Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ryeoksa ui Daeha (력사의 대하) Pt 1 - North Korean fanfic about the Clintons

Ryeoksa ui Daeha is a full-length novel by Cheong Ki Jong that was published in North Korea in 1997. The title can be translated as either "Great River of History" or "Jumbo Prawn of History." Since North Korea refuses to use Chinese characters in their publications, there is really no way to definitively know which was intended, but I prefer to think it is the latter.

Author Cheong Ki Jong passed away in 2016.
Src: Yonhap
This novel is quite famous in North Korea, and the author, Cheong Ki Jong, received a rare eulogy by the KCNA when he passed away earlier this year.

Dr. Lim recommended this novel when I asked for stories depicting world leaders and current events; it is a fictional account of the events surrounding North Korea's threatened withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. She said there is a particularly good scene in which President Clinton is depicted cowering in fear under a blanket. Since this is a 500-page novel, I'll be skipping around and posting select segments.

The main story line follows the North Korean scientists and officials struggling to develop the nuclear program, with frequent assistance from Kim Jong Il. At several points, however, the POV switches to show the reaction of the Clinton administration to events. The following is an excerpt from the first Clinton chapter, which begins on page 111.

The Clintons in the White House
   On Friday evening, Clinton was planning his weekend vacation.
   His wife Hillary had been frantically making preparations since yesterday. She had set up their itinerary for the two-day trip, carefully allotting time for each activity - yachting, fishing, golf, duck hunting. They had even argued over how to get there; Clinton loved driving his car at high speeds through the countryside, but Hillary cast his preferences aside and decided that they would take the private plane to Camp David (known as the place where Eisenhower and Khrushchev held the Camp David Talks in 1959).
   This weekend would be his first vacation as president. Ever since Bill Clinton took office on January 23, he had been constantly busy making cabinet appointments, managing his administration, formulating his own political and military strategy (크린톤식 정치군사전략) for dealing with global instabilities, engaging in diplomacy and laying groundwork for the "American economic revival" that he had so emphatically promised during his campaign. There had been not a moment to relax.
   But at last they had a chance to catch their breath. Hillary was particularly happy. In her long career as a lawyer she had only dressed in a scholarly fashion, and her mind was always on her legal work; but since becoming First Lady she had begun to to dress elegantly and involve herself in various entertainments and parties, becoming almost vivacious.
   "Bill! About this weekend," she had said at breakfast that morning. "No talking politics or legal stuff while we're away. Got it? We're going to have a 'Return to the State of Nature' like Rousseau. That's the rule for this weekend."
   Then she had insisted that everything about their trip must be set according to her wishes, not just the itinerary but also the music and TV programs, and even the menu for every meal.
   Finally the time to leave was almost here.
   At 5pm, Clinton phoned from his office in the West Wing to the second floor living quarters, but nobody answered. He tried the number for his daughter's study room; still no answer. On a whim he tried the central hall phone number, and finally his daughter Chelsea picked up.
   "Chelsea!"
   "Dad?" Her voice was bubbling with excitement. "Dad, I finally did it!"
   "Did what?"
   "Guess! No, I'll tell you. I finally played 'Dreams of Love' all the way through!"
    12-year-old Chelsea had been working on Liszt's "Dreams of Love" for ages but had been stumped by the arpeggios in the latter section. It seems she had finally had a breakthrough today. It was easy to picture her pirouetting joyfully around the central hall, where the grand piano was.
   "Hey Dad, wanna hear it?" His daughter was already setting the receiver down by the keys. He could hear her excited breathing grow more distant. "Okay, here I go. Listen to this, Dad."
   Shortly, piano chords began emitting from the speakerphone on his desk. As his ears filled with the familiar tune that he had been forced to hear almost daily, his mind turned to other thoughts. In the iron-fenced rose garden on the South Lawn, his helicopter sat waiting. No doubt the house staff were busily loading all the luggage Hillary had packed at that very moment.
   Just then the door opened and in walked White House Chief of Staff Thomas McClarty. Clinton gave him a quizzical look. It was unusual for him to appear unannounced.
   "What is it, Tommy?"  Clinton had called him by this nickname since they were kids. They had grown up in the same town of Hope, Arkansas and had gone to kindergarten together.
   "Mr. President." Thomas' thick jowls quivered and his expression was stern. "There's one thing you need to see. I was going to wait until after the weekend but the CIA director insisted..."   
McClarty hands Clinton an AFP article reporting that South African President De Klerk has publicly revealed that his country developed six nuclear warheads. At first Clinton cannot understand why this has the CIA so upset; Western efforts to help South Africa develop the bomb had been an "open secret" for years. McClarty reminds him of the upcoming IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, and the fact that North Korea has been increasing its diplomatic lobbying in advance of this meeting.
   Thomas was watching him expectantly. "Mr. President?"
   "Tommy, when it's just you and me, you can drop the formality," he said, suddenly annoyed. "Who in the Cabinet is still around?"
   "Uh, the Interior Secretary, the Attorney General, Treasury, Commerce -"
   "Never mind!" The one he really needed, Secretary of State Christopher, was overseas. "Get me the Secretary of Defense and the CIA director, right now!"
   Just then Chelsea's voice rang sharply from the speakerphone. "Dad! You said you would listen, but you're talking again!"
   "Ah, Chelsea." Clinton ignored Thomas' grin. "Something just came up. What can you do, your dad's the president."
   "Ugh! Do you do anything but make speeches?"
   "Hey, listen to me, okay? I'm going to make time to hear it. Now's just not the time. Understand? Okay, Chelsea, bye now."
Clinton switched off the speakerphone and ordered McCarty to gather the two officials, plus the national security advisor, in the Roosevelt Room. He then turned to the bank of TV screens on one wall showing four networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN - and a live satellite feed provided by the DoD. From here, the President could watch events unfold anywhere at any time, down to "the pensive expression on the face of a farmer tilling wheat in a Russian village."

CNN was already abuzz about De Klerk's announcement. A panel was discussing the history of Israeli-South African nuclear collaboration, including suspicions that the "double flash" incident in 1979 was an Israeli nuclear test done with South Africa's cooperation. The CNN panelist noted that the US obtained uranium from South Africa in the 1940s and that France and Germany had also secretly collaborated with it on nuclear development in the past.

Clinton moved to the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing, which "was built by President Theodore Roosevelt to allow more space for his six children and the various beasts they raised." Defense Secretary Les Aspin, CIA Director James Woolsey, and his national security advisor were already waiting there and greeted him with anxious looks.
   Clinton took his seat and began the meeting.
   "We're here today to discuss North Korea's likely response at the IAEA meeting convening in Vienna.   In case they use South Africa's announcement to accuse the US and the IAEA of discriminatory treatment against them, we must ensure that this does not jeopardize 'Operation Focus'."
   The mood grew serious. "Operation Focus" was the Joint Chiefs' secret plan to attack the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon. Around the time of the Team Spirit 93 joint military exercises, they intended to launch a targeted strike against Yongbyon and then use the North Korean response (which would surely be swift and merciless) as an excuse to launch a full-fledged war.
   In order for this operation to succeed, the role of the IAEA was crucial. By using the meeting to highlight the lack of transparency of North Korea's nuclear program and  its refusal to allow "special inspections," they could further isolate the North and justify the attack to the international community.
   "Mr. President," the CIA director began. "Regardless of what North Korea does, the participants are already drafting their resolution."
   "Is that so?" Clinton asked, and immediately felt stupid. The CIA director doubtless had access even to drafts of the IAEA members' speeches.
   "Yes, sir. And if the North Koreans bring up South Africa and Israel, they'll only be implicating themselves. After all, their nuclear program is just as untransparent."
   Defense Secretary Aspin spoke up. "This might actually be a good thing. The more they complain about South Africa, the more they will alienate the Western countries that aided it, and we'll get even more support from them for our strategy."
   To this, the NSA countered, "The world is not just countries like France and Germany. When it comes to the nuclear issue, we have to worry about the influence this will have on problematic countries like India and Pakistan, and Algeria."
   As he listened to their arguments, Clinton began to quietly reconsider 'Operation Focus." The truth was that he did not consider war to be necessarily a desirable outcome. As the last election had proven, the most important issue for Americans was the economy....
   Clinton was well aware that he was neither a great epoch-making man nor a battle-blooded war hero. In his view there were four great American presidents: the independence war general Washington, of course; the civil war era leader Lincoln; FDR who led America in WWII; and Kennedy, who overcame the greatest tension of the Cold War when the Soviet Union tried to put missiles in Cuba. All four were heroes of their eras, with extraordinary courage and leadership capabilities.
   But why couldn't he, Clinton, be the same?
   People thought of him as a jolly guy and an optimist, but few knew that behind the smiling face lay a deep ambition and competitive spirit.... From his unhappy childhood under the care of his alcoholic stepfather, he had been driven by a desperate ambition. This ambition had allowed him to be selected to visit the White House as a youth, even shaking hands with his hero President Kennedy, and his sights had been set on the White House ever since....
The text continues in some detail about Clinton's education history and his early political career, noting that he was both the youngest and longest-serving state governor in US history. After "a ferocious campaign of one year and one month," he had finally become president. Now, his final competition was against the great presidents of the past whose names had been written large in history.

