Saturday, May 19, 2018

Dŏnagan Kkamagui (떠나간 까마귀): A nice children's poem about the Trump White House

Ddŏnagan Kkamagui ("The Crow that Passed by") is a poem by Ri Wan Gi that appeared in the literary magazine Adong Munhak (Children's Literature) in November of 2017.  It is interesting in that it mentions Trump by name and also references his "Make America Great" slogan (강대한 미국을 만들기). Actually, the phrase could more accurately be translated as "Make a Powerful America" but I think they were aiming for the former. This is my first attempt at translating poetry, and I found it unexpectedly difficult, so apologies for the somewhat stilted language.

Many thanks to @FahySandra for finding this poem in a South Korean archive and sending it to me and @NKResearcher for providing the missing stanzas.

The Crow that Passed by
떠나간 까마귀
Ri Wan Gi

Hearing the delicious rumor 
That at the White House there were some tasty corpses
The crow flew from far away.
Settling on the White House roof
He muttered, "The rumors were true,
The corpse smell is ripe."
He flitted back and forth
"Aha, it’s coming from that window."
The crow settled on a nearby branch. 

Within the room, Trump
was making a rambling speech
to his sycophantic aides:
"To make America great,
We must annihilate Korea through war."

"Eh? War?"
The crow, well over a hundred years old,
Witness to numerous battlefields, 
pricked his ears.

"Mr President! All those bastards
Who opposed your war drive have departed."
At the flunky's words
The man called Mr President screeched even louder
"All those shitheads who resigned from the White House,
One by one - they're all maniacs."

The crow nodded his head,
"Seems there were quite a few 'maniacs' there."

One person stepped forward from the side
And spoke up,
"But Mr President, Congress
Is griping that a war with well-armed Korea
Would bring nuclear catastrophe to American soil.
What a bunch of idiots."

The President trembled with rage
"To make America great,
We must wage war
Against those crazy nonsense-spewing bastards."

At Trumps’ bawling, like the chime of a broken gong,
The crow grimaced
"Ow my ears, such a racket!
Crying war, war…
For real, this president is crazy for war."

Right then the plump fellow 
Jumped up, not wanting to be overlooked.
"Mr President! Korea has tested
H-bomb equipped ICBMs
With complete success
Threatening destruction before the UN General Assembly
How can we patch this up?
Even congressmen are holding anti-Trump rallies;
Such a pain in the butt."

Frothing at the mouth, the President stamped about,
"So those bastards 
Don’t want to make America great!
It’s all the busywork of lunatics."

Meanwhile huge crowds
assembled in the streets
Calling down with Trump, who drives sane men mad;
Screaming: Drag forth lunatic Trump, that walking corpse,
Who has plunged America into crisis and danger
The protest column plunged wildly forward
Toward the White House

Suddenly the crow
Who'd been salivating over the corpse smell
Took offense at the racket
"Pfooey, messing with such a rotten corpse, even I'd go nuts
Much as I do enjoy corpses
The stench of such a demented corpse
It's utterly loathsome
Gack, ptooey!

And so he spread his wings
And flew away
From the house of the crazy old lunatic

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ryŏksa ui Taeha (력사의 대하) Pt 2 - The Clintons and Gores dine on not-so-humble pie

Back by popular demand, I am continuing my selective translations of Chŏng Ki Jong's epic novel Ryŏksa ui Taeha, which covers the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-94 from a North Korean perspective. Most of the story centers on Kim Jong Il, his advisors, and a young brigade commander named Oh Yŏng Bŏm. However, occasionally the perspective jumps to show the reactions in the US government. The following excerpt is translated from Part 2, Chapter 1 of the novel.

-----

Clinton with staff aboard Air Force One
   Shocking news always comes suddenly. Clinton was reading an AFP report aboard the presidential plane. His aide, David,1 could sense the president's agitation from the way he flapped the paper in his hand, staring blankly across at the blithely chattering Commerce and Finance Secretaries. As head speechwriter for President Nixon and communications director for President Reagan, David knew all too well what sort of report could rattle a president this way, but scanning Clinton's expression now he could not begin to guess what had him so upset.
   Clinton and his entourage were on their way back from the 1993 trade and investment forum with major bank presidents in Los Angeles. It was the first major step toward the economic recovery Clinton had promised during the campaign, so naturally the finance and trade secretaries were engrossed in national economic issues and the problem of investment in Russia.
   But Clinton's attention was completely distracted by the report he had received in mid-flight.

   --- March 8, AFP ---
   Today in Communist North Korea, by order of Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il, the entire military and civilian population has been put in a state of quasi-war. This is the first time since 1983 that the hard-line communist state has issued such an order, having previously declared only a state of "battle mobilization" in response to the "Team" exercises, and it represents a clear escalation in the level of military response to the US threat...

