Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Maehok" (매혹) - Rosalynn Carter encounters the Great Leader

"Maehok" (enchantment) is a short story which appeared in the literary journal Choseon Munhak in 1998. The story is a fictional account of former President Jimmy Carter's momentous summit meeting with the late Premier Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang in June of 1994, just three weeks before the latter's death from a heart attack. It is told from the perspective of First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who accompanied her husband on the visit.

Rosalynn comes off as a thoughtful, open-minded woman, a dutiful and loving wife who is often quietly chagrinned by her husband's feckless behavior. The story opens as she has just returned to Georgia after the couple's momentus trip, and stands in her drawing room reflecting on all that she has experienced. 

Atop a table beside the grand piano stood a dignified bust of George Washington, America's first president.
She gazed at the bust.
Something had changed about it.
The night before they left for Pyongyang, Rosalynn had knelt before sacred Washington and prayed for a safe and successful mission.
Up to now, she had believed that in all of human history there existed no greater, more benevolent and conscientious ruler than Washington. But now her certainty had vanished like a meteor.
(How could this be. What has changed in my heart?)...
Before her eyes appeared the divine image of Kim Il Sung, still hale and hearty despite his advanced age of over eighty.
“'The people are as heaven.' This is the belief that I have held through my whole life as a politician,  and it has guided my way of living as a son of the people and their faithful servant,” the Great Leader reminisced as he gazed out at the West Sea Battery.
Opening a window, Rosalynn again savored the Great Leader's words, the boundless nobility and sacred love contained in them.

From there, the story follows Rosalynn’s memory as she thinks back on the events of the trip. The Carters arrive endowed with a mission to engage in America's traditional trickster diplomacy, but Kim's sunny disposition quickly charms them senseless. The American side seems disorganized, ordering the summit to be postponed by a day. Taking advantage of the spare day, the Great Leader takes them on a tour of the city. The Carters expect some sort of trick or trap, but as they day wears on they realize that the Great Leader genuinely wants to befriend them and make them feel comfortable. When the negotiations finally happen the next day, they are a resounding success, thanks in large part to Kim's magnanimity and compassion.

Feminist themes

With a female protagonist, the story at several points compares Korean and American attitudes toward women. 

The text notes that as First Lady, Rosalynn drew criticism for her excessive involvement in politics and was nicknamed "super-political Rosalynn" (정치참여가 지나친 로잘린). It is also noted that she was known as the "Steel Magnolia" for her strong personality and southern roots. Nevertheless, her reputation for benevolence toward the common people earned her the rank of "fifth most popular First Lady in US history." Her strengths are listed as common sense, an ability to maintain harmony and balance, and a passionate, adventurous spirit.  She is also described as "unusual among First Ladies for having Spanish blood" (which, as far as I can tell, is not true).

Carter comes off as rather dismissive of his wife, despite her strong and sensible disposition. 
Rosalynn was taken aback by her husband’s abrupt announcement that they were to go to Pyongyang.
“Pyongyang?! What are we going to do there?"
“Don’t you know?” Jimmy replied gruffly.
“I don’t like it. I read in today’s newspaper that the more we compromise, the more extreme North Korea’s contempt grows.  I too think that this weak 'Judas Kiss Diplomacy' will never work with North Korea, which survived through the US-Soviet bipolar order. I think a firm, ruthless 'gunboat diplomacy’ would be more appropriate!"
Carter is dismissive of his wife’s concerns, telling her "politicians are not moved by mere emotions like love and hate, but by their national interests." Rosalyn has no choice but to concur. Of course, after arriving and finally meeting the Great Leader, all thoughts of gunboat diplomacy quickly flee Rosalynn's mind.