He thought of the long line of presidents who had been humiliated by North Korea - Truman and Eisenhower with the Korean War, Johnson and Nixon with the Pueblo and EC121 incidents. But now the world had changed, the Soviet Union had collapsed and North Korea was left isolated. Now was his chance to end them and, in so doing, write his name large in history.
   With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton regarded North Korea as a trifling matter. He made a public fuss about the advanced weaponry they possessed, but privately he wasn't too worried. America's superior firepower had been proven in the Gulf War.
   So what was there to worry about? A pretext for war, that's what. They could not allow a stain on the veil of democracy that America draped about itself. He must take care not to acquire the "mass murderer" label that had plagued Truman after giving the order to drop the first nuclear bomb.
   Just then Woolsey spoke up. "Mr. President, the important thing is to keep provoking the North Koreans so that their leadership loses their wits."
   "?" Clinton hadn't been following the earlier conversation closely and wasn't sure how to respond.
   Aspin stepped in to the pause. "History shows that wars are always preceded by some strong peace offensive." (강력한 평화공세)
   "What are you saying?" Woolsey demanded. "Are you calling 'Team Spirit' a peace offensive?" The mood grew tense.
   Just then the door opened and Hillary walked in, carrying a tea tray and smiling coquettishly. Hillary was always taking over from the servants and playing hostess whenever guests were around. This allowed her to snoop in on conversations.
   Traditionally the president's wife was not supposed to hold any official position or involve herself in the administration's work, but Hillary had never stuck to that rule. At this point she had become his most influential advisor.  It was said that most of his cabinet had been chosen or recommended by her.... With her wise advise and novel ideas, she had directly influenced policy and earned a formal seat in the cabinet meeting room....
   Her sudden entrance swept away the grim mood in the room. Clad in a black dress, she warmed up the room with her feminine scent and warm smile.  "Drink up, everyone," she said, delivering tea, coffee and soda around the room according to each man's preference. "But why the long faces?"
   "Madam, just now we feel like poets searching for inspiration," said Aspin.
   "Is that so?" she replied with another grin. "But do you really need to search for it? I thought inspiration had to come on its own."
   "Of course! It's just that..."
   "Just that the president is making you all search for it?"
   The room erupted in laughter at her wit.
   "Whatever you do," she continued, "Don't get too far ahead of yourselves or you'll just wear out. Why not sleep on it?" Clinton read the look she gave him to mean that she had given up on the weekend plans, and was proposing to continue discussing this important problem tomorrow.
   "Let's do this," Clinton turned to address the room. "We'll take the position of welcoming South Africa's decision to come clean on its nuclear program. But we'll use that to put pressure on North Korea. We'll strongly urge them to confess what they've been hiding, as South Africa did. The Vienna conference is key to making this work. The pretext for war that we've been seeking depends on that conference. By pointing out their lack of transparency and deepening suspicions about their nuclear program, we can heighten global concern about them. Then the whole world will support our 'Operation Focus'."
   After thinking a moment, Clinton called Thomas in and gravely commanded, "Inform all NSC staff. For the next month, no weekends off for anybody." The order to cancel vacations for all NSC staff, including himself, indicated that he intended to put an end to the nuclear issue - and North Korea - once and for all within the month.
   That left one more matter to address. "And the time has come to send our tactical nuclear bombers to the peninsula.... This will put huge psychological pressure on the North Korean leadership and fill their people with fear."
   At his words, everyone in the room knew that war in the Far East would soon be a reality.

Depiction of US Politics

For a North Korean novel, this passage paints a relatively nuanced portrait of the workings of executive power in the US. The president is depicted as not having much control over the media, making promises to get elected and then feeling obligated to make good on them, and having to appease more conservative elements in order to achieve his agenda. His cabinet members openly disagree and argue with one another in his presence. He is concerned about global opinion turning against the US at the IAEA meeting.

It is notable that the text points out Clinton's humble upbringings, even exaggerates them a little. In describing Clinton's rise to power, the key words "ambition" and "competition" are repeated many times. These concepts have a decidedly negative connotation in Korean popular culture. North and South Korea share a common trove of folk tales endorsing the narrative of the ambitious schemer who seeks to steal power away from the virtuous prince. This narrative can be seen in many South Korean dramas today.

Depiction of Hillary Clinton

The Clintons in the White House
Src: AP
Like Rosalynn Carter in "Maehok", Hillary Clinton is depicted here in mostly positive terms as a "wise" (현명한) and "creative" (기발한) advisor to her husband, if a bit controlling. Clearly, the author had been following US media coverage of Hillary's role early in her husband's administration and the criticisms of her exceeding her brief as First Lady.

What is most interesting is the way the author imagines Hillary using her feminine wiles to interpose into the world of male power. She comes in bearing a tray of drinks, sorted in advance according to each man's taste - a classic female chore in office spaces across East Asian countries. Her "feminine scent" (녀성특유의 아릿한 체취) and "coquettish smile" (애교있는 미소) are described as having a warming effect on the men in the room. She seems to be very adept at using her feminine characteristics to wheedle her way into the policy conversation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Jikjangjang ui Haru" (직장장의 하루) - A North Korean working mother tries to have it all

"Jikjangjang ui Haru" (A Shift Manager's Day) by Kang Bok Rye appeared in Chosun Munhak in August 1992.

This story, which was in the same Sallimteo collection as "Sarm ui Hyanggi," follows a day in the life of a working mom in North Korea. The protagonist, Kim Myeong Ok, is a manager at a textile factory, the wife of a lecturer at an agricultural college, and the mother of two elementary school children. The story follows Kim through a day in her harried life, as she deals with crises large and small. Along the way we are treated to glimpses of family life, work life in a big factory complex, inter-office dating, and even a North Korean wedding. Since the wedding comes at the end, I believe that makes this story technically a comedy in the Shakespearean sense.

This story was written in a fairly plain style with lots of dialogue and less flowery description, almost Hemingway-esque compared to "Sarm ui Hyanggi," and thus it was a much quicker read for me.

A North Korean textile factory.
Src: USA Today

The Plot

Kim Myeong Ok starts her day getting her young son and daughter ready for school. She has a brief conflict with her husband, who is distressed that he cannot find his good white shirt. She had just washed it last night, and it is not dry yet. He fumes that he needs it because he has to attend his students' presentations today; she points out that he should have told her that last night. He finally storms off in his less presentable gray shirt, without even fastening his tie.

Feeling inadequate, Kim goes to the office and throws herself into the day's work. She checks the machines that are to be prepped for a new pattern, and notes that three of the warp twills have not been switched out. She is informed that the new warp twill patterns are not ready yet, and so she confronts the supply manager. He lackadaisically remarks that delaying three looms is not such a big deal, to which she responds with a blistering speech about the vital importance of meeting deadlines and supplying cloth in a timely fashion "for the people." She orders a technician over to prepare the twills ASAP.

One of the assistant managers, briefing her on issues in the previous shift, mentions that a worker named Tanshil has missed two days of work. The reason? Her baby got sick and she had to tend to him in the hospital.
   "Comrade manager, how about shifting the women with babies to the service department? After all, how are they supposed to work properly when they're always needing to stay home with sick kids, or running off to the daycare center?"
   Kim Myong Ok knew that even with just two or three nursing mothers in every shift, the decline in productivity made the shift foremen unhappy and caused headaches for the assistant managers. But still, she couldn't accept Assistant Manager Cho's suggestion.
   "Comrade, your thinking is flawed. If you shift the young mothers to the service department, you'll be pulling the most experienced workers off the machines. We're short of skilled workers as it is, with the number of machines increasing."
   "But that's what the other managers are doing," Assistant Manager Cho replied stubbornly.
   "Well, they can do as they please, but I won't do it.  What we need to do is correct the mindset of the assistant managers who complain so much about nursing mothers," Kim said curtly, indicating that she would brook no further comment on the matter.
The assistant manager mentions in passing that he expects Tanshil will not be around much longer in any case; the gossip is that she is planning on quitting. Kim is startled to hear this; Tanshil is one of her best workers.

On her lunch break, Kim goes to visit Tanshil and her baby Young-ho in the hospital. She finds that it was just a minor stomach bug and the boy has almost completely recovered overnight. She chides Tanshil for being a nervous first-time mother, but also urges her to keep the boy in the clinic until he is completely better.

Then she broaches the subject that has been troubling her.
   "Tanshil, is it true that you are planning to quit?"
   Tanshil smiled nervously, and finally replied, "Young-ho's dad said I should quit, so..."
   "Your husband said that?" Kim repeated, surprised. She had been hoping it was not true. Tanshil avoided her gaze. "Well, what do you think? Will you do as he says?"
   "I don't know what I should do."
   "Tanshil, you are a skilled technician of complex multi-machines who can produce 400 meters of cloth in a day; if you just quit and go home what will you do? Just rely on your husband for everything? You know right now the whole factory is teeming with orders to increase cloth production; how could our most prized worker entertain such thoughts? I'll have to have a word with your husband."
   Tanshil lifted her gaze from the floor and quietly replied, "Comrade manager, it may be my husband saying it, but I too feel like I'm not taking proper care of him. And we're having fights over little things, I can't help feeling sorry."
Kim is suddenly reminded of the morning scene she had with her husband. She confesses to Tanshil that she has had similar thoughts herself, but still urges her to persevere, arguing there is little meaning (보람) in a life spent relying on one's husband. She then takes her leave and returns to the factory.

