Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Black Blood" (Part 2): The Fate of Japan's Last Good Man

This post covers the second part of the story "Black Blood: From a Japanese Reporter's Notebook" (흑혈: 한 일본인기자의 수기중에서) by Choe Su Bŏm, which appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2018. Part One can be read here. The story is set in Tokyo, alternating between the present day and colonial era.

We pick up where we left off last month, as the narrator, a Japanese "progressive reporter" for Asahi Shimbun, has just read a section of his grandfather's diary describing atrocities perpetrated by Japanese against Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Story Summary (continued)

Just as he sets down the diary, there's a knock on the door. It's the reporter's old friend, Ri Ra Song, a writer for Chosŏn Shinbo

Front page of Choson Shinbo, a pro-Pyongyang
newspaper published by Chongryon
Ri had been a key mentor and source, providing invaluable material evidence of collusion between colonial era war criminals and the Japanese Far Right. That article had vaulted him out of obscurity to become one of Japan’s most highly-regarded progressive reporters. Ri had also provided reliable evidence to counter the anti-Chongryon lobbying effort last March, helping cement the reporter’s reputation as an objective authority free from ideological and nationalist biases.

Without mentioning his earlier encounter with Ozawa, the reporter presses Ri for fresh scoops. Ri obligingly dishes that there's another plot in the works by the Japanese government and far-right groups to trump up yet more charges against Chongryon. Handing over a stack of documentary evidence, Ri says, “I know your pen won’t rest until you’ve seen this through to the end.”

“You can count on it,” the reporter replies. 

After Ri departs, the reporter examines the evidence with growing agitation. It makes it abundantly clear that Ozawa’s “evidence” was a pure fabrication. Still, something makes him hesitate to take up his pen.

He picks up his grandfather's diary again.

  ---Grandfather’s diary---
   It was just after the war’s end; Tokyo had been reduced to rubble by American bombs, and everyone was starving. We Japanese, who had once tramped over all of East Asia and the Pacific, had been transformed from “masters of the East” to human hyenas picking through the Americans’ trash. Our fangs, which had once chewed on the rich fat of “Greater East Asia,” now gnashed on American excrement, trailing thick ropy saliva. By the by, it’s a wonder how we islanders have survived with such messed-up teeth....
Having lost everything to the firebombs, the grandfather went in search of his son and only surviving child Suzuki (스즈끼), who'd been drafted into the war. He heard the boy had been stationed on a remote northern island, and so he traveled to a miserable little fishing port in Hokkaido where any returning troops would surely dock.

One day he spotted a ragged, skeletal pair coming up the rocky shoreline. Their uniforms hung in tatters like shrouds, and the taller one was all but carrying the shorter one. 
Japanese soldiers returning after WWII surrender

They begged him for food, but he had none. Crazed, the shorter one brandished his weapon and wailed "Give us something to eat, old man, or we’ll chew on you!” 

As he brandished his gun, the tall one held him back, saying “Stop, Suzuki, what are you doing?” At those words, the grandfather looked closer and recognized his son Suzuki. 

Father and son embraced, but Suzuki was still delirious and ranting about food. His companion, a peasant lad from Okinawa named Nomura, explained that they'd been adrift for days and were nearly dead from starvation.

Then Suzuki spotted a dog tied up outside the village chief's home across the street. After a brief struggle with his comrade, he lifted his gun and fired on the dog. Tragically, just at that moment, the village chief's 8-year-old son ran around from behind the house and into the line of fire. The bullet pierced the boy's heart and killed him instantly.

At the sound of the shot, an angry mob of villagers came boiling out. Suzuki tried to flee, but the villagers quickly surrounded both soldiers. With fire in his eyes, the village chief snatched up his katana. “Who did it? Who fired the shot?”

A quick-thinking Suzuki pointed the finger at his comrade Nomura. He got the villagers on his side by claiming that Nomura was "not a pure Yamato" but rather "a filthy Okinawan dog." In the end it came down to the only other eye-witness, the grandfather, who sided with his son and allowed the villagers to butcher the hapless Nomura.

---End grandfather’s diary---

The reporter gets a call from Ozawa, asking if he's finished writing up the Chongryon mushroom story yet. He informs him that at dawn, the Joint Investigation Bureau plans to arrest two executives of Korean Foodstuffs Import Company Ltd.
   “That’s right! Let’s show them what this 'nation of laws' is all about. The order has already gone out to every newspaper and broadcaster. You can bet Asahi Shimbun won’t want to miss out on this scoop. Better write fast. ‘Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested!’ will make a nice splashy headline. Rip ‘em to shreds, Chongryon and the Republic both.”
The reporter hesitates, conflicted. Suddenly he recalls how Ri had stood up for him several years ago, when Ozawa was trying to silence him through blackmail. Ozawa's gang had fabricated photos showing him taking bribes from Chongryon's director and sleeping with prostitutes. They were going to publicly slander him as a sex addict who sold his pen for cash.

The two men had gone to face Ozawa together.

“So, you think to gamble with your lives?” Ozawa smirked, flanked left and right by yakuza thugs brandishing deadly weapons.

Ri shrugged. “You’re the ones who are into gambling. I have Chongryon and the Republic at my back. I have the power of truth and righteousness. Listen well. If you release these disgusting photos, I'll expose the connections between your Far Right forces and the yakuza." Ozawa had no choice but to abandon the plot.

Ri had saved his reputation; how can he now betray him?

But then in his mind's eye he sees the pile of money Ozawa had promised and remembers his threats. He agonizes for a long time, but ultimately decides that "No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins."

The story ends with him sitting down to type: “Chongryon Chairman’s Son Arrested! Chongryon a Criminal Org….”

Japan's Minorities

This story segment follows a longstanding North Korean tradition of zooming in on minority ill-treatment in foreign countries. For instance, as the grandfather's diary describes the northern fishing village where he awaited his son Suzuki's return, he makes a point of mentioning that "The Emishi people (Japanese aboriginals) who had once lived there had long ago been driven off by the Japanese."