In their first meeting with Kim Il Sung, when Rosalynn expresses amazement at the beautiful red blooms around the banquet hall, Kim remarks to Carter,
"Mr. Carter, why do you think it is that women love flowers so much?"
"I think it's because they see their own fate in flowers, which bloom beautifully but then haplessly wilt away. Just as no spring flower lasts through autumn, a woman's beauty and appeal are limited to a season. Of course, that is excluding my 'Steel Magnolia' Rosalynn."
He regarded his wife with a strangely boyish and playful look quite different from his normally taciturn and solemn expression.
"Rosalynn here is trying to convince me that a woman's true life begins at 50. But if you follow that arithmetic, that means right now she is Sweet Sixteen!"
The room erupted with laughter. Rosalynn's face reddened. She wanted to shout at her husband, "You arrogant, brazen chatterbox!" but the moment of rage passed. This was not her mansion in Atlanta or her country home in Plains.
"Mr Carter, I too believe that a woman's fate is reflected in flowers," said the Great Leader. "The full and beautiful blooming of flowers is just like the blessed fate of women, to bring joy to all the world. Women are the greatest of all flowers, with their enchanting and compassionate auras eternally giving fragrance to life. And I think your wife's remark that 'A woman's life begins at 50' is a wonderful saying. Isn't that so, Mrs. Carter?"
"Thank you, Premier!" 

Depiction of Kim Il Sung

The text spends a lot of time describing the ruddy glow of Kim's cheeks, his warm smile and the booming timbre of his voice. For instance, the following exchange between  Kim and Mrs. Carter:
As the Premier directed his warm gaze toward Rosalynn, she smiled brightly and said she would like to take him to the town of Pocatello, Idaho, in the American Northwest. Known as the "Smile City," it enacted a law decreeing that "all townspeople must wear smiles on their faces," and every year it hosted a grand Smile Festival.
"Premier, until now I believed that my husband Jimmy had the brightest and most captivating smile... But your smile is truly just like the sun. If you went to that town, surely all the citizens would enthusiastically welcome your smile. And you would surely win first prize."
Frequent emphasis is given to demonstrating that Kim is a man of the people, constantly thinking of their welfare. At one point, Carter wistfully remarks that he would like to one day take Kim salmon fishing in Alaska. Kim jokes that Carter would probably sell all the salmon he caught to some Eskimos and make off with the spoils. 
"How would I do such a thing? Premier, please believe me!" Carter puffed up indignantly.
"I was only joking. I believe you. However, I would never sell a single salmon that I caught. Instead I would send them all back to my people. How could I go fishing in the remote Arctic and return empty-handed? The happiest moment for me would be watching my people enjoy delicious, steaming hot fish soup."
Jimmy thought on it deeply.... A father's love is often compared with a son's. But how could the infinite love of this leader for his people compare with the love of the people who called him "Father"?

Compassionate Diplomacy

The Carters are constantly suspecting that Kim is trying to play some trick on them, with his irrepressible kindness. As he progressively charms her husband, Rosalynn fears that they are "losing" the encounter. By contrast, Kim seems entirely guileless, and his diplomatic approach is based on friendship and trust. 

At one point Kim is telling Carter of his warm relationship with Prince Sihanouk, "the unlikely friendship between a socialist revolutionary and a feudal monarchist ruler," as a way of illustrating how he hopes he can strike a similar friendship with Carter. "Even though he (Sihanouk) came to me as an exile, he believed in me like a brother and that deeply moved me. To me, that displayed an everlasting friendship and faith that was more valuable than any amount of money."  This sends Rosalyn off into a spiral of private thought, remembering Carter's relationship with the Shah of Iran.
Rosalyn was reminded of what happened to Iran’s King Pahlavi [Reza Shah], who died of illness while on the run.
Carter and Pahlavi had a special friendship.
Later, when the Iranian Revolution broke out, Pahlavi suggested to then-President Carter that he might escape to the US, but Congress opposed it and so he couldn’t help him.
However, Carter tried in various ways to restore Pahlavi to power. These American efforts amounted to interference in Iran’s internal domestic affairs and resulted in the Iranian Hostage Crisis; the failed attempt to rescue the hostages undeniably brought a tremendous loss of face for the U.S.
In the end, Carter lost the election.
It was a wretched escapade that cost him both his friend and his power.

Depictions of Christianity

In preparation for her trip, Rosalyn speaks with the Reverend Billy Graham, who had previously visited Pyongyang in 1992. Graham tells her that in North Korea she "will see the true heaven." It is later revealed that when Graham visited North Korea, he prayed "Oh, divine and holy Lord, I have seen you for the first time. Today, in this Eastern land where the sun rises, I have seen you descend to Earth."

According to Dr. Lim, there is also a full-length novel depicting this same summit, titled  Eternal Life. There, too, President Carter continuously appears to be completely blown away by Kim Il Sung's greatness, and praises him as "a modern-day Moses." Also in this story, Reverend Graham proclaims Kim Il Sung to be "a great prophet the likes of which shall never come again in history."

