Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Silver Lining" (전화위복): Floods and Self-Sacrifice in Rajin-Sŏnbong

"Silver Lining" (Chŏnhwa Uibok) is a short story by Ri Myŏng that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in January 2017.

The story opens on heavy flooding in the northeast around Rajin-Sŏnbong (aka Rasŏn). Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un is in his office reading reports of the Rasŏn citizens' heroic efforts to save city's famous statues and mosaic of the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Kim&Kim mosaic in N Hamgyong
Src: Yonhap
Flashback to the previous day, when a citizen brigade is frantically stacking sandbags around the large mosaic of the leaders in the town square to protect it before the levee breaks. Captain Ŏm Tae Sŏn of the local fisheries division is overseeing the work when he spots a familiar female face half-hidden under a hood. It's Song Hwa, a girl from his neighborhood who is like a daughter to him. Knowing the area is not safe, he gruffly orders her back home to her family. Song Hwa protests that as a neighborhood resident it's her duty to help, and anyway she already got permission. She starts to show him her permit.

Just then, the thing they had most been dreading happens: the levee breaks. A huge wall of water rushes down the street toward them, sweeping debris with it. The crew standing around the mosaic takes up positions to shove branches and roots out of the way. Suddenly an enormous tree trunk sweeps toward them; just as it is about to collide with Captain Ŏm, Song Hwa steps in front of him. In an instant, the young woman is pulled under the tree trunk and swept away in the surging waters.

"Comrade Yu Song Hwa sacrificed herself while serving as a Youth Brigade team member. Comrade Ŏm Tae Sŏn has taken responsibility, confessing that his momentary hesitation was to blame for her death. He is a man over 50 with great strength who has made many contributions." Kim Jong Un reads the report solemnly to himself, pondering the grief of those who lost their homes or loved ones, and empathizing strongly with Captain Ŏm. If it would ease their pain in any way, he would gladly burn his body to a crisp (한몸을 깡그리 불태워도).

Just then, in walks Armed Forces Minister Pak Hyŏn Sŏk [probably a pseudonym for Pak Yŏng Sik], bowing apologetically.
Inchŏn landing reenactment, September 15, 2015.
Src: Yonhap

   "Comrade Supreme Commander, even after the North-South High-Level Joint Declaration, the southern authorities are darkening the path for inter-Korean relations. This September 12th, US imperialist ships of the invasion force (미제침략군함선) plan to conduct a joint exercise with south Korean armed forces on the pretext of 'reenacting the Inchŏn landing,' in fact a military excercise aimed at us. Here I have prepared a supplemental strategy document."
   "Thanks. I'll give it a look."
   Pak turns to leave, then hesitates and looks back. "Supreme Commander, it's late."
He glances at the clock on his desk. Somehow the hour hand has already passed 2. "On one side, the enemy threatens us with their nuclear cudgel. On the other, we are fighting a deadly battle against water. Somehow, I don't think I can sleep."
Urging the leader to take care of himself, Pak submits a supplemental proposal for flood relief and retreats.