The treatment of the "Okinawan peasant" Nomura  is even more illuminating. As the villagers surround the two soldiers and demand to know who fired the fatal shot:
   A peculiar smile crossed my son's face. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t shoot him! It was that son-of-a-bitch, that guy over there.” He waved his hands frantically. “He’s not a pure Yamato. He’s a filthy Okinawan dog!”
   Even I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by this spectacular delusion. Okinawa had been absorbed into Japan over a century ago. There was nobody, even among the Okinawans themselves, who still believed they were not Japanese. But Suzuki’s desperate words, spoken with the sword over his head, had a spectacular effect. Just as a son of a concubine is not a true son of the emperor, the Okinawans were not true-blooded descendants of Amaterasu Omikami but only a bastard offshoot.
   “The Okinawan dog killed a Japanese child,” he cried, pleading with the crowd. My son’s familiar features had twisted into the exact same fawning supplicant expression I’d seen so many years ago on Ishikawa’s face....
   The village chief seized Nomura by the collar. “Is it true? Are you a Ryukyu bastard? Did you kill my boy?”
   Nomura suddenly shouted. “That’s right, I’m Okinawan. And I’m a fool who believed I could be every bit as Japanese as you. I went off to war with you, boasting of the Yamato spirit, invading other lands, dragging blameless Koreans back for slave labor, burying them in secret mines on remote islands. My hands are covered in blood. And what do I get for it? I get to be Japanese when it’s useful, and when it’s not I’m just a Ryukyu dog. That’s the real Japanese spirit; jackals who don’t hesitate to gobble up your compatriots to save your own skin.”
   He turned his crazed eyes to me. “You, old man, you saw the whole thing, didn’t you? Speak up. Prove that some island folk have a shred of humanity.”
   I looked at him and thought about Chŏng Sam and Ishikawa; about the evil black blood flowing in my son’s body. I realized that he’d inherited it from me, as I’d inherited it from the long line of my ancestors. And suddenly it seemed appropriate that Nomura, who’d taken such pride in being Japanese but been betrayed by his impure blood, should meet his death on Japanese soil.
   His blood on the rocky shale looked almost black.
An Okinawan family in the 1900s.
Src: Taiwan News
In the past North Korean propaganda has often highlighted racial injustices in the West, particularly in America. These passages indicate an interest in Japan's minority policies as well. 

On top of the treatment of the hang-wae character Ishikawa in the earlier installment, this story puts together an image of minorities in Japan striving to fit in and prove their Japanese-ness, even as the pure-blooded Japanese disparage and mistreat them. The Japanese characters, by contrast, seem simultaneously proud of and disgusted by their own "black blood."

Problematic Japanese Narrator

This story really illuminates a key shortcoming in socialist realism: that it cannot depict an unreliable or dishonest narrator. This helps explain why North Korean stories so rarely take a foreigner's point of view. Recall how Ryŏksa ui Taeha showed the Clintons expressing grudging admiration for their North Korean adversary and disgust with their own devious tactics. Similarly, Maehok took First Lady Rosalyn Carter's point of view and showed her honest disappointment in her husband's weakness as contrasted with the greatness of the Great Leader. 

In this story, you can sense how the author struggles to frame believable motivations for the two Japanese narrators, without exposing them as virtuous or good. The result is that both the reporter and his diarist grandfather appear to struggle but ultimately succumb to their own evil natures, simply because they cannot escape their genetic destiny.

For example, after reading of the shooting incident in the fishing village, the reporter/narrator closes his grandfather's diary and thinks:
   What an extraordinary story, told by a common Japanese.
   Or was it a common story, told by an extraordinary Japanese?
   I felt that my grandfather’s character – his capacity for remorse and self-awareness, for seeing faults as faults – was really unusual in this land whose folk praise betrayal and shamelessness as features of the national character. I had little doubt that incidents like those described in the diary occurred every day, every hour in our country.
   Was I, too, destined to stab generous and righteous people in the back, just like my father and grandfather and Ishikawa?
   I gathered Ri Ra Song’s materials and turned on my computer. No, I decided. For once I would not to take Ozawa’s bait. But then, why were my fingers frozen over the keys?
The narrators, though Japanese themselves, never miss a chance to take a shot at the physical features of the Japanese - their short stature, their bad teeth. In his diary, the grandfather lingers on a disparaging contrast between his two young boarders: Ishikawa is dark, short and ugly, with a sloped forehead and squinty eyes, while Chŏng Sam is tall and distinguished-looking, popular with girls.

In the later diary segment, he goes on a long tangent about how Japanese teeth resemble those of a hyena, being crooked and over-long. He repeatedly comments with loathing on Ishikawa's groveling, obsequious expression, and is distressed to see the same expression on his own son's face - and realize that he wears it himself.

In the present-day, the Asahi Shimbun reporter describes how he "scuttled to keep up with Ri Ra Song's long strides" when they marched off to confront Ozawa over the fabricated photos.

At the story's climax, as the narrator agonizes over whether to write Ozawa's fabricated Chongryon story or Ri's true story, he ponders his genetic destiny:
   It’s a truism that those who do not willingly embrace their odious fate are dragged into it nonetheless. No matter how I agonized, struggled and regretted, I could never escape the destiny of the Yamato folk.
   Just then fate knocked on my door, in the form of one of Ozawa’s yakuza thugs. He thrust a single sheet of paper at me; it read, “Preserve the Yamato spirit!”
    Ah, the black blood that twines through the people of Yamato like Laocoön’s snakes.
   Who was I to try and cure Japan of the poisonous mental illness of nationalism that had afflicted it throughout history?
   No matter how I try to deny it, I was born Japanese; the black blood flows through my veins. Oh, the wretched providence of Amaterasu Omikami, afflicting her people with the incurable disease of nationalism!
Amaterasu Omikami is the foundational kami spirit of Japan, from whom the imperial line was said to be descended. Koreans may think of her as analogous to Tan'gun
Screen depicting Amaterasu Oomikami
The story uses this and other outdated references to Japanese mysticism (e.g. Yamato spirit) to suggest that Japanese beliefs are essentially unchanged from pre-war times. A social anthropologist could have a field day with the ways that this story recycles elements of the same blood nationalist mythology of imperial Japan to make the case for a Japanese genetic predisposition to deceit and treachery.

Understanding of the Press

It is interesting that the narrator, described in the story as one of Japan's few "true progressive reporters," works for Asahi Shimbun, which is generally regarded as left of center but hardly the most progressive paper in Japan. The story seems to imply that subversive anti-government reporting does get published in major Japanese newspapers with no legal consequences, although the narrator does get threatened with blackmail by Ozawa and the Far Right. One wonders what a typical North Korean reader would make of this.

The narrator appears motivated to make a name for himself as a truth-telling progressive. He despises Ozawa but continues to use him as a source. But he also relies on Ri Ra Song, who gave him the source material for a ground-breaking exposé of the Japanese right-wing that launched his career. At one point, he recalls that he wrote the story "not out of any sense of justice but just to test the limits of my own power.

Choson Shinbo, the newspaper Ri Ra Song works for, is a Tokyo-based newspaper operated by Chongryon that publishes pro-Pyongyang stories in both Japanese and Korean. Its website tends to be more graphically advanced than the North Korea-based sites, and I have used its images as illustrations in several previous blog entries.

Friday, June 7, 2019

"Black Blood" (Part 1): Japan can't keep a good Korean down

"Black Blood: From a Japanese Reporter's Notebook" (흑혈: 한 일본인기자의 수기중에서) is a short story by Choe Su Bŏm that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2018.

