Sunday, December 30, 2018

Linkfest 2018: Tooting My Own Horn

2018 was a banner year for us here at the North Korean Literature in English project. I published several articles related to the blog project and had the opportunity to present my work at several forums.

In January I published a short article with The Conversation introducing the blog project. That article caught the attention of someone who got me connected with the good folks at Global Asia, who invited me to do a longer feature article with them that was published in June.

Talking at GWU Elliot School
Meanwhile, in March I traveled to Washington DC to present a research paper based on the blog project at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference, then crossed town to GWU to present at the "Beyond the Nuclear Issue in North Korea" conference sponsored by the National Committee on North Korea and the GW Institute of Korean Studies. It was a thrill for me to meet many scholars working in various areas of North Korean society and culture.

My big week in DC yielded an invite to submit to the Korea Economic Institute's Academic Paper Series. Working with KEI helped me to put my research into a policy-oriented context for the first time, and I'm pretty proud of the resulting paper. In early December I again flew to DC to present the paper for KEI's lecture series and also did an episode of their Korea Kontext podcast (forthcoming).

Meanwhile, the project expanded further into multimedia in December when the USC Korean Studies Institute produced an interview with me as part of their YouTube series. They made me look good!

All this in a year when I also finished my Ph.D., moved to a different country, and started a new job! And continued translating North Korean works of fiction in various coffee shops and pubs around Tokyo. It's been quite a year.

I'd like to extend my gratitude to the many people who have supported this project by liking, retweeting or sharing my posts. I'd also like to thank the managers of the dprktoday website, who have made an increasing amount of North Korean literature available for free online. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not offer a very sincere thank-you to the hardworking North Korean fiction writers, without whom this project would not be possible. I know that writing is not easy even under the best of conditions, and I hope that my translations have done justice to your work.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kim Ju-sŏng on writing fiction in North Korea

I recently got my hands on North Korean defector Kim Ju-sŏng's new book The Frog that Couldn't Jump: The Reality of North Korea's Brainwashing Literature. The book was published in Japan earlier this year and provides a very compelling account of Kim's life as a Zainichi Korean transplant in North Korea, including details about his efforts to join the elite ranks of the Korean Writer's Union. 

Unlike other, more successful, more famous ex-KWU defectors I could talk about, Kim Ju-sŏng represents the experience of the rejected, downtrodden writer struggling and ultimately failing to climb the ladder of North Korea's state-controlled cultural production system. He writes with an amiable and self-deprecating style that hints at some of the creative inhibitions North Korean writers feel, without being too obvious or angsty about it.

The Frog that Couldn't Jump by Kim Ju-sŏng
Kim Ju-sŏng grew up attending a pro-North Korean school in the Kansai region. As a kid growing up in Japan, his loyalties had been torn between his paternal grandfather, a devoted Chosen Soren cadre who raised him to revere Kim Il Sŏng while slowly giving away the entire family fortune to pro-North Korean causes, and his father, a debt-ridden gambler and largely absent parent who warned him that the regime was a lie. In 1978 at age 15, he ended up boarding the infamous Mangyŏngbong ferry for a one-way trip to North Korea alongside his grandparents. They were among the last wave of Zainichi Koreans to be tempted away from Japan by the promise of socialist paradise in North Korea.

Kim paints a memorable image of his grandfather on the night of their arrival in Chŏngjin, smoking by the window and muttering "aigoo!" (alas). The old man had devoted his entire life and fortune to supporting the regime across the sea, convincing as many friends and relatives as possible to migrate to a land he had never actually seen. But apparently it didn't take long after his arrival for him to realize that he'd made a terrible mistake. Both grandparents died within two years of arrival, leaving Kim in the indifferent care of his aunt and uncle.

Author Kim Ju-sŏng
It was Kim's homesickness that drove him to write fiction; he wrote stories set in Japan so that he could vicariously visit his childhood home through his characters. As an adult he got a good job teaching physical education at a local college. However, after a few years of this he realized he would never become a professional writer that way, so he took the unusual step of quitting his job.

With his eye on winning admission to the prestigious writing program at Kim Hyong Jik University in Pyongyang, Kim decided to "step into the tiger's lair" and took a clerical job at the local KWU offices. This gave him abundant time to write in a supportive environment with feedback from professional writers.

Within two months, he had successfully published an essay in Chosŏn Munhak about a young Zainichi Korean making his first visit to to North Korea.  In the next three years he managed to publish four short stories in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, all featuring Zainichi characters and set in Japan, but sadly none of these won any national awards. He took the qualifying exam for the Kim Hyong Jik writing course and scored well, but was passed over in favor of a hack who "couldn't write the 'mun' in 'munhak' (literature)" but had the advantage of high sŏngbun (class ranking) and party membership.

Kim slaved away for the next seven years trying to become a party member. In addition to bribing people left, right and center, he signed up for every kind of manual labor - asphalt pouring, welding, street cleaning, streetlamp maintenance, etc.  Meanwhile he wrote tirelessly, with the goal of producing a "talked-about work" (話題作) that would force the establishment to notice him.

Finally, a senior KWU cadre dropped him a hint: If he would just drop the Japan stories and write something set in North Korea, he would surely be promoted to professional writer on the spot. So he wrote a story titled "Two Pillars."

The story centers on a Zainichi grandfather who has two granddaughters in North Korea. Hearing that they are bound for college, he travels to North Korea to see them enrolled - but finds them dressed in construction uniforms. He is puzzled, but eventually they convince him that their country needs construction workers more than college girls.

Kim put his all into the story, but it was rejected at the draft stage for "lacking originality." Apparently a famous Zainichi returnee writer, Kang Gui Mi, had written a similar story many years before.

After Japan cut off the Niigata-Wonsan ferry connection as part of its sanctions in 2005, life for Zainichi returnees in North Korea became increasingly untenable. Kim tried his hand at trading with Chinese enterprises and became familiar with the seamy underworld of cross-border trafficking in materials and people.

Kim eventually left North Korea and arrived in the South in 2006 at age 42.  The long, convoluted, fascinating tale of his escape is recounted in detail in here (from 30:00, in Korean with English subtitles). He was eventually reunited with his mother in Japan, but his father had perished in the Kobe earthquake in 1994.

The KWU Hierarchy 

According to Kim, writers in North Korea are referred to as "professional revolutionaries" and enjoy unusual perks. The first step to becoming a writer is registering as a "popular literature communicator" (群衆文学通信者) with the Korean Writer's Union, which is organized along with other artists' unions under the control of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers' Party.

Anyone can register with the KWU regardless of age, profession or gender. Once a year, registered members must attend a month-long training camp held at the KWU offices in each region. During this time, the writers live in a dorm together, attend writing seminars led by the Party, and workshop their writing. If one's work gains KWU approval, it gets published in the monthly KWU journal Chŏngnyŏn Munhak (청년문학).

A North Korean bookstore
Once a writer has published three short stories and two essays in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak, he or she is promoted to "candidate member" of the Union and is given the title "employed writer" (現職作家), indicating someone who writes part-time while continuing to work in another profession. "Employed writers" are able to publish their work in the main Party literary journal Chosŏn Munhak, which is distributed only to members of the KWU. After publishing a requisite number of short stories in Chosŏn Munhak and at least one novella, one advances to "professional writer" (現役作家), indicating someone whose sole job is writing.

"Professional writers" are counted as civil servants (公務員) with all the associated privileges. But even "employed writers" enjoy considerable perks - including three month's "creativity leave" from one's main job each year, permission to travel freely anywhere in the country for research, and an invite to the annual week-long national writer's seminar in Pyongyang. There are four ranks of "professional writers," and the highest-ranked may be granted the status of "merited writer" (勲功作家) or "laureate" (桂冠作家). Above that, a few of the greatest writers have been honored as "Kim Il Sung Laureate" (金日成桂冠作家); these are considered "human national treasures." Chŏng Ki Jong, author of Ryŏksa ŭi Taeha and "Sky, Land and Sea," was one such laureate.

