Friday, December 8, 2017

Bul ui Yaksok (불의 약속): Kim Jong Un Plans a Fireworks Bonanza

"Bul ŭi Yaksok" (A Promise of Fire) is a short story by Kim Il Su that appeared in the anthology of the same name in 2013. Regular blog readers will remember Kim Il Su as the author of "P'iyŏnanǔn Ggum," reviewed here.

The story begins as Kim Jong Un is being driven to meet his father at a guesthouse in the countryside. Impatient to arrive on time, the young leader asks the driver to let him take the wheel. The driver protests that it's dark and the road is slippery, to which KJU cheekily responds "All the more reason why I should drive." He takes over and speeds confidently along the dark mountain roads.

Nevertheless, he ends up just missing his father at guesthouse. They see the Leader's ORV tracks in the falling snow, indicating he just left. A woman approaches looking distraught; KJU recognizes Mun Suk Hui, the provisions supervisor of the nearby army base that KJI had inspected that day. She has brought a single glove that KJI left behind. Together they stare at the old, worn glove and KJU contemplates how his father always insisted on wearing a pair of gloves until they fell apart, having no care for his own well-being.

He remembers visiting his father's room early that morning to welcome him back from a long inspection tour. He found the Leader slumped over his desk, his eyes squeezed shut.
   "Are you all right?"
   "It's just my leg's been bothering me a bit."
   "Shouldn't we send for the doctor?"
   "Don't bother. It would just make people worry for no reason."
   His eyes grew moist. the General was a human being after all. He had aches and pains just like ordinary people. But it tore at his heart to watch him suffer in silence alone.
   That was why Kim Jong Un had rushed to the General's guesthouse this evening. He was determined to convince his father to take a break, even just for a day, from his relentless schedule of guidance visits and inspections.

KJU reviews a demonstration of the artillery salute portion of the fireworks show planned by his aide Shin Hyŏk Jin, but is unsatisfied:
   "Today's test run went off smoothly without a hitch. But something is missing. There is nothing of our own there. It doesn't have our blood and vigor running through it.  In short, it is not our style.
   Let me explain. Is the Strong and Prosperous Nation (강성대국) something that somebody else comes in and builds for us? Does it just fall from the sky? No. It is built by the General and by the people's own hands under His guidance. This gun salute is our way of showing them the reality of the Strong and Prosperous Nation; how can we do that using other's technology (남의 기술) and not our own (우리의것)?"
   The more impassioned His voice grew, the more Hyŏk Jin's head drooped. He couldn't help but feel inadequate in front of this great man who always embraced a new world of creation. "I've been truly thoughtless," he muttered, revealing his inner thoughts.
   Regarding Hyŏk Jin, He assumed a tone of deep reflection. "I can't forget the General's words from a few years ago. 'Chagang Province is getting brighter and brighter. Those people know better than anyone just how precious a single point of light can be. So they labored to build the electric dams, singing patriotic songs to show their resolve to the enemies who crave our destruction, and now they have turned on the lights of paradise by their own hands (우리자신의 손으로). The night lights of Changjagang, built by Kanggye spirit (강계정신).'"
   As if a floodgate of emotion had been opened, His voice rose in agitation. "Comrade Hyŏk Jin, think about this. Why was the General so pleased with the Changjagang light display? Our night illuminations may seem plain next to other countries’ bright city lights, but they were built by our own hands with the same boundless spirit that overcame tremendous hardship. The General said that just seeing those lights gave Him new energy and raised His spirits."
Shin agrees to rework the fireworks show to incorporate Korean culture and technology.

KJU is up late working on the fireworks show, when he senses a presence behind him. He turns and sees his father, KJI, looking over his shoulder. "I didn't want to disturb you..."  KJU explains the problem he is having developing a new type of fireworks technology. KJI praises his son for thinking outside the box, and says he has faith in him that he will produce an excellent show. KJI and KJU call each other by their military rank (changgun and taejang respectively).

Overwhelmed with the sudden need to run, KJU goes out for a fast and furious drive around the capital with his faithful aide Shin, ending up at Unification Street.

