Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Bulgŭn Kam" (붉은 감): North Korea's female gunners learn to love their new Leader

"Bulgŭn Kam" (Red Persimmon) is a short story by Kim Yŏng Hui that first appeared in Munhak Shinmun in November 2013 and was also included in the collection Bul ŭi Yaksok (A Promise of Fire). The story follows the members of the all-female "Persimmon" artillery brigade as they struggle to cope with their grief over the death of Kim Jong Il, culminating in a visit by new leader Kim Jong Un. As an added bonus, this story is filled with enough woman-as-fruit metaphors to make Georgia O'Keefe blush.
Kim Jong Il with Persimmon Brigade commemorative stamp.

The Plot

The story begins as the heroine, Myong-ok, arrives at the “Persimmon Brigade” after she specifically asked to be assigned there. After making fun of her short stature and lack of singing talent, the brigade chief asks why she requested this assignment. She clumsily explains that her mother was a member of the unit, and had her photo taken with the General (Kim Jong Il), and Myong-ok has vowed to follow in her mother's footsteps.

We soon learn that this story is not exactly true. In reality, Myong-ok's mother had almost been assigned to the Persimmon Brigade, but ended up working as a medic at the division headquarters. When she saw the images on TV of the brigade women meeting the Dear Leader, she was filled with remorse and forever after regretted missing the chance to get her picture taken with the Leader. But Myong-ok is determined to join this brigade and get the photo op her mother never had, and the Persimmon Brigade is her best shot since he's always visiting there.

The brigade women welcome her, telling her she has a lucky name. It turns out that two of the previous brigade commanders to meet the Leader were both named Choi Myong-ok. Suddenly realizing that her mother must have chosen that name deliberately in hopes that she would one day meet the Leader, Myong-ok is touched. She tearfully confesses she lied about her mother being a former Persimmon Brigade member. The women laugh away her nervousness and inform her that she is not the first to lie about her connections to the brigade.

That night Myŏng-ok sleeps in the barracks with her new brigade mates. She dreams of meeting the General and handing him a ripe red persimmon.

A short while later, everyone is devastated to learn that the General has died. They all want to run off to Pyongyang to sob and scream over the General, but the commander points out that they cannot leave their post unattended. With puffy eyes, they leadenly go about their duties.

Her dream evaporated, Myong-ok struggles with her arduous duties and begins missing home. She was mostly raised by her grandparents as her parents were always busy working. Once, after the land reform, her grandparents had attempted to send a gift of hand-made silk clothes for Kim Il Sung and his wife. KIS refused, saying that the farm couple should keep the silk clothes for themselves, since they worked hard to “feed the nation.” She recalls that her grandparents had recently worried that the General looked unwell, and her mother spent months in an alpine region collecting a special kind of moss and mixing a Korean medicine packet to send to him.

Coastal artillery women training.
Startled from reverie by a sudden sea swell, Myong-ok looks out from her watch post and spots a strange shape in water. She is suddenly alarmed, recalling that this is the same spot where a young cadet once netted an enemy spy boat. She sounds the alarm and the brigade chief comes running - but the “enemy ship” turns out to be nothing more than a rocky outcropping. From that day on, Myong-ok's squad leader works her extra hard.

The perspective shifts to KJU as he arrives on a visit to the Persimmon brigade. Staring at a stone memorial to the Leaders, he thinks of all the visits his father and grandfather made here over the years.

By tradition, each year the new recruits plant a persimmon tree. Some of the oldest trees date back to his grandfather's first visit in 1972.
   As the persimmon trees grow, the young recruits mature into female soldiers. Eventually they leave and a  new squad enters with their bright red conscription papers. How many times has the cycle repeated? Just as the fresh young buds ripen into bright red persimmons in the fall.
   Comrade Kim Jong Un reached up to gently caress a pair of persimmons hanging together like brothers. He recalled  how the brigade soldiers ran out to greet him, crying and clinging to his clothing.
KJU visiting the Persimmon Brigade. Src: Chosun Shinbo
The female gunnery brigades had always had a special place in Kim Jong Il's heart. It was on a visit to the all-female Pine Tree Brigade in February 1995, just after his own father’s death, that KJI first announced the dawn of the Songun (military first) era. He stood at the stormy breakwater,  exposed to elements, and refused a hat so that he could suffer in solidarity with the female soldiers. He observed their drills and praised them. Noting that their skin and lips were chapped from the harsh winds and salty spray, he castigated the military bureaucracy for neglecting the women's needs. Later he sent them a shipment of skin cream.

As he walks the same gravel paths his father and grandfather once trod, KJU contemplates the tremendous devotion they both poured into developing this fighting force, and he worries that he cannot carry on their legacy with the troops.


While the rest of the brigade runs through drills for their new Supreme Commander, Myong-ok is stuck on cooking duty.

How quickly her luck has turned sour! Just a short while ago she had been in swimming practice and her squad leader had praised her progress. Indeed, a recent experience had inspired her to work harder.

Recently, several former brigade members had paid a visit on the anniversary of KJI's famous 1995 visit. Myong-ok met her namesake, former commander Myong-ok, who had gone on to graduate from the People's Economic College and become a respected Party member.

Persimmon Brigade women. Sign reads: "Doing our duty
for respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il!"
The two women bonded, as the ex-commander related how she started out training at same gun that Myŏng-ok has now, and despised her commander for putting her through endless drills. "But now I am grateful to her," she says. "If it wasn't for her harsh demands, I would not have become the woman I am today." Young Myong-ok resolves to henceforth follow orders with gratitude.

After some joint drills, the women gathered to share stories of the brigade with the younger generation. They tell the story of the skin cream, and the time they got to visit Pyongyang thanks to KJI, and the time he sent them each a photo album with a blank page at the front "for your wedding photo." The brigade alumnae recall that KJI was always lonely, missing his friends in the Persimmon Brigade. When he came to visit, it was like a father reuniting with his daughters.

Ex-commander Choi Myong-ok read aloud some fan letters from around the country, messages encouraging the women to train hard and thanking them "for making the General smile at last.” Then she tells them the story of how KJI got them to begin swim training.

KJI decreed that coastal troops must follow example of the famous wartime gunners of Wolmido, and learn to swim well. He even ordered new swim uniforms made for them. Then one day he took the entire brigade out to sea, where a swimming platform was set up, to demonstrate their swimming skills on the ocean waves. As they went through their laps, KJI noticed one soldier beginning to struggle. They tried to throw her a buoy, but she refused help and toughed it out to the end. Later it turned out that the woman had been ill and missed swimming practice. KJI praised the woman's perseverance, and promised to visit again “when persimmons are ripe.” She ends her story with the moral:
"We didn't think of it as merely a promise to come back at picking season. Persimmons are a fruit that withstands cold winds and only ripens to sweetness after the frost. In that sense, we believed He was promising to return when we had matured through harsh training into peerless fighters (일당백의 만능병사) and correct human beings."
After that, young Myong-ok took her namesake's words to heart and devoted herself to conquering her training.


Returning to the present, KJU continues his tour with the brigade's Executive Officer. Together they ponder a photo from the day KJI observed the women's swim practice. The General had prepared a sumptuous feast for them after their training, and in the photo they are all grinning at the banquet table. KJU wonders how they would feel if they knew that the General ate only one small rice cake that day, before rushing off to his next on-site inspection.

KJU recalled that his father always spoke highly of the women of the Persimmon Brigade; how they could handle the heavy guns and swim as well as any man. He also remarked that after completing such rigorous military service, for women such as these, surely their future work and family life would be easy by comparison.

They tour the rest of the facilities, including the barbershop modeled after the famous Kangsŏngwŏn salon and the garden where the women grow their own vegetables. KJU asks if the women need anything. Their answer: goose meat and ddŏk (sticky rice cakes). After his tour, KJU is treated to a musical performance by the women of the brigade. They perform “March of Korean Youth” and “The General and Our Persimmon Brigade,” and then regale him with stories of KJI’s visits.