KJU speaking before the KWP Central Military
Commission, August 21, 2015
Src: Yonhap
The next day, Pak listens as Kim Jong Ŭn delivers a speech before the KWP Central Military Commission. Kim leads with an analysis of the "August Crisis" (8월사변), North Korea's term for a series of incidents that occurred in August 2015. Interspersed with Kim's narration, Pak revisits his memory of the crisis:
   "Just as the 'Eulji Freedom Guardian' joint military exercises were culminating, there was a landmine explosion along the DMZ, strange suspicious cannon fire from the North,  36 rounds of artillery fired on North Korean territory,  the restart of psych-warfare broadcasts across the DMZ, a US aircraft carrier moving toward the Korean peninsula,  and suspicious movement of various strategic nuclear assets; with all this happening, the arrogance of the southern puppet warmongers (남조선괴뢰호전광들) was at its peak. At a time when the US was going crazy trying to destroy North Korea's socialist system, the KPA Supreme Command issued an emergency protocol that shook the whole world. The KPA Joint Chiefs' ultimatum: cease all propaganda broadcasts and other psychological warfare from the South, or we will conduct a forceful military strike."
   [Pak remembering] The whole world had its eyes turned to the Korean peninsula. How would the South respond to the North's demands? Acquiesce, and have peace. Stay silent, and have war!
   The US and the South were seeking to tear down and usurp the socialist system that we have chosen and defended with our lives. War was inevitable and it would break out on right here in Northeast Asia!
   It had been America's century-old ambition to seize the Korean peninsula as a stepping-stone to achieving hegemony over all of the Asia-Pacific. Now they were goading their puppets into starting a war on the peninsula. Now at last they had the opportunity to realize their long-held ambitions. According to the analysis of the world's Korea experts, war was fast approaching.
As the speech continues, Pak flashes back to that time. Late on the night of the ultimatum, Pak came to inform Kim Jong Un that there had been no response yet to their demands; the propaganda broadcasts continued, and in a few hours the North would have to make good on their threat.
   "Reports from the South indicated that people residing near the DMZ were fleeing, youths were avoiding military conscription, increasing numbers were applying to emigrate overseas, foreign diplomats were pulling out of Seoul, the National Assembly was in uproar. This showed the [South Korean] people had lost faith in their society and fallen into despair, the government has lost the faith of the people, and the social fabric was in shreds."...
   If the nuclear fanatics were to touch one inch of our sacred land, sea or air territory, we were prepared to launch a victorious fusillade upon the South. We must match aggression with aggression, nukes with even stronger nukes; the stronger we are the more we can assure peace in the region and the world...
    But thanks to the great general's nerves and resourcefulness, backed up by the mighty Paekdu Revolutionary Army, a solution was reached. Instead of a fiery resolution, there would be high-level peace talks between North and South!
   Pivoting from a "forceful military strike" to peace talks! The American imperialists were left utterly dumbfounded by these unprecedentedly brilliant tactics.
Pak comes alert as Kim's speech turns to the subject of the flooding in Rason. Kim announces that as the damage is far worse than expected, the KPA will be deployed to aid in construction. Pak listens with interest; this proposal is part of the report he had submitted.
   Suddenly Pak recalled a memory from the hard post-war years, when the Great Leader [Kim Il Sung] angrily scolded some workers who were ignoring the suffering of the people: "Are you not the flesh and blood of these people? How is it that women with babes on their backs are planting rice? If we live for the people, how can we accept that? On the plains of Manchuria during the anti-Japanese struggle we fell a dozen times, and got back up again, to fight for the people. Now that liberation has come, how can we allow them to suffer like this?"
   And on the heels of that came a memory of the General [Kim Jong Il] boarding that train on the last day of his life: "Why do you doctors always try to stop me? Don't I know my own illness better than anyone else? I have to keep going, the people are waiting for me! My illness is nothing compared to their troubles, so don't try to stop me."
Continuing his speech, Kim Jong Un announces that the flood recovery effort will be completed by the time of the Party's 70th Anniversary day. The assembled officials are astonished; putting flood relief above national defense? And finishing it all in just one month? Kim explains "By the power that led us to triumph in the Five-Day War [apparently another name for the August 2015 crisis], we will triumph in this 30-day battle and restore everything to its original state."


Pak Hyŏn Sŏk, who has taken command of the housing construction effort, is overseeing the loading of a freight train with supplies headed for the flood zone. He scolds soldiers for packing too many creature comforts such as bedding and snacks, saying "Do you think we're going camping? Load the tools first!"

Flood damage relief work in Rasŏn shown on Chosŏn
Central TV, August 2015. Src: FRA
Upon arrival, Pak leads a rally for the relief team; he orders singing and dancing around the construction area to get the workers' blood pumping. A series of construction "battles" unfold using the principles of "socialist competition." The cement team churns out a 10-li field full of cement blocks in record time. The marines beat expectations by completing their assigned wall-building in just three days. This launches a competition between military units.

When Pak asks how the marines completed their walls so quickly, the team leader cryptically remarks, "When it comes to beating time, the secret is three-dimensional warfare [립체전]." He explains that this is a new tactic of labor developed by one of the marines, a young man famous for his ability to sleep standing up.

Pak promptly arranges a meeting with this super-worker, whose name is Ŏm Ju Ho. Something about the marine's boyish face seems familiar, and then his snaggletoothed grin jogs Pak's memory: he last saw Ŏm on pigpen cleaning duty aboard a submarine chaser patrolling the West Sea. Ŏm confirms that he had been given pigpen duty as a punishment for being late. Pak had sought out Ŏm after hearing he installed a new long-range sonar system that performed well in recent tests, but was surprised to find the young marine performing such a humble duty.