   As Clinton scanned the report his eye was drawn to the phrase "By order of Supreme Commander." His left eyelid twitched as it always did when he was agitated, and a strange feeling struck him. After all, he was the supreme commander of the US forces. He was the one who had ordered the Team Spirit exercises and secretly laid plans for "Operation Focus."2 And the North Korean supreme commander had given a strong response.
   He scanned the quote from the North Korean media: "If the US imperialists and their south Korean puppets start another war, then our military and our people will fight to the end and deliver a devastating blow to the invaders and recover the dignity of heroic Korea - in the name of the Party, the Leader, and our-style socialism built on the masses. We must let our enemies know that they cannot touch one speck of our soil, not one blade of our grass." He re-read the strange phrases "the Party and the Leader," "our-style socialism," and "heroic Korea," struggling to divine the secret meaning hidden within.
   They dare to threaten us, he thought, biting his lip. This provocative language is a declaration of war! He turned to David and instructed him to contact the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs, to prepare them to declare a state of emergency the moment he got off the plane.
   Actually, when it came to matters of defense, Clinton was more inclined to listen to the Joint Chiefs than the bureaucrats in the Dept of Defense. The DoD oversaw the three branches of the military, but the Joint Chiefs were the highest organ for strategy and tactics directly under the president's command, and the generals and career officers formed his brain trust for military strategy.
   David said, "We're landing in Washington in 15 minutes. When and where should I ask them to meet us?"
   Clinton glanced at his watch; it was 18:45. Suddenly he remembered Hillary saying, "Don't forget, we've invited the Gores to dinner tonight." Since they couldn't spend their anniversary dinner alone, she had ultimately decided to invite the Gores.
   Clinton thought a moment. "Fine, tell them I'll meet them in the Situation Room by 8pm."
   No sooner had Clinton entered the White House than the Gores appeared.
   Both of the Gores were tall people. After working as a war correspondent in Vietnam, Al Gore had studied law at various universities. Though he was Clinton's junior by two years, he was already a veteran politician with 16 years in the Senate. His book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit was a national best-seller that had gained global recognition.
   "Mrs. Clinton," Gore greeted Hillary. "What's the occasion for having us to dine with you?"
   "It's our anniversary," she replied lightly.
   "Oh my!" Gore's wife, Tipper, gaped at her. "Why didn't you say so before?"
   Gore, too, was discomfited. "This won't do. To think we've come to your anniversary dinner without a gift."
   Hillary smiled. "No bother, I'm not even sure what the 19th anniversary is. Next year for our 20th we'll be sure to let you know, so you can get us a vase or something."
   They all laughed at that. Recently it had become the fashion in America to celebrate not only traditional anniversaries like the 5th (wood), 15th (copper), 25th (silver), 50th (gold), and 65th (diamond), but also new ones like the 1st (paper), 10th (tin), and 20th (china).
   "But you don't appear to be in a good mood, Mr. President," Gore continued. "Did those bankers get on your nerves?"
   Clinton shook his head. "It's not that, it's North Korea. I was hoping to talk with you about it. Let's go in."
   Historically, American presidents had always tended to keep their vice presidents at a distance, but Clinton had always been close with Gore both professionally and personally, as they were among the youngest in the administration. Whatever the issue, they always aligned their positions first before setting policy. Both southerners, they had fought fiercely in the Democratic Party primaries before joining forces to win the election. The three Gore children were close with Chelsea, and they always celebrated birthdays together.
   In the dining room, food was laid out on enormous oval table: Gore's favorite steak and sandwiches, asparagus, a creamy yellow custard cake, grilled vegetables and Mexican-style barbecue. It was hardly luxurious fare, but it was plentiful.
Bill Clinton loves Tango?
   A server poured beer and wine. First they toasted the couple's 19th anniversary. Lively tango music played from a corner speaker. The servers slid around the room in time to the music, delivering plates of food.
  Tango was Clinton's favorite kind of music. His favorite food was banana sandwiches, and he could drink copious amounts of foamy beer and wine. So all this should have put him in a good mood. However, his expression was tense and uneasy. Grasping his second glass of wine, he surveyed the group and suddenly began to recite:
All that is not worth, O deep, deep bottle,
The penetrating balm that your fruitful belly
Holds for the thirsty heart of the pious poet;
You pour out for him hope, and youth, and life
Here Clinton paused, and Gore continued:
— And pride, the treasure of all beggary,
Which makes us triumphant and equal to the gods!3 
   Clinton looked at him in surprise. "You are also a fan of Baudelaire?"
   "I just memorized some bits in college."
   "I see. Let's leave Baudelaire to his bottle and cut to the chase then." Clinton set his glass down and turned solemn as he spoke in a clipped tone. "Today North Korea responded to our Team exercises by declaring a state of quasi-war. Tonight all the networks will be buzzing about this. It seems like they've finally reacted to our ratcheting pressure. But is that all it is? The thing that surprises me is that they've taken such a hard-line response. It'd be one thing if we attacked their nuclear facilities, but why get so hot and bothered over some exercises that happen every year? It's true that the Team Spirit exercises are the largest in the world; NATO's exercises don't even compare. But it's been that way for a long time. So what are we to make of this sudden hard-line stance? Could it be that they've somehow sussed out our secret plan? If so, is this their declaration of war?"
   He paused, lifting his glass and taking a deep breath. Then he mumbled, almost to himself, "It doesn't smell right. What on earth are they planning?"
   All were silent. Hillary attempted to interest the Gores in the food, but they demurred. At length, Hillary threw up her hands and shrugged as if to say "What sort of anniversary dinner is this!"
   But Clinton failed to see her gesture. He was staring at the opposite wall, where a famous quote by President John Adams was inscribed in gold. It was a prayer he had spoken when he first set foot in the White House. "I Pray Heaven To Bestow The Best Of Blessings On This House And All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof."
John Adams' prayer engraved in the mantel in the White
House dining room
   He hoped that one day some wall in this house would bear the portrait and quotation of himself, 42nd President Bill Clinton. Why not? Lincoln's quotation was inscribed under his portrait in the Lincoln Bedroom: "I did all that I could to the best of my ability."4 Why couldn't he hope for the same? Was he not the president of the world's sole superpower?
   But first, he had to solve the North Korea problem. All the great leaders throughout history had found some way to display their strength, cunning and will soon after taking power. This was true of the "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck, Friedrich, Hitler, and even Truman,5 who ordered the atomic bombings. And more recently: England's "Iron Lady" Thatcher unhesitatingly waged war over the Falklands, Reagan swallowed Panama in one gulp, Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan, Bush fought the Gulf War.. Without these bold acts, the shine would wear off of their crowns and they would soon be forgotten.
   This was Clinton's view of history and greatness. And he believed that history had assigned him the task of a "20th Century Fall of Troy." That which had bedeviled all previous US presidents - the conquest of North Korea - he, Bill Clinton, would achieve.
   However, he was beginning to sense that the conquest wouldn't be as easy as he had hoped. North Korea's hardline response had rattled him and left him feeling deeply uneasy.
   Hillary's whispered "Bill!" broke him from his reverie. As if waiting for an opening, Gore spoke, picking up the dropped thread of their conversation.
   "Mr. President, I think we need to take a strong stance on this, one befitting the world's most powerful nation. No matter what they do, we should stick to our original plan."
   He was obviously referring to "Operation Focus." Catching the gleam in Clinton's eye at his words, Gore too began to get excited.
   "The time is ripe. North Korea's hardline response gives us just the excuse we need to strike their nuclear facilities. This aggressive declaration, right at the time when they were supposed to open their nuclear facilities to the world - isn't this the golden opportunity we've been waiting for? Mr. President, Napoleon once said, 'The enemy commander was not incompetent. He was simply thinking of too many things at once.' So many past American presidents have made the same error: trying to think of too many things at once and losing their chance. Think about it. Johnson with the Pueblo incident, Nixon with the EC-121 incident, Ford with the Panmunjom incident. Each time they contemplated a massive retaliation, even moved forces into position, but then at the critical moment they overthought it. And what have we gained? Our allies have lost faith in America's ability to stand up to the communist bloc. We've been knocked on the head and humiliated by North Korea time and time again. We can't follow their lead."
   Clinton liked Gore's speech. It didn't matter that he had merely spoken aloud what everyone in the room already knew. After all, after 3,000 years of human history, there's nothing new under the sun. We're all just picking up the fragments of old thoughts, dusting them off and calling them our own.
   At length, Clinton spoke. "You're right. I think I'll go over to the Situation Room to review Operation Focus one more time."
   Clinton brightened and the table grew lively again as they began tucking in to the beer and sandwiches.
   It was at that moment that Tipper, who had been silent all this time, muttered quietly: "How can such a tiny country dare to stand up to the United States..."