Pathways for Aspiring Writers

Though he started writing out of pure homesickness, Kim makes clear that his major motivation for aspiring to be a professional writer was the opportunity to live in Pyongyang. As mentioned above, to become a professional writer one must first climb the KWU hierarchy by publishing a specified number of stories.

Getting even one story approved by the KWU is quite difficult, and most aspiring writers burn out before reaching the "employed writer" stage. He discovered a short-cut: at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in Pyongyang, there is a 3-year creative writing course sponsored by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the KWP. By completing this course, one automatically advances to "professional writer" status, with a good chance at securing a Party appointment. The program is very hard to get into, and the entrance exam is held only once every three years.

He saw the Kim Hyong Jik College writing course as the best guarantee of obtaining a Pyongyang residence permit. Since he understood that the KWU stood as the gatekeeper of admissions and publications, all of his creative decisions on content, setting and style were shaped by what he knew the Party would reward.

Han Man Yu, winner of the 2017 Our
Schoolroom Prize junior division
Src: dprktoday
Early on, Kim figured his best chance at admission to the college writing program would be winning a national literature prize.

The most illustrious of these is the 4.15 National Representation Literature Prize [4.15전국형상응모문학상]; the KWU also offers the "Our Schoolroom Prize" and the "6.4 Literature Prize." Anyone in the country can submit for the 4.15 Prize in one of four divisions: adult, youth, child and professional. The "Our Schoolroom Prize" is named after a famous poem that Kim Jong Il allegedly wrote in gradeschool, and the 6.4 Literature Prize is named after the date that Kim Il Sung's guerrilla unit attacked the Japanese army outpost at Pochonbo.

Kim ultimately failed to win any of these prizes, although one story earned third place for the 6.4 Literature Prize. 

North Korea's Literary Production 

According to Kim, North Korean fiction can be divided into seven genres, roughly in order of acclaim:
1) "Number One Literature" - stories about members of the ruling Kim family
2) Anti-Japanese partisan era stories
3) Korean War stories
4) Historical fiction depicting pre-colonial, dynastic Korea
5) "Reality stories" about regular people's lives in North Korea
6) Stories set in South Korea
7) Stories set anywhere outside of Korea

With the exception of Number One Literature (which is reserved for the most elite authors), aspiring authors can choose from any of these genres, but the last two tend to get poor reviews from the KWU and are considered ideologically inferior.
Cho Ryŏng Chul (1913-1993), one of North Korea's
successful writers, pictured with his wife Kim Gwan Bo
(a renowned opera singer)

Kim writes that the highest level literary magazine, Chosŏn Munhak, is distributed only within the KWU and is inaccessible to ordinary citizens. At the next level down, Chŏngnyŏn Munhak is distributed to the general public and sometimes publishes amateur work. This writing has only one objective: to mobilize the masses. Kim writes: "There are only two types of North Korean publications: 'for study' and 'for agitation/propaganda.' There is no concept of entertainment purely for the purpose of enjoyment."

In addition to fiction, the KWU also contains divisions for poetry, theatre, foreign literature in translation, children's literature and writing for the masses. Around 1980 there was a big reorganization as Kim Jong Il prioritized film and added a screenwriting division at the same level as the literature division. From that time on, screen-writers dominated the KWU's resources, and all writing became focused on promoting the objectives of the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Kim describes the production process thusly:
   After finishing a manuscript, the writer first sends it to the state-run publishing agency, where it is edited. After that, if it passes evaluation by the National Review Committee (国家検閲委員会), it gets printed in one of the Party circulars like Chŏngnyŏn Munhak or Chosŏn Munhak. Every three months, all the published stories are evaluated and categorized as '話題作' (talked-about work), '成功作' (successful work), or '問題作' (problematic work).
   In Japan, a 'talked-about work' suggests something that garners public attention, but in North Korea, the criteria for a 'good review' are fundamentally different. In the North, fiction is judged not on circulation, sales, or reader responses, but on its evaluation by the Leaders and the higher-ups. Stories that gain the personal approval of Kim father-or-son are branded 'talked-about works,' and stories that score above a certain level are 'successful works'; such stories become required reading at all citizen's reading groups (読書会) and criticism groups (感想発表会). They are treated like some sort of school text.
   Meanwhile. the author of a 'talked-about work' suddenly gets treated differently. If Kim father-or-son reviews a work personally, it's like winning the lottery. I've seen writers who became superstars overnight, given personal cars and apartments.
   As for 'problematic works' - often stories deemed to have capitalistic elements or expressions may get this label. Among these, if works are judged as 'politically problematic' the writer may be purged or sent for reform through labor... We are literally writing 'as if our lives depend on it.'
Among other things, stories are expected to reflect revolutionary optimism and praise the works of the KWP. Among themselves, after a few drinks, writers may jokingly refer to this as "kiss-ass literature" (おべんちゃら文学). Kim believes that the reason his career never took off was that he was unable to convincingly deliver this kind of kiss-ass flattery.

When Kim began writing as a defector in South Korea, his South Korean editors were surprised that he was unfamiliar with the concept of royalties. In North Korea, writers are paid by the page (1 page = 200 characters). At the time he was writing in the 1980s, a short story might earn 300-400 NK wŏn, a novella could earn 1000-1500 wŏn and a full-length novel could earn several thousand wŏn. However, "Number One Stories" got paid four times as much and could be twice as long. (For context, at the time Kim was writing, 1kg of rice in the market cost 40 wŏn and a pack of foreign cigarettes cost 120 wŏn).

Needless to say, in order to get a story published Kim had to pay far more than he earned in bribes to his editor.

Korean Writers' Union Editors

Kim describes his complicated relationship with his KWU editor in humorous terms. "For a North Korean writer, the editor (編集員) is simultaneously one's closest partner and greatest foe. In that country, writers' personal opinions are decried as individualism, while editors hold the key to publication and represent the will of the authorities. The editor is both teacher and tyrant, and also like a flea on one's side."

As an example, Kim wrote a story from the perspective of a North Korean official who travels to Japan with the national soccer team, on which his son is a star athlete. He has a long conversation with an elderly Zainichi Korean man seated beside him, pointing out his son on the field. At the end of the story the old Zainichi stands and fumbles for his cane, and the official realizes that he is blind and has been unable to see any of the game; he just came out of a sense of patriotism. Kim was particularly proud of this O. Henry-esque "twist ending." But his editor made him rewrite the story from the blind man's perspective, emphasizing how he pined for his homeland, the better to hammer home the ideological message. This of course completely ruined the "twist ending" and undid all of the clever work of setting up the surprise.

In the case of Number One Literature, it seems the editor-writer relationship is reversed. Kim writes that Number One authors are of sufficient status that their editors have to treat them with respect and not be overly critical. Also, editors have to be extremely careful about suggesting cuts to any part of a manuscript that portrays the Leaders. They, too, risk their lives with a single misstep in the high-stakes world of North Korean fiction writing.

Other interesting tidbits:

At the time Kim was writing, in the early 1990s, KIS' age was becoming more apparent and the succession issue loomed large. Because of this, the Propaganda and Agitation Department began a campaign to foster the idea that "Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the same person." This explains why their speech patterns, mannerisms and general descriptions in the stories are all identical.