The story is set in Tokyo, alternating between the present day and colonial era. It is rich in anti-Japanese epithets and  North Korean interpretations of various historical and current events, from the Imjin War to the Great Kanto Earthquake to a recent mushroom smuggling scandal.

Since there is quite a lot of meat in this story, I am dividing my summary into two parts. The second half of the story will be posted at a later date.

Story Summary

The story opens on the narrator, a Japanese journalist, meeting in a smoky Ginza nightclub with a man named Ozawa Kenichiro.

A Zaitokukai protest in Tokyo
Ozawa is introduced as “a central figure in the far-right group Society for Thinking about Japan’s Future (日本の未を考える), active on such issues as history textbook revisions and constitution reform,” who serves as the narrator's “thermometer for far-right sentiment in the Diet.” An active figure behind the scenes in the Zaitokukai (Society against Special Privileges for Zainichi), he’d gained notoriety for publicly making anti-Korean remarks after the matsutake mushroom incident (in which North Korean mushrooms were being illegally sold in Japan under the label Made in China).

   “Listen up, Mr. Fancy Reporter, you pay your respects at Yasukuni; if you have a speck of the Yamato spirit left in you, you’ll help us out.”
   “What do you want from me?”
   “Write an expose on the Eastern Trading Company violating trade law. Under your name as an elite Asahi Shimbun reporter. We’ve prepared all the materials for you.”
   The Eastern Trading Company was a minor zainichi-owned firm unrelated to Chongryon. It had garnered public scrutiny for its role in the matsutake mushroom import scandal.
   Matsutake mushrooms are delicious and high in calories; you may wonder why it should matter whether they came from China or Korea. Apparently, the sensitive Japanese palate could even detect a food’s nationality.
   It was as if the Japanese authorities saw these mushrooms as some sort of special forces sent to penetrate their net of sanctions. Or did they think the stems were missiles, and the caps were the DPRK’s increasingly advanced ballistic warheads? At any rate, the whole Japanese archipelago was aflutter over these mushrooms.
   The forces behind this mushroom-phobia had sought to stir things up further by raiding the heads of Chongryon. Since they had no connection whatsoever to the Eastern Trading Company, the raid was hard to explain.
   Their raid hadn’t proven anything and had only given Chongryon and North Korea another cudgel to beat Japan with. 

Ozawa supplies the reporter with detailed notes for another story on the matsutake scandal, this time directly implicating the son of the director of Chongryon (the main pro-NK organization for Japan’s resident Koreans). When the narrator hesitates, calling the story “boring” since the investigation has yielded no real evidence, Ozawa prevails upon him to “Do your national duty as a Japanese.”

Troubled, the narrator returns home and contemplates Ozawa’s words.

Our national duty? 
In the whole world, is there any other people who use that phrase as much as us Japanese? Even in this age of globalization, our nation’s blood nationalism has not changed. 
The same words rang like a tired refrain through every newspaper and TV broadcast.Revering fallen soldiers, paying respects at Yasukuni – all part of our ‘national duty’! Sending SDF troops abroad, revising the constitution, claiming neighbors’ territory as our own, distorting history, on and on. With the recent anti-Chongryon craze, this exclusionary sentiment had only become more overt. 
We were all drunk. Intoxicated by militant nationalism, staggering around with our haorijackets untied, hollering at the world.
We were all crazy.Shuffling our getaover the world again just like in the old days, when we brandished our bamboo spears and katanas, waving the hinomaruflag and belting out kimi-ga-yo
And this intoxication, this craziness, was paradoxically justified as part of our “national duty” in the name of building “Strong Japan,” “Beautiful Japan.”
Just what was this duty?
In search of inspiration, he takes up his grandfather’s diary from 1923 and begins to read.

–Grandfather’s Diary–

The grandfather, a landlord in a Tokyo shantytown, writes of two young students who rented a room above an inn he owned by the river. Both were students at Tokyo Imperial University. 

One, named Ri Chŏng Sam, was a tall good-looking young man with striking clear eyes, quite popular with the young ladies. The other was a swarthy fellow with a prominent forehead named Ishikawa Shintaro. He was Japanese but had been raised in Korea and was very vague about his origins.
Students at Tokyo Imperial University, 1917

The diary described an encounter with a very inebriated Ishikawa, who raged about being bullied at school and called a “bat brat.” 
   “Why a bat?”
   Ishikawa downed his cup of masamune [North Korean word for Japanese sake] in one swallow and sighed. “It’s ‘cause I’m from an immigrant family.”
   “Huh, what, then all the thousands of people who’ve migrated to the continent are all bats? Such bullshit.” I refrained from mentioning that his dark face did remind me of some kind of rodent excrement.
   But he just got even more upset. “That’s not it! It’s 'cause I’m hangwae, y’see! Hangwae!”
   That was the day I first learned of a small offshoot of Japanese migrants to Korea known as hangwae.
   During the Japanese invasion of 1592-98, known in Korea as the Imshin Waeran and in Japan as Bunroku- or Keichō-no-Eki, Ishikawa’s ancestor had been among those samurai who grabbed their katanas and muskets and gleefully joined in the fight. There’s no accounting of his deeds or how many Korean ears and noses he lopped off.
Korean artist's depiction of Japanese soldiers during Imshin War
   But somehow, at the end of that miserable war that killed or maimed some 300,000 of our ancestors, he escaped with his life as a POW. That’s all that is recorded in the family register.
   After the war there were some few Japanese prisoners who, deeply impressed by Korea’s advanced culture and refined etiquette, and fearing persecution by the ham-fisted daimyo government, refused to return to Japan and asked to become naturalized Koreans. For Koreans, allowing these mortal enemies to remain on their soil was about as fun as getting pricked by a chestnut burr, but in an excess of generosity they allowed it.
   Like a bad penny, this vomit leftover from the war kept causing problems in society again and again, but they were always treated magnanimously on account of being “naturalized.” Every step of the way, they were never forced and received nothing but kindness. Eventually, over hundreds of years, these hangwae (defeated Japanese) became almost completely transformed into Koreans. They took Korean names, spoke Korean, wore Korean clothing, and adopted Korean mannerisms. Then Japan annexed Korea, and suddenly they began swaggering around with big bloated heads.
   They dug out their old moss-grown family registers from their hiding places in crock pots and buried caches, assiduously traced their genealogy lines back hundreds of years, and scuttled off to the Government General to certify their Japaneseness based on their ancestry. In a single morning, Kim-this and Lee-that became this-and-that Japanese surname.
   These upstart Japs became the islanders’ scouts and guard dogs on the mission to rob the country that had fed, clothed and cared for them. So went the history of the hangwae, who are called “bats” on account of how they flit back and forth between sides whenever it suits them.
Through a series of other encounters, the landlord learned the tangled history of the two boys’ families. During a peasant revolt just before the first Sino-Japanese war, when anti-Japanese sentiment was high, Chŏng Sam’s father (who was head of the Ri clan) had saved Ishikawa’s father from an angry mob. Since then the Ri family had always protected the Ishikawas. 

