Jong Un laughs heartily. Recalling Ki Ok’s prim attitude, Myong Shik joins in.
   After thinking a bit, He [KJU] says, “Of course it’s not good for her to be so volatile around coworkers. But the people around her need to be more understanding. Women are sensitive and easily wounded, after all. And it might be a side effect of her profession, dealing with numbers all day long. Numbers are very helpful and precise, but they can also be extremely tedious. After a long day of wrestling [씨름을 하고] with numbers, anyone can lose their appetite. Her colleagues should understand that, and not nit-pick about her behavior."
KJU suggests that Weather Bureau workers should be allotted fun excursions in addition to the usual work holidays. Kim Myong Shik feels ashamed that he was not more considerate of Ki Ok’s feelings.


Ki Ok’s daughter Jung Ae watches her all the way home, her eyes filled with a mix of hope and doubt. Those perceptive eyes, so like her husband’s, seem to stare right into her soul. How could her daughter doubt her? Has she not lavished her with love her whole life, given her everything? Now, for the first time in the 22 years since her birth, her first child watches her with distrustful eyes.

This morning at breakfast, Jung Ae had chattered with her father about a new central agency job that she had her heart set on. Her mother Ki Ok is stunned. Hadn’t she always said she wanted to follow in her mother’s and grandfather’s footsteps? She’d even entered the math department at an engineering college, and amazed her teachers with her senior thesis on weather forecasting; but now she declaimed about how she didn’t want to be some useless layabout [똥딴지] in a “for-show” [맵시나는] position. 

When she reminds Jung Ae of this, her daughter responds, "It’s not like girls are expected to follow their maternal grandfathers' profession!” She then storms off to her room, throwing a last angry retort over her shoulder: “Mom, all you understand is numbers. You’re so full of numbers, you can choke on them!”

Ki Ok and her husband then have a heated argument about their daughter, in which she utters the lines “Don’t look at me like I’m one of your patients” and “I’d like to hang you upside down and whack you good.” Her physician husband remains calm throughout, “like a rubber band that doesn’t get twisted no matter how much you pull it.” He reminds her, “you don't get a pear from an apple tree,” suggesting their daughter will turn out just fine.

At this point her daughter comes out and, apparently having heard everything, gently reassures her mother that she hasn’t made up her mind yet about the job. Ki Ok reluctantly concedes that she is an adult after all, and will have to learn to “kick your own ball” (네 공을 네가 차거라). But inside, she feels deeply hurt by her daughter’s words, especially the accusation that she “only understands numbers.” She suddenly regrets that she has been devoting so much energy to her work and neglecting her family.


It was the dark days of the Arduous March. On the night train, the General [Kim Jong Il] pored over a report on misappropriation of funds within the Weather Bureau. It said that Rim Hak had been recklessly spending state funds, despite the desperate plight the country was in (어려운 시기임에도 불구하고). He had gone abroad and purchased equipment at his own discretion, rather than adhering to the official government-approved order - very expensive, cutting-edge equipment. Because he went for top-shelf stuff, he was only able to purchase about half of what was needed, making the whole upgrade pointless. The report recommended that the aging Rim be replaced with a younger, more forward-thinking official.
KJU advising workers at the Weather Bureau in 2014.
Src: Yonhap
   Lost in thought, Comrade Kim Jong Il re-read the report. “Looks like he tried to bag two rabbits and lost them both,“  (게도 구럭도 다 잃었다) he chuckled.
   Turning to the report’s author, He laughingly explained, “Rim Hak is the sort who picks up one rock and then wants the rock underneath it (웃돌을 뽑아 아래돌에 고이면서). It looks like he went a bit overboard this time.”
   At that time, the country was indeed in rough shape. The Yankee imperialists, emboldened by their alliance forces, were trying to tear down the last bastion of socialism. With the nation’s economy suffering from the collapse of the socialist markets and a series of natural disasters, the enemies were gleefully predicting that it would only be a matter of days or months before the country would be crushed like a chunk of pig iron between hammer and anvil (함마에 얻어맞는 모루우의 주철덩어리 같이 당장 깨여지기 ).
   Even at such a difficult time, Rim Hak had been thinking toward the future, buying cutting-edge equipment. Of course, it was wrong to overspend his funds without permission, but his actions reflected his positive outlook. After all, someone with no optimism about the future would not make such purchases. His optimism was all the more amazing in these trying times (이렇듯 준엄하고 시련에 찬 시기에).
   Comrade Kim Jong Il pronounced: “What Comrade Rim Hak did was wrong - not because of the reckless spending, but because he acted on his individual prerogative without thinking of the group. (조직과 집단에 의거하지 않고 자의대로 행동한 것). Even though he made a mistake, his faith in the future is admirable. People who are uncertain about the future do not make plans for tomorrow... Does a mother blame her child for wanting more?”
   Responding to the recommendation that the old man be retired, He objects “His body may be old, but his thoughts are young. How else could he think of the future in such difficult times? Stubborn optimists are my favorite kind of people.” That night KJI personally made arrangements to acquire the rest of the equipment that Rim Hak had wanted.
Several months later, KJI was surprised to hear that Rim Hak had resigned his position. His resignation letter cited painful rheumatism as the official reason, but an internal investigation revealed a different motivation. 