Surrounded by loving soldiers, Kim Jong Un feels that "the nation's truest blessing is the 10 million soldiers united as one family." He recalls a foreign newswire report he read recently:
 "In 2012, newly elected leaders in many countries will make their first public moves. The world's youngest leader, Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un of North Korea, has already made waves by paying a New Year's visit to a military unit, greeting the troops and warmly grasping their hands. The world is paying close attention to Kim Jong Un's political style."
As the women sing a song about "firing the fusillade of unification," KJU thinks: "Yes, just as the Great Leader said, I believe in the soldiers and they will believe in me, and together we will walk the long road of revolution, until we achieve victory in the great battle for national unification." Here KJU seems weirdly tinged with self-doubt, and the sight of the women's faith gives him the strength he needs to carry on.

When the time comes to say goodbye, all the women gather round, reluctant to part with KJU.  Myong-ok is crying, so KJU offers her a hankie. There's a nice moment where KJU bonds with Myong-ok over the fact that they are both from Pyongyang.

Finally KJU gets in his car to leave. As the car pulls away, the women run after it, and suddenly Myong-ok runs out in front. KJU sees Myong-ok stumble running after the car, and orders the driver to stop.

KJU suddenly realizes why Persimmon Brigade was so dear to KJI. Persimmons are called the “filial fruit” for their health benefits to the elderly. But their sweetness only comes out after the first frost; in the same way, people can only mature through adversity.

KJU decides to take separate commemorative photos with each soldier before he leaves, a rare and time-consuming honor.
From left - Veteran independence fighters Choe Yong Gon, 
Kim Chaek, Kim Il, Kim Il Sung and Kang Gun;
North Korea, 1949.

After KJU leaves, everybody cries. They are particularly moved by KJU's generosity with the photos; the twins note that even their own father never took pictures with them side-by-side. Myong-ok recalls that KIS’ most treasured possession was an old photo of himself with his war buddy, Kim Chaek. Now that they have all taken a photo with the leader, they have essentially become his war buddies as well.

The story ends with more persimmon=woman ripening metaphors.

North Korea's Female Soldiers

The story mentions that the all-female coastal artillery brigades were formed long ago by Kim Il Sung to harness the untapped power of half the population to “push one wheel of the revolution" (혁명의 한쪽스레바퀴). The three most famous female brigades in North Korea are the Persimmon Brigade (감나무중대), the Pine Brigade (다박솔중대), and the Wildflower Brigade (들꽃중대). These brigades feature prominently in several legendary stories of the Leaders' compassion for the troops.

Apparently, the story about KJI visiting and promising to come again when the Persimmons are ripe is fairly well-known in North Korea, and effectively made the brigade a household name. The South Korean TV show "Now on My Way to Meet You" (이제 만나러 갑니다) did a brief segment on the Persimmon Brigade which can be viewed online here (relevant section starts at 12:13).

Not long after this story was published, the North Korean media site Uriminzokkiri published a feature article on the Persimmon Brigade. Since this brigade is famous for being one of KJI's favorites, it must have seemed important to depict their mourning over his death and their continuing devotion to the new Leader.

Beauty in Suffering

Several times throughout the story, the text repeats the refrain of the Song of the Persimmon Brigade:

Slender arms trained warrior-strong 
On the women who wield the heavy steel guns

The overriding theme seems to be that beauty is refined through hardship and purpose. There are allusions to the persimmon fruit, which "only gets its sweet taste after the first frost." While contemplating his father's concern for the women's chapped and frozen skin, KJU wonders:
If those women had been well-dressed in warm clothing, would the General have remembered them as fondly? If flowers are grown in a hothouse protected from the harsh sun and wind, would they touch the heart as deeply? ... Did not the General always feel that the sound of the fusillade firing accurately on command was the most beautiful song? And the women soldiers who lived as comrades-in-arms with their Supreme Commander, were they not the most beautiful in his heart?
Tears in North Korean Fiction

As has been observed elsewhere in this blog, North Korea's fictional characters are not afraid to cry, and the women of the persimmon brigade are no exception. The main character Myong-ok cries so frequently that her fellow soldiers seem to grow exasperated with her. 

There's a funny moment where the executive officer informs KJU that one of the young women is absent because the brigade sent her to represent them at the Youth Festival (Aug 28) celebrations in Pyongyang. Hearing this, KJU asks, “If that soldier knew she'd missed my visit, would she cry like the rest of them?" The officer replies, "Oh, that one would fall to pieces. She was always longing to meet the Supreme Commander." 

The leaders are usually an exception to the rule; I cannot recall seeing KIS ever depicted as crying tears of grief or anxiety, although he would perhaps cry tears of joy. KJI seemed similarly stoic, except when thinking about his father's suffering. In the new fiction since the 3rd generation succession, KJU seems much more fragile by comparison. His "eyeballs get hot" (눈굽이 후끈해지시였다) and several times he seems close to tears as he examines old photos of the brigade with KIS and KJI. 

A common pattern seems to be emerging: In this story, as in "Him in December" and "A Promise of Fire," KJU's momentary depression is relieved by observing some common citizen's act of devotion. The message seems to be that the new leader, though gifted with the blood of Mt Paekdu,  is extraordinarily young and fragile, and he will need the full faith and support of the people to succeed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Chŏnhwa Uibok" (전화위복) - Floods and Self-Sacrifice in Rajin-Sŏnbong

"Chŏnhwa Uibok" (Silver Lining) is a short story by Ri Myŏng that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in January 2017.

The story opens on heavy flooding in the northeast around Rajin-Sŏnbong (aka Rasŏn). Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un is in his office reading reports of the Rasŏn citizens' heroic efforts to save city's famous statues and mosaic of the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Kim&Kim mosaic in N Hamgyong
Src: Yonhap
Flashback to the previous day, when a citizen brigade is frantically stacking sandbags around the large mosaic of the leaders in the town square to protect it before the levee breaks. Captain Ŏm Tae Sŏn of the local fisheries division is overseeing the work when he spots a familiar female face half-hidden under a hood. It's Song Hwa, a girl from his neighborhood who is like a daughter to him. Knowing the area is not safe, he gruffly orders her back home to her family. Song Hwa protests that as a neighborhood resident it's her duty to help, and anyway she already got permission. She starts to show him her permit.

Just then, the thing they had most been dreading happens: the levee breaks. A huge wall of water rushes down the street toward them, sweeping debris with it. The crew standing around the mosaic takes up positions to shove branches and roots out of the way. Suddenly an enormous tree trunk sweeps toward them; just as it is about to collide with Captain Ŏm, Song Hwa steps in front of him. In an instant, the young woman is pulled under the tree trunk and swept away in the surging waters.

"Comrade Yu Song Hwa sacrificed herself while serving as a Youth Brigade team member. Comrade Ŏm Tae Sŏn has taken responsibility, confessing that his momentary hesitation was to blame for her death. He is a man over 50 with great strength who has made many contributions." Kim Jong Un reads the report solemnly to himself, pondering the grief of those who lost their homes or loved ones, and empathizing strongly with Captain Ŏm. If it would ease their pain in any way, he would gladly burn his body to a crisp (한몸을 깡그리 불태워도).

Just then, in walks Armed Forces Minister Pak Hyŏn Sŏk [probably a pseudonym for Pak Yŏng Sik], bowing apologetically.
Inchŏn landing reenactment, September 15, 2015.
Src: Yonhap

   "Comrade Supreme Commander, even after the North-South High-Level Joint Declaration, the southern authorities are darkening the path for inter-Korean relations. This September 12th, US imperialist ships of the invasion force (미제침략군함선) plan to conduct a joint exercise with south Korean armed forces on the pretext of 'reenacting the Inchŏn landing,' in fact a military excercise aimed at us. Here I have prepared a supplemental strategy document."
   "Thanks. I'll give it a look."
   Pak turns to leave, then hesitates and looks back. "Supreme Commander, it's late."
He glances at the clock on his desk. Somehow the hour hand has already passed 2. "On one side, the enemy threatens us with their nuclear cudgel. On the other, we are fighting a deadly battle against water. Somehow, I don't think I can sleep."
Urging the leader to take care of himself, Pak submits a supplemental proposal for flood relief and retreats.

