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)