The rugged mountain base at Osŏngsan, near the southern
border, has been a favorite stop for KJU on guidance tours.
Apparently, the Dear Leader had been caught in a sudden downpour during a guidance visit to a military unit in Osŏngsan, and his SUV had slid down a muddy embankment. Hearing this news, Rim Hak was aghast to discover that the day’s weather forecast had only predicted “light rain.” He was overcome with guilt at having failed his Leader, who just months earlier had rewarded him so richly. The word was that his office window had stayed alight all that night, and in the morning arriving office workers were stunned to see that their formerly hearty director had the wispy white hair and bent back of an old man. He resigned soon after.

Hearing this, KJI dictated a message to be delivered to the Weather Bureau:
   “On the road of our revolution, there are not good days only. Even if the report had predicted a tornado that day, I would still have gone to visit our beloved troops in Osŏngsan. Such are the demands of revolution. Like the song says, 'Whether rain or snow, we must walk the road to revolution.' …
   “This afternoon I got really angry. I thought I had misjudged someone. When Comrade Rim Hak overspent his order, I took it for revolutionary optimism. But now I think perhaps I was wrong, if he can lose faith over such a small thing.
   “Go and tell him this: He should worry about the people, not me. If it were possible, I would want to absorb all the rain and snow for my people. Tell him that I want him to get up and get back to work, that I believe in him.”
   The bureau workers are astounded. Didn’t some poet say the General’s love for his people is like a mother’s love for her child?
   “The problem is Comrade Rim Hak's health. It must be tough working at his age, and with arthritis to boot. Since he’s so stubborn, he won’t say a word about it.” He ruminated over the report for a moment, then brightened. “Since he’s on leave anyway, let’s give him a vacation. A one-month recuperating holiday (료양) at Mt. Chilbo should do him some good."
Photo from promo of Mt Chilbo in North Korean monthly magazine Chosŏn
And so Rim Hak returned to work, after a month’s much-needed rest and rejuvenation at Mt. Chilbo.


Ki Ok walks home in the evening, mulling over the contentious strategy meeting she has just suffered through. Addressing the department’s failures, the director had blamed everyone and everything but himself. Cabinet Secretary Kim Myong Shik, the Party representative, then made an impassioned speech about how “Without a high sense of personal responsibility, no amount of modern equipment will improve matters.”

Technicians at the North Korean Weather Bureau.
North Korea announced in 2015 it had developed a new, more
accurate meteorological prediction system.
Src: NoCutNews
Ki Ok thinks that a lot of her co-workers share the director’s attitude. In fact, she had been one of the loudest voices demanding newer equipment; their current office computers could hardly keep up with global numerical weather prediction models or process all the weather data coming in from the provinces. She had worked with researchers at KIS University to develop a real-time information processing system (실시간정보화체계) that raised their processing capacity to the level of developed countries, but their prediction success rate remains abysmal.

Passing a local park, Ki Ok encounters a rowdy group of boys horsing around. In their midst, a small girl of about five or six bravely holds her own. Ki Ok is reminded of her daughter, who since preschool had a reputation for scuffling with the neighborhood boys. One day in 2nd grade, she came home in tears. Some of her classmates had picked on her after they got caught in the rain, saying “Your mom lied!” She fought back, but there were too many of them, and she had to run home in defeat.

Ki Ok thinks of the Weather Bureau as a battleground where people fight with nature (자연과의 싸움에 나선 사람들의 전장), imagining her team as a "scouting party pushing through the bogs at the head of the struggle to reform nature" (자연개조투쟁의 앞장에서 진펄을 헤치는 척후대). But to her daughter, it is a dull and inglorious profession.

Her psychiatrist husband would often joke, "It's a good thing you study the weather, because you're clueless when it comes to people." Her father always used to say, "The work is never the problem; it's people that are the problem." She can't shake the feeling that something was missing, and it was affecting both her work and family; but what could it be?

Still puzzling over this, Ki Ok returns home. She senses immediately that something is different. Her husband has rearranged the furniture again, something he does whenever he senses that a change of mood is needed. 