Upon returning, she makes her rounds on the floor and comes upon a heated exchange between a young factory repairman named Jeong Nam and a loom worker named Sun Ae. She can't hear what they're saying over the roar of the machines, and the two break apart as soon as they see her, but it is clear they were arguing about something. She tells Jeong Nam to follow her to the office where they can talk. Before she can even sit down, he makes an urgent request:
   "Comrade Manager, please transfer me to a different shift!"
   "Change shifts? What for?" Kim Myong Ok stared at him in surprise.
   "Just please, transfer me. I cannot work this shift anymore." Jeong Nam was adamant.
   "I can't transfer you without having a meeting to discuss the problem. We have to get the assistant manager's position. Anyway, why were you fighting with Sun Ae?"
   "Loom workers should take proper care of their machines. All they care about is churning out cloth, with no thought for how the machines are bearing up. That's why we were arguing."
   "You're right, loom workers should care for their machines as if they owned them. But you have to persuade them reasonably; what's the use of fighting? I'll have a word with Sun Ae."
Later on, however, Kim hears from the assistant manager that there was another explanation for the fight. Jeong Nam and Sun Ae are in love, but rumor has it Sun Ae's parents have arranged for her to marry some guy in Deokcheon. The two have been fighting ever since.

The major conflict of the day occurs around 4pm, when the statistician runs the numbers and find that they are going to be 300 meters shy of the factory's 24-hour quota. The daily quota sets the total cloth output in meters that must be produced by all the shifts summed together each day; this number is set by the Party and comes due at the end of the day shift, at 5pm.

The other office workers seem unperturbed by this shortfall, but Kim springs into action. For her, the daily quota is a matter of law and "a reflection of the ambitions of the Party" (당적 량심의 거울). She devises a plan to select thirty of the fastest machines and assign them an extra 10 meters each, to be completed in the next hour. She busily runs about collecting spools as the final minutes tick by, and the statistician announces the final tally: 56 meters above quota! The factory floor erupts with cheers.

As the shift ends, Kim gets a visit from Sun Ae, the young woman who had been seen fighting with the repairman.
   "Comrade Sun Ae, is it true that your parents are sending you to Deokcheon to get married?"
   At her manager's blunt question, Sun Ae's eyes took on a mischievous light. "No, I told them no way. I don't see any reason to leave the town where I was born and raised."
   "Then why distance yourself from Jeong Nam? He's a good man and a go-getter. He'll be a senior technician in two years."
   "Oh, not you too. What did I tell him? He walks right on by even when my machine's service light is blinking, of course I'm going to get mad."
   Kim's heart brightened as if the sun had just shone through a break in the clouds.
   "Then Jeong Nam is clearly just nitpicking! And to think he asked to transfer shifts..."
   "He did what? That's ridiculous!" Sun Ae's smile disappeared.
   Kim grinned at Sun Ae's sudden seriousness. "I'll have a word with him tomorrow. I'm sure it will be fine. You must be tired, head on home."
   "I'll have some words with him too! I had no idea he was so petty," Sun Ae said primly, turning to leave.
   "Sun Ae, this isn't pettiness. When two people are in love, they have all sorts of misunderstandings. Don't be too hard on Jeong Nam when you see him. He's a good man."
After the end of the shift, Kim attends a general meeting with the other staff members, and finally leaves just as it is getting dark. There is a wedding tonight that she is determined to attend. The groom is a factory mechanic recently discharged from the army, and his father Deok Bae works in the supply office. She hurries along the road leading from the factory to the residences, but midway there she decides to drop in quickly at home and fix her kids some dinner first.
    Her 10-year-old daughter popped out of the kitchen to greet her, wielding a kitchen knife. Kim Myeong Ok's eyes went wide.
   "Eun Hee, what are you doing?"
   "Chopping onions," her daughter proudly replied.
   "You're doing what?"
   "Dad told me to."
   "Your father is home?"
   "Yep. He's in the bathroom washing Gyeong Su."
   Kim Myeong Ok wondered what could have happened to bring him home so early. With a twinge of guilt she remembered their argument that morning. The children's bags and picture books were scattered haphazardly about the living room. Kim quickly removed her shoes and straightened things up.
   By day she was a manager of several hundred workers producing tens of thousands of meters of fabric daily, but by night she was a wife and a mother of two young children.
   Finishing with the living room, she peeked in the bathroom. Just as her daughter had promised, there was her husband washing her son's face.
   Gyeong Su turned his soapy face up to greet her and shouted, "Mom, I beat Chol Nam!"
   "Be still. Wash you face first and then tell her." her husband scolded.
   Kim turned to her husband. "Why are you home so early?"
  "I can leave early from time to time." 
Her husband informs her that Deok Bae was already by asking after her, wanting to know whether she would be at the wedding. He tells her he has things under control at home, and urges her to hurry along to the party. She insists on fixing the children dinner first. In a surprising character twist, her husband tells her that he can handle the housework tonight, Eun Hee is old enough to start helping a little, and it is wrong to keep an old man waiting. Kim suddenly realizes that this is his way of saying  that her work relationships are important and he wants to support her.  Deeply moved, Kim quickly changes clothes and hurries off to the wedding.

Just like in South Korea, the term "wedding" (결혼식) seems to mean "reception." We do not see any ceremony or exchange of vows, just the afterparty. The reception is held in father-of-the-groom Deok Bae's apartment, which is laid out for a banquet. All the familiar faces from the factory are gathered around tables drinking soft drinks and liquor. People move around pouring liquor into their friends' cups while making little speeches to them; for instance, as Deok Bae fills Kim's glass he recounts how he knew her as a little girl, and congratulates her on rising to become a superb manager.  This is pretty similar to what I've seen at weddings I've attended in Japan and South Korea.

At some point, Kim Myong Ok stands to address the room at large.
"Comrades, on this happy day, I have something I'd like to say to the young people seated here. There is something you must know and always remember about Deok Bae and all the grandfathers in our supply department (자재과 아바이들) .  During the wartime, these men dug air-raid shelters into ravines and worked there weaving military uniforms for the troops. After the war, they endured many hardships amid the ashes to build our factory, and developed our country's textile industry into what it is today. These elders, who were once the managers, assistant managers, core workers and technicians, were this factory's central pillars and deserve our utmost respect. We must shoulder their burden and further develop this industry. We must feel a greater sense of honor and responsibility for our work, so that our whole nation can take even greater pride in our magnificent textile workers."
The reception concludes with a performance by the factory accordion band, which has the whole room on their feet dancing and singing along. Kim feels upbeat as she walks home from the party. It's a tough life, she reflects, with never a moment to rest and relax - but it's because of all her hard work that she can truly enjoy nights like tonight. 

Main Themes and Intent

Similar to "Sarm ui Hyanggi," this story seems primarily intended to educate people about ideal managerial behavior while raising consciousness about gender issues in the workplace. Kim Myeong Ok is represents the ideal, both as a woman and as a socialist worker. Like a lot of social realist fiction, the story tries to further emphasize the protagonist's perfection by surrounding her with sub-par individuals. As a result, Kim ends up seeming like the only person in the factory's management with any common sense or work ethic.

Kim Myeong Ok displays several ideal behaviors. She is attentive to the pressures in her workers' private lives and takes personal responsibility for helping them. She is keenly aware of her most valuable workers and works hard to keep them on the team. She also respects deadlines and quotas as the law; the rest of her staff seem content to let things slide. The primary sin of her colleagues is their complacency; Kim has to repeatedly remind them of the importance of their product and the customers they serve.

The urgency behind this theme is easy to grasp: North Korea needs its women to wholeheartedly participate in vital areas of the workforce, without being slowed down by family commitments. Kim's feelings of inadequacy about her homemaking duties are depicted as irrational, if common, sentiments shared by her junior worker Tanshil and many others. She knows in her heart that she is not really at fault for not having her husband's shirt ready, but she instinctively blames herself. Her conversation with Tanshil at the hospital helps her to realize that the real problem is one of correcting her own consciousness.

Frankly, the at-home conflict seems rather unfinished. Tanshil's husband seems like kind of a jerk in the morning, runs off in a huff, and then reappears near the end of the story as the very image of an attentive and understanding husband. There is no interaction in between to explain how he reached this epiphany. I get the feeling something got left on the cutting room floor with that sub-plot.

Workplace Personnel and Staff

Through the story one can get a sense of the age and gender dynamics at play in North Korean work assignments. It appears from the story as if all loom workers (직포공) are female; various images found online seem to confirm this. The repair technicians (수리공) in the story are all male. Interestingly, all the workers in the supply department (자재과) are referred to by the honorific title "아바이" implying that they are all elderly men.