The next day, as the marines were filing out for a storm warning, Pak encountered a commotion at the front gate of the base.
   Surrounded by a crowd of children, a single marine stood with a woman clinging to his uniform, pleading about something. Thinking there must be a military-civilian relations problem, Pak went over to investigate. Seeing the stars on Pak's lapel, the woman sheepishly released the soldier and bowed deeply. The marine gave a crisp salute and ran off to join his regiment. Gazing after him regretfully, the woman muttered, "That comrade soldier... he saved my child's life. My child, who was on the edge of death."
   Through the woman's rambling account, Pak soon learned the whole story. The previous Sunday her daughter had fallen from a cliff while out collecting vegetables. An unknown marine had carried her all the way to the hospital and even donated his own blood to save her, then disappeared without a trace. Wanting to thank him, the woman had brought some children who witnessed the accident with her to the base so they could identify him.
   After calming the woman and sending her on her way, the unit commander clarified Pak's suspicions. "Last Sunday was the day I put Ŏm Ju Ho on communications duty, and also tasked him with delivering some magazines and books. But he took three hours to do it."
  "And the reason he was so slow?"
  "He said he had taken a shortcut through the woods and gotten lost."
  "So that's when he saved the child. And got punished for it..."
Pak sensed back then that Ŏm had extraordinary character, and now he finds him once again distinguishing himself in the flood relief effort. He asks Ŏm about the rumors that he sleeps standing up, and Ŏm explains that it is a habit from boyhood when he used to help his dad on his fishing boat. Pak asks to hear more about his father, and Ŏm replies that he is a ship captain in the local fisheries division. OMG, his father is none other than Ŏm Tae Sŏn!

Pak informs Ŏm that his father's heroic acts during the recent flooding have caught the attention of the supreme commander himself. A shocked Ŏm recounts how, when he stopped by his family home after being deployed to the region on flood relief duty, his father scolded him for leaving his post at the front.
"Listening to the radio lately, seems like the Yankee bastards are trying to mess with us again. Doing the Inchŏn landing and whatnot, just like the 50s. Right in front of your noses. And yet even you leave your post to come here! Just hearing that the army was coming here had me crying all night. At a time like this, with those jackals breathing down our necks, how can they worry about my humble home? Where else in the world can you find a leader like ours?"
Pak Hyŏn Sŏk felt deeply moved by the patriotism of this old worker who cared more about defending the front line than recovering his lost home. But at the same time, he agreed that the enemy could easily strike at such a vulnerable time.
   The US imperialists' invasion activities were growing ever more egregious. It wasn't just the Inchŏn reenactment in mid-September. Next month the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier "Ronald Reagan," loaded with dozens of fighter jets and accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, would sail into Pusan. And the south Korean puppet warmongers, nattering about "maritime security," had moved its missiles to sites on five islands in the West Sea including Yŏnpyŏngdo and Baekryŏngdo.
   The southwestern border had indeed become a time bomb [시한탄] where full-scale war could erupt at the slightest provocation. Pak Hyŏn Sŏk felt the ticking of that time bomb every hour of every day. For that reason, he felt that selfless and multi-talented soldiers like Ŏm Ju Ho were needed most desperately at the front.

The Kim Jong Il Youth Hero Medal
KJU's days have been filled with preparations for the KWP anniversary and reports on the flood relief work, but somewhere he found time to award the Kim Jong Il Youth Hero Medal posthumously to Yun Song Hwa, the young woman swept away in the flood.

Kim Jong Un and Pak Hyŏn Sŏk chat together in the car as they roll through the streets of the capital, past the construction site of Future Scientists Street [미래과학자거리]. Their conversation turns to the relief effort.

   "How are the soldiers getting on, living in such an unfamiliar area?" He [KJU] was always putting the soldiers first.
   Bak Hyŏn Sŏk swallowed his emotion and spoke lightly. "They faced some hardships at first, but now thanks to your gracious consideration they are getting special rations. Our energized soldiers are leading the charge [돌격전] night and day. Almost every day, the local residents try to bring gifts that our soldiers won't accept, causing some arguments."
   "It's a battle of love [사랑싸움] between soldiers and civilians. We must take this opportunity to show the noble ethos of our troops. Well then, how are the flood victims getting on?"
   "They're still living in tents, but their situation has stabilized. Food and daily necessities are being delivered regularly. When I visited, the shipments of fish and beef you sent had just arrived by boat and train."
    "Just a little while ago I read a letter from a little girl in Changsŏng county. She said she was going to take all her birthday gifts - notebook, pencils, and erasers - and send them to the people of Rasŏn. Right now the whole of our Party and society is devoted body and soul to the people of Rasŏn. Such is the virtue of our beautiful and gracious society."
   "Indeed, I hear some people are even jealous of the flood victims, with their nice new homes."
The Ma'ansan blanket factory
Src: dprktoday
They eventually arrive at a collection center where they inspect the goods prepared for shipment to the flood zone: plasma TVs, warm cotton duvets, "Ma'ansan" blankets, clothing and undergarments, glass tableware sets, and other household supplies.