Kim recalls a very melodramatic story that was told at his Korean school in Japan:
   One day, when the whole country was struggling to rebuild after the war, the top officials gathered for a meeting. Receiving the budget report, Kim Il Sung turned to his economic advisor and asked, "Why is there no allocation for Zainichi education support in this budget?"
   The assembled advisors were stunned.
   Chŏng Jun Taek (later vice premier) spoke frankly. "Why, Mr. Chairman, at present we have not even one cent to spare from the reconstruction effort. Food is short, and countless numbers of our own citizens are homeless. Now is not the time to discuss our overseas compatriots."
   Next Choe Hyŏn (a top military official, father of current number-two Choe Ryong Hae) launched into a tirade. "Comrade Kim Il Sung! Are you out of your mind? The scars of war are still raw, and you care more for distant children overseas than our own children near at hand!" Choe was a soldier to his core, an old friend from their partisan days, Kim Il Sung's elder and former superior officer in the Chinese Red Army, perhaps the only person who could speak to the Leader without restraint.
Han Dŏk Su meeting Kim Il Sung.
Src: Wolgan Chosŏn
   After hearing out all these objections, Kim Il Sung turned to the window and spoke quietly. "Why do none of you understand how I feel? Even if our people must chew on grass roots to fill their bellies, even if they sleep on the streets with rocks for their pillows, consider this: at least they have the grass and rocks of their homeland. Their own native land!"
    At his words, the officials were stunned to silence. When the Leader turned from the window, they saw tears streaming down his cheeks. "Right now, our comrade Han Dŏk Su (Chosen Soren leader) is boldly organizing and building a school for our children in Tokyo. Right in the heart of 'that country'! The fates of 600,000 of our compatriots and their children depend on him. They are our citizens overseas. As your leader, and as a parent, how can I ignore them!" And with that, he kicked open the door and strode out of the room.
Kim's first job was as a physical education teacher at a regional college. He writes that in North Korea, physical education is taken very seriously; in order to graduate every student must pass a series of physical tests. This is considered part of military readiness, that every citizen be in sufficient physical shape to take up arms if need be.

On why so many North Korean defectors choose to settle in Seoul: “If you ask them, they will all say the same thing: 'In North Korea we always dreamed of living in Pyongyang. When I visited on a school field trip as a kid, I ate ice cream for the first time in my life and visited the amusement park. I thought I was in heaven.' Since there is freedom of movement in South Korea, it just seemed obvious that everyone would want to live in the capital.” Part of Kim's reason for wanting to become a writer in the first place was in hopes of getting to live in Pyongyang.

In the 1990s Kim spent a lot of time hanging out with his Zainichi friends in the lower levels of the Koryo Hotel, where he frequently encountered Fujimoto Kenji (KJI’s personal sushi chef), and caught glimpses of KJI's firstborn son Kim Jong Nam (a solitary, sad figure) and later number-two officials Jang Song Taek and Choe Ryong Hae (always greeted with great fanfare and a reception line of beautiful women at the hotel entrance). It was generally understood that regular people were not allowed into the Koryo, but apparently Zainichi returnees with rich overseas relatives were welcome to spend their money there.

The Zainichi transplants had their own code words for the high-ups based on the Japanese reading of their names: Kim Jong Il was "Masa-chan," Kim Kyŏng Hui was "Keiko-san,"  Jang Song Taek was "Chō-san" etc. One of Kim's Zainichi friends got in deep trouble with State Security for using these code names.

Kim tells the story of one of his closest friends and fellow writers, a man who one day discovered that his editor had been regularly raping his wife. Knowing that her attacker held her husband's career and fate in his hands, the wife had kept silent. In rage and despair, the man tried to flee the country but was caught by State Security. Kim later heard that he had been sent to the infamous Yodŏk Prison Camp. This friend had been Kim's confidant and the two had often discussed their dissatisfaction with the regime, so for years afterward Kim lived in fear of every knock on the door.

One of Kim's responsibilities in his job at the KWU was maintaining its small lending library. In one corner of this library sat an unassuming safe which, it turned out, was packed full of mimeographed, Korean-translated copies of foreign novels: Matsumoto Seichō's Points and Lines, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, O. Henry's The Last Leaf, Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, Kobayashi Takiji's Crab Cannery Ship, Dante's Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's Decameron, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and Morimura Seiichi's Proof of the Man. These were exclusively for the KWU authors' use; the only foreign literature ordinary North Koreans had access to was Russian and Chinese. Though the safe's existence was a secret, somehow word got out, and Kim was constantly rebuffing under-the-counter requests from Party officials and their children. It would be his funeral if any of the materials turned up in the wrong hands.

Kim tells of numerous writers who fell out of favor and got purged or sent to reform-through-labor, including the screenwriter of the popular series "Unsung Heroes" (이름없는 영웅). One promising young Zainichi writer was studying literature at Kim Il Sung University when he had the misfortune to fall in love with Kim Il's daughter, at a time when the former partisan fighter was vice premier at the height of his power. When he found out about the romance, Kim Il had the lad sent to a labor camp and shipped his daughter off to school in Russia. The boy's father, a high-level Chosen Soren official in Japan, eventually found out and complained to Kim Il Sung, who harshly rebuked Kim Il. The boy was then allowed to return to school and went on to write a famous novel, "Hymn of Youth" (청춘송가), about his experiences - but the couple never got back together. Among the writers of North Korea, the back-story to this novel is well-known and considered the greatest love story of all time.


Author Kim Ju-sŏng has made the rounds of the defector variety shows. He appeared on ChannelA's "이제 만나러 갑니다" ( and has made numerous appearances as a contributor to Bena TV, giving extended interviews in both Korean ( - English subtitles) and Japanese ( - Korean subtitles).

Full citation:
Kim Ju-song, Tobenai kaeru: Kitachōsen sennō bungaku no jittai (The Frog that Couldn’t Jump: The Reality of North Korea’s Brainwashing Literature) (Tokyo: Futabasha, 2018). link

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Green Mountains, Green Fields (푸른산, 푸른들): Regrowing North Korea's Forests at Mashik Speed!

"Green Mountains, Green Fields" is a short story by Chŏng Yŏng Jo that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in November 2016.

KJU touring the Pyongyang Central Zoo in 2014.
Src: VOA
The story highlights the leadership's efforts to solve the country's serious deforestation problem, while simultaneously promoting the newly refurbished Pyongyang Central Zoo as a magical fun place to spend an afternoon - a place where, if you're lucky, you might even catch sight of Kim Jong Un!

Also in this story, we get more glimpses of Kim Jong Un missing his late mother and having flashbacks of working alongside his father. It is implied that Kim Jong Un has been involved behind the scenes in fixing the country's environmental problems for a very long time. We learn of two more fields in which Kim Jong Un is unexpectedly more knowledgable than the so-called experts: zoo-keeping and botany.


KJU is in his office when he gets word that the dolphins he ordered for Rungna Park are en route by air (from wherever you get dolphins, presumably). Unthinkingly he picks up phone to tell KJI the good news. Then with a pang he remembers: his father has been dead for half a year. He calls a KWP CC official instead, orders the Central Zoo people to the airport to take charge of dolphins, then sets up a meeting with Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng. The official reluctantly agrees, knowing it means the leader will have to skip lunch - again.
   The General (KJI)'s great task of building a strong and prosperous country had fallen on His shoulders. His will was firm. At the parade grounds on the Great Leader's 100th birthday parade, He had declared to the world: Our people, the greatest people in the world, have triumphed over countless adversities and faithfully upheld the Party. No longer will they need to tighten their belts; at last they will enjoy the blessings of socialism!
   This is why, despite America applying new sanctions in response to our satellite launch and growing ever more vicious in its threats to invade, He daringly pulled troops away from the front lines to work on construction Changjŏn Street and the amusement parks. In the same way, a little while ago when the food problem was bad, He put the troops to work helping farmers in a nationwide mass mobilization.
   But would that be enough to achieve the people's happiness?
   His thoughts turned to the dolphins being loaded onto the planes. Animals gave people joy; might there be some way to get all the animals of the country to help bring the people happiness? What sort of environment might they require?
Dr. Cha Ho Gyŏng is waiting in his office when he returns from his many site visits. A gaunt, tall, stern old man who never tolerated a whiff of injustice, Dr. Cha has dedicated his life to studying forestry. KJU first met him years ago when he came to discuss the deforestation problem with his father. 