   Gore laughed. "That's a question for a psychologist like you."
   "I'm thinking," said Tipper in her quiet but firm way. "Look at Israel. It's a tiny country too, but still they push us around. American presidents have always sworn to protect Israel, at any cost. Why is that?"
   Gore explained. "Isn't it obvious? It's because the Jewish lobby has America by the throat. They own most of the banks and insurance companies, and also control major scientific research institutes and the media. They wield absolute power in all financial and intellectual areas. They constantly boast about Marx, Freud and Einstein, and claim their race instigated all the great turning points in human history. Without the support of America's 6 million Jews, we couldn't do anything."
   "In that case," Tipper pressed on, "What's the basis of North Korea's power? What gives them influence over us? That's what I want to know."
   Gore glanced at Clinton, who had been following their exchange with interest. "Mr. President, the fact is that we don't know much about this country. The TV networks BBC and CNN have bureaus and correspondents scattered all over the globe, but they haven't been able to penetrate North Korea. From what I hear even the Japanese, right under their noses, have no idea. It's spooky."
   "People fear what they don't know," said Clinton. "The unknown always seems mysterious and spooky."
   "Fine!" Hillary cut in. "If we're going to dine on politics tonight, I'll do my part." She excused herself a moment and came back bearing a small book.
    "I found something interesting in this analysis by the British Defense Ministry's Center for Strategic Analysis. It hints at how the North Koreans are able to exert so much influence on the world." She opened to the spot she had bookmarked. "In the quiet village of Murare in Zimbabwe there is a minor, unknown newspaper company. One day a female reporter for this paper came across a big scoop. She had lived in this farming region for many years and had come to know all the people there. This tiny insignificant newspaper reported that some North Korean military advisers were to train Robert Mugabe's private army, the 5th Brigade. Suddenly this little no-name newspaper became world-famous. Robert Mugabe was furious. He called the reporter to the capital, interrogated her, and demanded that she resign.
   "Two years later, the 5th Brigade earned fame by ruthlessly repressing some reactionary forces. Thanks to the 5th Brigade, Mugabe was able to pacify the unrest and solidify his political base."
   Hillary closed the book. "It was just a handful of advisors. They didn't bring over any fancy new missile technology. No aircraft, no artillery, no tanks. And yet, with their training, this 5th Brigade was mightier than the dozens of units allied against them. And today, Zimbabwe remains one of the most politically stable countries in south central Africa."6
  The Gores seemed disquieted by Hillary's speech, but Clinton brushed it off. What he needed now was faith and courage, not tiresome reflection. "Let's not talk about North Korea any more. Whether they declare war or not, I'm inclined to just ignore them!"
---
   In the Situation Room, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Shalikashvili, and various officers were assembled awaiting the president.
The Clinton-era situation room
   It was a big square room, its walls covered with maps and TV screens, with swivel chairs laid out for the president and his advisors. Since Reagan's time the president had a specially constructed chair that allowed him to survey the room from a reclining position. Clinton sat in that chair and thought about how it was from this spot that Reagan had dreamed of his Star Wars, and Bush had reveled in the carnage of the Gulf War. One day soon, he would watch his Operation Focus unfold from this chair.
   He gestured for Aspin and Shalikashvili to sit nearby. "You've all heard North Korea declaration of quasi-war today," he said, swiveling idly in his chair. "What does it mean? I'm inclined to think that their hardline response suits our purposes. It allows us to move forward with Operation Focus without any obstacles. What do you think?"
   Clinton's tone implied that he expected not discussion but affirmation, and the two men spoke simultaneously: "That's right, Mr. President." "I concur, Mr. President."
   "Good, then let's review our progress."
   General Shalikashvili glanced across the table at Deputy Chief of the Army John Wilkson. He was a close associate of Clinton's and the chief architect of the plan.
   Lieutenant General Wilkson stepped forward. "Mr. President, the first stage of the operation is complete. If I could direct your attention to the monitors..." He fiddled with the remote control and suddenly an image of a lush tropical island filled the big screen.
   "This is Guam," Wilkson said. Viewed from the air, the island was a dense tropical jungle crisscrossed with roads, harbors and airstrips. It was clear that whoever had prepared this material for the president had poured considerable artistry into the production.
   Gazing at the land that he had never visited in person, Clinton recalled how Japan had seized the entire island the day after attacking Pearl Harbor, and how America had recaptured it over 20 days of ferocious fighting in 1944 during which 10,000 soldiers perished. Today Guam hosted a U.S. strategic air base and a naval base with Polaris missile-equipped nuclear submarines, part of the crescent of key strategic outposts in the western Pacific along with the Marshall and Caroline islands.
   "This is Anderson Air Base," Wilkson continued. "Right now our stealth bombers are departing for Air Base K47 (Ch'unch'on) in South Korea. Flight time is 3 hours 24 minutes, and they will evade radar detection until they reach K47. They will detect their targets and conduct an attack drill without support aircraft.
USAF F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
   "The F117-As will fly in a formation of three. The target has been set up to closely resemble Yongbyon plant. They've already run three successful attack drills."
   On the screen, the stealth fighters were launching missiles at imaginary targets labeled A, B, C, and D, which blew apart in rapid succession.
   Clinton couldn't tear his eyes from the screen. He had no doubt of the operation's effectiveness, but his attention was captivated by the feeling of watching a movie he himself had created.
   He loved the stealth fighters. It pleased him immensely to think that he had such powerful high-tech weapons at his disposal.
   Development of stealth fighters had begun in absolute secrecy 15 years ago as part of "Project Possibility 21BC," a futuristic vision of 21st century fighter aircraft, but the project had advanced faster than they could have dreamed. The military-industrial complex "Northrop" had been developing the project under strict control and surveillance at a factory in the southern California town of Palmdale.
   The aircraft's external surface was complex and irregular so as to disrupt radar and absorb radio signals, making it impossible for enemies to detect... It was this craft that allowed U.S. forces to destroy 31% of their strategic targets in Iraq within the first 24 hours of the Gulf War.
   There could be no doubt that these high-tech aircraft would annihilate North Korea's nuclear facilities instantaneously. So why did Clinton feel so uneasy? Was it all because of their recent statement, all but declaring war?
   Wilkson's presentation continued. On the screens appeared the carrier fleets from Yokosuka harbor in Japan and Apra Naval Base in Guam. Wilkson gave a detailed explanation for the military layperson president. Though Bill Clinton was the commander in chief of the U.S. military, he was not responsible for the detailed strategic planning; he need only give the command for war.
   When Wilkson finished his presentation and shut off the monitor, he spoke: "Is that all?"
   "Yes, sir!" the deputy chief answered.
   Clinton's anxiety was easing a bit, but he gave no sign. He shook his head slowly as if unsatisfied. The assembled officers exchanged uneasy looks. What more could he want? Had they not provided the highest precision technology, the best hand-picked pilots?
   "Without tactical success there can be no strategic gain," Clinton said, recalling a line from Clausewitz's Theory of War. "We must match North Korea's provocation by showing that we have set a ticking time bomb for actual war. Our B1B nuclear bombers, stealth bombers and aircraft carriers are not enough."
General Shalikashvili gives a presentation with Clinton, Gore
and the Joint Chiefs in attendance
   Seeing their confusion, he stood. "We have to show them that the nuclear time bomb is ticking. Do it secretly, but in a way that gets their attention - that's the only way to scare the strategic minds in a hardline communist state."
   At last the assembled defense officials saw what the president was asking for. Astonished, General Shalikaskvili spoke. "Yes, sir! I see how we must respond. I'll order Seoul to have C3I operational."
   Wilkson quickly threw up a map of Korea on the monitor and explained to placate the president.
   C3I, an acronym for Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence, is the strategic command system in the event of nuclear war. It encapsulates the systems for:
  1. ordering a nuclear strike
  2. targeting and conducting attacks
  3. collecting and transmitting intel to central command
  4. all other strategic military communications
   The U.S. had only two forward command centers for C3I: NATO headquarters in Western Europe, and Seoul in the Far East. Even during the Gulf War there was no need for such a top-secret system.
   Clinton was satisfied. He felt the respect for his military acumen in all the officers' eyes. Joking around with the officers, he suddenly felt the urge to go out for a fast drive or a round of golf.
   But alas, it was the middle of the night, and he still had a pile of work to do. America's economic headaches, trade frictions with Japan, the Russia problem, Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and the Middle East... altogether, he hadn't had a good night's sleep since his swearing-in. But his newfound faith in Operation Focus had lifted his spirits. When C3I became operational, how would the North Korean supreme commander react? According to a report he read from the Kim Jong Il Research Center, a think tank established during the Bush administration, Kim Jong Il's military leadership style was characterized by:

  1. accurate judgment
  2. firm decisiveness
  3. merciless strikes against chosen targets

   But today, with the most powerful military hardware and nuclear weapons in history at his disposal, the situation was different. He was certain of it.
   "How long until we attack?"
   "Eleven days left, sir!" came Shalikashvili's reply.
   "Hmmm." He cracked his knuckles. In just 11 days, the world would be in for a big surprise. "Very good," he grinned. "I think I'll just ignore it then!"
   The assembled officials looked confused, having no idea what he was referring to. Clinton himself seemed unaware that he was repeating his earlier words in response to the North Korean declaration.


Notes

1. From the biographical details given, "David" in this story is clearly David Gergen. It is unclear why the text neglects to give his last name; this could be a coy way of avoiding specificity or it could reflect North Korean confusion about how surnames work in English. In the previous excerpt, Clinton's adviser "Tommy" McClarty was given the same treatment, although his full name was given upon first reference. President Clinton is always "Clinton," but Mrs. Clinton is always "Hillary." Al Gore is "Gore" and Tipper Gore is "Tipper."

2. "Operation Focus" (포커스작전) was also mentioned in the previous excerpt. In the novel, this is the code name for Clinton's secret plan to stage an invasion of North Korea, using the Team Spirit exercises as cover to assemble the combined forces. It's a matter of conjecture how the author came up with this name. Interestingly, the same code name was used for the surprise Israeli missile strike against Egypt which started the Six-Day War in 1967.

3. The Korean translation of Baudelaire in the story is actually extremely rough.  I used the William Aggeler translation once I figured out which poem they were reciting. For those who are interested, here is how the verses appeared in the story:
그 무엇도 너만 못하구나
오 그윽한 술잔이여

너는 나에게 부어주더라
희망과 젊음과 사랑을
너는 우리를 승리자로 만들더라
신과 같이 되게 하더라!
And here is the original French:
Tout cela ne vaut pas, ô bouteille profonde,
Les baumes pénétrants que ta panse féconde
Garde au coeur altéré du poète pieux;
Tu lui verses l'espoir, la jeunesse et la vie,
— Et l'orgueil, ce trésor de toute gueuserie,
Qui nous rend triomphants et semblables aux Dieux!
4. The John Adams quote is actually inscribed on the mantel in the White House dining room, though not in gold. I couldn't find the exact quotes from Lincoln and Napoleon, so I just translated them verbatim.
Nazi propaganda card showing Frederick the Great,
Bismarck and Hitler

5. The four leaders Clinton admires are listed in the order given: Bismarck, Friedrich, Hitler, and Truman. By "Friedrich" I assume the author refers to Frederick the Great. The three German leaders were famously depicted together in Nazi propaganda.