KJU speaking before the KWP Central Military
Commission, August 21, 2015
Src: Yonhap
The next day, Pak listens as Kim Jong Ŭn delivers a speech before the KWP Central Military Commission. Kim leads with an analysis of the "August Crisis" (8월사변), North Korea's term for a series of incidents that occurred in August 2015. Interspersed with Kim's narration, Pak revisits his memory of the crisis:
   "Just as the 'Eulji Freedom Guardian' joint military exercises were culminating, there was a landmine explosion along the DMZ, strange suspicious cannon fire from the North,  36 rounds of artillery fired on North Korean territory,  the restart of psych-warfare broadcasts across the DMZ, a US aircraft carrier moving toward the Korean peninsula,  and suspicious movement of various strategic nuclear assets; with all this happening, the arrogance of the southern puppet warmongers (남조선괴뢰호전광들) was at its peak. At a time when the US was going crazy trying to destroy North Korea's socialist system, the KPA Supreme Command issued an emergency protocol that shook the whole world. The KPA Joint Chiefs' ultimatum: cease all propaganda broadcasts and other psychological warfare from the South, or we will conduct a forceful military strike."
   [Pak remembering] The whole world had its eyes turned to the Korean peninsula. How would the South respond to the North's demands? Acquiesce, and have peace. Stay silent, and have war!
   The US and the South were seeking to tear down and usurp the socialist system that we have chosen and defended with our lives. War was inevitable and it would break out on right here in Northeast Asia!
   It had been America's century-old ambition to seize the Korean peninsula as a stepping-stone to achieving hegemony over all of the Asia-Pacific. Now they were goading their puppets into starting a war on the peninsula. Now at last they had the opportunity to realize their long-held ambitions. According to the analysis of the world's Korea experts, war was fast approaching.
As the speech continues, Pak flashes back to that time. Late on the night of the ultimatum, Pak came to inform Kim Jong Un that there had been no response yet to their demands; the propaganda broadcasts continued, and in a few hours the North would have to make good on their threat.
   "Reports from the South indicated that people residing near the DMZ were fleeing, youths were avoiding military conscription, increasing numbers were applying to emigrate overseas, foreign diplomats were pulling out of Seoul, the National Assembly was in uproar. This showed the [South Korean] people had lost faith in their society and fallen into despair, the government has lost the faith of the people, and the social fabric was in shreds."...
   If the nuclear fanatics were to touch one inch of our sacred land, sea or air territory, we were prepared to launch a victorious fusillade upon the South. We must match aggression with aggression, nukes with even stronger nukes; the stronger we are the more we can assure peace in the region and the world...
    But thanks to the great general's nerves and resourcefulness, backed up by the mighty Paekdu Revolutionary Army, a solution was reached. Instead of a fiery resolution, there would be high-level peace talks between North and South!
   Pivoting from a "forceful military strike" to peace talks! The American imperialists were left utterly dumbfounded by these unprecedentedly brilliant tactics.
Pak comes alert as Kim's speech turns to the subject of the flooding in Rason. Kim announces that as the damage is far worse than expected, the KPA will be deployed to aid in construction. Pak listens with interest; this proposal is part of the report he had submitted.
   Suddenly Pak recalled a memory from the hard post-war years, when the Great Leader [Kim Il Sung] angrily scolded some workers who were ignoring the suffering of the people: "Are you not the flesh and blood of these people? How is it that women with babes on their backs are planting rice? If we live for the people, how can we accept that? On the plains of Manchuria during the anti-Japanese struggle we fell a dozen times, and got back up again, to fight for the people. Now that liberation has come, how can we allow them to suffer like this?"
   And on the heels of that came a memory of the General [Kim Jong Il] boarding that train on the last day of his life: "Why do you doctors always try to stop me? Don't I know my own illness better than anyone else? I have to keep going, the people are waiting for me! My illness is nothing compared to their troubles, so don't try to stop me."
Continuing his speech, Kim Jong Un announces that the flood recovery effort will be completed by the time of the Party's 70th Anniversary day. The assembled officials are astonished; putting flood relief above national defense? And finishing it all in just one month? Kim explains "By the power that led us to triumph in the Five-Day War [apparently another name for the August 2015 crisis], we will triumph in this 30-day battle and restore everything to its original state."


Pak Hyŏn Sŏk, who has taken command of the housing construction effort, is overseeing the loading of a freight train with supplies headed for the flood zone. He scolds soldiers for packing too many creature comforts such as bedding and snacks, saying "Do you think we're going camping? Load the tools first!"

Flood damage relief work in Rasŏn shown on Chosŏn
Central TV, August 2015. Src: FRA
Upon arrival, Pak leads a rally for the relief team; he orders singing and dancing around the construction area to get the workers' blood pumping. A series of construction "battles" unfold using the principles of "socialist competition." The cement team churns out a 10-li field full of cement blocks in record time. The marines beat expectations by completing their assigned wall-building in just three days. This launches a competition between military units.

When Pak asks how the marines completed their walls so quickly, the team leader cryptically remarks, "When it comes to beating time, the secret is three-dimensional warfare [립체전]." He explains that this is a new tactic of labor developed by one of the marines, a young man famous for his ability to sleep standing up.

Pak promptly arranges a meeting with this super-worker, whose name is Ŏm Ju Ho. Something about the marine's boyish face seems familiar, and then his snaggletoothed grin jogs Pak's memory: he last saw Ŏm on pigpen cleaning duty aboard a submarine chaser patrolling the West Sea. Ŏm confirms that he had been given pigpen duty as a punishment for being late. Pak had sought out Ŏm after hearing he installed a new long-range sonar system that performed well in recent tests, but was surprised to find the young marine performing such a humble duty.

The next day, as the marines were filing out for a storm warning, Pak encountered a commotion at the front gate of the base.
   Surrounded by a crowd of children, a single marine stood with a woman clinging to his uniform, pleading about something. Thinking there must be a military-civilian relations problem, Pak went over to investigate. Seeing the stars on Pak's lapel, the woman sheepishly released the soldier and bowed deeply. The marine gave a crisp salute and ran off to join his regiment. Gazing after him regretfully, the woman muttered, "That comrade soldier... he saved my child's life. My child, who was on the edge of death."
   Through the woman's rambling account, Pak soon learned the whole story. The previous Sunday her daughter had fallen from a cliff while out collecting vegetables. An unknown marine had carried her all the way to the hospital and even donated his own blood to save her, then disappeared without a trace. Wanting to thank him, the woman had brought some children who witnessed the accident with her to the base so they could identify him.
   After calming the woman and sending her on her way, the unit commander clarified Pak's suspicions. "Last Sunday was the day I put Ŏm Ju Ho on communications duty, and also tasked him with delivering some magazines and books. But he took three hours to do it."
  "And the reason he was so slow?"
  "He said he had taken a shortcut through the woods and gotten lost."
  "So that's when he saved the child. And got punished for it..."
Pak sensed back then that Ŏm had extraordinary character, and now he finds him once again distinguishing himself in the flood relief effort. He asks Ŏm about the rumors that he sleeps standing up, and Ŏm explains that it is a habit from boyhood when he used to help his dad on his fishing boat. Pak asks to hear more about his father, and Ŏm replies that he is a ship captain in the local fisheries division. OMG, his father is none other than Ŏm Tae Sŏn!

Pak informs Ŏm that his father's heroic acts during the recent flooding have caught the attention of the supreme commander himself. A shocked Ŏm recounts how, when he stopped by his family home after being deployed to the region on flood relief duty, his father scolded him for leaving his post at the front.
"Listening to the radio lately, seems like the Yankee bastards are trying to mess with us again. Doing the Inchŏn landing and whatnot, just like the 50s. Right in front of your noses. And yet even you leave your post to come here! Just hearing that the army was coming here had me crying all night. At a time like this, with those jackals breathing down our necks, how can they worry about my humble home? Where else in the world can you find a leader like ours?"
Pak Hyŏn Sŏk felt deeply moved by the patriotism of this old worker who cared more about defending the front line than recovering his lost home. But at the same time, he agreed that the enemy could easily strike at such a vulnerable time.
   The US imperialists' invasion activities were growing ever more egregious. It wasn't just the Inchŏn reenactment in mid-September. Next month the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier "Ronald Reagan," loaded with dozens of fighter jets and accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, would sail into Pusan. And the south Korean puppet warmongers, nattering about "maritime security," had moved its missiles to sites on five islands in the West Sea including Yŏnpyŏngdo and Baekryŏngdo.
   The southwestern border had indeed become a time bomb [시한탄] where full-scale war could erupt at the slightest provocation. Pak Hyŏn Sŏk felt the ticking of that time bomb every hour of every day. For that reason, he felt that selfless and multi-talented soldiers like Ŏm Ju Ho were needed most desperately at the front.