KJU visits the Central Tree Nursery, May 2015
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo
Not pausing to rest, KJU links arms with the old man and they walk together into the garden. Dr. Cha talks about article he was just reading in the Rodong Shinmun highlighting the recent Land Management Mobilization Event (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회).

As they stroll and talk of the reforestation efforts, Dr. Cha suddenly stops before a particular tree and gasps. It is a rare kind of pine (스트로브스소나무) that he recalls KJI had been particularly impressed by on his last visit to the Central Tree Nursery (중앙양묘장), the October before he died. It seems that, to honor his father's memory, KJU had the seedling shipped to his private garden and raised it himself.

   "What do you think?" He asks. "If we cover our bald hillsides with splendid trees like this, won't we really get a phoenix from the ashes (화를 복으로 만들다)?"
   Dr. Cha is momentarily speechless; his expression darkens. After a moment he mutters, "I know how You have suffered over the deforestation problem. I saw it all on TV last March. Planting trees at some random army post, You dismissed the idea of pretending to work in some pre-dug hole as 'formalism' and insisted on sweating for hours doing all the spadework Yourself. And here, Your labors have achieved such abundant growth, while the Central Nursery still hasn't paid off as the General had intended."
KJU indulging in a little formalism with his South Korean
counterpart. When in Rome?
Src: Reuters

KJU waves off his concerns. He recalls how, on guidance tours together, whenever they saw a particularly lush forest his father would always exclaim, "Green mountains, green fields!" He talks of the famed Russian botanist Timiryazev's theory on the relationship between sun, earth, and plants. Dr. Cha is suitably impressed that the Leader has mastered this very thick, high-level botanical text.

"But if a growing tree needs sunlight most," KJU continues, "then what is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?" 

Dr. Cha is stumped. The answer, which KJU keeps to himself, is animals. Just as the sea needs teeming schools of fish, a mature forest needs biodiversity to thrive. It's a big problem for the country, because when the forests were chopped down all the animals disappeared.

They move on to talk about Dr. Cha's grandson, named Forest (수림), who has just joined the Youth League. Dr. Cha complains that young Forest is disobedient. KJU replies: 
   "It's good to misbehave (벌찬거야 좋은 일이지요). The new generation must be bold and gutsy enough in their hopes and ideals to conquer and rule the world. That's why we must host a grand spectacle at the upcoming 66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League (조선소년단 66돐) - so they can proclaim to the whole world, 'Look at us, we're the generation that has inherited the most magnificent, strong and powerful socialist nation on earth!'"
66th Anniversary of the Korean Youth League, Pyongyang, June 2012
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo

The demands of his busy schedule intruding, he bids Dr. Cha farewell, saying "Think of my earlier question as a kind of riddle. If you think on it a bit, you'll figure it out." He added, "By the way, I think you'll find the 'Illustrated Guide to Animals' useful."


Two days later, Dr. Cha visits the Central Zoo to borrow the book KJU recommended. It really is just a simple picture book, with no real scientific details. What did the Dear Leader expect a botanist like him to do with such a book?

The zoo guide suggests he talk with "Mother Kim Soon Bok," an animal handler with 50 years of experience working at the Central Zoo, known not only to KJU but to his father and grandfather as well.

Just then, he sees a short but sturdy older woman approaching; it is Mother Kim. They are introduced; her manner is curt and impatient as she leads him into the park.

"Sorry I've no time to be polite. I've just been scolded by the party secretary..." She chatters as they walk. "Animals and trees are like in-laws. It's not like they don't talk to each other..."

Dr. Cha figures she's a bit rough-edged from working with animals all her life, but he likes her. She mentions that she tried to resign her post. Dr. Cha cautiously asks if it was because of health issues. But she grins like a schoolgirl and whispers conspiratorially:  

   "When the General came to visit last summer, our Comrade Kim Jong Un came along too. He called me 'Mother of Beasts' and looked at me so affectionately. But since this morning, I've felt those eyes - those same eyes on me again. You get a lively intuition, working with animals."
   "But then, isn't that all the more reason to stay on?" he asked in confusion.
   "I don't particularly need to meet Comrade Kim Jong Un again. There are plenty of capable handlers on the team. Young women and housewives. But they'll get no chance at the honor while I've parked my butt in the spot. I feel guilty. Plus, I'm old."
  The woman's brusque but friendly manner made him laugh. But he also felt impatient. What was this "intuition" she spoke of, and how would it help him solve the Dear Leader's riddle? For he felt certain the two were connected. Comrade Kim Jong Un had clearly taken a particular interest in this zoo, and wanted him to take interest too.
Children on a field trip to the Central Zoo in Pyongyang.
Src: RFA
   Suddenly, Mother Kim cursed aloud, excused herself and rushed over to an enclosure, yelling for her assistant. Looking around, Dr. Cha noticed that the afternoon crowds had begun to thin, the visitors losing interest after yelling and throwing food produced no reaction from the listless animals...
   Soon Mother Kim and her assistant were busily driving some bears out into an enclosure. She explained to a curious Dr. Cha: "We're putting the boars and bears together in the tiger cage. That'll give 'em something to look at."
   "But won't the tigers eat them?"
   Mother Kim smirked impishly. "Bears are pretty tough. Those buggers can cover 100 li of forest in a day."
   Dr. Cha's brow wrinkled. Such wisdom from a crazy old harridan! (이 늙다리멍청이!) Suddenly Comrade Kim Jong Un's words echoed in his mind: "What is the most important thing for a full-grown forest?"
   A bear needs 100 li of forest in every direction to live. A tiger covers far more than that in its ceaseless search for food. But since the forests were cut down, tigers have disappeared from all but the most remote parts of Mt. Paekdu's forests.
   He realized now that this was the conclusion Comrade Kim Jong Un had been leading him toward when he recommended that animal guidebook. The secret to lush, thriving forests. What was it the old woman said about forests and animals being like in-laws? It was so simple, and yet he'd been so walled off in his own narrow field that he hadn't seen it!
Just then Dr. Cha receives an urgent phone call. He's told that KJU is at the zoo entrance and wants to speak with him immediately.


Dr. Cha meets KJU by the main gate as the Leader and several officials are discussing dolphin storage problems with the elderly party secretary of the zoo. Together they tour the zoo, which is organized in order of evolution.
   As they passed through the aquarium, the seal playground, and the reptile house, Comrade Kim Jong Un felt a strange perfume pervade his heart. These were the familiar paths he had trod many times as a child with his mother. Maybe that was why he felt such a pang when, nodding off over his work desk in the wee hours, he sometimes dreamed of her.
   In the dream, his mother would fret over him working too hard, saying that's the same way his father worked his whole life away. She was speaking of the General, who never lost faith in the people and the ultimate success of his great mission... There are those who say that the greatest power given to mankind is love, but she knew that an even more powerful and important force was faith. This she had felt deeply over the decades she spent working at the General's side.
   Why would he dream about that, of all things?
Vehicle drawn by miniature horses at the Pyongyang
Central Zoo.
As they watch electric-powered cars and horse-drawn carriages zoom by filled with chattering visitors, the  zoo manager notes that these were a gift from the late KJI. KJU reflects on how much his father invested in this zoo - donating his own favorite white horse, sending his specially-designed animal transport aircraft all over the world to collect animals, devising scientifically advanced methods for their care and feeding, etc.