Walking along the river, he tells Shin the story of his grandfather Kim Il Sung and the first Victory Day celebration, July 28th, 1953. Hurrying back from Wonsan, the original Great Leader reached the capital just in time to witness the celebratory artillery barrage from near the very spot where they are standing now. The truce had just been concluded; KIS looked across the river and saw the war-devastated landscape illuminated in the light of the explosions, and swore a vow upon the waters of the Taedong River, to give his people a bright future. [How does KJU know this story? Did he hear it from KIS himself, or from his father? He implies that it is not public knowledge]

Awed at the thought of the young leader’s patriotic drive inherited from his grandfather, Shin vows to create the best darned fireworks show the nation has ever seen. (Shin’s character seems to exist solely so that KJU doesn’t sound stupid talking to himself)


Having finished inspecting a KPA unit, KJU heads toward Munch’ang foodstuffs factory, where Mun Suk Hui (the glove lady) works. He has been informed that the factory has made tremendous progress lately. Along the way he and Shin discuss the growing number of special illuminated cities in the country and their effect on the people. Shin notes that the people of Kangwon Province have made such great strides - the Wonsan Youth Power Plant, the new electric-powered towns, etc. - that they are joking about changing the name to Kangsõng (Great and Prosperous) Province. Likewise, with its brilliant light displays, Chagang Province should be renamed Charang (Pride) Province. Kim Jong Un notes that soon there will be night-time illumination displays in the cities of Pyongyang and Wonson as well, and he hints that his father is planning additional displays for Hoeryŏng and Namp’o. In a Kennedy-esque statement, he remarks, “We decorate our cities with illumination shows not because we are rich, but because we achieved everything through our own power."
Wonsan city light display (Src: Donga Ilbo)
KJU arrives at the factory and reunites with Foodstuffs Manager Mun; almost exactly one year has passed since last they met, with the glove incident. Kim congratulates Mun on how much her factory's output has improved. She responds with another fire analogy: “We’re just carrying the flame the General lit.” She informs KJU that she told the workers story of Leader’s lost glove, resulting in a “sea of tears.” The workers were then moved to improve efficiency and produce good results just to cheer up the General.

Illuminated city of Changjagang, on the Chinese border
Mun also relates a story told by one of the factory families’ sons when he was home from the army on a commendation leave. This young man had bunked with some of the people involved in the city illumination work. The day he departed to return to his unit, he announced that he was determined to configure a similar light display for his own neighborhood.

Kim Jong Un is moved and gives a rousing speech.
   "Now is different from the time when we lost the Suryŏng (Kim Il Sung), when the General departed Tabaksol crying bitter tears. The dark trials have passed and we have climbed the summit to greet the bright sunrise of the Strong and Prosperous Nation. We have overcome a thousand li of suffering and see before us ten thousand li of happiness. Happiness does not just come to those who wait; it comes through creation.
   "Kim Hyŏng-jik [KIS' father] once said: If my son's generation does not finish it, we must see the revolution through to the end in my grandson's time. And the General [KJI] said that even if it takes until the great-grandson's generation, it will be carried out. Those words fire my heart every day, every minute."
   His eyes, gazing at the assembled workers, gleamed with certainty and determination. "Today, you gave me good news to bring back to the General, and in return I want to show you something. Call it the groundbreaking ceremony for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, if you like."
That night they all watch the final triumphant rehearsal of the fireworks show; all has been perfected in terms of artistry, form and rhythm, with perfect timing to the music. It is a completely new kind of fireworks show.

Two months later, in April, crowds gather by the Daedong River for the big show. Kim Jong Il appears and the fireworks start; the brilliant lights explode in time to the strains of “Chosŏn’s Blessing” and “Footsteps.” Kim Jong Il praises his son for a job well done: “Displayed over the river with the Juche Tower in the background, it is indeed magnificent; very distinctive!” KJU replies, “These lights are the glimmer on the countless beads of sweat you shed on the path of Sŏngun.” [yuck!] “Now our people are laughing."

Pyongyang fireworks display
Src: Yonhap


The night illumination of Changjagang, Chagangdo (불야경) has been hailed as one of “13 great sights of Songun, born from KJI’s benevolence and KJU’s love.” There are now similar light displays now in Pyongyang and Wonsan as well. More details from Yonhap here.

The new Wonsan light display is more strongly associated with Kim Jong Un, since Wonsan is being promoted as the new leader's hometown. For more details see Yonhap and RFA.

North Korea holds a fireworks show every year on the Day of the Sun (KIS' birthday), April 15th. KJU reportedly took charge of planning the April 2009 fireworks show as one of his first  first official experiences of executive leadership, and the resulting show entitled "Firestorm of the Strong and Prosperous Nation" (강성대국의 불보라) was said to display many technical advances including synchronizing fireworks with music from famous patriotic songs.

7/27 is North Korea’s “V-A Day” (War Victory Day), also celebrated each year with a massive fireworks show in the capital.