The Kim Jong Il Youth Hero Medal
KJU's days have been filled with preparations for the KWP anniversary and reports on the flood relief work, but somewhere he found time to award the Kim Jong Il Youth Hero Medal posthumously to Yun Song Hwa, the young woman swept away in the flood.

Kim Jong Un and Pak Hyŏn Sŏk chat together in the car as they roll through the streets of the capital, past the construction site of Future Scientists Street [미래과학자거리]. Their conversation turns to the relief effort.

   "How are the soldiers getting on, living in such an unfamiliar area?" He [KJU] was always putting the soldiers first.
   Bak Hyŏn Sŏk swallowed his emotion and spoke lightly. "They faced some hardships at first, but now thanks to your gracious consideration they are getting special rations. Our energized soldiers are leading the charge [돌격전] night and day. Almost every day, the local residents try to bring gifts that our soldiers won't accept, causing some arguments."
   "It's a battle of love [사랑싸움] between soldiers and civilians. We must take this opportunity to show the noble ethos of our troops. Well then, how are the flood victims getting on?"
   "They're still living in tents, but their situation has stabilized. Food and daily necessities are being delivered regularly. When I visited, the shipments of fish and beef you sent had just arrived by boat and train."
    "Just a little while ago I read a letter from a little girl in Changsŏng county. She said she was going to take all her birthday gifts - notebook, pencils, and erasers - and send them to the people of Rasŏn. Right now the whole of our Party and society is devoted body and soul to the people of Rasŏn. Such is the virtue of our beautiful and gracious society."
   "Indeed, I hear some people are even jealous of the flood victims, with their nice new homes."
The Ma'ansan blanket factory
Src: dprktoday
They eventually arrive at a collection center where they inspect the goods prepared for shipment to the flood zone: plasma TVs, warm cotton duvets, "Ma'ansan" blankets, clothing and undergarments, glass tableware sets, and other household supplies.

KJU inspects them all and issues instructions to Pak: Make the duvets thicker, ensure the highest quality, send everything without delay. "But make it clear that these are aid materials, not gifts. If we call them gifts, people are likely to cherish them like family heirlooms and not really use them."

KJU and Pak then go for a walk along the Taedonggang for some fresh air. KJU brings up the Ŏm family and reflects on the selflessness exhibited by the old ship captain. "Through this recent flood, we have seen our people's true colors... Even in their distress, the people of Rasŏn thought first of protecting the images of the leaders. Despite losing their houses and all their possessions, their instinct was to protect the leaders [수령님들]. This is not just a matter of virtue. Even as they were flailing in the water, they understood that their fate and the fate of the leaders was one and the same."

KJU pauses, gazing up at a high-rise apartment building. From one brightly lit window comes the sound of a piano and a child's voice singing:
Grasping his loving hand
I can't lose the moment
Holding his cheery smile close in my heart
I dream of good fortune.
Our greatest gift
Our Leader is here
Our Leader who makes ten million wishes bloom
Inspired by this sign of the people's pure faith, KJU reflects on the Leaders who "wore down the soles of their shoes" [신발창이 닳도록] working to give the people a better life.


Pyongyang Central Tree Nursery
Src: Yonhap
Pak attends a tree-planting in front of the nearly completed housing for Rasŏn flood victims. He has brought a variety of fruit and vegetable seedlings from Pyongyang's Central Tree Nursery and Seed Farm [중앙양묘장과 채종농장].

Pak turns to Ju Ho, who is busily digging root beds, and asks him what kind of fruit tree he would like in front of his future home. Ju Ho replies that he has always been partial to the white apricot [백살구] because there was one in the yard of his childhood home. The white apricot is strongly associated with Hweryŏng, the hometown of "Mother of Revolution" Kim Jŏng Suk [KJI's mother].

The next day, Pak gets a visit from Captain Ŏm Tae Sŏn. Having heard so much about the man, he greets him warmly and praises his heroism during the flood.

But Ŏm is clearly feeling uncomfortable; he blurts out "I've committed an unforgivable crime!" He then confesses that one of his crew had been caught wrecking his own house, hoping to claim flood damage and get a new one built for him.

Pak is aghast at this show of bad citizenship, especially after all the selfless deeds he has witnessed. Indeed, he thinks, "just one loach can muddy a clear stream" [종개 한마리 맑은 강을 흐린다더니].

Hoping to make amends, Captain Ŏm begs Pak to let the troops accept a boatload of fish, but Pak points out that such a serious crime must be properly prosecuted.

Just then Pak's phone rings with amazing news: the Supreme Commander himself is on his way over to the construction site! In short order, KJU's motorcade arrives on the scene. Everyone is thunderstruck, none more so than Pak, who knows too well how packed the leader's schedule is with the KWP Anniversary imminent; yet here he is in the remote north of the country.

Without taking a moment's rest, KJU proceeds to ascend a high promontory from which he can survey the entire construction scene. In just ten days, the scene of nature's destruction has been transformed into a "fairyland" [선경마을] of orderly construction. KJU makes a little speech praising the achievements of the last 10 days and urging them to take care in construction "as if you were building your own homes." He particularly emphasizes making sure the electricity and plumbing work.

Suddenly Ŏm Tae Sŏn pushes through to the front of the crowd. "Leader!" he cries. "How can you be so kind to us, we who have only put more burdens on your shoulders?"

Pak introduces Ŏm, and KJU makes another speech reassuring everyone that a visit to the suffering people is well worth his time. He then turns to Ŏm and asks what happy coincidence brought the fishing boat captain to the work site that day. Ŏm stands frozen, unable to speak of the terrible act that his crewman committed. Pak Hyŏn Sŏk takes pity on him and begins to tell the sordid tale.

KJU  listens quietly to the tale, then everyone holds their breath as they await his judgement. But the young leader is magnanimous: "On the contrary, I see this man's destructive act as a sign of the man's faith in the Party. He could not have done such a thing unless he trusted in the Party like a mother. For people with such faith, we should move heaven and earth to do whatever they ask. Let's give this man a new home too, without discrimination."

Captain Ŏm is overwhelmed by the leader's generosity and vows to work till his boat is overflowing with fish every single day. KJU replies that it is people like the captain who make the nation great.

Notes and Links:

Satellite imagery shows Rasŏn port before and after the
flood. Src: RFA
Late-summer flooding seems to be an annual event in North Korea, but the flooding described in this story, which  hit the Rajin-Sŏnbong area in August 2015, was especially severe. A general summary of the damage in English from Reuters can be read here.

North Korean news footage from September 2015 promoting the military's role in the Rasŏn flood relief effort can still be viewed on Youtube.

This article from the South Korean media talks about the flood relief effort and how it interfered with plans for the KWP 70th Anniversary.

An RFA story (with audio) on the flood relief speed campaign can be read here.

South Korean news coverage of the "August Crisis" of 2015 and KJU's 48-hour ultimatum can be seen here. North Korean news coverage of the KWP Central Military Commission deliberations from that time can be seen here.

Militarized Flood Relief

A striking thing about this story is the frequent use of military language in reference to non-military tasks. In his speech on flood relief KJU talks about "going to war against nature's tyranny" [자연의 횡포]. He issues the order for flood relief in the name of Supreme Commander and orders the KPA Command to take charge of the flood relief headquarters. He explicitly connects flood relief effort with his earlier triumph in the August 2015 crisis, calling the recovery effort a "30-day war." Pak describes this order as the first "shots fired [포성] in the war for flood damage recovery [큰물피해복구전쟁]" and notes that soldiers from all over the country are departing their posts to head for the "point of combat" [공격지점], that is, the flood area. The marines are said to be "leading the charge" [돌격전을 벌린다] in rebuilding homes. The construction effort is praised as an "attack without gunfire" [포성없는 공격전] and a "war of love" [사랑의 전쟁]. To speed things up, KJU decrees that building materials be shipped using the "wartime transport system" [전시수송체계].