Since Korean has no gendered pronouns and characters are often referred to by their titles rather than names, one often has to rely on context and style of speech to determine gender. The supply manager (준비직장장) with whom Kim argues about the warp twills appears to be older than her and male, based on his style of speech.  The unnamed statistician (통계원) is young and speaks rather formerly, so it is hard to definitively ascertain gender. The head technician (책임기사) and assistant manager (부직장장) are also young but I'm guessing they are both male based on their names, Yeong-seop and Seong-man respectively.

The story offers a few glimpses into some characters' career paths. Kim Myong Ok was a loom worker for 12 years, five of which were spent attending a light industry college, before becoming a manager. She got married and had her children when she was in college. The head technician graduated the previous fall from a light industry college and was dispatched (배치되여) to the factory's tech repair department (기술준비실) initially as a temporary worker, but became head technician for unknown reasons just a short time ago.  The young technician Jeong Nam is described as highly motivated and is currently attending the factory college (공장대학); in a few years he is expected to become a senior technician (기사). In the episode with Sun Ae threatening to move to Deokchon, it is mentioned that it would take 5-6 years to train another skilled loom worker of her caliber. The bridegroom, old Deok Bae's son, was discharged last year from the army and promptly assigned to his father's factory as a repair technician, where he already shows great promise.

North Korean vocabulary

I discovered an easy way to determine if a vocabulary word is North Korean or just Korean: use Naver's 국어 dictionary tool and look for the [북한어] tag in the definition. Here are some of the North Korean words I learned in this story:


  • 직장장  A unit manager in a workplace
  • 혼타공장 a spinning mill in which different cotton fibers are spun together.
  • 따지다  To burst a piece of stitching (means something very different in South Korean)
  • 나뉜 옷 A woman's two-piece suit
  • 시뚝거리다 To sulk and be displeased
  • 오똘거리다  To be flippant and quick to anger
  • 아바이  "father" in the Kyeongsang dialect; frequently used in North Korea as a respectful title for elderly men. In this story, all the workers in the supply department are referred to as 아바이
  • 고뿌  cup (my North Korean student specifically mentioned this as an example of a Japanese "borrowed" word, which is kind of funny because in Japanese it is considered foreign and is spelled using Katakana. She believes North Koreans still use more Japanese words than South Koreans)



Friday, December 2, 2016

"Dokdo" (독도) - Love, loss and fishing on a disputed islet

The islets of Dokdo
The short story "Dokdo" appeared in Chosun Munhak in August 2006, right around the time the Dokdo/Takeshima tussle was heating up between South Korea and Japan. I remember this well, as I was living in Japan at the time. The Japanese prefecture that claims the islands of Takeshima as its jurisdiction proclaimed a "Takeshima Day" festival, and South Korean media blew up overnight. South Korea refers to the islands as "Dokdo" and has stationed a garrison there since 1954.

I picked this story because I wanted to see how the Dokdo controversy is depicted in North Korea, which also technically claims sovereignty over the islets (along with all South Korean territory).

This story is told in the story-within-a-story-within-a-story style; a historian, being interviewed in the present day, recounts a story he heard from an old fisherman he interviewed years ago, about events that occurred on Dokdo during the Japanese colonial period. The narrative thus jumps back and forth between the three different times and settings. The fisherman's speech is rendered in a thick Gyeongsang dialect.

The Plot

The historian Hyun Young Ryul had been commissioned by the Kumsung Youth Publishing Company to write an article directed at young people, explaining Dokdo's historical status as Korean territory. Looking over the papers he had been writing, Hyun suddenly felt he wasn't adequately expressing what he wanted to say.

Just then his thoughts are interrupted by a visit from a young publishing representative named Kim Jong Min who has come to interview him.
   "Far from abandoning their ambitions for seizing Dokdo, the Japanese reactionaries have grown more frantic. A clear example is their 2007 decision to use middle and high school texts claiming that Dokdo is Japanese. That's why our publisher has decided to print materials explaining the historical, geographic, and environmental components of the territorial issue so that youth to understand it more clearly. If time permits, I'd like you to discuss it in more detail." 
Hyun proceeds with a lengthy, rather pedantic description of the islands: their geographic features, ecology, mineral resources, distance from Ulleungdo and the mainland, etc. This section seems dedicated to simply educating readers who might not know what exactly Dokdo is.

North Korean stamps celebrating Dokdo
(Src: Chosun Ilbo)
As he speaks, Hyun is suddenly reminded of an interview he conducted many years ago with an old fisherman named Hwang Hak Chun who had been born and raised on Ulleungdo.
   "I had a dream last night that a historian from the capital would come to see me," the old man said, fiddling with his cigarette. "But I have no idea how this old illiterate could be of any help."
   "Please, just share anything about life on Ulleungdo. The lifestyle, the scenery, people and incidents you remember, things like that."
   "Ha, what nonsense. History is about great people who defeated foreign enemies, like General Eulji Mundeok and Admiral Ri Sun Shin, not some old guy who lived on some island."
   As he started to turn away, Hyun asked the old man if he had ever chanced to visit Dokdo.
   "Of course. Not just to visit, but I lived there in the summer," he said, lighting a cigarette. "Even when dirt fills my eyes, I'll never forget that place... You could say that I buried my youth, my love, and indeed my whole life on those islets. When I was young, I fell in love for the first time there."
When Hwang was growing up on Ulleungdo, there was a young girl in the house next door named Somnyon. A few years before national liberation, he and Somnyon both lost their fathers on the same day, when the two went sailing together and got swept out to sea. Hwang's household had a strong young worker and was able to make ends meet, but Somnyon's family was having trouble.

Hwang and Somnyon began working together to provide for their families. As they spent more and more time together out on the water, they developed feelings for each other. One flirtatious episode is recounted, involving skinny-dipping and a pair of fishing goggles. The pair eventually decided to marry. However, it was still a struggle to support their combined families. So Hwang decided to set out for Dokdo, where he had heard there was a wealth of abalone, sea urchin and sea cucumber in the surrounding waters.

"Dokdo is our land since ancient times!"
(Src: The Asia-Pacific Journal)

Hwang and Somnyon made many trips to Dokdo over that summer, staying overnight in a stone hut on a narrow gravel spit. It was on Dokdo, as the couple sat outside their hut counting the stars one evening, that Somnyon revealed she was pregnant.

As Somnyon's pregnancy progressed, Hwang tried to talk her out of exerting herself so much, but she insisted on accompanying him on one more fishing trip to Dokdo.

When they arrived, they found a fishing boat was already there. It was Hwang's buddy Myongduk. The fishermen called out happily to each other, and agreed to fish separate areas. Hwang deposited Somnyon at the campsite where she could prepare to cook their dinner. Hwang then spent the afternoon fishing alone, and was just about to turn toward the island for supper when suddenly, gunshots sounded.

Paddling frantically toward his campsite, he spotted a strange motorboat floating between the two islands. At the campsite, he found the abandoned pot still boiling. Somnyon was collapsed on the ground a little ways away, with a wound on her leg gushing blood.
   "You bastards! How could you shoot a living person?" Hwang raised his fists and screamed. The Japs, who had been busily loading a seal into their boat, turned and gaped at him.
   One fellow who seemed to understand some Korean came to the front of the boat and called out, "Oh, was someone injured? That's not our fault. You folks get mixed in with the seals, and it's hard to tell you apart. Koreans and seals are so much alike."
   "What? You thieving bastards, you think Koreans are the same as seals?"
   He had heard that the oenom had been making huge profits from seal hunting on Dokdo, but this was his first run-in with them. It was bad enough that they came creeping over to another country's islands like a thieving street cat, but to actually hurt people?  These were not simply thieves, they were bandits and beasts! Hwang thought: Oh, if only I had a gun, I would rain fire on their heads until I felt better...
   "You bastards, what gives you the right to come to someone else's island, hunt seals and shoot people?"
    At Hwang's relentless scolding, the Japs stopped what they were doing and came crowding to the front of their boat. The one who spoke Korean put on a bold front for his buddies: "This is Japan's land, Takeshima. Don't you know that?"
   "Don't talk nonsense. Dokdo has been Korean land for generations. Since when did it become yours?"
   "And what is Korea? There is no more Korea, so how could it be a Korean island?" The Japanese laughed. "Guy doesn't even have a country, and he says this is his country's island..."
Myongduk had also come paddling over at the sound of the gunshot. When he saw that Somnyon had been shot, the irascible fisherman flew into a rage and paddled over to the Japanese vessel, shouting obscenities. The Japanese fired several warning shots to keep him away, but when he started beating their boat with an oar one of them lowered his gun defensively, and accidentally shot him in the head.

Seeing his friend slump motionless in the boat, Hwang momentarily forgot his wife and rushed over to help. The Japanese took advantage of the confusion to beat a hasty retreat. Hwang turned to Myongduk's young companion and told him to make haste back to Ulleungdo to get medical care. After seeing his wounded friend off, he returned to his wife.