KJU inspects them all and issues instructions to Pak: Make the duvets thicker, ensure the highest quality, send everything without delay. "But make it clear that these are aid materials, not gifts. If we call them gifts, people are likely to cherish them like family heirlooms and not really use them."

KJU and Pak then go for a walk along the Taedonggang for some fresh air. KJU brings up the Ŏm family and reflects on the selflessness exhibited by the old ship captain. "Through this recent flood, we have seen our people's true colors... Even in their distress, the people of Rasŏn thought first of protecting the images of the leaders. Despite losing their houses and all their possessions, their instinct was to protect the leaders [수령님들]. This is not just a matter of virtue. Even as they were flailing in the water, they understood that their fate and the fate of the leaders was one and the same."

KJU pauses, gazing up at a high-rise apartment building. From one brightly lit window comes the sound of a piano and a child's voice singing:
Grasping his loving hand
I can't lose the moment
Holding his cheery smile close in my heart
I dream of good fortune.
Our greatest gift
Our Leader is here
Our Leader who makes ten million wishes bloom
Inspired by this sign of the people's pure faith, KJU reflects on the Leaders who "wore down the soles of their shoes" [신발창이 닳도록] working to give the people a better life.


Pyongyang Central Tree Nursery
Src: Yonhap
Pak attends a tree-planting in front of the nearly completed housing for Rasŏn flood victims. He has brought a variety of fruit and vegetable seedlings from Pyongyang's Central Tree Nursery and Seed Farm [중앙양묘장과 채종농장].

Pak turns to Ju Ho, who is busily digging root beds, and asks him what kind of fruit tree he would like in front of his future home. Ju Ho replies that he has always been partial to the white apricot [백살구] because there was one in the yard of his childhood home. The white apricot is strongly associated with Hweryŏng, the hometown of "Mother of Revolution" Kim Jŏng Suk [KJI's mother].

The next day, Pak gets a visit from Captain Ŏm Tae Sŏn. Having heard so much about the man, he greets him warmly and praises his heroism during the flood.

But Ŏm is clearly feeling uncomfortable; he blurts out "I've committed an unforgivable crime!" He then confesses that one of his crew had been caught wrecking his own house, hoping to claim flood damage and get a new one built for him.

Pak is aghast at this show of bad citizenship, especially after all the selfless deeds he has witnessed. Indeed, he thinks, "just one loach can muddy a clear stream" [종개 한마리 맑은 강을 흐린다더니].

Hoping to make amends, Captain Ŏm begs Pak to let the troops accept a boatload of fish, but Pak points out that such a serious crime must be properly prosecuted.

Just then Pak's phone rings with amazing news: the Supreme Commander himself is on his way over to the construction site! In short order, KJU's motorcade arrives on the scene. Everyone is thunderstruck, none more so than Pak, who knows too well how packed the leader's schedule is with the KWP Anniversary imminent; yet here he is in the remote north of the country.

Without taking a moment's rest, KJU proceeds to ascend a high promontory from which he can survey the entire construction scene. In just ten days, the scene of nature's destruction has been transformed into a "fairyland" [선경마을] of orderly construction. KJU makes a little speech praising the achievements of the last 10 days and urging them to take care in construction "as if you were building your own homes." He particularly emphasizes making sure the electricity and plumbing work.

Suddenly Ŏm Tae Sŏn pushes through to the front of the crowd. "Leader!" he cries. "How can you be so kind to us, we who have only put more burdens on your shoulders?"

Pak introduces Ŏm, and KJU makes another speech reassuring everyone that a visit to the suffering people is well worth his time. He then turns to Ŏm and asks what happy coincidence brought the fishing boat captain to the work site that day. Ŏm stands frozen, unable to speak of the terrible act that his crewman committed. Pak Hyŏn Sŏk takes pity on him and begins to tell the sordid tale.