At first both boys received monthly remittance checks to support their studies, but Ishikawa’s support dried up after his father lost all the family land to loan sharks from the Dongchŏk (Oriental Development Company). Chŏng Sam took on part-time work to help cover the shortfall. Moved by his selflessness and industry, the landlord gave the boys a break on their rent deadline.

Meanwhile, it became clear that Ishikawa was hiding something from Chŏng Sam; he asked the landlord to deliver all their mail directly to him.

   Finally, the terrible day of judgement arrived.
   September 1, 1923!
   A vast force exploded on that harsh, brutal land. In one instant, the great city was leveled.
   That day, nature itself visited a calamitous holy war upon the island whose people had only trampled and destroyed other lands. Every passing second was filled with towering rage and violent judgment. The earth sank and the sky fell. It was as if an underground giant had twitched his finger beneath the city. The whole city was reduced to ruins, and everything melted into a sea of ash, flame and blood. In that city that had been gripped and crushed by an irrestible force, a bone-deep bitter despair and fear lingered.
   They should have carefully heeded this murderous warning of nature. But instead, a deep resentment belched forth like sewage from the rotten hearts of the Japanese and fell upon the Korean people.
   “Koreans started the fire!” “Koreans poisoned the wells!” “They incited the riots!”
   The Great Kanto Earthquake set the opportune conditions for a kamikaze wind to fall upon and slaughter the Koreans. The whole Kanto region transformed into a heap of skulls and a banquet of blood as the “samurai” feasted on Korean flesh and sucked Korean blood.

Great Kanto Earthquake scene by Kanokogi Takeshiro.
Soon roving gangs formed militias to hunt down Koreans in the shantytowns. The landlord urged Chŏng Sam to lay low for a while, and Ishikawa stoutly declared “I’m here for you.”

When a gang of hoodlums came to the inn demanding that they “turn over that Korean,” the landlord initially lied and said he was gone. But the cowardly Ishikawa promptly gave him up.

The hoodlums tromped upstairs, and the sounds of violent struggle ensued.

Eventually they came back down, dragging a tightly bound Chŏng Sam. It seemed he’d put his wrestling skills to use; many bled from their mouths, eyes and noses, and their dwarfish leader appeared unconscious or dead.
Illustration of Koreans and Chinese being rounded up after
the Kanto earthquake, by the Japanese artist Kayahara
Hakudō, who witnessed the slaughter as a young man.

As they dragged him out the door, Chŏng Sam glared at Ishikawa and asked, “How could you do this?” 

“Because you’re Korean,” was Ishikawa’s cold reply.

The next day Ishikawa was seen leaving with a bunch of bundles and a trunk. The landlord realized with disgust that he was selling off Chŏng Sam’s possessions. He went up to their room and, sure enough, all of the Korean’s things had been cleared out.

He discovered three revealing letters that painted a very different story of Ishikawa’s family circumstances back in Korea. His father had indeed lost all his money gambling, but then he used his Dongchŏk connections to claim the Ri clan’s ancestral burial land as his own. There was a lawsuit, but the colonial government always favored the Japanese claimant in such things. In a fit of rage, Chŏng Sam’s father assaulted Ishikawa’s father and ended up getting thrown in jail. Ishikawa had been warned to keep this news from Chŏng Sam, because it would complicate their legal rights to the land if another claimant with the right family name showed up.

And now, Ishikawa had seen an opportunity to get rid of his problematic roommate. 

Soon after, another gang of Japanese hoodlums showed up at the door, hauling Ishikawa in by the scruff of his neck. 
   “Hey, you! You know this guy? You’re the landlord, right? Tell us, is he Korean or Japanese?”
   Ishikawa pleaded, “Oh, sir, please! Explain to these guys about me. They heard me say ‘15 yen and 55 sen’ and thought my pronunciation was weird. Help me!” Ah, Ishikawa, done in by the infamous “15 yen and 55 sen.” That misbegotten hangwae had never been able to match the nasal g of a pure-blooded Yamato.
   “You’re not hiding Koreans again, are you?!”
   “Sir, please tell them. You know my whole story better than anyone.”
   As I looked down at him, my mind flashed an image of Chŏng Sam’s face, smiling in the sun. And on top of that came the image of Ishikawa blustering about “our national duty.”
   I realized then that betrayal was not “our national duty.” It was our people’s destiny, part of our genetic makeup – the demon blood, the black blood passed down continuously from the beginning of time.
   We could never resist fulfilling this treacherous duty, bringing down heaven’s divine punishment.
   It was Ishikawa who helped me to realize it.
   And I faithfully executed that duty.
   I bit off the icy cold words: “This one is no Japanese.”

   To be continued....

Depictions of Japanese

This story illustrates some of the ways that language is employed to paint the Japanese as simultaneously conniving and foolish. Examples include: repeatedly referring to Japan as “that island country” (섬나라) and  Japanese characters as “islanders” (섬나라사람); ironic repetition of well-known Japanese terms like “kamikaze” and “samurai,” and idiomatic phrases like “swishing the hems of their haori” and “brandishing their katanas,” invoke a sense of ridicule behind the menace.

Ishikawa, the hang-wae descendent, gets the business end of most of this negative description. For instance, here's how the grandfather's diary describes him begging to hide mail from his roommate Chŏng Sam:
   In his face I saw that hateful dog-like look, that pleading expression meant to appease and persuade. It was a familiar look. It was the same anxious and guilty look that was a characteristic of all our kind, myself included. 
The landlord resents Chŏng Sam’s popularity with women but can’t help admiring his strength of character, clear eyes and upright bearing. He finds himself instinctively using polite speech forms with him as if speaking to an equal or superior, while talking down to his roommate Ishikawa and privately scorning his ugliness and cowardice. 

Nevertheless, in several ways I feel like this author has skated up to the edge of what may be permissible in terms of depicting Japanese favorably. The narrators are both Japanese – the reporter and his diary-writing grandfather – and since the narrative takes their point of view, they become at least quasi-sympathetic characters. 

When the reporter reflects on Japan's various misdeeds - "sending SDF troops abroad, revising the constitution, claiming neighbors’ territory as our own, distorting history" - he does so with remorse rather than exaltation. The grandfather's diary expresses similar sentiments about the anti-Korean violence he witnesses after the Kantō earthquake. Both narrators can’t help but grudgingly admire Koreans, suggesting that they have enough humanity to recognize inherent value and to struggle against their prejudices. I wonder if North Korean literary theory does not have the concept of an unreliable narrator.

Based on what we know from Kim Ju-song's memoir, I would guess that this story was labeled a "problematic work." Recall that Kim's fiction was frequently given bad reviews for being set in Japan. Even though he depicted the Japanese purely in negative terms, his editors preferred for him to write stories set in North Korea.