Her face was pale from loss of blood, but the more immediate problem was that the shock had sent her into labor. Hwang knew she would not survive long without help, but the nearest midwife was on Ulleungdo. Desperate, he began trying to load his wife onto the boat, but she just moaned and shook her head.
"If I'm going to die, I want to die here on Dokdo. This is where we fell in love, and I feel at peace here."
Somnyon finally gave birth, and then passed out from pain and blood loss. Hwang shook her awake, pleading with her to live, but it was no use. With her dying breath, she asked Hwang to take care of their baby, and bury the placenta on Dokdo.

Hwang accommodated his wife's dying wish, burying the placenta under the rocky shoal near their cottage, and marking the spot with a large rock. He then set off for Ulleungdo, with his newborn son squalling for milk and his dead wife lying motionless beside him. Upon arrival, he learned that his buddy Myongduk succumbed to his wounds en route as well.

Hearing that Japanese poachers had killed two people, the Ulleungdo islanders marched to the township offices to demand justice, but the (Japanese) township officials replied that since they had let the assailants go there was no way to find them and charge them. However, noting that none of them had obtained permits to fish on Dokdo, they charged Hwang and Myongduk's young assistant with trespassing and put them both in jail.

After languishing in jail for a month, Hwang returned to find that his baby had survived in his mother's care, although they had had to beg for help feeding him. Soon after that, he got his draft notice from the Japanese military. Hwang knew that without his support his entire family and Somnyon's surviving family would starve. With no other choice, he left to seek his fortune on the mainland, promising his mother he would send for them as soon as he could.

Hwang traveled north as far as Chongjin, where he found work as a day laborer. He sent word back to Ulleungdo with an acquaintance, and his mother brought the family to join him. Somehow, they survived to the end of the war.

   [Hwang recalls to Professor Hyun]: That August, the anti-Japanese struggle was victorious, the Japs were crushed and we were liberated. I remember it like yesterday, sweeping through the streets with my buddies, cheering "long live!" for General Kim Il Sung at the top of my lungs. The first spring after liberation, General Kim Il Sung visited Chongjin and held a huge celebration for the international worker's holiday on May 1st, declaring that the workers were now the owners of the country. I joined the march on that first May Day, waving the red flag proudly, and felt it was truly wonderful to be alive.
   To think that this poor fisherman, a draft dodger without a country, could become one of the owners of the new nation...  At that moment I realized that in order to live like human beings, people need a country of their own, led by a great General who serves the people as if they were heaven.
   Through all that, I never forgot Ulleungdo and Dokdo. I longed to spread my wings on my native island, free from the treacherous oenom. I kept thinking I would go back soon, but I waited too long and then the American bastards blocked us off at the 38th parallel. I wonder if I will ever get to go home again, and see Somnyon's grave...
At this point Hwang broke off telling his story, as there was a knock on the door. In walked a tall young soldier in a neat navy uniform. Hwang revealed that this was none other than his son, Tae Seok, now all grown up. He had been granted leave to visit home as a reward for his stellar performance in training.
"Professor, listen to this old man's words. Tae Seok, you sit and listen too. We say that Ulleungdo and Dokdo belong to our country, but that isn't just because it's written so in books and on maps. It's our land because our Korean placenta is buried there, and our sweat and our tears and dreams permeate the land."
Back in the present day, continuing his story to the young interviewer, Professor Hyun confesses that he recently met Hwang's son Tae Seok again, at a naval base on the East coast. The young soldier had grown to become a distinguished-looking naval commander.
    "Father passed away several years ago at 80, having never again seen his hometown on Ulleungdo. Even after you left, he kept on reminding me, 'You are a son of Dokdo. Your placenta is still buried there, under that large rock I left as a marker. He made me swear that I would protect it, not just as my duty but to preserve my parents' honor."
   His eyes scanning the distant horizon, Tae Seok continued: "Nowadays the Japanese reactionaries are acting completely ridiculous - declaring "Takeshima Day," printing distorted textbooks, claiming Dokdo in their 2005 Defense White Paper, and whatnot. They've even mobilized their warships and jets to make practice landing drills. They've made illegal intrusions in the area around Dokdo: 45 times in 1993, 63 in 1994, 85 in 1995, and 58 times in just 9 months from January to September 1999. It gets worse every year.... We soldiers will never forgive those who infringe on our national sovereignty."
Long after the interviewer leaves, Professor Hyun sits at his window contemplating that old fisherman's tale. The story ends as he takes up his pen and begins to write.

Territory as destiny

The story cleverly connects the Dokdo issue with the history of the Korean nation and the threat of becoming "a people without a country" (망국노) Several times in his story the old fisherman associates his sorrows with the fact that he had "lost his country." The Japanese who mock him after shooting his wife make a point of reminding him that he has no country, and therefore no claim, to the islets.

In concluding his remarks to his interviewer, Professor Hyun warns,
If we allow even a slight infringement of our country's sovereignty, the country will be taken away piece by piece and we will become a people without a country, penniless, aimless and scattered. Dokdo may be just a few rocky islets, but it is not small. It is a precious land imbued with our people's honor and infused with our forefathers' blood.
Interestingly, not once does the story mention the fact that the islands are currently occupied by the South Korean military. Clearly there are no North Koreans there, as the old fisherman bemoans being unable to visit either Dokdo or his ancestral home on Ulleungdo. And the Japanese clearly do not hold the islands, as they are supposedly planning an invasion. But the reader is left unaware of the current defensive fortifications on the islets, and the fact that they have become a major tourist destination for patriotic South Koreans.

Indeed, the reader is left with the strong impression that the islands are somehow being defended by the North Korean military. For instance, the old fisherman's parting words to Professor Hyun are:
"Don't worry, Professor. As long as we have General Kim Jong Il's revolutionary Songun leadership and our invincible Korean People's Army, Dokdo will remain our land. This is not just me talking; it is backed up by our soldiers, who don't know how to make empty threats."
Legal background for Dokdo

As this story seems primarily aimed at educating North Koreans about the details of the conflict, the narrator takes several long asides to reflect on the details. At the outset, we find the historian Hyun Young Ryul alone in his office, contemplating historical patterns:
  Taking advantage of the "Unyang Incident" that they had fabricated, the Japanese Imperialists threatened the feudal government of Joseon (리조봉건정부) and forced them into the Kanghwa Treaty. Then, by Article 5 of the Eulsa Treaty, they seized control of Korea. Even after their regime collapsed and they were chased out, at every opportunity they plotted to reinvade. Looking over the long list of such incidents, one can uncover a clear historical pattern.
  The recent moves by the Japanese imperialists to talk of our land of Dokdo, in the seas southeast of Ulleungdo, as "common territory" reflect a continuation of this pattern that cannot be overlooked.
  The Dokdo problem has continued for over 100 years, but never before have our people been so united and gutsy in responding to it.
   What has awakened our people so abruptly? In this era when we guard our independence like our lives, it is imperative that we view the Dokdo matter as not merely a territorial issue but as a serious political issue.
Later, in the midst of Hyun's story about the fisherman, his interviewer interrupts:
   "Professor! Lately these Japanese reactionaries have been going on about the Shimane Prefecture Edict 40, saying it 'proves' the legal basis of their right to Dokdo. Could you explain that in more detail?"
   Hyun Young Ryul replied without a moment's hesitation: "Edict 40 was concocted in February 1905 by the Shimane prefectural government to establish Takeshima - that is, Dokdo - as part of their prefecture. This tricky document is not worth even discussing. More importantly, we should be asking ourselves what the Dokdo issue signifies, and what its wider implications are.
   "Of course, the Japanese imperialists' designs toward Korea have always been the same, but we can assess that the Dokdo issue only really began around 1905. A Japanese whaler from Shimane named Nakai Yosaburo had been illegally hunting seals in the surrounding waters since 1903, making huge profits every year. By incorporating Dokdo into Shimane Prefecture he hoped to gain a monopoly on seal hunting. The Japanese government, which was just waiting for the chance to acquire Korea, approved Nagai's lease petition in January 1905 and determined that Dokdo, as "unclaimed land," could be incorporated into Japanese territory. Accordingly, on February 22 of that year Shimane Prefecture concocted Edict 40 and unilaterally incorporated Dokdo as its territory.
   "But was Dokdo really 'unclaimed land'? Already 1500 years have passed since the land of Usan (including Ulleungdo and Dokdo) was absorbed into the Shilla kingdom in 512 AD, as is recorded in the History of the Three Kingdoms (삼국사기). According to the basic principles of international law, a state can only claim a territory as 'unclaimed land' if its people were the first to inhabit it. By that principle, our country had already claimed ownership of Ulleungdo and Dokdo 1500 years ago.
   "Furthermore, the feudal Chosun government reaffirmed its possession of Dokdo in accordance with modern international law in October 1900 when King Kojong issued Edict 41, proclaiming Dokdo and Ulleungdo as part of Kangwon Prefecture."
This description matches pretty closely with South Korea's arguments supporting its own claim. One slight difference is that the North Koreans seem to more readily acknowledge the role played by King Kojong and the fading Chosun Dynasty. As a "feudal" government, it is regarded by the DPRK as illegitimate, and thus any legal documents they may have signed can be freely acknowledged and condemned without risk of contradiction.