Military themes have been strong in North Korean fiction since Kim Jong Il inaugurated the military-first [sŏngun] policy in the 1990s. But the newer stories of the KJU era seem to take things one step further: even non-military tasks are elevated using military language. By leading a large-scale military construction operation and issuing commands in his capacity as Supreme Commander, KJU appears to burnish his image as an experienced military leader, without having to actually go to war.

An important key word in this story is "civil-military relations" [군민관계]. KJU inquires about how the soldiers are getting along with the locals, and the story features several anecdotes illustrating the extraordinary love and gratitude the locals feel for the soldiers. Various defector-run media outlets in South Korea have been claiming for years that the KPA is engaged in forced looting of civilian property, and as this story reveals, civil-military relations clearly remain a concern.

Speed Battle Agitprop

This story features many colorful phrases and slogans that seem to be rote features of speed-construction propaganda. Some that I found interesting include:

reaching astronomical figures 전문학적수자에 달하다
line-of-fire agitation 화선선동
unprecedented in the history of construction 지금까지 건설력사에는 례가 없다
with the speed of a lit fuse 화약에 불달린 기세로!
supersonic speed 초음속
100 days shrinks to one, a year shrinks to 10 days. 백날을 하루, 1년을 열흘로 압축

Quality Control Issues

As the above suggests, North Korean speed battles in construction have always tended to emphasize speed over quality. As a result, citizens are often less than enthusiastic about moving into some of the new state housing complexes despite their sparkly exteriors. For instance, Daily NK has some good reporting on the heating problems at the new Future Scientists Street complex. Tellingly, in KJU's speech at the construction site he specifically instructs the soldiers to make sure that the electricity and plumbing work properly and that there is an abundant supply of firewood at each new home before they move on.

KJU's magnanimity in forgiving the fisherman who destroyed his own home to get a new one can be understood in this context. North Korea is not really worried about a spate of literal home-wreckers lining up for new homes, because the reality is that most people are now justifiably wary of hastily constructed new housing.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Bul ui Yaksok (불의 약속): Kim Jong Un Plans a Fireworks Bonanza

"Bul ŭi Yaksok" (A Promise of Fire) is a short story by Kim Il Su that appeared in the anthology of the same name in 2013. Regular blog readers will remember Kim Il Su as the author of "P'iyŏnanǔn Ggum," reviewed here.

The story begins as Kim Jong Un is being driven to meet his father at a guesthouse in the countryside. Impatient to arrive on time, the young leader asks the driver to let him take the wheel. The driver protests that it's dark and the road is slippery, to which KJU cheekily responds "All the more reason why I should drive." He takes over and speeds confidently along the dark mountain roads.

Nevertheless, he ends up just missing his father at guesthouse. They see the Leader's ORV tracks in the falling snow, indicating he just left. A woman approaches looking distraught; KJU recognizes Mun Suk Hui, the provisions supervisor of the nearby army base that KJI had inspected that day. She has brought a single glove that KJI left behind. Together they stare at the old, worn glove and KJU contemplates how his father always insisted on wearing a pair of gloves until they fell apart, having no care for his own well-being.

He remembers visiting his father's room early that morning to welcome him back from a long inspection tour. He found the Leader slumped over his desk, his eyes squeezed shut.
   "Are you all right?"
   "It's just my leg's been bothering me a bit."
   "Shouldn't we send for the doctor?"
   "Don't bother. It would just make people worry for no reason."
   His eyes grew moist. the General was a human being after all. He had aches and pains just like ordinary people. But it tore at his heart to watch him suffer in silence alone.
   That was why Kim Jong Un had rushed to the General's guesthouse this evening. He was determined to convince his father to take a break, even just for a day, from his relentless schedule of guidance visits and inspections.

KJU reviews a demonstration of the artillery salute portion of the fireworks show planned by his aide Shin Hyŏk Jin, but is unsatisfied:
   "Today's test run went off smoothly without a hitch. But something is missing. There is nothing of our own there. It doesn't have our blood and vigor running through it.  In short, it is not our style.
   Let me explain. Is the Strong and Prosperous Nation (강성대국) something that somebody else comes in and builds for us? Does it just fall from the sky? No. It is built by the General and by the people's own hands under His guidance. This gun salute is our way of showing them the reality of the Strong and Prosperous Nation; how can we do that using other's technology (남의 기술) and not our own (우리의것)?"
   The more impassioned His voice grew, the more Hyŏk Jin's head drooped. He couldn't help but feel inadequate in front of this great man who always embraced a new world of creation. "I've been truly thoughtless," he muttered, revealing his inner thoughts.
   Regarding Hyŏk Jin, He assumed a tone of deep reflection. "I can't forget the General's words from a few years ago. 'Chagang Province is getting brighter and brighter. Those people know better than anyone just how precious a single point of light can be. So they labored to build the electric dams, singing patriotic songs to show their resolve to the enemies who crave our destruction, and now they have turned on the lights of paradise by their own hands (우리자신의 손으로). The night lights of Changjagang, built by Kanggye spirit (강계정신).'"
   As if a floodgate of emotion had been opened, His voice rose in agitation. "Comrade Hyŏk Jin, think about this. Why was the General so pleased with the Changjagang light display? Our night illuminations may seem plain next to other countries’ bright city lights, but they were built by our own hands with the same boundless spirit that overcame tremendous hardship. The General said that just seeing those lights gave Him new energy and raised His spirits."
Shin agrees to rework the fireworks show to incorporate Korean culture and technology.

KJU is up late working on the fireworks show, when he senses a presence behind him. He turns and sees his father, KJI, looking over his shoulder. "I didn't want to disturb you..."  KJU explains the problem he is having developing a new type of fireworks technology. KJI praises his son for thinking outside the box, and says he has faith in him that he will produce an excellent show. KJI and KJU call each other by their military rank (changgun and taejang respectively).

Overwhelmed with the sudden need to run, KJU goes out for a fast and furious drive around the capital with his faithful aide Shin, ending up at Unification Street.

Walking along the river, he tells Shin the story of his grandfather Kim Il Sung and the first Victory Day celebration, July 28th, 1953. Hurrying back from Wonsan, the original Great Leader reached the capital just in time to witness the celebratory artillery barrage from near the very spot where they are standing now. The truce had just been concluded; KIS looked across the river and saw the war-devastated landscape illuminated in the light of the explosions, and swore a vow upon the waters of the Taedong River, to give his people a bright future. [How does KJU know this story? Did he hear it from KIS himself, or from his father? He implies that it is not public knowledge]

Awed at the thought of the young leader’s patriotic drive inherited from his grandfather, Shin vows to create the best darned fireworks show the nation has ever seen. (Shin’s character seems to exist solely so that KJU doesn’t sound stupid talking to himself)


Having finished inspecting a KPA unit, KJU heads toward Munch’ang foodstuffs factory, where Mun Suk Hui (the glove lady) works. He has been informed that the factory has made tremendous progress lately. Along the way he and Shin discuss the growing number of special illuminated cities in the country and their effect on the people. Shin notes that the people of Kangwon Province have made such great strides - the Wonsan Youth Power Plant, the new electric-powered towns, etc. - that they are joking about changing the name to Kangsõng (Great and Prosperous) Province. Likewise, with its brilliant light displays, Chagang Province should be renamed Charang (Pride) Province. Kim Jong Un notes that soon there will be night-time illumination displays in the cities of Pyongyang and Wonson as well, and he hints that his father is planning additional displays for Hoeryŏng and Namp’o. In a Kennedy-esque statement, he remarks, “We decorate our cities with illumination shows not because we are rich, but because we achieved everything through our own power."
Wonsan city light display (Src: Donga Ilbo)
KJU arrives at the factory and reunites with Foodstuffs Manager Mun; almost exactly one year has passed since last they met, with the glove incident. Kim congratulates Mun on how much her factory's output has improved. She responds with another fire analogy: “We’re just carrying the flame the General lit.” She informs KJU that she told the workers story of Leader’s lost glove, resulting in a “sea of tears.” The workers were then moved to improve efficiency and produce good results just to cheer up the General.

