Thursday, January 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

Story Summary

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

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

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

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

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

His defeat brought back unwelcome memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership Material

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

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

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

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

Symbolism of the Night Path

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

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

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

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

National Sports Frenzy

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

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

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

NK's Alternative Soil Technologies

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Linkfest 2018: Tooting My Own Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kim Ju-sŏng on writing fiction in North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The KWU Hierarchy 

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

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

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

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

Pathways for Aspiring Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea's Literary Production 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korean Writers' Union Editors

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

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

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

Other interesting tidbits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reforestation Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Jong Il Patriotism

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

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

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