Explaining Dokdo's value

Early on, Hyun explains to his interviewer that the area around Dokdo is rich in natural resources, not only fisheries but liquefied natural gas, "the oil of the sea." Later, after telling the fisherman's tale, Hyun elaborates on why he believes Japan covets the islands so much:
"There is no historical or legal grounds to doubt our country's claim to Dokdo. Yet the Japanese imperialists continue to make trouble about it. It is vital for us to understand the source of their ambitions.
   "Japan's desire for Dokdo stems from two root causes. The first is economic; they want to monopolize the rich natural resources in the waters and seabed around Dokdo, while using the islets as a base to redraw the ocean territory and push their exclusive economic zone closer to our country.
   "The second is their military aspirations. During the Russo-Japanese war they used it as a refueling base to defeat the czarist Russian fleet, and in the same way they intend to use it again when they invade the north and re-take Korea. In other words, the Japanese militarists want to use Dokdo as a military beachhead (군사적교두보) to re-invade Korea, on the way to finally achieving their old dream of conquering all of Asia."

Hyun then proceeds with a lengthy historical explanation of the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" (대동아 공영권), Japan's ambitious plan for regional domination which he believes it has never truly abandoned.


Historical references

I was mildly surprised to see casual references to Eulji Mundeok and Yi Sun Shin in the story. I had been led to understand that North Koreans typically don't learn much about historical people or incidents unless members of the Kim family are directly involved. For instance, I recently discovered that one of my North Korean students was unaware of the story of Perry's Black Ships, although he knew all about the General Sherman.

North Korean geographic terms and labels

This story filled me in on all the various terms for Japanese, including the following:
일제   Japanese imperialists
일본반동들    Japanese reactionaries
일본군국주의자    Japanese militarists
왜놈   oenom, ethnic slur for Japanese

In addition, I learned these unfamiliar terms:
리조봉건정부  Feudal government of Choseon (i.e. the Choseon Dynasty)
짜리 로시야   Czarist Russia

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Sarm ui Hyanggi": A North Korean's take

Where the Cuckoo Bird Sings,
A collection of North Korean short stories
published by Sallimteo
As mentioned in an earlier post, I have received some help in translating difficult passages from the two North Korean refugees I teach English to through the auspices of the NGO, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). TNKR links interested foreigners with North Koreans living in Seoul for one-on-one English tutoring, as a way to help fill the gaps in their early education and help them compete with their South Korean peers.  Both of my students are young refugees in their 20s who have been living in South Korea for several years and are now attending college, and their English ability is already quite formidable.

One of my students, who goes by the name Jade, expressed particular fascination with the stories I was reading. When she saw the Sallimteo collection of North Korean short stories, her eyes got wide as saucers and she exclaimed, "This is just the way people in the North talk!" It seemed quite novel for her to see a story written in the style of normal North Korean speech, without the usual stilted phrases praising the Party and the leaders. She asked me where she could find such a book. I told her it was out of print, but I could lend her my copy for a few weeks. In exchange, I asked her to write a short composition in English on her reactions to the story Sarm ui Hyanggi, summarized here. Here is what she wrote (edited slightly for clarity):
   After reading the short story written in North Korea, I tried to find some words to understand my feelings about the story. I got fresh inspiration because of the content of this story, which is mainly about gender equality. This writer emphasized the social position of women and placed high emphasis on the challenges women face in advancing their careers in society. But this sort of emphasis is not really typical in North Korea. I do not mean that women have no chance to try to build their careers; they can study if they want to. But the reason I got fresh inspiration was that I had never heard about gender equality while in North Korea, beyond learning the importance of women’s roles in supporting men, who are the ones expected to serve the society of Kim Jong Il.
   In addition, I was really fascinated by the phrases and expressions used in this story. The subject matter and the expressions were really fresh for me.  Also, the writer only mentioned Kim Jong Il once. Compared with the books that I had read in my life before leaving North Korea, this story was completely different. In the strict sense, I think this book was written for the outside world. Some of my other friends from North Korea agree with me.
   I am happy to have the chance to read this book as a North Korean in South Korea.
We debated for some time about the intended audience of these stories. Jade said that she believed they were written for the purpose of promoting North Korea to South Koreans and overseas Koreans, since she herself had never seen this kind of writing in North Korea. I felt skeptical, pointing out that the stories depicted a less-than-perfect socialist society and it was only through smuggling that such materials were able to make their way into South Korea. But I must defer to her insights, since she knows far more than I do.



Monday, November 14, 2016

"Sarm ui Hyanggi" (삶의 향기): Love among the Scientists of North Korea

This week's story appeared in a collection of "Best North Korean Short Stories" published by Sallimteo (살림터) Press here in South Korea in 1994. Incidentally, Sallimteo was investigated in 2000 for violations of South Korea's National Security Law; its chief representative was arrested and numerous "original North Korean documents" were confiscated from his home.

The original story was published in Chosun Munhak in November 1991, and the contents are considerably more literary in character than the stories I've reviewed previously and of less obvious propaganda value. The prose is also much more challenging to my limited reading comprehension abilities, with lots of unfamiliar idiomatic expressions and unusual metaphors. The characters are relatively "ordinary" people, a family of engineers, and there are no appearances by members of the Kim family.

A North Korean couple. Source: KEI
The story is unusual in presenting a more nuanced representation of gender roles in North Korea today that stands somewhat in contrast to the official propaganda. Like most communist states, North Korea has historically boasted about making great advances in gender equality, breaking free of the "feudal vestiges" that still hinder capitalist societies and giving women equal opportunities in the workforce while socializing many of the burdens of childrearing. The reality, as we know from numerous reports, is quite different - this is one of the themes of Dr. Lim's current research.

This story depicts a society still grappling with the challenges of gender equality in the very male-dominated field of engineering. It also illuminates some different views of marriage and the qualities of an ideal partner among the North Korean intellectual class.

The Plot

Ahn Cheon Ju, a successful engineer, returns from a month-long business trip to find his wife waiting at home with some startling news. She shows him a photo she found among their son's things, showing him with a pretty young girl. "It seems Young Hon has a girlfriend," she tells him. He asks her how she can be sure, and she confesses that she came across their son's diary when cleaning his room.

Ahn is nonplussed; just two months ago his son had brusquely rejected the girl he had arranged to introduce to him, the daughter of a colleague. The boy had always been willful; Ahn recalls a time when he tried to get rid of a corn in his foot by digging it out himself with a knife. He came home with a bloody rag around the wound and was roundly scolded about the dangers of infection. Nevertheless soon after that he tried again, this time pouring lye over the wound and ending up in the hospital. When his father asked if he'd learned his lesson, he replied: "Yes, I got rid of the corn, and the lye killed it down to the root."

Ahn asks his wife what she thinks of this match, and she says if Young Hon likes her then she approves. Ahn wonders what happened to the dutiful wife who "followed his lead in everything and never had a contrary opinion."  He quizzes her about this girl, and learns that she apparently works in the same research lab as their son.

This makes Ahn think back to how he met his own wife.  30 years ago, when he was working on his thesis, he spent several months at a provincial machine factory. As a young bachelor who had lost his parents in the war, he relied on the kindness of a young woman, a circuitry tracer living in the factory dormitory,  to assist with the various "trifling tasks of single life" (독신생활에서 제기는 자질부레한 일들). The woman always kindly complied, and over time he developed feelings for her, eventually asking her to come back with him to Pyongyang. As his wife, she had helped edit his papers and illustrate his designs, contributing greatly to his professional success.

Hoping to find a similarly helpful wife for his son, he tried to fix him up with the daughter of a friend, but the boy rejected her. Now he has apparently found a girl on his own, one who might not be any professional help to him and might have her own goals.
   Ahn Cheon Ju was worried. When the boy graduated middle school, he refused to apply to an industrial school where his father could help him, and instead chose machinist's college, rambling on about independence and free will and such. Where did he get this stubbornness from?
 Ahn repairs to his son's room to think, and comes across the diary. A little guiltily, he begins to read it. First he reads about his son's reaction to the date he set him up on.
  Out of consideration for my father's honor, since he already set up a time and place, I had hefted the obligation like a heavy load on my shoulders and agreed to it, so now I had no choice but to meet and talk to her a bit. Of course, as a bachelor I did feel a little bit of curiosity about her.
  To my apologetic greeting that she must be busy, she replied, "Not at all, we had an appointment. And it got me out of volunteer labor constructing the road to unification (통일거리 건설지원사업) for a while," she said with a grin.
  Yet... despite her blunt speech, our conversation was stunted and clumsy.
  As we parted, I suddenly thought to ask something that had been bothering me since I left home. "Comrade, what do you want to do in the future?"
   "Do?"
   "You know, what hopes and dreams do you have?"
   "Oh, you! What would a woman like me ever want to do?" She answered glibly. She didn't even seem to be embarrassed or resentful of her powerlessness to do anything but follow the fate she had been born to as a woman and could not avoid.