Illuminated city of Changjagang, on the Chinese border
Mun also relates a story told by one of the factory families’ sons when he was home from the army on a commendation leave. This young man had bunked with some of the people involved in the city illumination work. The day he departed to return to his unit, he announced that he was determined to configure a similar light display for his own neighborhood.

Kim Jong Un is moved and gives a rousing speech.
   "Now is different from the time when we lost the Suryŏng (Kim Il Sung), when the General departed Tabaksol crying bitter tears. The dark trials have passed and we have climbed the summit to greet the bright sunrise of the Strong and Prosperous Nation. We have overcome a thousand li of suffering and see before us ten thousand li of happiness. Happiness does not just come to those who wait; it comes through creation.
   "Kim Hyŏng-jik [KIS' father] once said: If my son's generation does not finish it, we must see the revolution through to the end in my grandson's time. And the General [KJI] said that even if it takes until the great-grandson's generation, it will be carried out. Those words fire my heart every day, every minute."
   His eyes, gazing at the assembled workers, gleamed with certainty and determination. "Today, you gave me good news to bring back to the General, and in return I want to show you something. Call it the groundbreaking ceremony for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, if you like."
That night they all watch the final triumphant rehearsal of the fireworks show; all has been perfected in terms of artistry, form and rhythm, with perfect timing to the music. It is a completely new kind of fireworks show.

Two months later, in April, crowds gather by the Daedong River for the big show. Kim Jong Il appears and the fireworks start; the brilliant lights explode in time to the strains of “Chosŏn’s Blessing” and “Footsteps.” Kim Jong Il praises his son for a job well done: “Displayed over the river with the Juche Tower in the background, it is indeed magnificent; very distinctive!” KJU replies, “These lights are the glimmer on the countless beads of sweat you shed on the path of Sŏngun.” [yuck!] “Now our people are laughing."

Pyongyang fireworks display
Src: Yonhap


The night illumination of Changjagang, Chagangdo (불야경) has been hailed as one of “13 great sights of Songun, born from KJI’s benevolence and KJU’s love.” There are now similar light displays now in Pyongyang and Wonsan as well. More details from Yonhap here.

The new Wonsan light display is more strongly associated with Kim Jong Un, since Wonsan is being promoted as the new leader's hometown. For more details see Yonhap and RFA.

North Korea holds a fireworks show every year on the Day of the Sun (KIS' birthday), April 15th. KJU reportedly took charge of planning the April 2009 fireworks show as one of his first  first official experiences of executive leadership, and the resulting show entitled "Firestorm of the Strong and Prosperous Nation" (강성대국의 불보라) was said to display many technical advances including synchronizing fireworks with music from famous patriotic songs.

7/27 is North Korea’s “V-A Day” (War Victory Day), also celebrated each year with a massive fireworks show in the capital.

다박솔 초소 Tabaksol is the name of the artillery unit KJI was visiting when he announced the start of the Sŏngun era after KIS’ death, on Jan 1 1995. "Dabaksol" means a young pine tree, and this is part of a series of famous military units named after the flora surrounding their base. For more details see this article from Yonhap:

Light + Heat = Prosperity

This story uses fire as an allegory for national development in several different ways.
Speaking with Shin Hyŏk Jin and Mun Suk Hui, KJU remarks,
"We must show the people the reality of the Strong and Prosperous Nation that we are building, as soon as possible. If we can do that, then the people will go forth with a greater sense of optimism and faith in their bright future (광명한 래일). So I decided to draw them a picture in the sky with fire, a picture of the Strong and Prosperous Nation, for all our people and all the world to see."
When KJI encounters his son working working late into the night on the fireworks show, he pontificates on the meaning of fire and light:
"The time when our people felt the value of light most keenly was during the Arduous March [1990s famine period]. The hardest time for me was walking the pitch-dark streets of Pyongyang at night. There's that famous line in the poem that goes 'If I could give you just one bright beam of light' - that's how I felt then. I swore that I would find a way to give light to the people, even if I had to burn my whole body to a crisp [내 한몸을 깡그리 태워서라도]."
This last phrase is a fixed expression that is often uttered by the Leaders when talking about something they want to do for the people, akin to "I'd give my right arm to..." It's unintentionally ironic in this context, but probably not meant to imply that the light would come from KJI's burning body.

Later, when KJU reunites with Foodstuffs manager Mun and hears of the progress her factory has made, he makes the following speech:
"Fire bequeathed by the General! It's really a meaningful phrase. When our enemies predicted our 'collapse,' even putting up a signboard counting down to the day the last light of communism would burn out, who could have foreseen this bright day? But today nobody can ignore the growing brightness in our country and the new light of socialism. The Changjagang nightscape and the Wonsan light decorations illustrate how Korea has preserved the red flag of socialism, using the language of fire."
Clearly somebody is getting annoyed by the foreign media's repeated posting of satellite images showing North Korea cloaked in darkness. But the "communism countdown clock" reference is new to me - does anybody know what this might refer to? Post in the comments!

KJI Suffering in Silence

The glove incident at the beginning of the story is implied to be part of a pattern of KJI not taking proper care of his health. KJU recalls that whenever his mother would try to give his father new gloves, KJI would respond "These old ones are good for another few years if we just patch them up. Besides, I've grown attached to them."

As KJI reminisces about the people's suffering during the Arduous March, KJU is moved by his father "thinking only of the Fatherland and the people, when at that time He was suffering from a serious illness nobody knew about." In this way, the author implies that the ill health that eventually killed KJI had its roots in the stress of the 1990s famine.

Kim Jong Il = Winter; Kim Jong Un = Spring

Related to this is the recurrent theme that Kim Jong Il is now associated with snow and winter, while Kim Jong Un is associated with spring, flowers and warmth. As foodstuffs director Mun remarks, "Really our fire is built upon a foundation of tears. Our happiness today was born beneath the cold sleet and blizzards that the General fought his way through. Now when our people hear the news of the Wonsan city lights, we can't stop crying thinking of how they were lit by the strenuous labors of the General."

The Sad Leader

This story is a good example of the trend of depicting the new leader as emotionally vulnerable, even close to tears at some points. While North Korean fiction often features characters shedding tears (of shame, regret or joy), the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are generally depicted as stoic or relentlessly cheerful. The new stories with Kim Jong Un seem to take a different approach: the leader is occasionally shown tearing up in moments of emotional turmoil, doubt or regret as he mourns his father and assumes the mantle of leadership. He is then invariably cheered up by observing some humble act of faithful devotion by a representative of the common people. The message seems to be that this new leader is indeed talented, but he is also young and vulnerable, and he will need all of the people's support to succeed.

One weird thing that struck me is that Kim Jong Il is still alive in this story, and yet people keep talking and acting as if they are already in mourning for him. KJU tears up almost every time his father’s name is mentioned. Other characters seem excessively emotional over things like gloves and the illumination displays finally being finished according to KJI's wishes. This led me to devise my own crazy fan theory for the story: It’s actually 2012, not 2011, and KJI is dead but KJU hasn’t absorbed it yet. He goes around telling people he will report their progress back to his father, and they all just humor him. In this light, his final conversation with KJI at the fireworks show is particularly striking, like Luke hanging out with Yoda, Ben and Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Sŭsŭng" (Teacher): Education reform and the next generation

"Sŭsŭng" (Teacher) is a short story by Kim Sam Buk which appeared in the collection Bul ŭi Yaksok (A Promise of Fire), one of the first short stories to directly chronicle the new leader's exploits. It follows the discussion around reforming North Korea's compulsory education system from 11 years to 12 years, a change which was ratified by the Supreme People's Assembly in September 2012.