다박솔 초소 Tabaksol is the name of the artillery unit KJI was visiting when he announced the start of the Sŏngun era after KIS’ death, on Jan 1 1995. "Dabaksol" means a young pine tree, and this is part of a series of famous military units named after the flora surrounding their base. For more details see this article from Yonhap:

Light + Heat = Prosperity

This story uses fire as an allegory for national development in several different ways.
Speaking with Shin Hyŏk Jin and Mun Suk Hui, KJU remarks,
"We must show the people the reality of the Strong and Prosperous Nation that we are building, as soon as possible. If we can do that, then the people will go forth with a greater sense of optimism and faith in their bright future (광명한 래일). So I decided to draw them a picture in the sky with fire, a picture of the Strong and Prosperous Nation, for all our people and all the world to see."
When KJI encounters his son working working late into the night on the fireworks show, he pontificates on the meaning of fire and light:
"The time when our people felt the value of light most keenly was during the Arduous March [1990s famine period]. The hardest time for me was walking the pitch-dark streets of Pyongyang at night. There's that famous line in the poem that goes 'If I could give you just one bright beam of light' - that's how I felt then. I swore that I would find a way to give light to the people, even if I had to burn my whole body to a crisp [내 한몸을 깡그리 태워서라도]."
This last phrase is a fixed expression that is often uttered by the Leaders when talking about something they want to do for the people, akin to "I'd give my right arm to..." It's unintentionally ironic in this context, but probably not meant to imply that the light would come from KJI's burning body.

Later, when KJU reunites with Foodstuffs manager Mun and hears of the progress her factory has made, he makes the following speech:
"Fire bequeathed by the General! It's really a meaningful phrase. When our enemies predicted our 'collapse,' even putting up a signboard counting down to the day the last light of communism would burn out, who could have foreseen this bright day? But today nobody can ignore the growing brightness in our country and the new light of socialism. The Changjagang nightscape and the Wonsan light decorations illustrate how Korea has preserved the red flag of socialism, using the language of fire."
Clearly somebody is getting annoyed by the foreign media's repeated posting of satellite images showing North Korea cloaked in darkness. But the "communism countdown clock" reference is new to me - does anybody know what this might refer to? Post in the comments!

KJI Suffering in Silence

The glove incident at the beginning of the story is implied to be part of a pattern of KJI not taking proper care of his health. KJU recalls that whenever his mother would try to give his father new gloves, KJI would respond "These old ones are good for another few years if we just patch them up. Besides, I've grown attached to them."

As KJI reminisces about the people's suffering during the Arduous March, KJU is moved by his father "thinking only of the Fatherland and the people, when at that time He was suffering from a serious illness nobody knew about." In this way, the author implies that the ill health that eventually killed KJI had its roots in the stress of the 1990s famine.

Kim Jong Il = Winter; Kim Jong Un = Spring

Related to this is the recurrent theme that Kim Jong Il is now associated with snow and winter, while Kim Jong Un is associated with spring, flowers and warmth. As foodstuffs director Mun remarks, "Really our fire is built upon a foundation of tears. Our happiness today was born beneath the cold sleet and blizzards that the General fought his way through. Now when our people hear the news of the Wonsan city lights, we can't stop crying thinking of how they were lit by the strenuous labors of the General."

The Sad Leader

This story is a good example of the trend of depicting the new leader as emotionally vulnerable, even close to tears at some points. While North Korean fiction often features characters shedding tears (of shame, regret or joy), the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are generally depicted as stoic or relentlessly cheerful. The new stories with Kim Jong Un seem to take a different approach: the leader is occasionally shown tearing up in moments of emotional turmoil, doubt or regret as he mourns his father and assumes the mantle of leadership. He is then invariably cheered up by observing some humble act of faithful devotion by a representative of the common people. The message seems to be that this new leader is indeed talented, but he is also young and vulnerable, and he will need all of the people's support to succeed.

One weird thing that struck me is that Kim Jong Il is still alive in this story, and yet people keep talking and acting as if they are already in mourning for him. KJU tears up almost every time his father’s name is mentioned. Other characters seem excessively emotional over things like gloves and the illumination displays finally being finished according to KJI's wishes. This led me to devise my own crazy fan theory for the story: It’s actually 2012, not 2011, and KJI is dead but KJU hasn’t absorbed it yet. He goes around telling people he will report their progress back to his father, and they all just humor him. In this light, his final conversation with KJI at the fireworks show is particularly striking, like Luke hanging out with Yoda, Ben and Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi.

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