The scandal of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea being re-labeled "Made in China" fell out in 2015 and prompted a police raid on Chongron. Here is NK News on Japan’s matsutake smuggling ring:
And the DailyNK covered the story here:

Illustration from the serial novel "Hangwae Kim Chung-Sŏn."
Src: Chungang Ilbo
Hang-wae have been dramatized in South Korean historical fiction and dramas, particularly well-known is the story of Kim Chung-sŏn, which was the subject of a popular serial novel. The Korean Wikipedia page on hang-wae offers more information:항왜

Some explanation in English can be found here

The Dongchŏk (동척 - Oriental Development Company) was a colonial institution set up by the Japanese to implement their land reform and fund economic development projects in Korea. Ishikawa's father's experience - getting bilked out of his family land after taking a dongchŏk loan that he was unable to repay - is a common story told by Koreans of that era. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"Age of Reason" (철드는 시절): Boyhood in North Korea

For a change of pace, this month’s post looks at the lighter side of North Korean literature. The following story, from a children’s literary magazine, lends insight into the use of humor in North Korean fiction writing.

"Age of Reason" (철드는 시절) is a short story by Ri Gyŏng Ae that appeared in Adong Munhak (date unknown) and was recently posted on the North Korean website uriminzokkiri.

Adong Munhak (Children's Literature) is the Party’s monthly literary journal directed at children. Stories from this journal may be read and discussed in schools as part of either the national language or moral education curriculum. Compared to Chosŏn Munhak and Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, the stories are much shorter and usually cover lighter topics. The journal also publishes poems, serial novels, fables, interviews and essays.

This coming-of-age story is told from the perspective of a rambunctious nine-year-old boy, Chŏl Song, who longs to "grow up" and be respected as "a hero." The young narrator rumbles through several humorous Dennis-the-Menace-style episodes before finally reaching the moral of the story.

The Story

One snowy winter day, Chŏl Song sneaks out of the schoolhouse with his buddies Hyŏn Sŏng and Pyŏng Hun to play in the snow. In short order they stack three enormous snowballs to build a snowman.
   “Well, what sort of snowman should he be? Father Harvest? An Ottogi doll?”
   I slap my knee. “I know! Let’s make an American jackal soldier (승냥이 미군놈), then we can smash him to smithereens!”
   “What a great idea. Chŏl-song, you’ve got a mind like a ball bearing!”
   Portly Pyŏng Hun waddled off home to retrieve a pot and a radish. While he was gone we sculpted the body. The result looked a bit more like a bear than a jackal, but it suited our purposes. We turned Pyŏng Hun's pot upside-down for a helmet, and the radish made for a perfect jutting hawk nose. We got excited just thinking how we would smash him down.
   After preparing a good-sized arsenal of snowballs, we opened fire. After several fusillades, the snow soldier collapsed magnificently. We then “shot” at it with sticks. My buddies cheered and I felt my heart swell, just as if I’d become a real hero of the People's Army.
A North Korean girl shoveling snow. Src: Daily Mail
The boys' cheery mood is doused when Chŏl-song's last ball strikes a Young Pioneer cadet (단위원) named Il Shim full in the face. His companions flee, afraid that the older girl will report on them. But she just glares at Chŏl Sung in annoyance and asks, "When are you going to grow up?" She then continues about her task, doggedly shoveling snow off the roadway.

The boys meet up back at Chŏl-song's house, where they discuss her comment. It seems all of them have been hearing this "grow up" phrase a lot lately, whenever they get into some mischief.
   “Well, growing up means getting bigger, right?” said Hyŏn Sŏng. “So all we need to do is hurry up and grow some.”
   “That’s right. You guys need to grow fatter, like me, and taller too.” Pyŏng Hun shook his fat belly proudly and extended his fist above his head to illustrate.
   “And our voices need to get lower,” Hyŏn Sŏng added, dropping his normally piping voice an octave. We all tried to talk low like adults, but no matter how hard we tried the result sounded weak and raspy.
   “It’s no use. To get a deep voice, you have to grow one of those ping-pong ball things in your throat first.” Hyŏn Sŏng pointed to his throat. “Like our dads have. That’s where the deep grown-up voice comes from.”
   How mysterious the grown-up world seemed.
   “That’s not all!” Pyŏng Hun rubbed his chin. “We have to grow beards!”
   We laughed out loud. “Imagine Pyŏng Hun with a big beard like a billy goat!”
   “Well, we’ll just shave like our dads do. Do you have any ideas of your own, Chŏl Song, or are you just going to pick on us?”
Chŏl Song gets the bright idea to pull some of his dad's business clothes out of the closet and try them on. He struggles into the snow-white shirt, wraps the tie clumsily around his neck, shrugs on the heavy jacket bedecked with medals, and digs his father's spectacles out of his desk. Finally he hangs his father's physicians' medal around his neck. The boys are mightily impressed with the result, and a scuffle ensues as they all want to try the clothes on. 

Il Shim walks in to find them rolling on the floor fighting over the clothes. Again, she tells them to "grow up." They patiently explain to her that they were trying to do just that.
   She chuckled. “I see. So you decided to grow up in a hurry. And then what?”
   “We’ll be heroes, of course,” I said.
    “Yeah. I’m going to be a doctor like my dad, and Pyŏng Hun’s going to be a farm hero like his grandfather.”
   Nuna [big sister] started putting the clothes back on the hanger. “That’s a fine dream. But do you think you can become a hero just by imitating adults? … Do you know the trees in your schoolyard were planted by our hometown hero Hyŏng Nam? The hero Hyang Rim, whose name is known all over our country, was your age [when she died], and the hero Cho Hyŏk Chŏl was just two years older than you [two children who perished trying to save portraits of the leaders]. Nobody would ever call them immature.”
   We thought about that. “Nuna, are you grown up?”
   “Me?” She gazed off hazily toward the window for a moment, then shook her head slowly. “No, I’ve still got a long way to go.”
The next day, Il Shim comes across the boys joyfully sledding down a roadway, where they've poured well water from the hilltop to make an icy track.

"Chŏl Song," she says, "Won't our moms and dads have to travel this road for the spring planting? When you ice it over like that, how will the tractors and carts get up it?" Chastised, the boys help her haul sacks of gravel to pour down the hill. Passersby, including their parents, are pleasantly astonished to see the normally rowdy boys doing something to help the community. They exclaim over how “kids grow up so fast these days,” and the boys swell with pride.