What is interesting about these excerpts is that they do not seem to depict Christianity as something laughable or foolish, but rather they focus on co-opting Christians' faith and redirecting it to the Great Leader. Reverend Graham and the Carters are depicted not as superstitious fools but as devout Christians with enough sense to recognize when the true God stands before them.

The General Sherman

The morning of the summit, Kim takes the Carters for a ride along the Taedonggang River on the Moranbong pleasure cruise boat.
"Mr. Carter, the Taedonggang is a river richly steeped in the history of our people. The progenitor of the Korean people, Tanggun, drank the waters of the Taedong and was inspired to build a great nation here to be exalted around the world... Also, regrettably, the first encounter between Korea and the US began right on this river."
Sitting there facing the Premier at the long oval summit table, Rosalynn understood the meaning of his words. It occurred to her that this meeting on the Taedonggang between Premier Kim Il Sung and Jimmy had a deep significance.
The Premier's ancestors had sunk a pirate ship bearing the name of the renowned Civil War general, Sherman, on this river, and  Jimmy had been the first Southerner to steal the White House away from Sherman's Yankee descendants, who had occupied that seat continuously for a hundred-plus years since the war's end. That made this meeting, between Jimmy and the man whose ancestors had defeated the General Sherman, all the more extraordinary.
Stylistic points

As seen in the above excerpt, for most of the text President and Mrs. Carter are referred to by their first names. Given that the story is told from Rosalyn's perspective, this perhaps makes sense. Kim Il Sung is referred to as Premier or the Great Leader. One thing that is not apparent from these transcripts is that the Carters' remarks toward Kim Il Sung are always depicted using high honorific style, whereas Kim Il Sung speaks to them in plain style. Of course, it is understood in the text that all of their communication is made through a translator, so their actual style of speech in English is unclear.

As is standard in all North Korean text, the name Kim Il Sung always appears in bold print and slightly larger font. Also, in North Korean literature the pronoun "he" is written using the more polite form "그이" solely in the case of Kim Il Sung (and his son and grandson), while all others are referred to as "그" and "그녀."

Kim Jun Hak, "Maehok," Choseon Munhak, Sept. 1998, pp 22-35.
 김준학, “매혹,” 조선문학(1998. 9), pp 22-35. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Mission: Interpreting North Korean fiction for a foreign audience

Greetings and welcome! This site was created to increase awareness and understanding of North Korean state-produced fiction, an important element in the country's socialist education and myth-creation system.

The idea is that I will read as much as my ability and time permits, and post my own summaries here for the benefit of English-speaking audiences who would otherwise be unable to access this linguistically challenging but fascinating literature. I will provide translations of short excerpts of particularly interesting passages as well as summaries and analyses of broader themes, focusing on short stories due to unavoidable time limitations.

It is not my intention to turn this into a humor blog or a compendium of North Korean absurdity - there is plenty of that to be found elsewhere on the web. I  will endeavor to maintain a respectful objective distance in my analyses. Comments are always welcome, but any condescending, mocking or hostile commentary will be promptly deleted.

As a political scientist, I am not formally trained in literary analysis and cannot evaluate this work on its literary merits. The analysis here will instead focus on the political motivations and ideals reflected in the works I read. North Korean literature is unique in the world today as a body of work that is controlled and produced exclusively according to the prerogatives of the state and the ruling Party, which funds, oversees and controls all aspects of cultural production. As such, a careful analysis can offer significant insight into the beliefs, hopes, dreams and anxieties of an otherwise very closed-off regime. It also allows us to observe the ways that the literature and language of the two Koreas have diverged over time. As one who has read a fair amount of South Korean literature in the process of learning Korean, I will endeavor where possible to highlight differences in terms of language and style.

For more details on how I got started with this project and some of my key findings to date, please see the following video:

I am assisted in this research by a generous research grant from the Fulbright Foundation and am working under the guidance of Dr. Lim Soon-hee, an emeritus research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) who has spent decades studying North Korean literature. Dr. Lim advises me in selecting works to read and interpreting difficult passages. The opinions and analysis contained in this blog are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of Dr. Lim, KINU or the Fulbright Foundation.