North Korean elementary school classroom
Src: CNN
Half of the story follows Kim Jong Un as he pushes elderly officials to enact the education reforms. The other half follows a family of educators, the Shims, as they are given a new apartment in the new Changjŏn Street high-rise housing complex.

The story opens with Miyŏng, the oldest Shim daughter, on her way home from another late tutoring session with her most problematic students. Miyŏng is feeling discouraged at her job. It seems that some of her students make no progress no matter how hard she tries. She plans to quit teaching as soon as she gets married.

One student in particular has her worried: Chae Il, age 13, a friendly boy with a good attitude, who struggles with his schoolwork. He can answer questions correctly, most of the time, but he can't explain his reasoning, even simple things he should have mastered a year ago. Miyŏng has gone so far as to set up after-school tutoring sessions for the students like Chae Il who are struggling, but it doesn't seem to be helping. A few weeks ago she visited Chae Il's parents at their home and expressed her concerns, but his mother seemed to shift all the blame onto the school. "If you can't teach them properly, what's the point of sending them to school?" She is so lost in thought that she trips and sprains her ankle.

Suddenly a car pulls up alongside her. The passenger, a well-dressed and distinguished-looking older gentleman, notices her limp and offers her a ride home. This not being Los Angeles, she accepts. The man asks how she injured her ankle, and she proceeds to unload about the difficulties she's been having as a teacher. The problem, in her opinion, is that the kids are learning too many things at once. As a result, they learn only superficially and forget soon afterward. The man listens with interest, asking many questions about where she teaches, how her students are doing, why she's teaching late evening classes, etc. From his appearance he must be a high-level official and yet somehow she finds him easy to talk to.  He drops her off at home and drives away.

Miyŏng is greeted by her younger sister, also a teacher, who is buzzing with good news: Their move-in day has been scheduled! The family has been allotted an apartment in the spanking new Changjŏn Street housing complex, a cluster of modern high-rise buildings in the heart of the capital. The family can't believe their luck; everyone knows that manual laborers and model workers (혁신자) get priority in housing. Miyŏng forgets her worries in the excitement of their upcoming move.

Abruptly, their father clears his throat and turns off the TV, signaling he has something important to say.
   "Except for our son who is off serving in the army, and grandmother who staying with my brother, our whole family is gathered here tonight. Since we are all teachers, I want you all to take my words to heart...  Miyŏng-sŏnsaeng was the last to arrive, but I understand that was because she was helping some students." It was his habit to address family members as "sŏnsaeng" [teacher], even his own daughters. "Now is a time when we teachers must take a serious look to our own failings. Our problem is that we do not even try to find out if we are teaching effectively. Like Miyŏng, we just fuss over our students without making progress. I'm no different. The reason I'm saying this is because I learned today that Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un gave a criticism that cut to the heart of the defects in our middle-school education system."
   Everyone held their breath in suspense, especially Miyŏng.
   "Our Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un argued that our education method has failed to evolve from the old system of rote memorization, pointing out that our children are unable to grasp the deeper principles at work behind phenomena and fail to acquire fundamental knowledge. Thus he has called for improving our education methods and for raising the quality of instruction, saying that the teachers' abilities reflect upon the students. Following his instructions, the education ministry is now looking into education reform."
Miyŏng reflects on her father's words, realizing that for all her struggles with her failing students, she had never once thought to improve her own abilities.


Kim Jong Un is in his garden meeting with Ri Hŏn Sun, a long-serving senior member of the Education Commission and septuagenarian professor and who once taught him philosophy. They both address each other respectfully but the professor uses slightly more formal honorifics to refer to Kim. Kim asks Ri what is troubling him. Ri responds that his revered mentor just celebrated his 79th birthday; at the party, the venerable professor took Ri aside and criticized him.
   "He attacked me saying, 'The Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un has woken you up to the fact that our middle school education system has failed to reach a suitable standard. You sit in a high seat on the Education Commission, and yet what do you do? Were you not moved by the Moranbong Band concert?'"
Moranbong Band concert circa 2013; Src: Hangyoreh 
   The Moranbong Concert had made quite a stir. You could say that their main purpose was to sound a warning bell against habitual, rigid, backward ways of doing business. Their fresh, strong and dynamic performance is what makes them so distinctive... It stirred everyone in attendance to wake from their stupor and look around at the world. It returned the elderly to the feeling of their youth and made them quicken their steps. As society advances with the times, the people's demand for new things grows. The Moranbong concert keenly reflected the spirit of the times, and it signaled a new model for creative and innovative thinking.
   Hearing that this mentor of Ri Hŏn Sun's had mentioned the Moranbong concert in this way, Comrade Kim Jong Un was reminded anew of how much that concert had moved people.
   "He's ten years my senior, and yet my mentor still has a keen sense for the times," Ri continued. "He said that it was time for me to pass my position to the next generation, and fill my days writing memoirs or some such. I said I was studying middle school education reform as instructed by Kim Jong Un, but he argued that a younger cadre would be better suited to the task.
   "On my way home from the party I encountered a young woman limping home. I gave her a ride home and found out she was a middle school math teacher. She worked so hard for her students, and she said a few of them were exceptional, but more than half simply memorized formulas without really understanding them. I felt remorse that we education officials have been unable to offer our teachers a better strategy."
Hearing this story, Kim Jong Un observes that the education system is failing because it hasn't received enough investment from the state and is badly in need of reform. He wonders why the experienced officials haven't been able to come up with a better strategy yet.

Kim gestures for Ri to sit with him in the garden and he expounds at length about the problems in education as he sees them. The teachers are blindly following old formulas; they need to devise a new "juche education" method for modern times. They also need better training to improve teachers' own abilities. Ri reverently takes notes.

To prepare effective reforms, Kim decrees that the education ministers should go out to schools around the country and observe the actual conditions.

That night Kim hosts a banquet with the education ministers to talk about their plans. He tells them the story of the young teacher, Shim Miyŏng, who was found limping home from late after-school tutoring session; he also mentions an elementary school teacher he once met whose voice had been destroyed by years of teaching. He tells the assembled officials they must work harder to find solutions for hard-working teachers like these.

New residential complexes at Changjŏn Street
Src: DailyNK
Days later, KJU is touring a construction site in the city when he receives a report on the families pre-selected to move in to the new Changjŏn complex. An official explains that priority is being given to hard laborers and model workers. KJU comments that first priority should go to families where both parents are hard laborers. Then he notes that some apartments are being allotted to teachers, and he says the teachers should be given the spacious apartments on the lower floors "since they work from early morning to late at night for the children."

The education officials take KJU's words to heart and feel deeply ashamed of their past complacent attitude about education reform. They embark on a massive listening tour of various schools, speaking directly with teachers and students about their problems. Ri Hŏn Sun pays a visit to the school of the now-famous Shim Miyŏng, who is delighted to recognize the very same official who gave her a lift home that night. 

They discuss the problems the children are having and come to the conclusion that they are trying to teach too many things too fast. The burden has increased over time as the number of subjects they need to teach has risen. Elementary education used to be just language and arithmetic, but now kids have to learn English, computers etc; 4 years is simply not enough. Also, younger students do better with hands-on learning, and their curricula should incorporate this. Miyŏng eagerly anticipates the education reform, knowing her input has been incorporated.

Ri comments that with all her hard work she must have little time for herself, and he asks if she reads any novels for fun. She admits that she only finds time on Sundays.


Back at the Shim's household, the long-awaited move-in permit has arrived. The family moves into their new apartment and is overwhelmed to find they have been given a spacious 5-room apartment the third floor of building 1. Their 78-year-old grandmother weeps with joy as she grasps the move-in permit in trembling hands.


KJU meets with senior education officials to discuss the education reforms. They are all impressed with his youthful energy and the fact that he has found time in his busy schedule to evaluate their reports and recommendations. It is decided that elementary education should be expanded from four years to five, in order to accommodate the increased subject matter required to build a modern workforce. It is also determined "after assessing actual school conditions and researching the education systems of other countries" that teacher training must be made a priority. Capable teachers are essential for producing "reliable workers for the country" (나라의 믿음직한 역군).