Grabbing Il Shim’s hand, Ch’ŏl Song thanks her for “helping us to grow up,” and asks her how she came up with the idea to clear the road each day. She explains:
   “My father was in charge of maintaining this stretch of road. One spring day two years ago, he left for an assignment far away. Since then I’ve been keeping the road smooth, clearing rocks and ruts, waiting for him to return.
   “One sleety winter day, I stared out the window and just couldn’t bring myself to move. How could I have known that I would regret that decision for the rest of my life? For that very morning, our Great Leader, our General traveled along that very dangerous road on his way to a guidance visit.
   “That day I beat my chest and swore an oath, that I would grow up fast and do everything I could to ensure the General’s happiness.”
Chŏl Song reflects on their foolish attempts to mimick grown-ups, dropping their voices and pretending to shave. He says to his friends, “Hyŏn Sŏng, Pyŏng Hun, I’ve figured it out. To truly be grown-up is to want only to bring happiness to the Fatherly Leader.” [아버지원수님께 기쁨을 드릴 때 사람들은 철이 든다]. The children all hold hands and vow to work together to bring the Leader happiness.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Hot Blizzard (뜨거운 눈보라): CNC, Sanctions, and R&D at the Taean Machine Factory

The Hot Blizzard (뜨거운 눈보라) is a short story by Kim Ch'ŏl Sun that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in June 2016 and was reprinted in Chŏngryŏn Munhak in February 2017. Through this story we see how US sanctions attempt to disrupt North Korea's heavy industries, but the country's intrepid engineers are able to overcome the difficulties and emerge all the stronger for the adversity.

KJI touring Taean in 2009.
The story follows a guidance visit by Kim Jong Il to the Taean Heavy Machine Factory complex in 2009 and highlights CNC technology as an answer to US sanctions. This factory is a longstanding showcase of North Korean heavy industry; it is even featured on the North Korean tourism website, which boasts that "Employees of the Taean Heavy Machine Complex in the DPRK put spurs to boosting the production of generating equipment with the will to frustrate the U.S. and other hostile forces’ harshest sanctions and provocations in the spirit of self-reliance."

The story jumps back and forth in time a lot over a 20-year period, showing how the factory has triumphed through adversity and how the main character has grown from a headstrong young engineer to a capable and seasoned problem-solver.

The Story

KJI’s SUV struggled through the first big blizzard of the new year. He’d set off on another guidance visit, overriding the earnest pleas of his staff that he not travel through such a bad storm.
   Their concerns were not unfounded. He was emaciated from endless hard work. But He had decided that 2009 would be the breakthrough year for achieving an economically prosperous nation (경제강국건설). Last December 24th He visited the birthplace of the Chollima Movement and lit the signal fires of Kangsŏn, which then spread to Sŏnggang, Namhŭng, Hŭngnam, Tanchŏn; to strike targets at the front lines of the economic battle (경제전선의 주타격대상) and all across the land. To keep fanning the flames, the General carried on His hard march of extreme labor (초강도강행군길).
KJI was greatly troubled by a report from the Taean machine factory. It seemed they were unable to produce a turbine for a certain hydropower plant the KPA was building, and thus the plant could not be made operational in time for the KWP Foundation Day celebrations. The machinery problem was seriously delaying the top-priority power supply restoration effort.

It was hard to believe that Manager Chang Tae Ch’ŏl could have overseen such a mistake. KJI had personally taken Chang under his wing many years ago. He recalled how they first met.

<20 years ago>
KJI received a troubling performance report about one Chang Tae Ch’ŏl, then 1st deputy production engineer (생산1부기사장) at Taean. The report recommended that Chang be demoted for "being overly pushy and causing mistakes."

Workers at Taean Factory. Src: dprktoday
The trouble started when the factory ran out of fuel for the transports that moved scrap iron from the freight station to the smelting furnaces. While waiting for the fuel truck to arrive, Chang proposed a little iron schlepping competition among the workers. By dawn they had manually hauled many tens of tons of scrap metal. But later that evening there was an accident, and management blamed it on Chang overtaxing the workers. It seems Chang lost his temper, slammed the table and used impolite language. This prompted his superiors to conduct a review, which found fault with much of his past behavior.

Reading this account, KJI saw an unseemly abrasiveness and uncooperative nature - but also a stubborn intensity and revolutionary fighting spirit that needed nourishing.

With a heavy heart, he wrote a recommendation for “criticism education” (비판교양). Then, on impulse he picked up his prized orchid cactus and handed it to the waiting factory rep, telling him to give it to Chang on his return. “Horticulture is a good hobby for correcting one’s rough edges.”

Several months later, in a phone call with the Taean Factory director, he learned that Chang's attitude had completely transformed. He recommended that the young engineer be sent to the People’s Economic University (인민경제대학) for further training. After Chang had completed the university course, KJI set him up as a manager at Taean, the country’s largest industrial complex (련합기업소). The Leader even helped out when he heard Chang’s division needed materials to renovate their 장비직장건물, personally sending a large order of wood, cement and steel.

KIS touring the Taean Machine Factory in 1980.
Src: Uriminzokkiri
One day, while retrofitting the factory under Chang's orders, a young technician named Shin Sang Ch'ŏl suffered a bad fall. The doctors at  Kim Man Yu Hospital said he might never fully recover the use of his legs. Chang brought him to his own house to tend to him personally. He bathed him in medicinal herbs and muds, massaged him and served him potent herbal teas, even read to him when he had trouble sleeping. In just a few months, young Shin made an amazing recovery.

KJI watched a TV documentary about this story, and noted with pride the cactus blooming in Chang’s window in one scene.

Years passed. Chang was promoted to a post in the Ministry of Heavy Industry; but bureaucratic work did not suit the hands-on engineer, so he soon returned to Taean.

<Back in the present>
KJI couldn’t believe his protégé Chang could be responsible for this failure with the military's equipment. Thus he decided to investigate the matter in person.

Arriving at the factory, he was disturbed by Chang's guilty, abashed, almost timid demeanor. He recalled a conversation with Chang in happier times, discussing how CNC could fix their assembly problems building large, complex machines like hydropower dam generators.

<Some years earlier>
Touring a dam site together, Chang explained to KJI how his team had set an ambitious plan to adapt their largest rotor assemblages to CNC. But they were only using two turbine assemblages; KJI thought they should aim higher.
   “Looking at the global trend, and in terms of production efficiency, you can’t expect much with just two. You really need five axes. Of course, only a few countries have been able to achieve a synchronized five-axis turbine assemblage, but we must find a way to do it. You never know if you don’t try, and we have to show the world what we can do. To do that, we have to set bigger, bolder goals (더 대담하게 목표를 걸고). I know you are up to the task.”
   Chang nodded vigorously. “Yes, General! Count on it!”
   KJI smiled at the chief engineer’s enthusiasm. “First, to broaden your horizons and get a feel for the tech, you should go abroad and see how other countries are doing this. Go ahead and put together a delegation of your best engineers. You can go wherever you like.”
<Back in the present>
A factory "history room" (연혁소개실), the first stop on any
 guidance visit
KJI met the factory managers, including Shin Sang Ch'ŏl, the once-injured worker who was now a lead engineer. He toured the factory history hall, where lovingly framed photos showing the Great Leader’s many guidance visits.