He asks Dr. Cha if he has solved the riddle yet. Dr. Cha replies that he figured it out with Mother Kim's help: a full-grown forest needs animals. KJU praises him for giving the correct answer, then takes his arm, saying "Come, let's go meet the king of this forest."


They meet up with Mother Kim, who is so thrilled to see the Leader that she is rendered speechless.

"Why, Mother of Beasts, we were just looking for you," KJU says, patting her familiarly on the back. "We must thank you for opening our dear doctor's eyes."

Overcome with emotion, she sobs noisily until he puts her at ease with a joke that the animals are losing respect for her. Then the whole group is distracted by the spectacle of a boar picking a fight with a bear in the tiger cage. They meet some cuddly baby bears, and KJU mansplains that Mother Kim should not be so careless around the dangerous animals, no matter how cute they are.

KJU asks Mother Kim if she needs anything. She says no, the General gave her warm winter clothes and furniture last year. He notes that she's a bit stiff and asks if her arthritis is bad, then harshly rebukes the zoo's party secretary for not getting her proper medicine. He wants her well enough to keep working for another ten years, "when everything will be much better."

Everyone is shocked the next moment when Mother Kim suddenly collapses, moaning she has "no right to such love." She confesses that earlier that same day she had talked of quitting.

Dr. Cha explains; once KJU understands that she was only thinking of her coworkers, he praises her motherly spirit:
   "Only a mother could be so generous. A team leader thinks of her team members as her children. She raises them well and supports them to the end. Carry on, I'm counting on you."
   Then Comrade Kim Jong Un turned to Dr. Cha. "You've seen for yourself: the tiger is listless. Because of that, our Mother of Beasts has to contrive these dangerous escapades to keep her visitors entertained. Can you think of a solution?"
   At a loss for words, Cha Ho Gyŏng just shifted nervously. Taking pity on him, Comrade Kim Jong Un jumped in: "A tiger that is taken out of the forest will lose its unique character and spirit. Instead of keeping him penned up like this, how about building a big tiger hill where he can hunt and run around to his heart's content?"
   Dr Cha could not lift his head. While he'd been laughing and having a good time, Comrade Kim Jong Un had been ceaselessly pondering on the nature and habits of beasts, all to help out one old woman. And not only that - within his plan was a hint of the very forest he was planning to create!
A scene at the Pyongyang Central Zoo.


The sun is setting by the time KJU finishes touring the zoo. In the aviary the birds sing of their lost forests.

It reminds KJU of one time when he was touring an army outpost with his father. The elder leader, hearing an owl's soft hoot from the woods behind the barracks, remarked "The birds fly here because our soldiers cared so well for this forest." The strain of a long day's work fell away as he listened, muttering "Green mountains, green fields!"

His mind made up, KJU announces a major zoo renovation. "We'll put together the necessary funding and materials. With a dedicated construction crew, the whole thing should be done in 3-4 months. Well, what should we build?"

KJU then explains how the global concept of zoos has evolved "from simply displaying animals, to keeping them in their natural habitat so they can be returned to the wild." Therefore, instead of arranged exhibits following the standard evolutionary order, they should build enormous habitats where the animals can roam freely through lush forests.

Everybody is awed by the epic scale and grandeur of the leader's vision, and they burst into ecstatic cheers. KJU cannot share in their joy, because he suddenly remembers how much his father would have loved to see this zoo rebuilt; working so hard on it was part of what caused his death.
   Dr. Cha stepped forward. "I see clearly at last. I'd been thinking if there's a forest, animals will just naturally appear. it hadn't occurred to me that it takes months for them to find a new habitat and adapt to it. Now I see a novel way to build a forest and breed animals at the same time."
   Kim Jong Un smiled to see the doctor's brimming enthusiasm. "I'm glad you finally figured it out. Of course, your most urgent task is to cover our bald hills with trees that grow quickly, like larches and pines. But if we're to create a proper habitat for animals, then conifers alone are not enough. We should also mix in leafy trees and shrubs with nutrient-rich leaves and buds. Remember this: a rich forest with abundant support for life."
Riding home from the zoo in the twilight, KJU sees a work unit of soldiers marching home through the rice paddies.  They're singing "With One Breath" (한숨에), one of his favorite songs. It's a song about finishing a big job all at once, the way they did with Huichŏn Dam, Changjŏn Street and the Rungra Amusement Park. The army is good at that sort of thing.

Yes, the road ahead will be tough. But with capable scientists like Dr. Cha and motherly, self-sacrificing team leaders like Mother Kim, he's confident they'll find a way to make lush, vibrant forests a reality in the near future.

Once again, he catches himself reaching for a phone to call his late father.  But why not? Isn't his father always with him in his heart?

Holding the receiver to his ear, he thinks a silent message: "General, today I took on another big task. It's a heavy burden. But our people take after You, with your selfless love of country and ceaseless forced march of extreme labor [초강도강행군길]. With the help of such people, I can solve anything. I shall define this selfless love of country as 'Kim Jong Il Patriotism'! [김정일애국주의]" 

And with that, he had the seed of the idea for the great treatise that he would soon write.

Reforestation Efforts

One of things that most surprised me, in my graduate comparative communism courses, was learning just how devastating communist systems are to the environment. One might expect capitalist systems to be worse, with their greedy corporations chasing profits. But empirically, the damage done in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the USSR during the Cold War period and in China today dwarf anything seen in the capitalist world. Pollution and land overuse are the most common culprits in such systems.
A denuded hillside near Wonsan. Src: PBS Nova

North Korea is no exception. The causes of its ecological disaster have been variously pinned on excessive tree-cutting for firewood, overuse of fertilizer, terrace farming and pollution. It's been well-reported that deforestation is behind the increasingly devastating flood damage the country suffers every year during the rainy season.

Several years ago Nova did a good report on North Korea's environmental problems. The report does a fabulous job of explaining how famine conditions lead to environmental destruction, using late medieval Europe as a comparison. It quotes foreign researchers who have noted the striking absence of animals, including frogs and birds, in the country since the famine.

Stories like this one show that North Korea has begun to take its deforestation problems seriously. Chosŏn Shinbo reported extensively on a visit KJU made to the Central Tree Nursery in May 2015, and Uriminzokkiri has posted numerous photos and reports on the project in the last four years. The Nursery was created in 1998 and is run by the Ministry of the Environment (국토환경보호성), but it got little attention until it was expanded and modernized in 2009. The first National Land Management Mobilization Conference (국토관리총동원운동열성자대회) was held in Pyongyang in 2012. At the Conference, KJU announced a mass mobilization plan for improving the country's environment. A report released two years later trumpeted progress in reforestation, road improvements, and river and stream ecology management.

The Central Tree Nursery. Src: Uriminzokkiri
This story does briefly acknowledge that North Korea's deforestation problems originated in excessive tree-cutting during the famine period after soviet fuel supplies were cut off, although in the story this is attributed to venal citizens selling wood for food, rather than using it to heat their homes.

In the scene where KJU is remembering how he first met Dr. Cha, he recalls the ecologist complaining bitterly to his father about people cutting down trees: "No matter how hard their lives are, selling off our nation's forests to fill their bellies - it feels like a piece of my own flesh is being carved off." This is the only time that a cause is mentioned; the solution Dr. Cha offers later in the story talks only of what sort of trees they will plant and makes no mention of how they will stop the same thing from happening again.