6. The North Korean military's role in training Mugabe's 5th Brigade has been reported widely. North Korean advisors also helped to train Uganda's military in the 1980s.


Clinton's motivation

This is the second excerpt we've seen that shows President Clinton's sense of competition with past presidents and world leaders and his need to achieve personal greatness as president. The novel repeatedly emphasizes fame as the major driving force behind Clinton's determination to invade North Korea. It is somewhat intriguing that Chŏng works so hard to convince the North Korean reader of why an American president would want to attack their country.

This excerpt goes a bit further in explaining the U.S. president's role commander in chief and suggesting that Clinton, as a "military layperson president" (군사작전에 문외한인 대통령), has a bit of an inferiority complex toward the Joint Chiefs. Even prior to the sŏngun (military-first) era, North Koreans had no concept of civilian command over the military, having always had a military commander as their head of government.

Women as voices of reason

The wives in this story play important roles in softening their husbands' pride and bloodthirstiness. Tipper Gore in particular is a sympathetic character, asking questions about North Korea's power that nobody else seems to have pondered. Hillary Clinton displays bookishness, bossiness and a respect for the underdog in global military affairs.  Bill Clinton and Al Gore both come off as rather patronizing and dismissive of their wives' words of warning.

This portrayal of female characters resembles that already seen by Hillary Clinton in the previous excerpt and by Rosalynn Carter in "Maehok." All good fiction writers know that putting too many scheming bad guys in a room together can be boring; there has to be somebody with a modicum of humanity and common sense so that the really evil guys can have someone to argue with in their secret lair. In North Korean depictions of the U.S. government, the wives of the leaders seem to be appointed this role.

Regional politics

Another thing worth noting is how these stories make reference to north-south regional enmity in U.S. politics. In "Maehok," Jimmy Carter took pride in being the first southern President since the Civil War; in this story Clinton and Gore bonded over being southern. I don't know what to make of this, but it's compelling to think it may be an echo of the embedded regional rivalries that play such an important role in Korean politics.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Hanŭl gwa ddang, pada" (하늘과 땅, 바다): North Korea joins the space race

"Hanŭl gwa ddang, pada" (Sky, Land and Sea) is a short story by Chŏng Ki Jong that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in 2015. The story depicts the events leading to the launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite/ICBM in April 2009.

Chŏng, author of the novel Ryŏksa ŭi Taeha reviewed previously in this blog, passed away in 2016. As one of North Korea's most famous chroniclers of the previous leaders' exploits, it was symbolically important that he was able to pen a story about the new leader before passing away. Chŏng never disappoints; this story features more fascinating glimpses of the U.S. leadership in action.

The Plot

The story opens as Kim Jong Un steps out of his car one early spring day to pick some azaleas blooming on a ridge by the roadside. The flowers remind him of his mother, who had always loved azaleas as a sign of spring. As the old children's song "Mother" runs through his head, KJU begins speaking to the azalea sprig as if it was his late mother.
Young KJU planting a tree with his mother. Src: Namu Wiki
"Mother! I was rushing to the front when I spotted these azaleas blooming, and I had to stop the car."
Whatever happens, happy or sad,
We always run to Mother first
"Mother, the enemy is stirring the clouds of war again, and the General gave me the task of firmly crushing any attempt to intercept our satellites. So I was just on my way with a cadre from the Supreme Command - oh, but you know him well, it's Kim Ha Chŏn - we're on our way to visit the Strategic Rocket Command."
Her children give their all for the Fatherland
And Mother is forever proud
"Oh mother! If the bastards fire even one shot on our satellite, I swear I will mercilessly crush their strongholds. And I'll be sure to tell you the good news of our victory. Just wait, Mother!"
Smiling, he carries the sprig down the hill and rejoins his companion, KPA Deputy Chief of Staff Kim Ha Chŏn [possibly Kim Kyŏk Shik or Kim Myŏng Kuk].

KJU confidently steers the car down a dangerous river road. A startled Kim Ha Chŏn asks where they're headed, and KJU casually replies, "Since we've come this far, I thought we'd drop by the 503rd Air Base and see comrade Han Se Woong." Kim Ha Chŏn's brow wrinkles in consternation. He has a long-standing beef with Han, whom he considers a cocksure show-off (멋따기나 좋아하는).

KJU grins at Kim Ha Chŏn's discomfited reaction to the name. "Surely a decorated officer can forgive something that happened so long ago!" He shifts gears up a steep grade.

Ha Chŏn replies, "I cannot. Respected general, no matter how much time has passed, some things can never be forgiven."

Flash back to years ago.
KIS Military University auditorium hall.
Src: People's Daily
   While studying at Kim Il Sung Military University, one day in class Han Se Woong complained loudly about the military history curriculum, saying it was all stuff they had already learned in revolutionary history lectures. It was just a flippant remark made without thinking, but Comrade Kim Jong Un could not let it pass.
   "Nothing new to learn?" He growled. "How much could you know of military history, to make such a statement? How can you spout off like that, when you clearly don't even know the meaning of the word?!" Then, glaring at Han Se Woong with blazing eyes, He told them that the General [KJI] had taught Him that military history must cover all aspects of the military arts: all the techniques of commanders for organizing, planning and leading armed conflict.
   He continued, "The tactics developed by our Great Leader [KIS] through long years on the battlefield are complete, exhaustive, independently developed tactics. Then the General [KJI] further developed the Juche Tactics (주체전법) created by the Great Leader. We must follow these Juche Tactics to fight and defeat our enemies. And then this novice who's just entered school acts like he already knows all the profound tactics of the Great Leader and the General?"
   At the end of this harsh speech, Han Se Woong was shaking like a leaf. Han Se Woong, who prided himself in his extraordinary intellect, who had effortlessly mastered Engels' thesis on violence, Lenin's thesis on armed conflict, Clausewitz' thesis on war and even the tactics of the American invasion commanders, now hung his head in shame and despair, fidgeting with the buttons on his uniform. "I was just boasting, I don't even know the first principles of military arts. Forgive me!"
KJU forgives him with a warning. However, upon hearing about the incident, Kim Ha Chŏn rushes to find Han Se Woong and berates him mercilessly, unloading a stream of classic North Korean imprecations. In the midst of this tirade we discover that Kim is Han's father-in-law.