KJU  listens quietly to the tale, then everyone holds their breath as they await his judgement. But the young leader is magnanimous: "On the contrary, I see this man's destructive act as a sign of the man's faith in the Party. He could not have done such a thing unless he trusted in the Party like a mother. For people with such faith, we should move heaven and earth to do whatever they ask. Let's give this man a new home too, without discrimination."

Captain Ŏm is overwhelmed by the leader's generosity and vows to work till his boat is overflowing with fish every single day. KJU replies that it is people like the captain who make the nation great.

Notes and Links:

Satellite imagery shows Rasŏn port before and after the
flood. Src: RFA
Late-summer flooding seems to be an annual event in North Korea, but the flooding described in this story, which  hit the Rajin-Sŏnbong area in August 2015, was especially severe. A general summary of the damage in English from Reuters can be read here.

North Korean news footage from September 2015 promoting the military's role in the Rasŏn flood relief effort can still be viewed on Youtube.

This article from the South Korean media talks about the flood relief effort and how it interfered with plans for the KWP 70th Anniversary.

An RFA story (with audio) on the flood relief speed campaign can be read here.

South Korean news coverage of the "August Crisis" of 2015 and KJU's 48-hour ultimatum can be seen here. North Korean news coverage of the KWP Central Military Commission deliberations from that time can be seen here.

Militarized Flood Relief

A striking thing about this story is the frequent use of military language in reference to non-military tasks. In his speech on flood relief KJU talks about "going to war against nature's tyranny" [자연의 횡포]. He issues the order for flood relief in the name of Supreme Commander and orders the KPA Command to take charge of the flood relief headquarters. He explicitly connects flood relief effort with his earlier triumph in the August 2015 crisis, calling the recovery effort a "30-day war." Pak describes this order as the first "shots fired [포성] in the war for flood damage recovery [큰물피해복구전쟁]" and notes that soldiers from all over the country are departing their posts to head for the "point of combat" [공격지점], that is, the flood area. The marines are said to be "leading the charge" [돌격전을 벌린다] in rebuilding homes. The construction effort is praised as an "attack without gunfire" [포성없는 공격전] and a "war of love" [사랑의 전쟁]. To speed things up, KJU decrees that building materials be shipped using the "wartime transport system" [전시수송체계].

Military themes have been strong in North Korean fiction since Kim Jong Il inaugurated the military-first [sŏngun] policy in the 1990s. But the newer stories of the KJU era seem to take things one step further: even non-military tasks are elevated using military language. By leading a large-scale military construction operation and issuing commands in his capacity as Supreme Commander, KJU appears to burnish his image as an experienced military leader, without having to actually go to war.

An important key word in this story is "civil-military relations" [군민관계]. KJU inquires about how the soldiers are getting along with the locals, and the story features several anecdotes illustrating the extraordinary love and gratitude the locals feel for the soldiers. Various defector-run media outlets in South Korea have been claiming for years that the KPA is engaged in forced looting of civilian property, and as this story reveals, civil-military relations clearly remain a concern.

Speed Battle Agitprop

This story features many colorful phrases and slogans that seem to be rote features of speed-construction propaganda. Some that I found interesting include:

reaching astronomical figures 전문학적수자에 달하다
line-of-fire agitation 화선선동
unprecedented in the history of construction 지금까지 건설력사에는 례가 없다
with the speed of a lit fuse 화약에 불달린 기세로!
supersonic speed 초음속
100 days shrinks to one, a year shrinks to 10 days. 백날을 하루, 1년을 열흘로 압축

Quality Control Issues

As the above suggests, North Korean speed battles in construction have always tended to emphasize speed over quality. As a result, citizens are often less than enthusiastic about moving into some of the new state housing complexes despite their sparkly exteriors. For instance, Daily NK has some good reporting on the heating problems at the new Future Scientists Street complex. Tellingly, in KJU's speech at the construction site he specifically instructs the soldiers to make sure that the electricity and plumbing work properly and that there is an abundant supply of firewood at each new home before they move on.

KJU's magnanimity in forgiving the fisherman who destroyed his own home to get a new one can be understood in this context. North Korea is not really worried about a spate of literal home-wreckers lining up for new homes, because the reality is that most people are now justifiably wary of hastily constructed new housing.

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