Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Fragrance of Life": 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 "Fragrance of Life," 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

"Fragrance of Life" (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?"
   "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...