Although he had cared deeply for his son-in-law and thought him a fine young man, after this incident he severed all ties with him. When his daughter came crying and begging forgiveness, he sent her away. But recently his daughter has been ailing; just two days ago, he learned that she had been hospitalized in serious condition at the KPA General Hospital and required heart surgery. She'd told her mother that if only her father would forgive her husband, she knew she would recover. But Kim Ha Chŏn held firm.

KJU touring airforce corps 1016 in March 2015
Src: Chosun Shinbo
KJI and Kim Ha Chŏn arrive at the 503rd Air Base and learn that Commander Han Se Woong is leading his team on a night flying drill. They are surprised that the commander himself is leading such a dangerous, high-precision exercise.

They watch the fighters land crisply in order; Han Se Woong disembarks and rushes to greet the leader. KJU inquires how they can possibly hit their targets in the dark and thick fog. True to his nature, Han cockily replies that his team could hit their target with their eyes closed. As Kim Ha Chŏn rolls his eyes, KJU responds "Confidence is very good, but your target can constantly change. It's not fixed. At times, your target won't be what you expected; you will need to be aware of not only your assigned target but everything in the sky, land and sea (하늘과 땅, 바다)."

The three men walk over to the command center. KJU listens as Han Se Woong gives a detailed report on the movements of the U.S. 7th Air Force 35th and 51st Wings at Osan, the 8th Wing at Kunsan, the USAF 5th in Osaka, and even the Japanese SDF's 6th (Komatsu), 3rd (Misawa), and 4th (Matsushima) Corps. Han's cocky self-assurance annoys Kim Ha Chŏn. Does the lad think they're playing a game of military trivia? They are preparing for war!

But KJU seems pleased at Han's report and praises him. Then he gives him a lecture on how, as a commander, it is not enough to just be brave and doughty; he must be prepared to "seize the opportunity" to strike the enemy when it counts most (적들에게 강타를 안길수 있는 타격의 기회).
   "You studied at Kim Il Sung Military University, so I'm sure you know it well already," He said, hands moving rapidly to indicate various points on the map. "But in a war, opportunity does not always present itself to you. See here, the Yanks and Japs and their south Korean puppet friends who are threatening to shoot down our satellites. Do you know how massive their forces are? What can we do to demolish such a massive force in a single blow (일격에 타격소멸)? Never forget, opportunity comes and goes in an instant. It's just one time in a thousand! Being decisive in the moment, evaluating all the surrounding conditions and seizing the opportunity - this is fundamental!  ...
KJU picking targets like a boss. Src: Sky News
   "Most of all, we must learn from how the Fatherly Leader (KIS) commanded our troops in the liberation of Taejŏn and other battles, and how, when our enemies were stirring up a nuclear ruckus (핵소동) and clamoring for war in the '90s, the Great General (KJI) declared a state of quasi-war (준전시상태) and withdrew from the NPT. They knew how to turn adversity to advantage (역경을 순경으로). All our commanders must be thoroughly steeped in Juche tactics so that they can instantly grasp any situation that arises and strike at the enemy's softest point."
Having finished this speech, KJU steps outside with Kim and Han. Changing the subject, he suddenly asks after Han's ailing wife. Kim is stunned that the Leader somehow knows of his daughter's hospitalization; hadn't he firmly instructed his family not to breathe a word of it?

KJU says he knows they think there's no time for family stuff, but they're wrong. "How can love of family be a minor detail? It's the most important thing. It's where love of country begins. Never forget - if we go to war, we must do it with great love in our hearts."

Reaching the car, KJU rummaged in a briefcase and pulled out a single X-ray chart. "I asked the surgeon for a copy... See here, the microvascular change in her aorta shows very clearly. The doctor is confident the surgery will go well.... Well, look at it!" But Han Se Woong cannot bear to look. Even Kim Ha Chŏn gets queasy at the sight of the turbulent channel carrying his daughter's life blood.

Later, at 11pm:

At a meeting of the Central Military Command, with KJI in attendance, KJU is giving a detailed analysis of political and military developments in the region. Saying they will shoot down any North Korean satellite, the enemy has moved a flotilla into open waters in the Korean East Sea, including two Aegis Destroyers of the U.S. 7th Fleet, two missile-equipped Japanese SDF destroyers the Kongō and the Chōkai, and the south Korean puppets' navy ship the King Sejong. KJU gives a detailed account of recent movements at all enemy bases in south Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii, as well as an analysis of the strategic and tactical tendencies of all the US top military minds, including the president and the secretary of defense.
   U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama.
   Yesterday, Obama crossed the Atlantic in his plane Air Force One. On this trip, most attention has been focused on his speech in Prague, Czech Republic, on the subject of "A world without nuclear weapons." But internally, he is more concerned with the urgent matter of North Korea's satellite launch. Just before leaving for Europe, he got a question about it from a Reuters reporter during a Rose Garden press conference.
   His reply: "No matter how great the threat from North Korea's missiles, our will to face them is stronger. No matter how grave the provocation from North Korea, our resolve to crush it is greater and more formidable."
   "What do you mean," An AFP reporter cut in, "when you say 'our resolve is greater and more formidable'? Are you talking about nukes?"
   Obama, who is renowned as an orator, carefully avoided the word "nuclear" in his reply: "We've already sent a clear message to North Korea. We will crush the North Korean missile launch by the fist of God [신의 주먹]." This phrase comes from one of Obama's favorite movies, "The Hurricane," when the black boxer Rubin says "I'll knock out the evil in the world with these iron fists." [note: I cannot find any quote like this in the actual movie]  Now the global media is all aflutter speculating that "fist of god" refers to nuclear weapons.
****
   U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
   When the Soviet Union collapsed, this man went to Russia and walked across Red Square thinking to himself, "I'm having my own private military parade." He has a reputation for jokes and rash acts. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he proclaimed: "North Korea says they have already succeeded in putting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on an ICBM. This means the mainland U.S. is now within range of North Korea's nuclear missiles. This means we must do everything within our power to stop their missile launches, including a pre-emptive nuclear strike."
****
   U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Timothy Keating is a raging war-monger who calls himself the "God of War."
   "I've already passed the order to US PACOM Navy and Air Force commanders to go to 'DEFCON-3'. The moment North Korea launches its missiles, that order goes into effect."
   DEFCON-3 refers to the order to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The whole world already knows this, so it is hardly a secret.
   The Great General [KJI], who had been listening to the report in silence, quietly spoke.
   "So, they're determined to attack our satellite?"
   "Yes, that's right."
   "And they're preparing for war?"
   "Yes, they're desperate to avoid being defeated by us once again."
   "And once again, the worst of it's coming from the south Korean puppets and the Japs?"
   "Yes, but for all their yammering there's nothing worth repeating."
   The General chortled, and then the whole assembly burst into raucous laughter. Comrade Kim Jong Un's words clearly conveyed his contempt and mockery toward the southern puppets and the Japs, who were no more than dogs yapping about the skirts of their American mistress.
   "The question is," Comrade Kim Jong Un continued, "have the US president and top military brass finally decided to jump into the cauldron of nuclear war, or are they just threatening us? ... Even though our Joint Command declared that any interception of the missile will be considered an act of war, still they persist in their arrogance. So, we really have only one choice. As the General said, the enemy is not the only one with the option of a pre-emptive strike."
"The MiG-29 is North Korea’s most formidable and
modern aircraft, but Pyongyang has only a handful of jets."
Src: The National Interest
They decide to instruct all army, navy and AF units to make preparations to strike at enemy bases throughout region at a moment’s notice, if there is the slightest hint of a strike against the satellite launch. In addition, KJU proposes mobilizing the airforce to conduct an attack drill over the East Sea, where the enemy fleet is deployed. That way, if the enemy makes the slightest twitch toward an attack, the fighters will be in place and ready to sink the whole fleet into the sea.

(At this point in the story, it is worth noting that the North Korean air force's most advanced fighter is the MiG-29).

KJI thinks this is a fantastic plan and gives his approval. KJU suggests that Han Se Woong lead the squadron.

10:30 AM, April 5, 2009

It's a warm spring day without a cloud in the sky. KJU and KJI arrive at the launch command center. KJU holds his cellphone close at hand; from this one phone he can command all divisions of the KPA, including Han Se Woong's squadron that is even now hovering over the East Sea, ready to attack the enemy fleet at a moment's notice. He keeps a grim eye trained on the enemy's movements.
   The enemies were in an uproar.
   In Prague, U.S. President Obama stood before a great crowd gathered in the central square surrounded by stately old structures and delivered a speech proclaiming U.S. leadership in a grand epoch-making effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons. No sooner had his speech concluded than he was handed a dispatch on North Korea. The satellite launch was imminent. A squadron of North Korean fighter jets were conducting a very realistic attack drill in the airspace above the allied flotilla of destroyers in the Korean East Sea. What should be done? Should they shoot down the fighter jets first?
   Flustered, Obama rushed to the communications room at the U.S. Embassy and called up the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, asking them to send encrypted telegrams explaining what they thought North Korea was up to.
   Their answers:
   "North Korea already declared that any interception of their satellite will be considered an 'act of war'. They are demonstrating that that was not an idle threat." (Secretary of Defense)
   "They're watching for an opportunity. They may even want us to attempt an intercept. This aerial attack drill is their way of telling us that. Their missiles are ready and trained on our tactical assets. They may have submarines lurking underneath our fleet, awaiting orders to attack." (Chairman of Joint Chiefs)
   The telegram from the US PACOM commander was uncommonly belligerent: "Intercepting the satellite launch is practically impossible. Instead we should do a pre-emptive strike against their launch site, major cities and key military posts. We can fire hundreds of cruise missiles at once. And our nuclear submarines are already in the area, awaiting the DEFCON 3 order."
   Obama couldn't help gnashing his teeth at the stupidity of PACOM Commander Keating's response. "No, that's unacceptable! Unacceptable, I say!" he screamed at the embassy's CIA comms officer. "Order them to terminate the operation immediately. Our carriers and destroyers are to stand down and not interfere with the North Korean tactical attempt. If the missile launches, track it and report it without a fuss!"
  It was classic Obama expediency [역시 오바마다운 림기응변].
North Korea's Launch Control Center, April 2009.
Src: KCNA via Yonhap
KJI surveyed the command center, with its big screen at the front and neat rows of computers and communications equipment on each side. The  young scientists and technicians were brimming with excitement at the Leader's presence and anxiety over the possible enemy interception. KJI asked them many questions about the design, the solar panels, the materials, and the physics, even though of course he knew it all already.

Moving to a map of the region, KJI took a pointer and drew a circle over Japanese airspace. "This space here is what the Japs are most worried about. Right? That's why they're fussing and frittering about interceptions. But I've instructed the General here [KJU] to prepare a devastating counterattack if they make any attempt at an intercept. So don't worry, comrades, and just go about your duties."

At 11:19 AM,  KPA Vice Marshal Kim Kwang Hyŏk [probably Kim Yong Chun] appears on the small screen to announce that all is ready, and the Leader gives the order to launch. A moment later the countdown sounds over the sound system: "Five, four, three, two, one - Launch!" 
   With a great roar, the Unha-2 carrier rocket leaves the platform in a pillar of fire. The entire room, which had been holding its breath, erupts in ecstatic cheers. On the map screen, the red line of the rocket moves smoothly along its assigned path - and then stops abruptly.
   The General turns to Comrade Kim Jong Un in alarm. "What happened? Was it intercepted?" Comrade Kim Jong Un's eyes blaze with anger. He lifts his phone. If it's been intercepted, now is the moment to order the merciless counterstrike. Then it will be full-on war. A merciless war, that will set all of sky, land and sea ablaze at once!
   Just then a Science Ministry aide urgently whispers, "General!" and points at the screen. The red line has begun moving again. At the same instant, Vice Marshal Kim Kwang Hyŏk appears on the small screen.
Related image
The Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 launch at Musudan-ri, April 5, 2009.
Src: AP
   "General! We've just received a signal from our patrol boat out on the East Sea!"
   A sigh of relief sweeps the room.  The signal from the East Sea ship traveled to the Musudan receiver instantaneously!
   The red line of the rocket continues to travel along the control map's blue path, moving now across Japanese airspace. The first stage separation occurs, followed by the second stage. Finally the Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellite separates and enters orbit. The whole process took only 9 minutes and 2 seconds from the launch. Breathtaking joy! The strains of the revolutionary songs "Song of General Kim Il Sung" and "Song of General Kim Jong Il" sound over the loudspeaker.
   "Success!" Everyone leaps from their seat, crying "Manse! Manse! Manse!"
The Leader roundly congratulates everyone and honors the whole team with a commemorative group photo. Everyone wants KJU to be in the picture, but he humbly refuses.