Ahn feels that this is all rather silly of his son, expecting a mere girl to have some big life goal.  But the diary continues for several pages on this theme, writing that "blindly obeying and following is not how two people combine into a single cell working for the good of society." (The notion of a "social cell" - 사회의 한 세포 - is a recurrent theme in North Korean writing).

This reminds Ahn of something that happened early in his marriage. Working side by side, one day he absently reached over and knocked some papers off his wife's desk, revealing several brilliantly drawn illustrations underneath; one showed a family picnicking amid an autumn leaves. He asked his wife where these came from, and she replied that she drew them in her spare time. He had been amazed to discover that his wife had this hidden talent that she never spoke of.

Next, he reads about how Young Hon first met his beau, at work. His first invention, an automatic pressure stabilizer, had recently been published and a young chemical lab assistant named Sumi came into his office and rather bluntly pointed out a serious design flaw in his invention. The two work together on the problem late into the evening, and Young Hon learns that she not merely a lab assistant but already in her last year of college. She is also working on an ambitious invention of her own.

Reading the diary, Ahn feels that this is indeed an admirable woman, although he is worried that she has too much of her own ambitions to commit the sacrifices needed to raise a family. He remembers a time when their son was young and often sick, and his wife had to miss too many days of work caring for him. She finally had to quit her job at the art production company (미술창작사) and transfer to the local publication distributor (동 출판물 보급원), which would give her more time. The transfer was only to be temporary, until their son was older, but then after that Ahn needed her help to get his dissertation ready for publication. They kept saying "It's just until next year," but she ended up spending the rest of her working life as a publication distributor.

Disturbed, Ahn decides to step outside for a walk through the snow (snow seems to be a major recurrent theme in North Korean literature). As he walks, he comes across a young couple having a snowball fight. There is a long, extended play-by-play description of this fight, but the takeaway seems to be: young couples today have more fun during courtship than Ahn's generation did.

Next he encounters a work colleague walking with his family of four. He asks what brings them out on such a night, and learns  the wife just completed her doctorate and they are on their way to her commencement ceremony. There is heavy symbolism in the sight of four sets of footprints trailing behind the family through the snow, compared with Ahn's solitary footprints. Ahn suddenly wonders why it never occurred to him to ask his wife to join him on his walk. He ruefully recalls the times his son begged to have a family trip to the museum, and he begged off claiming to be "too busy." He hurries home, and resumes reading his son's diary.

[from the diary] "Every individual has a calling. But women who do not fully devote themselves to achieving their own societal calling, believing that their portion includes their husband's career and honor, and that upon marriage their own hopes and beliefs must meld with their husband's - such women remain as the shame of our era. Even more regrettable is the fact that even now women are expected to obey without question, and such submissive women are praised as 'good wives' by many."
Ahn skips forward several pages, and reads about his son helping Sumi with her invention, gathering materials for her and even nursing her when she falls ill from overwork. As he reads, he gets a clearer picture of how this girl's work is inspiring and worthwhile, and how deeply his son feels for her. Finally, he reads the last entry:

   My father will soon return from his business trip. When he does, what position will he take? Mother has already accepted us.
   My mother, almost unrecognizably changed! From the day she came to Pyongyang as a young circuit tracer to participate in the Technology Revolutionary's Contest and ended up starting a family, she began to change.
   Mother listened to the story of our love and then, as if unburdening all the feelings buried in her heart, exclaimed, "Love her! Help her dreams to come true through your love!"
   This is the true soul of my mother, who never got to achieve her own dreams. Thinking that this was the wish of her own tearful life, my throat tightened up.  In this world there is nothing hotter than a mother's tears, and there is nothing more desperate than a mother's hopes. Ah, love; we humans need it as much as water - no, as much as air - and my mother has been starving for it her whole life!

Reading this, Ahn is overwhelmed at his failure as a husband and a father, and filled with regret for his wife's artistic talent he allowed to go to waste.

Ahn looks up from the diary to see his wife standing quietly in the doorway. "Did you read it?" she asks. "Yes," he replies, and the story ends with the pair looking meaningfully at each other.

Primary Purpose

As mentioned, this story contrasts with the externally-directed propaganda depicting North Korea as an advanced gender-equitable society in which women have transcended their traditional feudal roles. Rather, this story falls into the category of educational propaganda or morality play; by illustrating a social problem (gender inequality) in the household of one of society's most vaunted classes (scientists), it highlights the universality of the problem and urges people to rectify such behavior if it exists in their own homes.

The story also flips traditional Korean notions of elder = teacher and youth = student, as the son turns out to have more advanced social consciousness than his very respectable, highly educated father. It thus retains a perception that society is inevitably making forward progress, as youths embrace more modern (i.e. superior) gender roles within their family structures and in the courtship process.

North Korean Idioms

This story was full of unfamiliar idiomatic expressions and proverbs, many of which could not be found in standard South Korean dictionaries. Thanks to my North Korean students Brian and Jade for helping interpret the following:

아홉 살에는 아홉 동네의 미움을 산다
Literal: A nine-year-old has nine villages' hatred
Meaning: Young people are naturally contrarian and make enemies easily

물에 술 타고 술에 물 탄 것 같다
Literal: Like liquor mixed into water, or water mixed into liquor
Meaning: either way it doesn't matter; Six of one, half a dozen of the other

두알배기 밤알처럼
Literal: Like a pair of chestnuts
Meaning: A well-matched couple

옥으로 만든 등잔이라도 기름을 넣아야 불이 키다
Lit: Even a jade lamp needs oil to light
Meaning: Even someone with great inherent talent needs to work hard to succeed

물은 길을 째는 방향으로 흐르고 호박넌출은 올리는 대로 모양이 잡혀진다
Lit: Water flows down the easiest path, and a pumpkin vine takes shape as it grows
Meaning: People get set in their ways over time.

수수 한 말 실에 꿰는 것보다 힘들다
Lit: Harder than threading a grain of sorghum
Meaning: Very difficult to do

달과 사랑은 둥그래졌다가는 인차 기울어지는 것이다
Lit: Both love and the moon get rounder before falling away.
Meaning: Love ebbs and fades.

I'm not sure if the last one is a North Korean idiom or an invention of the author, but it represents a distinctly Korean sort of imagery.

Finding one's match in North Korea

Ahn recalls the story of how he met his wife:

One evening there was a factory party at which the workers played a version of Blind Man's Bluff, with the men wearing blindfolds and fumbling after the women, who desperately tried to avoid them. It was jokingly tossed about that the pair who caught each other would get married. Ahn suddenly realized he was quite determined to capture the young circuit tracer who had been so helpful to him in his daily chores.

Walking home from the party with her, Ahn got up the nerve to ask her to come back to Pyongyang with him. Startled at the sudden proposal, she remarked, "but.. I'm just a circuit tracer..." To which Ahn replied that that gave him all the more reason. She asked him for some time to think about it, but finally consented.
   The two made a cozy pair. As the saying goes, a good wife is half of the key to happiness. His faithful wife earnestly copied out all of his many papers and textbook manuscripts and acquired various reference materials for his research. Just as behind every man is a good woman, his wife's tireless devotion to supporting his research was the reason he was able to finish his doctorate at such a young age, along with all the other successful inventions he had accumulated since. And they never once had an argument.

He tried to fix his son up with a good wife:

  Ahn had endeavored to find a similar woman for his son to marry. The girl's father had been his friend for many years; he had visited their house many times and been greatly impressed by the parents'  virtuous hearts and the girl's prodigious work ethic. The two fathers had first negotiated amongst themselves. It took his wife's gentle urging, "Your father already promised..." to get the boy to agree out of respect to meet her once, but it ended there.
   It was maddening that he could turn down this very modest and tranquil girl, who could have directly helped her husband's research. It seemed that his son was unprepared for the sacrifices required by a life of scientific research. A scientist has no right to waste precious time on things like a personal life and love...  While he didn't totally approve, there were those like the great scientist Isaac Newton who lived as a bachelor for all of his 85 years, undoubtedly for the purpose of achieving his life's work.  But this boy... from an early age he had been excitable, always begging to go out on picnics or to the theater. ... He was as sensitive as a thermometer, quick to change moods or get emotional. Ahn didn't object to young love, but it would do no good to fall totally head-over-heals and neglect science...