It is further decided that the six years of middle school should be broken up into 3 years of early middle and 3 years of late middle school. This is to accommodate the differences in temperament and learning styles between preteens and teenagers that were observed by the teachers they spoke with. Also, it is felt that older students tend to act more immature when put together with younger students in the same school.

Finally, KJU declares that the state will invest more funds toward teacher training and supplying schools with technology for hands-on learning. "It goes without saying, the cost to students will be nothing," he concludes.


As autumn approaches KJU announces that he would like to visit some of the families that have just moved into the new Changjŏn apartments. He flusters his aides by rather abruptly announcing, mid-afternoon, that he wants to visit now rather than bother people at dinnertime. "But the heads of household will all still be at work," they protest. "How will we get them all assembled and ready in time?"

KJU visiting defense corps on southwest island via wooden
dingy, March 2013. Take that, General Washington.
Src: Daum
But KJU insists, saying he'd rather just show up unannounced so he can see "how people really live." He recalls how much fun he had when he made an unannounced visit to a southwestern island defense battery, riding "a tiny wooden boat out to sea" to an ecstatic greeting by the surprised soldiers.

KJU enters building 1, ascends the stairs to the third floor and promptly visits the Shim family. He sets them at ease by joking, "Are you mad at me for visiting so suddenly?" After viewing all the rooms, he sits down in the living room with the whole family arrayed around him. He hands the father a pack of matches, noting that it a Korean tradition to bring matches to a house-warming.

KJU and wife visit a family in the Changjŏn complex,
January 2013. Src: RFA
At this point Miyǒng's mother candidly expresses her amazement that they were given such an apartment.
   "We really couldn't believe it; how could an ordinary family like ours get such good fortune? When we got the moving permit we couldn't believe our eyes, that such a home was really ours."
   Comrade Kim Jong Un chuckled. "Families of educators such as yours don't have it easy. It's fantastic that you are all teachers. Teachers should be given the highest respect in our society and it's only natural that you should have such a home. When they see how I sought out your family first, others will take notice."
KJU goes on to talk about how important education is to the nation's future, particularly middle school and particularly math and science. Miyŏng listens to all this in awed silence; she never realized how important her profession was before. She now feels ashamed that she had so looked forward to quitting as soon as she got married.

Throughout this reverie KJU continues: "I hear that some teachers are struggling under such difficult conditions that they are even considering quitting." At this point Miyŏng bursts into tears.

Embarrassed, her father explains to KJU that Miyŏng had been struggling with her students and had regretted becoming a teacher.

Hearing her name, KJU immediately makes the connection that this must be the very same Shim Miyŏng, middle-school math teacher, that Ri Hŏn Sun told him about. Miyŏng is astounded that the Dear Leader knows her name. He explains that Ri is the official who drove her home that night, and her conversation with him had helped influence the education reform. Miyŏng, sobbing, protests that she is not worthy as an educator, she who failed her own students, longing for her wedding day only so she could quit her job.

KJU responds, "Miyŏng, hold your head high. I am certain that in the future all our people will know of you and the nation will remember you as a great teacher." He concludes by saying he is proud to know such a splendid family of educators, and promising to invest the state's resources heavily in education for the nation's future.

After he leaves, the family stares at one another in amazement. The father breaks the silence, saying "What day is it?" Of course, they must mark this day and commemorate it forever as the day their family met the Leader. The family talks late into the night, celebrating together their renewed pride in their profession.

The story ends with the line: "Kim Jong Un is the great teacher of us all!"

Attitudes about Education

Miyŏng comes from a family of educators. Her father feels strongly that education is the nation's 흥망성쇠 (key to prosperity), even more now than in the past, and he pushes all his children to become teachers. In defiance, Miyŏng takes the exam for the mechanical engineering college that her father taught at, but to her surprise she finds herself placed in the education department instead. As a result she ends up unhappily teaching middle school math.

The primary difficulty Miyŏng's students face is in understanding the logical reasoning behind the formulas that they have memorized. This is explained through the example of finding the area for a triangle; students can recite the formula 1/2 b*h, but they can't explain the reasoning behind it. This is due to them being forced to learn too many things to quickly early in their fundamental schooling. There is also a long discursus on the pedagogical differences between 11-13 year-olds and 14-17 year-olds. The former are very emotional and impulsive, and learn best through hands-on practice. The latter are calmer and better able to understand abstract concepts.

The story takes pains to draw a direct line between education and economic development, particularly in the sciences. In his talk with Ri, KJU admonishes that middle school education is not "meeting the demands of the knowledge economy era" (지식경제 시대의 요구), saying that middle school education in particular is vital to cultivate "useful personnel" (쓸모있는 인재) in science and technology. He particularly wants to emphasize math, physics, chemistry and biology.  The story repeats variations of the same line twice: "Scientific development must precede economic growth, and science develops through education."  (경제력의 장성은 과학의 발전이 앞서야 이루어지며 과학은 교육을 통해 발전한다.; 과학을 발전시키고 경제장성을 이룩하자면 교육, 특히 중등일반교육을 개선해야 합니다.)

At several points this phrase is repeated: "If the roots are strong the fruit will ripen fully." (뿌리가 든든해야 충실한 열매가 달립니다) This is one of many examples of plant analogies that appear in North Korean fiction. Recent stories are replete with references to "fruit" "seeds" and "ripening," following along with the general concept of the country and its people reaching maturity and finally beginning to bear fruit after a long hard winter. When speaking with the Shims at their new apartment, KJU remarks: "Just as one cannot see the roots of a big tree, the labor of teachers is not immediately visible but becomes apparent through the next generation."

In the scene where KJU is discussing reforms with his officials, there is surprisingly blunt mention of the impact the famine ("Arduous March") of the 90s had on education: "The Arduous March weakened the material and technical support base of the schools (교육이 물질기술적토대가 약해지고), and teacher's living standards were hit as well (교원들의 생활이 어려워졌다). But now the country has entered a new age of prosperity. Now that our military and economy are improving, we must revitalize education as well."

A Good Cadre

One odd thing about this story is the presence of a government official who is not Kim Jong Un and yet who appears to have high personal magnetism and capability - that is, the character Ri Hŏn Sun. He is even described using terms typically used for the leaders: a "booming voice" (잘 울리는 목소리) and "confident gaze" (침착한 눈빛), distinguished, easy to confide in. He is described in such warm terms on his first appearance as the anonymous gentleman who drives Miyŏng home that I expected him to turn out to be a member of the Kim family.

In particular, his "discovery" and cultivation of the teacher Miyŏng closely mirrors the familiar pattern in which one of the Leaders discovers a "diamond in the rough" in some field of the arts or technology and cultivates his/her talent (a pattern seen in "Uri ŭi Mŏt" and "Piyŏnanŭn Ggum"). Ri is not perfect - he takes on some measure of blame for failing to reform education sooner - but it is he who identifies the key problems in education by talking with Miyŏng and conveys the information to KJU. This is very unusual in the fiction I have read thus far.

Given the amount of attention Ri gets in this story it is likely that this character represents a high-level official in real life, but I was unable to determine exactly who based on the scant biographical details given: 70 years old, a former philosophy professor with a long record of service on the Education Commission (교육위원회).

While Ri uses honorifics and formal speech when talking with KJU, KJU also speaks formally to Ri, using a more respectful tone than I have heard him give to any other character aside from his own father. KJU speaks more formally to Ri than he did to his college artillery science professor in Blossoming Dreams, for instance.

Age and Effectiveness

The seventy-year-old Ri Hŏn Sun wonders if he should step down and let "the next generation" take over; his even older mentor actually tells him a younger person can do his job better. Hearing this, Kim Jong Un responds somewhat ambivalently that it may indeed be true that a younger person could do it better, but Ri must carry out his duties to the end.

The education officials Kim Jong Un speaks with are referred to as "로교육자" (aged educators). When he meets with his education officials to discuss the reform package, KJU's relative youth is emphasized: "In his flashing eyes, passionate energy, and youthful bearing, the education officials could feel the vital breathing of the motherland."

When the two elderly officials are discussing the Moranbong Band concert, they specifically emphasize the youthful energy of the performance, saying it "returned the elderly to the feeling of their youth and made them quicken their steps."