KJI remarks, "What pleases me most is the fact that all the scientists and technicians who took part in building and launching this rocket are young, in their 20s to 40s." He adds that he feels certain that the Fatherly Leader (KIS) was watching over the launch from his resting place in Kŭmsusan Memorial Hall.

Official KCNA photo of KJI with officials and team at launch control on
April 5, 2009. Note KJU is conspicuously absent (perhaps he was the one
taking the picture?).
Src: Hangyoreh
A young cadre sheepishly remarks that he was too worried about a possible enemy intercept to think of the Fatherly Leader. KJI blithely replies, "If the enemy had tried to intercept our satellite, they would surely have been terrified by the merciless counterstrike our General (KJU) had planned. Truly, he displayed extraordinary military knowledge and tactical brilliance, not to mention guts and courage under fire. Truly a general among generals!"

KJU didn't hear this, as he was talking gravely with someone on his phone. Suddenly he broke into a smile. "I see. Thanks for telling me the good news."

No one could have known that at that moment he was receiving the news of the successful surgery on Kim Ha Chŏn's daughter, whose husband Han Se Woong had only moments before been staring down death in the skies over the East Sea.

The story ends with KJU once again clutching the azalea sprig and speaking to his late mother, telling her the good news of the successful launch.

April 2009 Missile Launch

It's been sort of lost in the sands of time after the endless stream of more successful launches in recent years, but the April 2009 missile launch was a big deal for North Korea. It was unusual in the degree to which the North announced and promoted the launch before it happened, hoping to attract foreign buyers for its missile technology. This left them vulnerable to greater embarrassment if the launch should fail - which it did. More recent launches have returned to the pattern of being conducted as stealthily as possible.

But the launch was effective in a different way - it established beyond doubt the toothlessness of all the regional powers, including the US and China, toward North Korea's missile development. The advance notice gave them all abundant time make their displeasure known and articulate dire consequences for North Korea, and yet the launch proceeded nonetheless. It was also the first big test from North Korea for the Obama administration.

Recall that at that time the Six-Party-Talks were freshly dead and there was still hope that they might be revived. So far North Korea had only doneN one nuclear test, the dud in 2006. It would conduct its second, far more successful, nuclear test one month later on May 25, 2009.

In April 2009, KJU was more than a year away from being formally designated successor, and it is impossible to know how much involvement he actually had in the launch operation. But it is interesting to note that, with this story, the Party has apparently chosen this failed launch as something to attach to his legacy. The North Korean media, of course, reported that the launch was successful and that the satellite is now in stable orbit, beaming patriotic songs across the universe.

The NYT has a good recap of the lead-up to and fallout from the launch. The names of the U.S., Japanese and ROK destroyers in the flotilla are listed accurately in the story. Needless to say, no North Korean fighter jets were reported in the skies over the fleet that day.

KJU's Mother Ko Yong Hŭi

This is the first story I've read that mentions KJU's late mother, Ko Yong Hŭi, who was KJI's third or fourth wife (depending on which marriages you count) and died of cancer in 2004.

Ko Yong Hŭi
According to Yonhap, a propaganda film about Ko was produced in North Korea in 2011 and aired in 2012, entitled "The Great Mother of Sŏngun, Ko Yong Hŭi." The azalea theme can be seen in this film as well. However, according to prominent defector Kang Myŏng-do, the film was probably intended for viewing only by upper level cadres and military officers, not the general public. I was unable to find it on North Korea's official Youtube channel. There is no record of her being officially mentioned or acknowledged as KJI's wife in North Korean media prior to her son's ascension, and notably this story does not mention her by name or offer any biographical details.

According to Kang, the main reasons why Ko is given a low profile are: 1) She was never formally married to KJI or approved by his father; 2) She was a famous dancer and some people might recognize her from old movies; 3) She was born in Japan.


Fast & Furious: Pyongyang Drift

KJU piloting a North Korean plane
This is the third time we've seen Kim Jong Un take the wheel when he feels the need for speed (he drove twice in A Promise of Fire). Each time, he is accompanied by a nervous cadre who clutches the handle and begs him to slow down. This seems to be a part of his unique hagiography, setting him apart from his father and grandfather. One of the earliest pieces of North Korean propaganda about him to find its way South was the claim that he could drive a car when he was three years old. North Korean state media has regularly shown him behind the wheel in tanks, fighter planes, boats and other vehicles.

For more details and adorable photos of young KJU see this YTN clip.

UPDATE: KAF pilot killed in maneuvers?

Several months after translating this story, I came across the following article: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/12/116_174525.html.
Apparently in March 2015, around the same time this story was written, North Korean media reported about KJU bestowing a posthumous honor on a fighter pilot who died in scouting reconnaissance maneuvers a day prior to the 2009 launch. At the same time, Kim also honored 13 surviving flyers of KAF Unit 447 with the title "Hero of the Republic" for their role in the launch. There is very little information about how the KAF was involved in the launch preparations or how the one pilot died. However, the timing of this report, six years after the event and coinciding with Chong's story, adds an interesting wrinkle. Why did KJU choose to honor the pilots six years after the event? And why did this story, published in the same year by North Korea's most famous living writer, devote so much attention to the Air Force pilot character? We can only speculate at what the connection might be.




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.
Src: dprktoday.com

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.
Src: rfa.org
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.