Contrast this with how his son met his girlfriend:
  When my first invention appeared in this month's issue of Invent, the whole research institute came to congratulate me. My lab had been overflowing with raucous celebration all day and finally settled down only around quitting time. I was gazing out the window, savoring the feelings of pride and happiness at my first invention. A knock sounded at the door. Who could it be at this hour?
  There at the door stood a young woman, an assistant from the chemistry lab.  "I came to discuss something with you," she said upon entering.
  "Discuss? What is the problem?" As I spoke the question I noticed she had this month's Invent in her hand.
  "I read about your 'automatic pressure stabilizer.' But if you use a spring activator with the condition of constant exposure to hot steam from a lye reaction, wouldn't the device only function for about one month before breaking down?"
  Ah, of course! I blushed deeply. I hadn't thought of that! I looked at her with gratitude, noticing how her long eyelashes gave her eyes a glimmering light.  What was this comrade's name?  Sumi something? But such a simple thing - I'd been so careless.  I had only focused on the problem of regulating pressure and had given no thought to how long it would last.
  "Thank you, comrade Sumi!"
  It was hard to reconcile the fact that a mere lab assistant had pointed out this flaw. The girl spoke so bluntly without a polite word of congratulations. I had hardly given her a passing though before now, knowing her only as one of the many lab assistants at our institute.
  "So, my thought is..." she continued, revealing several sheets of paper on which she had already drawn up a potential solution. ... She had clearly been working on it all day, ignoring her own duties.
  We debated as the evening wore on, and talked more on the walk home. I noticed her bag was so full of books that the clasp would not shut.
  "Why don't you go to college?" I asked, thinking she was wasted as a mere lab assistant.
  "But I do. I'm in my final year at the factory college."
  "Oh, really?!" I walked slower, hoping to extend our time together. She seemed to feel the same way, as her steps did not quicken. Our silent communion made my heart quicken.
  "I must get this gas-fired heat regulator to work by the end of this year,"  she muttered. So she was the originator of that project, which I had heard much talk about. A gas-fired heat regulator would save tremendous amounts of energy...
From these accounts we can get an idea of what a North Korean might consider a not unusual way to meet one's mate. Of course, fiction often does not reflect reality even in South Korean literature. Judging from this story, apparently North Korean fiction shares the propensity of South Korean dramas to depict couples as getting very far into their relationship - to the proposal stage or even the altar - before they share their first kiss. The two cultures also seem to share the tendency to associate wintry themes with romance - snow fights, ruddy cheeks, writing messages in the snow, lots of flirtation involving scarves, chivalrous offering of coats, etc.

Depictions of Modern Women

In one section I could particularly relate to, Ahn's son describes his girlfriend thusly in his diary:
I picked up her bag. It was heavy. This book bag went with her everywhere throughout the day. Most girls her age swagger around with little purses clutched in their hands or hanging from a shoulder... But she carried this shapeless, ugly brown bag all throughout the year, filled not with cosmetics but with books. It contains not just her day planner but all her beautiful dreams of the future. No wonder it's heavy, no wonder it makes her shoulder sag and ruins her posture; but she doesn't seem to notice the burden and focuses only on her research and studies, day and night. How could I not love such a bright flame of a girl,  what kind of person would I be if I failed to win her...





Friday, October 14, 2016

Dr. Lim Soon-hee on North Korean Literature and Popular Culture

Dr. Lim Soon-hee, who is guiding me in this project, has authored several books and papers in Korean on North Korean literature and popular culture. Before embarking on this project I reviewed two of her books, “북한의 대중문화: 실태와 변화전망” (North Korean Popular Culture: Present Situation and Outlook) and 북한문학의 김정일 ‘형상화’ 연구 (Study on the Idolization of Kim Jong Il in North Korean Literature).

Dr. Lim uses the term “popular culture” with some caveats when applied to North Korea. It is not “popular” as we understand it in the West, as a product of interactions between producers and consumers. Rather, it is imposed on the people by the Party. It is “popular” in the sense that it is intended for mass consumption, more so than “high” culture forms such as opera, painting and ballet.


Dr. Lim identifies the following distinctive features of NK popular culture (Lim 2000 p17-8)

  1. It is closed off from the opinions of those who constitute both its subjects and its consumers - the North Korean people. NK music, movies, plays, novels etc are deliberately produced and distributed according to the systematic procedures of the Party’s cultural policy organs. Rather than incorporating public sentiment, they actually exclude it. However, they are not completely without some open aspects, such as some artworks aimed at the common masses based on the “culture for the masses” policy.
  2. It is imposed from above. This is a universal feature of popular culture in communist countries, and North Korea is no different. A small minority of elites abuse the cultural demands of the masses and use popular culture as a political tool in order to secure and strengthen their positions. For example, people are obligated to sing songs and watch movies as directed by the Party. 
  3. Though its topics and subject matter may vary, the underlying content always conveys a consistent message. The core elements of this message are the achievements of the Party and Leader, sacrifice for the state and society, and gratitude for the virtue and compassion of the Party and Leader.  
  4. As a medium for mass political socialization, it functions to mobilize the people and persuade them of the legitimacy of the Party’s leadership values. Related to this, Kim Il Sung has written, “Our writers are our enthusiastic promoters among the people tasked with explaining Party policies, faithful educaters of the masses. Through the literary arts they must correctly interpret for the people the Party’s line and policies.” (Kim Il Sung, “Let us produce many literary works reflecting reality” The Complete Works of Kim Il Sung Vol 10, Pyongyang: KWP Publishing, 1980, p456.)
  5. It functions as a tool for the people’s political ideological education. North Korea emphasizes that the literary artists must fill the role of “supporters of the interests of the Party and the people, and their advocate” and “champions who educate the people and defend the Republic."
Thus the North Korean state's control of literature goes beyond mere censorship, even the extreme censorship seen in other autocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia. The writers themselves work under the auspices of the Party, and receive assignments for topics to write on. Their products are then edited, published and distributed by the Party, but since the writers themselves are employed by the state self-censorship probably eliminates most issues. I have written elsewhere about the extreme pressure North Korean writers face to avoid typos and misspellings.

Tatiana Gabroussenko, the foremost foreign scholar of North Korean literature, has even assessed that "control over writers appears to be much stricter in the DPRK than it was in the USSR even during the harshest Stalinist period." She further states:
Due to specific historical circumstances, the variety of permissible themes and acceptable artistic methods is far more limited for a North Korean author than for his/her Soviet colleague. Before being published, all manuscripts in the DPRK must pass through several levels of heavy censorship, which checks the works for appropriateness and the necessary dose of “Party spirit.” Yet, for a Communist writer, the logic of official censorship appears more or less self-explanatory: being brought up within this paradigm, North Korean writers, like their Soviet or Chinese colleagues, managed to grow their own internal censor. 
Dr. Lim identifies three major tasks of North Korean literature: building up the image of the Great Leader, extolling the greatness of the Party, and aiding in the creation of a new "Juche man.” Of these three, the first is by far the most important. From her review of various North Korean internal documents, Dr. Lim has identified a list of key instructions artists must follow for “Constructing the image of the Great Leader” (수령의 형상화): 
  1. Promote the Leader's greatness, particularly as a philosopher but also as a politician, strategist, and artist.
  2. Emphasize the greatness of his human image, particularly as a revolutionary warrior and a benevolent father to the people - particularly focusing on the depth of his inner thought and psychology.
  3. Depict his role as the link between the Party and the masses, according to the principal of the three pillars: Leader, Party, masses.
  4. Even if the work does not feature the Leader directly, it must show the influence of his revolutionary thought, wise leadership and noble virtue in all aspects of revolutionary struggle and construction (Lim 2001 p3, Lim 2000 p5-6).

Most of the stories I review here come from the literary journal Choseon Munhak (North Korean Literature), copies of which are smuggled out and sent to KINU and other South Korean libraries by unknown persons in Northeast China. 

At our first meeting, Dr. Lim warned me not to assume that these literary magazines are the sort of thing that the general North Korean citizen would often be exposed to. To read Choseon Munhak in North Korea, one must get a special pass to go to a library, where one may read while sitting in the stacks. Most North Koreans don’t have that kind of free time, even if they did get a library pass. From the Party’s perspective, the purpose of this literature is to establish North Korea as a cultural society and to serve as an archive of its progress on the path to socialist modernity.

Interestingly, Gabroussenko seems to disagree with Lim on this point, noting that "North Koreans proudly present the DPRK as 'a reading country' in which spending time with a book is a popular pastime in the general community and where 'it is easier to see a person with a book than a person with a cigarette.'" I asked the North Korean defector I teach English to, who left North Korea in 2006, and he said he was familiar with Choseon Munhak and that he would guess "at least 90%" of people have read it, although it is understood to be propaganda and they "don't believe it." My other North Korean student, who is from North Hamgyeong region, says she used to go to the library a lot but almost exclusively to read manhwa (North Korean comic books). She was vaguely aware of Choseon Munhak but said she would only have seen it in school, where they only read stories about the leaders. She also said they read an abbreviated version of Hugo's Les Miserables and several Tolstoy novels in school.

It's hard to know exactly what is going on inside the country, but this may be another example of the difference between people in the cities and the rural areas. Pressed on the point, Dr. Lim suggested that most people would only have read certain stories belonging to the genre of Kim family biographies, and these are read because they are assigned by work or school groups, not for fun. Thus, the question of "Who actually reads this stuff?" remains unanswered, at least for now. More on this perhaps at a later time.


임순희, “북한의 대중문화: 실태와 변화전망”,  통일연구원, Korea Institute of National Unification, 2000.

임순희, "북한문학의 김정일 ‘형상화’ 연구", Korea Institute of National Unification, 2001.
"Benoit Symposium: Writers in the DPRK: The Invisible Stars," by Tatiana Gabroussenko, Sino NK, Sept 27, 2013 (http://sinonk.com/2013/09/27/writers-in-the-dprk-the-invisible-stars/).