Her daughter wanders in, humming absently. "Oh, Mom's home!" Since entering university, as if in protest at growing up, she had reverted to calling her "Mommy," so this appellation is suspicious. Jŏng Ae's attitude has done a complete 180 since this morning; she is chipper, bouncy, coquettish.

In the back room, her husband hands her a booklet. It's Jŏng Ae's medical record. On the front page, the title of her senior thesis has been printed: "Solving meteorological data equations." 

"What's this? She's changed her mind again?"

"Oh, that was just an adolescent fit. She's bound to have a few."
"That punk kid!" [못된 놈의 개집애]
"You can't let yourself get so hurt over a mere whim that doesn't last 24 hours."


On-site guidance at a construction site.
Kim Jong Un is doing a guidance tour on the construction site of a new teacher's dormitory. He is accompanied by many aides, including Deputy Minister Kim Myŏng Shik.

The General ascends rough, unfinished stairs, examining every aspect of the building and pointing out various defects. Outside, he instructs his aides, “No matter how magnificent the building looks, if people find it inconvenient to live in, the Party won't approve it.

Returning to the car, KJU and Kim Myŏng Shik discuss the latest report on the Weather Bureau.

   "According to this, the root cause of the forecasting errors is a 'lack of personal responsibility' among the bureau workers. Do you agree, comrade deputy minister?"   Kim Myŏng Shik gave his honest opinion: "Yes, there are some who don't take responsibility. Particularly the workers."    "And is this universal? What about the Forecast Office manager?"    Kim Myŏng Shik called up the image of the self-effacing Rim Ki Ok in his mind's eye. "Well, no, she's not like that, but... I think she's just exhausted."

KJU remains convinced that there is something more going on behind the failures and the lack of motivation. 
   "I see the bureau still has a long wish list of equipment upgrades, but there's no proposal to supply them. Why is that?"
   Kim Myŏng Shik hesitates before answering, "It's true that they are lacking several types of cutting-edge equipment, but at the moment, it's difficult for us to accommodate them...." he trails off lamely. 
KJU is disappointed. What he wanted from this report was not a dry accounting of the bureau's work, but rather a humanistic portrait of the people who work there. It's far too cold and impersonal of a document to address a problem so vital to the health of the nation.
North Koreans survey damaged fields after severe flooding
 in 2012.

At present, the country was in difficult straits (지금 나라의 경제사정은 어렵다). Yet at such times it was all the more vitally important to invest in the future. As KJU knew better than anyone, supplying the needed equipment would strain the nation's budget to the limit. But when he thinks of his people struggling through the cold rain and sleet, any amount seems worth it.

At last he perceives the root of the problem - not a lack of responsibility or ideological zeal, but a failure to see their own work in human terms. Their work has a deep impact on everyday people's lives; every line of the weather report must be inscribed with deep love for the people. The missing ingredient is love!

Turning to Kim Myŏng Shik, he says, "I'm interested in the Weather Bureau not just because of the way this abnormal weather hurts our economy, but because it also affects the people's health and well-being. This is the key to protecting our people's lives and property from this extreme weather." Kim Myŏng Shik immediately feels ashamed that he has been viewing the problem only in terms of crop yields and economic data, ignoring the human cost.

KJU notices and tries to cheer him up with a joke: "You're so sensitive. Shall we start calling you 'the barometer'?"


That day, the whole Weather Bureau has to pinch themselves to make sure they are not dreaming. The Leader has appeared to them right there in their office, smiling like the sun.
KJU doing on-site guidance at the Weather Bureau in 2014.

In the Forecast Office, KJU is introduced to Ki Ok.

   "You look much like your father," He told her. "He was known to both the General and myself as a man of great ability. And I've already heard much about you, comrade."
   Kim Jong Un proceeded to relate to the astonished Ki Ok and her colleagues the story of her mad  dash to warn the KPA work crew on that rainy day. He praised her for being earnest and stubborn just like her father. Ki Ok felt unbelievably humbled as He spoke glowingly about that incident, which she had already completely forgotten about.
   He had conducted a lengthy investigation into the recent problems with the weather report, and now He questioned Ki Ok extensively on numerical weather forecasting technology.
   After giving a detailed report on the new weather data processing system, Ki Ok confessed that their prediction success rates were still unacceptably low.
   He gazed thoughtfully at the desktop computer. "How hard is it to develop a world-class data processing system on computers like this?"
   Ki Ok felt her eyes brim with tears and bowed her head. The whole office was on the verge of tears, realizing how thoroughly He had investigated their problems.
   Turning to Kim Myŏng Shik and his aides, He continued, "Every time I watch the weather report, I feel like an element of kindness (친절성) is missing. It's not enough to just recite a bland warning whenever something like a high pressure system or sand storm is approaching. How great would it be if they also offered commonsense steps and simple folk remedies (민간료법) people can take to prepare?"
   He added that while it is important to resist the kind of formalism seen in capitalist countries, where content is crowded out by colorful advertisements and gaudy packaging, it is wrong to completely prioritize content over form.
   "You know the expression, 'If it costs the same, why not get a red skirt' (같은 값이면 다홍치마)? We must raise the overall quality of our weather service, particularly the expert climatology service."
KJU announces that he will arrange for the supply of all the new equipment they need, as well as order a big new building for their offices. He also suggests that the bureau employees should wear uniforms "to improve cooperative feeling between departments." He concludes with a little speech:
   "For thousands of years, people have looked to the skies with reverence and fear. In working to understand those skies inside and out, you are bound to make some mistakes. So don't lose heart, and keep working for the people with purpose and responsibility. You study the changeable skies, but your love for the people must remain constant."