Kim Jong Il Patriotism

In addition to the usual "Strong and Prosperous" and "cutting-edge" motifs, this story emphasizes two other new catchphrases. The Forced March of Extreme Labor [초강도강행군길] is North Korea's euphemism for how Kim Jong Il died. It carries echoes of the "Arduous March" [고난의행군], the euphemism for the famine of the 1990s that killed so many of his people. The story as North Koreans heard it is that the Leader collapsed on a train while traveling the country doing his endless sequence of on-site guidance visits, and that the strain of overwork killed him.
Let's arm ourselves firmly with Kim Jong Il Patriotism!
"What have I done for my homeland?"
Src: Alamy photos

"Kim Jong Il Patriotism" [김정일애국주의] is another important new slogan of the Kim Jong Un era. South Korean scholars have spilled much ink already trying to interpret what this is supposed to mean. It seems to be tied to ideas of self-sacrifice and feats of extremely fast-paced labor. By attaching the name Kim Jong Il, the regime reminds people that their last leader allegedly killed himself by working too hard, setting that up as the ultimate example of patriotism. Thus, performing superhuman feats of labor is the best way to carry on the late Leader's legacy.

KJU did indeed write (or at least, was credited with) a treatise on the subject of "Kim Jong Il Patriotism" which he presented to the KPA Central Committee in July 2012. The full text can be downloaded by clicking this link. It seems that this story was intended in part to promote this treatise as Kim the Third's first great philosophical treatise, carrying on the tradition of his father's works on Juche film and literature and his grandfather's many works of political philosophy.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Translator's note: Why are some pronouns capitalized?

In the process of translating North Korean fiction, attempting to capture this complex hybrid of political communication, literature, and religious text, I've been forced to make several editorial choices.

The first was that, since I simply did not have time to translate entire stories, I would simply summarize the boring sections and put greater effort into translating the particularly interesting sections verbatim, taking as much care as possible to faithfully represent the original Korean text. These "faithful representations" are indented to distinguish them from summary text and editorial commentary.

But faithful representation is particularly difficult with certain aspects of Korean that simply do not exist in English. For instance, the use of honorific/humble speech is of particular importance in these stories - Kim Jong Un uses honorific speech so rarely that when he does so it makes a crucial statement about the social status of the individual he is addressing. And yet there is no good way of rendering such distinctions in English.  I have occasionally used parenthetical notes for this purpose.

Text from "Our Heavens"
Another aspect that I deemed too important to ignore was the various titles and ways of addressing the Leaders in the texts - particularly as these change over time. Kim Jong Il, for instance, has by turns been "The Dear Leader," "The Great Leader," and most recently "The General." Kim Jong Un is now usually "The Dear Leader," "The Supreme Commander," or "Comrade Kim Jong Un." But when the author uses a pronoun to represent one of the leaders, it is always "그이" (honorific for "him"). This is one of the key distinctions between South and North Korean; South Korean writing uses "그이" to refer to various people particularly worthy of massive respect, such as famous philosophers, kings and gods. North Korea uses this term exclusively to refer to the Leader Kims.

I decided that the closest (albeit imperfect) English equivalent would be the capitalized "He" used to refer to certain deities in religious texts. Therefore, in the indented verbatim texts, wherever you see a capitalized male pronoun, this indicates that the original Korean used the term 그이.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"The Old Soldier" (로병동지): North Korea's Greatest Generation

"The Old Soldier" (Robyŏng Dongji) is a short story by Baek Sang Gyun that appeared in Choson Munhak in 2017.

The heart of the story follows a senior military official's efforts, at Kim Jong Un's behest, to track down an elderly veteran so that he can be honored properly. The story's main purpose seems to be to illustrate the young leader's devotion to the country's aging veterans. Along the way it also manages to highlight the boost in construction projects (particularly hydropower), several new leisure and entertainment facilities in Pyongyang, and the increasingly ostentatious Victory Day festivities in the capital.


Along the way to visit the front lines, KJU’s car passes a construction site. He sees a group of elderly citizens stepping off a tour bus, their chests jangling with medals, tambourines and accordions in hand. It is a veterans' art agitation troupe (로병기동예술선동대), heading to an event to educate the young laborers about the war.

A student art agitation troupe performs to encourage construction workers
Src: Tongil News

KJU privately contemplates the unflagging energy of the nation’s veterans. There was that group in Yŏngchŏn who formed a tree-planting brigade and covered hundreds of hectares of once-barren hillsides with trees. And that group from Myŏngsŏn County who gathered tens of tons of scrap metal to donate to the steel mill. He must find a way to celebrate their contributions at the upcoming Victory Day (전승절) ceremonies.

2013 Victory Day celebration in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
Src: RFA

The car rocks along the bumpy rode, jolting him from his reverie. As if apologetic for disturbing the Leader's thoughts, the driver slows down.

"Why are you going at turtle speed?" KJU complains. "As the saying goes, a horse responds to the whip, and a car responds to the jolt of the road. Speed up! The country's development follows our pace."

Turning to General Ri Jŏng Mook, who is accompanying him, KJU asks about the preparations for the elderly veterans' participation in the Victory Day festivities. "We must take their health into account." Then, a non-sequitur: "I guess we'll see that old fellow from Sŏkgaryŏng again?"

Jŏng Mook draws a blank, so KJU reminds him. "You know, the old codger who had been drinking and wandered into the road that night."


Flashback: It was a cold mid-January, and KJU was on the road with Jŏng Mook, having just reluctantly left one barracks full of sobbing, adoring soldiers behind to visit another. They were headed to Ch'ŏnhabong, a mountain post so rugged and remote that no roads can reach it; they get all their food and supplies delivered by cable ropeway.

Suddenly sensing danger, KJU snapped alert. "Driver, slow down. I think there's someone in the road ahead." The driver slowed. Jŏng Mook craned to peer out the window.

The car's high beams illuminated the figure of a man, staggering down the center of he road, oblivious to the car approaching behind him. "I think he's been drinking," KJU observed.

He ordered the car to stop and got out. Following after him, Jŏng Mook heard a shout and a thud. It seemed the man had belatedly moved to the side of the road and promptly fallen over.

"Are you okay?" KJU asked, helping him up. Reeking of alcohol, the drunkard (술주정뱅이) lurched upright and muttered thanks.

It was too dark to see his face, but he sounded ancient. Jŏng Mook asked if he's been to a "daesajib" (North Korean type of pub).

"Wharrya mean, daesajib? D'ya think an old guy like me'd be out drrinkin' this late atta place like that?"

Jong Mook was so offended by his rough speech that he started to berate the old man, but KJU restrained him, reminding him to respect his elders.

The old man settled down a bit. "Truth is, I's just sharin' a drink with my old departed war buddies (먼저 간 전우들)." After a pause: "My war buddies, they're all sleepin' up on yonder ridge."
A KPA machine gun unit during the Korean War.
ⓒ NARA, via OhMyNews

At his words, KJU remembered hearing that during the War of National Liberation, a group of resistance fighters died protecting the ridge they just crossed. This must be a survivor of that battle.
"T'was October 1950. The eight of us were headed back from patrol when we met up with some American bastards with a tank. We could see they were trying to open a route to Pyongyang. Were we supposed to stand for that? Just let 'em march right into Pyongyang, where the great General Kim Il Sung was? We swore to protect that road with our lives, so we opened fire on the bastards. That was a ferocious fight; we were way outgunned. When I think how my buddies said I had to come out alive, 'cause I was the youngest..." The old man's voice broke.
KJU held his hand and praised him for remembering his fallen comrades. But the old man shook his head.
   "Truth is, I've no right to stand before them. Didn't fulfil my pledge, did I? Swore to honor the Great Leader and the Party... So I went to them to do my penance and swear, to my dying breath, to revere the heaven and destiny of our people, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Un."
KJU was overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to meet this wonderful old soldier, and wanted to talk with him some more. They offered the old man a ride, but he adamantly refused, saying he lived just up the road. So they parted ways, never revealing KJU's identity.