The next room showcased the many new inventions and scientific breakthroughs the factory had made over the years. KJI sloshed beakers and felt insulation materials with his own hands, asking astute questions. Then it was time to view the new CNC assembly.
   The General slowly approached the 5-axis assembly. Above the assembly hung the huge steel hydropower turbines, the five axes spinning smoothly, directing the spindle to work a complex curved surface according to the computer’s precise calculations. He recalled the story of how they first started building the 5-axis CNC assembly…
<Flashback several years>
As ordered, Chang Dae Ch’ŏl had led a delegation of engineers on a 40-day tour of neighboring countries and Europe. They found a European manufacturer of CNC devices that had the part they needed to achieve a 5-axis assembly and even offered show them the specs. They reached an agreement and returned home.
A CNC-adapted assembly at Taean.
Src: dprktoday
Chang soon departed again to purchase the part. On his way, he had a layover in Moscow.
   When his flight stopped in Moscow, he ventured out to find the city abuzz with the news: Our country [NK] had met the US’ nuclear provocations by declaring itself a nuclear weapons power.
    In Russia, the astonishing event was on the front page of every newspaper and the lead of every TV news show, with everyone offering their own take and predictions for how the situation would unfold. Through all of them there was a palpable note of thrill that Korea would once again out-punch the United States, and amazement about our unimaginable gutsiness and resolve.
    When he arrived at the export company, the CEO’s formerly open and affable attitude was nowhere to be seen. He tossed the EU ruling onto the table and offered nothing but apologies. Since the US was threatening them with COCOM sanctions, he could neither sell them the CNC device nor show them the specs.
    So they returned home empty-handed. The General received their report, and around midnight He called up Chang, asking calmly: “Well, what are you going to do about this?”
   “General, our engineers are furious about what the US bastards are doing, and we’re determined to get this done by our own power (우리의 힘으로).”
   “Good thinking. The more they try their nasty underhanded tricks, the harder we have to push back with our own strength (자력갱생)."
They discussed a lot of complicated technical details. There was a tricky problem with the circuit coupling method; KJI immediately offered a bold solution that none of the engineers had conceived of in all their days and nights of working on this problem.

Engineers test a CNC machine at the Institute of Machine
Automation. Src: Uriminzokkiri
Chang's team got to work, and KJI dispatched some engineers from the Institute of Machine Automation (조종기계연구소) to help. In three months, the 5-axis assembly was operational.

<Back in the present>
KJI gazed proudly at the huge, smoothly spinning assembly. Turning to the weary but triumphant team of engineers, he spoke:
   “Of all the CNC machines we’ve made to date, I’m proudest of this one. Only the most advanced nations have been able to achieve a five-axis hydropower turbine assembly; that our engineers were able to build one through their own strength is truly amazing. The enemy took forceful measures to stop us from importing a five-axis assemblage, but the engineers of Taean really bloodied their noses good... That you were able to triumph under such tough circumstances makes this all the more precious.”
The engineers protested, saying it was all thanks to the General, who found a solution and supplied them all the equipment they needed. Everybody had tears in their eyes.
   The General could read the hardships reflected in their faces.  “Look at me,” He said softly. “You’ve had a hard time, haven’t you?”
   The party secretary spoke up. “It’s true, there’ve been some hard sacrifices. One of our material supply engineers was diagnosed with a terminal illness but still spent his few remaining months working tirelessly here. We kept pushing him to go to the hospital, but he insisted he’d rather spend his last days at work than in bed; he died by his phone after successfully acquiring the ferromagnetic material we needed. Ironically, it was he who had reported Chang Dae Ch'ŏl for criticism twenty years ago. He’d since resigned from management and returned to engineering, achieving many breakthroughs in material supply. For years, he’d been caring for that cactus You sent to us. As he slumped over his desk, dying, he asked that the cactus be laid beside him. He asked us to take good care of the cactus, then died.”
KJI touring Taean in 2009. Src: uriminzokkiri
They continued on the factory tour, observing various CNC-operated lathes, milling machines and cutters, a smoothly spinning assembly churning out stators for Nyŏngwon Electric Dam, a shiny new computer lab where they could now do 3-D modeling and experimental turbine simulations. At one point an aide scurried over and asked, shouldn’t the General take a break and rest a while? KJI waved him off, absorbed in the tour.

KJI was impressed by all of this hard work; still, the elephant in the room needed to be addressed.

   Taking a deliberately stern tone, He asked, “But why haven’t you built the generators for the military yet?”
   Chang hung his head. The party secretary answered: “General, we weren’t able to anticipate every circumstance. As soon as the new modernized process was ready we were planning to order the materials and start production, but we never imagined that the enemy’s sanctions would go so far. We were so focused on the modernization effort that we gave only secondary consideration to the people’s economic plan. I’m largely responsible. The manager said we should wait so that we could send the KPA more efficient generators made with modernized equipment, and I agreed.”
  Lead technician Shin Sang Ch’ŏl spoke up, his voice tight with guilt. “I’m also responsible. I supported the decision. Please punish me too.”
   Chang Dae Ch’ŏl lifted his head. “No, General, I am to blame for everything.” 
KJI ruminated for a moment. Of course it was wrong of them to ignore the economic plan, but their determination to secure a basis for better quality and efficiency was praiseworthy.
    The General suddenly stopped and turned to face them all. “The sanctions by the US imperialists and their followers will only get more severe.... At times like this, government must help our industries. As we have a planned economy, central guidance will always be important, but our enterprises cannot function properly if they are tied down by endless regulations in the name of central guidance. Now’s not the time to quibble about numbers and blame; we must match our economic policy with each factory’s management strategy and real circumstances.”
He declared that Chang was right to prioritize R&D and encouraged him to continue, offering to fully fund everything they needed for a top-of-the-line operation. Then, to their collective joy, he suggested that they all get their photo taken together in front of the 5-axis assembly. Chang began sobbing in an unmanly fashion.

Instead of punishment, KJI gave them a commendation. He told the workers that they had given him new energy and new faith that “victory in the construction of a strong and prosperous nation is certain.”

Finally KJI departed, looking hale and unshakable as he stepped out into the blinding snowstorm. As his car rolled away, he rolled down the window to wave at them, heedless of the snow and cold wind that swept into the car. The factory workers stood in the storm, but they didn’t feel cold at all. They were warmed by the General’s love.

R&D under Sanctions

This story is a prime example of North Korea's "what doesn't kill us will only make us stronger" propaganda approach to sanctions. We see how the factory is all set to import the technology they need from a European firm, when US sanctions (mentioned in passing to have been in response to the North's nuclear declaration) force them to develop the technology on their own instead. They succeed in short order, achieving a difficult piece of CNC technology that "only a few of the most advanced nations have been able to achieve."