On the TV, the announcer reports tomorrow's weather. For each region, after showing the data, she offers a little advice: watch out for this, here's how it can affect your health, try this simple folk remedy, etc.

The next day at 2 pm, the skies finally open up after the long drought. The June rain is warm, and even the people who had forgotten their umbrellas smile to feel it.

"Lack of human feeling"

At the climax of this story, KJU reveals his epiphany that the root of the problems at the Weather Bureau is not a "lack of personal responsibility" (책임성의 부족) but rather a "lack of human feeling" (인간정의 부족). At one point he also cites a "lack of kindness" (친절성의 부족). The mirroring of these phrases is clearly intentional. "Lack of personal responsibility" was often invoked in the bad old days to explain the breakdown of various public services, and it was a particularly useful expression for justifying the purging of cadres who failed to deliver on targets.

In this story, as in many new stories of the KJU era, the personal and emotional are emphasized. The propaganda department seems to be trying to rebrand the old slogans in new ways that appear to give people a little more slack, a little more room to experiment and make mistakes. Like other recent stories, KJU is shown repeatedly encouraging people to let "love" shape their decisions - including love for one's family as well as love for the nation. Another phrase associated with the KJU era is "opening up a new chapter in human love" (인민사랑의 새로운 장을 펼쳐가시는 그이).

As KJU instructs the Weather Bureau workers to put more "kindness" into their work, he clarifies:

   "Kindness is an expression of love. The sort of kindness I'm talking about is fundamentally different from capitalist kindness, which is only a tool for making money. Our kindness must be clearly rooted in love for our people and all humanity (인민사랑, 인간사랑에 바탕을 두어야 합니다)."
After hearing this, Ki Ok castigates herself for her "paucity of feeling" (정의 결핍) and "lack of  love" (사랑의 결여) in thinking about her job only in terms of boring numerical accuracy. She concludes that "How much can a person achieve, in life or at work, without human feeling or love for the people?" (인간에 대한 정, 인민에 대한 사랑이 희박한 사람이 사업과 생활에서 무슨 성과를 거둘수가 있으랴.)

Group vs Individual

This story periodically detours into a discourse on the value of collectivism over individualism. When Ki Ok contemplates her daughter's desire for a "more exciting" job, she wonders if this is a sign of excessive individualism, and considers this to be a quite dangerous tendency. When Kim Myŏng Shik is fretting that Ki Ok seems overworked and exhausted, he thinks "Everyone has moments of despair when they want to just give up.  But that's when the collective - one's organization and coworkers - are supposed to step in to restore one's strength and courage."

These asides seem a bit tacked-on and irrelevant to the main thread of the story. There's no sign that greater teamwork contributes to the story's resolution, which is far more focused on the "human feeling" theme. It's almost as if the author realized belatedly that the story needed more than just one moral, and threw in a few passages about collectivism to satisfy an editor.


This phrase (a classic Chinese 4-character compound meaning "The people are as heaven") pops up frequently in conjunction with references to the first two leaders. It is said to have been the life-long motto of Kim Il Sung. This story is one of many that makes reference to it. It means the people are the top priority and the leader is wholeheartedly committed to providing for them - particularly their health and happiness.

The phrase comes from the classical Chinese text Records of the Grand Historian, but South Koreans today strongly associate it with North Korean propaganda. A few years ago, a former Democratic Progressive Party representative got in hot water over allegedly working as a secret agent for North Korea. When the police raided his home, people were scandalized to hear that one of the items uncovered was a framed calligraphy inscription of this phrase. This was seen as proof positive that the official was a secret admirer of Kim Il Sung.


Here you can see a North weather report from last August, when heavy rains were approaching. And here's a report from almost four years ago (January 2015).