Roused from the memory, KJU suddenly orders Ri Jŏng Mook to go pay the old man a visit. Jŏng Mook returns to the same stretch of road to find no dwellings anywhere nearby, not even a hint of a human presence. "So the old man lied," he thinks.

Upon questioning one of the rare passers-by, he learns of an electric line repair station in a lonely place a ways down the ridge. Sweating bullets, he finally reaches the place to find a 50-something man just exiting, who greets him cheerily. After hearing Jŏng Mook explain his business, he looks befuddled.

"That old man comes round every Chusŏk, he stays here overnight after visiting the graves on the ridge. Never asked his name, I just know he lives up north in Kyŏngp'yŏng..."
A rural village in North Hamgyong Province.
Src: AP

So Jŏng Mook travels to Kyŏngp'yŏng, where he learns that the man's name is Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng and he is 78 years old. He hurries to the man's house and eagerly knocks on the door. To his dismay, the woman who answers informs him that the old man, her father-in-law, left home a month ago and never came back.

"It's all my fault," she mutters, then begins telling him the whole story.


About a month ago, the old man gathered up his battered toolchest and took off, mumbling something about "paying of my debt to the nation while I still can." She ran after him but couldn't catch him to get a clear explanation.

The old man had been on pension (년로보장) since before she joined the family 10 years ago. After the war, he had worked as a highly skilled machine repairman on everything from cars to construction cranes. He had four children, but his wife perished during the Arduous March and his three daughters had all completed their military service and then (at his insistence) all married officers deployed at the front, leaving the old man alone with just her and her husband, who worked as a supplier [자재인수원] at a chemical plant and was away most of the time.

At first she took good care of him, but after having a few kids, she grew indifferent. He kept going round to the local work sites, asking if they had any machines that needed fixing, trying to be useful. She wished he would put his talents to use on little home improvement projects, like some of the other old-timers in the neighborhood.

Hearing her story, it seemed obvious to Jŏng Mook that the old man must have run off to some construction site. But such sites were as numerous as the forests; inquiring at each one would take forever.


KJU is grieved to hear Jŏng Mook's report. Undeterred, he orders a nationwide search for Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng, instructing aides to contact construction heads in every county, city and township until they locate the old man.


At last Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng is found. The old soldier has been working at the Sŏngsan hydroelectric plant construction site.

Construction of Huichŏn Hydroelectric Dam.
Src: Chosŏn Pub
According to the site manager, he showed up two months ago offering his assistance, but the site planners treated him like a "leftover stone from the castle" [성쌓고 남은 돌]. This kind of work was tough even for young men, so what could an old geezer like him do? They thanked him for his offer and advised him to go home. Ch'un Sŏng said not a word in reply, but left the office to find transport to the work site.

In the parking lot a small group was crowded around a broken-down freight transport, arguing over how to fix it. After eavesdropping a bit, Ch'un Sŏng put in some advice. At first they all wondered where this old geezer came from; but upon hearing him speak sensibly and competently of various auto parts, their "mouths hung open" in astonished respect. Following his advice, in short order, they had the engine roaring back to life.

Soon word circulated of an "all-knowing machine guru" (만능기관박사) who "could repair anything with an engine, with his eyes closed." Soon the various work units were vying for the old man's time.

Receiving this report, a delighted KJU thanks the Sŏngsan County party secretary, who provided the information. He promptly sends Jŏng Mook off to fetch the old man to Pyongyang.

As he leaves, the desk phone rings. KJU answers, listens briefly, and hangs up. Apropos of nothing, he announces,"Gotta go, the dolphin circus is starting," and dashes out. [I've decided to start using this as my new excuse to get out of any conversation.]


Returning to his office after giving final instructions at the newly-constructed Rŭngna Dolphinarium [릉라곱등어관], KJU thinks over his impressions.
A show at the Rŭngra Dolphinarium.
Src: Uriminzokkiri, May 2015
He had been standing before the water tank, when suddenly the calm water bubbled up like a bowl of juk, and the dolphins leapt into the air. They swam right up to him and bowed their graceful heads, as if thanking him for giving them such a splendid home.

The facility is set to open on Victory Day, and the old veterans will be in attendance to see the fantastic show. KJU realizes that most of the veterans should have arrived in the city by now, and he wonders if their lodgings are comfortable enough. He immediately dials up the hotel manager.
"Comrade hotel manager? This is Kim Jong Un."
The hotel manager's joy and astonishment blares from the receiver. "Dear Leader, hello!"
War veterans transported by bus to the 5th National Veterans'
Conference, July 2018.
Festivities. Src: Hangyoreh

KJU asks if the veterans' lodgings lack anything. The manager replies that no, all is well. After some hesitation, he carefully adds that all the old soldiers are settling comfortably - except Chŏng Ch'un Song, who is not eating well and seems depressed. They've tried talking to him, but he has completely clammed up.

A worried KJU immediately calls Ri Jŏng Mook to his office. As KJU explains the problem, Jŏng Mook visibly blanches. Suspicious, KJU asks him if he knows anything about it.
Veterans bound for Victory Day festivities arrive at
Pyongyang Station, July 2015
Src: Uriminzokkiri

Jŏng Mook confesses that when he went to greet the veterans arriving at Pyongyang Station, he was hauled aside by Chŏng Ch'un Song. The old man explained that he had been too bewildered to ask any questions on the day the officer tracked him down, but now he wanted to know how the Dear Leader knew of him.

Jŏng Mook reluctantly told him about the circumstances of their meeting that night, including his drunken stumbling along the road in front of the Leader's car. The old man shook his head in disbelief.
   "It's true I'd been drinking that night, but how could I have been so impertinent in front of the Dear Leader?" Finally acknowledging the reality of the matter, he slumped down in his chair.
   "Aikoo! What kind of senile haze was I in that night? To think that I gibbered on like that while the Dear Leader stood out in the biting wind on a cold winter night! What would people think of me if they knew? That I couldn't even protect Him..."
   After berating himself at some length, he suddenly sprang up and turned on Ri Jŏng Mook. "Hey! Why did you just stand there? No matter how dark it was, you could have given me some kind of hint that I was in the presence of the Dear Leader. Why didn't you slap my worthless face?"
  Jŏng Mook just sighed, regretting that he had said anything.
Veterans being féted in Pyongyang during the 2015 Victory
 Day Celebrations.
Src: Uriminzokkiri
Hearing this story, KJU realizes that the old man must feel terrible, but he is deeply moved by his devotion. He scans his desk calendar; Jŏng Mook knows he is trying to find a free moment in his packed schedule to meet with the old veteran.

At length he sighs and shakes his head. There's just not a minute to spare to visit the veterans' hotel. Jŏng Mook offers to go in his stead.

"Very well. Go and tell them this: I, Kim Jong Un, am grateful to all the veterans for their sincerity, so they are to not worry about anything and just enjoy themselves."


Kim Jong Un devotes himself wholeheartedly to the elderly veterans throughout the Victory Day celebrations, joining them at various performances and festivities. All the old soldiers are overwhelmed by the Dear Leader's tireless devotion and thrilled to hear that they will have a commemorative photo taken with him.


KJU arrives for the photo shoot and warmly greets Ri Jŏng Mook.

Jŏng Mook has been continually amazed by the Leader's detailed attention to the veterans' comfort; he even arranged the veterans' meals to match their various palates and health conditions. He attended every event with them, including the visits to Rŭngna People's Pleasure Park, Okryugwan, and Ch'ŏngryugwan [all relatively new prestige structures in Pyongyang - an amusement park and the two most famous restaurants in Pyongyang, respectively].