At the climactic moment in the story, KJI makes a big speech:
   “The sanctions by the US imperialists and their followers will only get more severe. As long as we hold aloft the banners of self-determination and sŏngun, the enemy will never back down. That is why, now and forever, we must always believe in our own strength (자기 힘) and find solutions in our own style (자기식). Yesterday, today and tomorrow, self-rehabilitation (자력갱생) is our lifeline.”
This one speech includes most of the key late-KJI-era buzzwords and is a nice encapsulation of North Korean ideology at its core. To wit: it's better not to rely on other countries, even friendly ones, because the enemy can always cut off those sources. You may call it isolationist (and many do), but it is also the natural outcome for a country that has repeatedly lost vital supply lines throughout its history.

Of course, the reality is that being cut off from outside information and technology greatly inhibits R&D. But through stories like this, the Party reassures the domestic audience that its intrepid scientists are more than a match for US sanctions, and outside pressure only strengthens their resolve.

Lighting the signal fires of Kangsŏn

"Spirit of Kangsŏn" reads a banner in imminent danger
of combustion at Chollima Steel Factory.
"The signal fires of Kangsŏn" (강선의 봉화) is a slogan associated with a late Kim Jong Il era economic revival policy that sought to emulate the earlier Chollima Movement of the 1950s, which drove a period of rapid reconstruction following the Korean War.  This slogan originated with an incident in December 2008 in which Kim Jong Il visited the Chollima Steel Factory, known as ground zero of the Chollima movement, and gave a speech invoking the "signal fires of Kangsŏn" - Kangsŏn being the factory's original name (

This slogan is clever in a couple of ways. Kangsŏn is a near-homonym for kangsŏng, "strong and prosperous," which had already become a big buzzword by 2008. "Signal fires" refer to a pre-modern Korean communication system of bonfires on high hilltops by which people could send warnings and mobilize forces across vast distances. Koreans are quite proud of this early signaling system, and it has featured in a number of movies and period dramas over the years - my personal favorite being the recent Netflix drama "Kingdom," in which it is used to warn the capital of a zombie outbreak in the southeast.

CNC revolution

I will admit to being so narrowly focused on North Korea that I was mistakenly under the impression that CNC (Computer Numerical Control) was just a North Korean thing. They certainly talk about it as if it was their own invention.

It turns out it is a rather universal term for the standardized system of automating the movements of industrial machines. A good short explanation (with animation!) can be found here. This site offers a bit more explanation about the whole deal with the axes. It seems that having more rotation axes allows for more efficient and precise work on complex surfaces. The things I learn through this blog project!

North Korea has promoted CNC technology heavily through a propaganda push since around 2009. Though KJI is the protagonist of this story, I strongly associate it with the rise of Kim Jong Un. NK Economy Watch did a long post about it back in 2010.

It is easy to see why an impoverished regime that is bent on rapidly catching up in manufacturing would seize upon automation as a sort of magic bullet. But CNC has taken on a broader meaning in regime propaganda, symbolizing all aspects of modernization and new technology. The Pochonbo Electric Ensemble even wrote a catchy song about CNC that provides a great compendium of KJU-related slogans.

It is interesting that this story shows North Korean engineers first going on a study tour of “developed countries” to acquire the CNC technology they need. It’s also telling that the unnamed European company seems cooperative and happy to sell them the technology at first, until they get threatened with US sanctions.

Seed Theory

This story is a good easy example of “seed theory,” the literary technique attributed to Kim Jong Il. Every story must have a “seed,” some small symbolic element that appears throughout the story, ties the narrative together, and represents the overall meaning. In this story, I believe the seed is the orchid cactus. It’s lurking in almost every scene, and gets the spotlight at important moments. As the party secretary explains, “That cactus has become a symbol of our General’s love for and faith in factory workers, and of our devotion to our General.”

Seed Theory was first promulgated through Kim Jong Il's treatise On the Art of the Cinema, published in 1973. According to the North Korean Literature and Art Dictionary, "The seed, which forms the core of any literary and art work, is a fundamental element that determines the value of the work and the authors and artists must hold the seed straight in order to convey clearly his thoughts and aesthetic intention and assure the philosophical value of their work."

In his memoir, defector Kim Ju-sŏng writes about how much of his literary training as a member of the Korean Writer’s Union revolved around trying to identify the "seeds" in various famous literary works. The seed in The Flower Girl, for instance, is the basket that the girl carries with her everywhere.

I got some further clarification on Seed Theory from Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and current MA student in literature at Kim Il Sung University. In his literature classes, he was taught to identify the seed (종자), the subject (주제) and the ideology (사상) in a story.

Sigley’s literary theory textbook quotes Kim Jong Il as writing, “The seed is the basic idea at the core of the story that the author is trying to communicate; it is the ideological kernel upon which the entire story is rooted.” The textbook gives an example analysis of the novel/play The Destiny of a Self-Defense Corpsman [한 자위단원의 운명], one of the five "immortal classics" (불후의 고전적명작) attributed to Kim Il Sung. The seed of this story is explained to be the main character’s realization that he will lose his life whether he fights in the corps or not - that life under Japanese occupation is no true life at all.

Revolutionary Mentorship

It has not escaped my attention that each of the last four stories I've reviewed features a close, emotionally fraught relationship between two men. "Night Path" depicted the rivalry between an older manure farmer and his dimpled young frenemy, with the younger man oddly playing the role of guide and mentor. "Morning of Departure" painted a portrait of two old army buddies reuniting under tense circumstances, as one had to bring the long arm of the law down on the other. "Unification Arirang" followed the reconciliation of two old friends, a musician and choreographer, who had been separated since the Korean War. Each of these relationships had elements of admiration, envy and rivalry.

Commemorative stamp promoting CNC
In this story, KJI mentors Chang and is pleased in turn to see Chang mentoring young Shin. After hearing about how Chang nursed Shin back to health, he gazes at Chang proudly, "like a parent seeing his child all grown up" (성장한 자식의 모습을 보며 기뻐하고 대견해하는 친부모의 심정).
   “To think that the young engineer I once knew has now become a chief engineer, and a manager who mentors others (사람을 키우다) in his own right. No true revolutionary can be disinterested in mentoring others. And to mentor someone takes great compassion and love.” 
In almost every story where they appear, the Leaders are depicted as mentors - not merely guiding, but getting personally invested in the long-term life trajectories of key individuals. They are always there to offer the spark of inspiration at the critical moment so that the main character can make a breakthrough - be it forestry, weather prediction, mass games choreography, or 5-axis CNC. It is difficult for any character to achieve unalloyed success without some sort of help from the Leader along the way. That is why Kim-free stories tend to have much more ambiguous endings.