KJU honors war veterans at the 4th National Veteran's
Festival, held in Pyongyang in July 2015.

KJU asks after Chŏng Ch'un Song. The old man is still as depressed as ever, saying he's not worthy of standing before the supreme commander.

They enter the photo shoot area, where the Leader is greeted by the waiting veterans with thunderous shouts of "manse." As KJU grins and clasps their aged hands one by one, he notices one veteran standing aside with a hangdog look. He casts a questioning look at Jŏng Mook, who quietly confirms that that is Chŏng Ch'un Song.
   With a nod, Comrade Kim Jong Un sought out Chŏng Ch'un Song.
   "Comrade Veteran!"
   At the sound of His booming voice, everyone fell dead silent. At Comrade Kim Jong Un's call, Chŏng Ch'un Song lifted his head and gazed at the leader with tear-filled eyes.
   "Dear Comrade Supreme Commander!" Chŏng Ch'un Song stuttered in a strangled voice, then bit his lip as if biting back a sob.
   Comrade Kim Jong Un warmly grasped both his hands. "Comrade veteran! Welcome. I wasn't able to greet you properly when we last met at Sŏkgaryŏng, so I'm happy to greet you now."
   Chŏng Ch'un Song shook his head vigorously, fighting back tears. "Comrade Supreme Commander! How can this be? I should be the one... That night... that night when I... I acted like an old fool..."
   But Comrade Kim Jong Un shook his hands firmly. "Comrade veteran! Stop this talk. You have no idea how much your words that night gave me strength."
   Overwhelmed by emotion, Chŏng Ch'un Song buried his face in Comrade Kim Jong Un's bosom. "Dear Leader, thank you so much. Thank..."
   Comrade Kim Jong Un gently patted his shoulder. "I've heard a lot about you, comrade veteran. How you went to the hydropower plant and tried with your remaining strength to give back to your country. That's really great." [KJU is using honorific speech here]
   Chŏng Ch'un Song raised his tear-stained face. "No, no it's not. Compared to the way you go around on dangerous roads, never resting, giving guidance so that our people can finally live well, what have I ever done?
   "Dear Leader! Until our strength fails us, we'll keep on doing whatever we can to carry on the Great Leader's wishes, and we'll make our children do so too. So please, don't walk those dangerous roads anymore."...
   Kim Jong Un turned to address all the assembled veterans. "Comrades! You veterans are a treasure more precious than gold and jewels to our Party. I honor you not just out of filial obligation but also in a human sense, because I think of you as my fathers and grandfathers."
An elderly North Korean war veteran speaks at a middle
school about his experiences of war and reconstruction.
Src: Rodong Shinmun 7/24/2014 via
Everybody goes nuts. When the cheering finally quiets down, KJU instructs the veterans to "pass on the spirit of the 1950s to the next generation, so that the Great Work of the juche and songun revolutions can continue."


That night, the family of Chŏng Ch'un Song watches with joy and tears as their father and the other veterans appear on the evening TV broadcast, meeting with KJU.


Celebrating Veterans

In North Korea, the generation that fought in the Korean War and then achieved the remarkable reconstruction of the 1950s is considered the country's greatest generation. Not only did they emerge triumphant (so the story goes) from a death struggle with the world's greatest military power, they then rebuilt from the ashes an industrialized socialist economy that, for a time, outperformed the South.

The Kim Jong Un era has seen a marked acceleration in efforts to honor the country's ageing veterans. Rodong Shinmun has run several full-page spreads in recent years highlighting veterans' activities, and war testimonies by elderly citizens have been featured prominently on the pages of literary magazines like Choson Munhak.

An elderly veteran's educational outing covered in Rodong Shinmun.
Headline reads "Learning Spirit of Struggle from War Heroes' Example"
Src: Rodong Shinmun 7/24/2014 via

In a prominent example of this trend, last summer Pyongyang hosted the 5th National Veteran's Festival [제5차 전국노병대회]. This is a multi-day event in which veterans from all over the country are assembled in Pyongyang for various ceremonies and photo-ops.

The first and only such festival of the Pre-Kim Jong Un era was held in July 1993 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Since Kim Jong Un took power, it seems the idea has been resurrected; the 2nd National Veteran's Festival was held in 2012, the 3rd in 2013, the 4th in 2015, and the 5th in 2018. The event always occurs in conjunction with the nation's annual Victory Day celebration on July 27th, which North Korea marks as the official end of the Korean War. A 2015 RFA article talks about North Korea's Victory Day celebration.

South Korean researcher Kim Sŏng-su has written that, at the time of succession, Kim Jong Un’s youth was problematic from the point of view of North Korea’s aged senior officials, many veterans of the Korean war, who might reasonably have resisted the succession on the grounds that the young leader would disrespect them and eject them from positions of power in favor of younger cadres. Perhaps to combat this fear, Kim Jong Un has been depicted showing extreme deference to the elderly and particularly veterans. Many recent works of fiction such as “Our Succession” and “Sky, Land and Sea” have depicted Kim Jong Un going out of his way to honor veterans and flying into a rage when they suffer the slightest hint of an insult. Thus new fiction toes a fine line between depictions of older officials as ossified, inflexible and incapable of absorbing new ideas on the one hand, but still worthy of respect and gratitude on the other.

The Rŭngna Dolphinarium 

Completed in 2015, this was part of the ever-expanding Rŭngna complex of leisure and entertainment facilities - the same Rŭngna complex mentioned in Blossoming Dreams. This article posted at Uriminzokkiri describes the dolphin shows: "On Rŭngnado, the island like a flower barge floating on the river, one of the main attractions is the Dolphinarium. Since 'moving' to Rŭngnado, the dolphins' skills have improved and they constantly get thunderous applause from the audience. Foreign visitors who witness the happy world and cultured lifestyle of our ordinary workers at the Dolphinarium note approvingly that that this is the sort of benefit that only socialism can provide."

The dolphinarium's appearance in this story is the mother of all non-sequiturs. The author spends about three paragraphs talking about how much KJU enjoyed the dolphin show, but this interlude has no bearing whatsoever on anything that comes before or after it. It reminded me of the old Monty Python transition, "And now for something completely different." I can picture this author, after having the story mostly written, getting a note on his desk saying "Throw in something about the dolphin show."

New Construction Efforts

Ri Jŏng Mook's observation that construction sites are becoming "as numerous as the forests in this country" can be considered somewhat ironic, given that deforestation has long been a serious problem in North Korea. But the story does an admirable job of inserting a message that construction is on the rise, not just in the capital, but in rural places. Readers are expected to be particularly encouraged by the message that power projects are making progress, like the hydroelectric dam where Chŏng Ch'un Sŏng washes up.

While many foreign observers continue to express skepticism about their quality and durability, it is undeniable that the Kim Jong Un era has seen a dramatic rise in new construction projects in the capital. An interesting 2017 RFA article provides some detail on the human cost of the recent breakneck construction drive, particularly focused on the effort to spruce up Kim Jong Un's birthplace.

As far as I can tell, there is no Sŏngsan Hydroelectric Plant in North Korea, nor is there a Sŏngsan County. There is a small hydropower plant in Sŏngchon County, South Pyongan Province,  but it was completed with UNIDO support in 2008. The plant in this story was more likely intended as a fictional representation of the Huichŏn Hydroelectric Power Plant, a major project that has been under construction since the 1980s. Construction at Huichŏn has been ramped up in recent years after lagging throughout Kim Jong Il's reign. Here's a good 2011 article from Ohmynews with details on it, and an article in English at RFA. A 2015 article from the Telegraph details Kim Jong Un's efforts to ramp up hydroelectric power production.