Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Bulgŭn Kam" (붉은 감): North Korea's female gunners learn to love their new Leader


"Bulgŭn Kam" (Red Persimmon) is a short story by Kim Yŏng Hui that first appeared in Munhak Shinmun in November 2013 and was also included in the collection Bul ŭi Yaksok (A Promise of Fire). The story follows the members of the all-female "Persimmon" artillery brigade as they struggle to cope with their grief over the death of Kim Jong Il, culminating in a visit by new leader Kim Jong Un. As an added bonus, this story is filled with enough woman-as-fruit metaphors to make Georgia O'Keefe blush.
Kim Jong Il with Persimmon Brigade commemorative stamp.
Src: dprktoday.com

The Plot

The story begins as the heroine, Myong-ok, arrives at the “Persimmon Brigade” after she specifically asked to be assigned there. After making fun of her short stature and lack of singing talent, the brigade chief asks why she requested this assignment. She clumsily explains that her mother was a member of the unit, and had her photo taken with the General (Kim Jong Il), and Myong-ok has vowed to follow in her mother's footsteps.

We soon learn that this story is not exactly true. In reality, Myong-ok's mother had almost been assigned to the Persimmon Brigade, but ended up working as a medic at the division headquarters. When she saw the images on TV of the brigade women meeting the Dear Leader, she was filled with remorse and forever after regretted missing the chance to get her picture taken with the Leader. But Myong-ok is determined to join this brigade and get the photo op her mother never had, and the Persimmon Brigade is her best shot since he's always visiting there.

The brigade women welcome her, telling her she has a lucky name. It turns out that two of the previous brigade commanders to meet the Leader were both named Choi Myong-ok. Suddenly realizing that her mother must have chosen that name deliberately in hopes that she would one day meet the Leader, Myong-ok is touched. She tearfully confesses she lied about her mother being a former Persimmon Brigade member. The women laugh away her nervousness and inform her that she is not the first to lie about her connections to the brigade.

That night Myŏng-ok sleeps in the barracks with her new brigade mates. She dreams of meeting the General and handing him a ripe red persimmon.

A short while later, everyone is devastated to learn that the General has died. They all want to run off to Pyongyang to sob and scream over the General, but the commander points out that they cannot leave their post unattended. With puffy eyes, they leadenly go about their duties.

Her dream evaporated, Myong-ok struggles with her arduous duties and begins missing home. She was mostly raised by her grandparents as her parents were always busy working. Once, after the land reform, her grandparents had attempted to send a gift of hand-made silk clothes for Kim Il Sung and his wife. KIS refused, saying that the farm couple should keep the silk clothes for themselves, since they worked hard to “feed the nation.” She recalls that her grandparents had recently worried that the General looked unwell, and her mother spent months in an alpine region collecting a special kind of moss and mixing a Korean medicine packet to send to him.

Coastal artillery women training.
Src: rfa.org
Startled from reverie by a sudden sea swell, Myong-ok looks out from her watch post and spots a strange shape in water. She is suddenly alarmed, recalling that this is the same spot where a young cadet once netted an enemy spy boat. She sounds the alarm and the brigade chief comes running - but the “enemy ship” turns out to be nothing more than a rocky outcropping. From that day on, Myong-ok's squad leader works her extra hard.

The perspective shifts to KJU as he arrives on a visit to the Persimmon brigade. Staring at a stone memorial to the Leaders, he thinks of all the visits his father and grandfather made here over the years.

By tradition, each year the new recruits plant a persimmon tree. Some of the oldest trees date back to his grandfather's first visit in 1972.
   As the persimmon trees grow, the young recruits mature into female soldiers. Eventually they leave and a  new squad enters with their bright red conscription papers. How many times has the cycle repeated? Just as the fresh young buds ripen into bright red persimmons in the fall.
   Comrade Kim Jong Un reached up to gently caress a pair of persimmons hanging together like brothers. He recalled  how the brigade soldiers ran out to greet him, crying and clinging to his clothing.
KJU visiting the Persimmon Brigade. Src: Chosun Shinbo
The female gunnery brigades had always had a special place in Kim Jong Il's heart. It was on a visit to the all-female Pine Tree Brigade in February 1995, just after his own father’s death, that KJI first announced the dawn of the Songun (military first) era. He stood at the stormy breakwater,  exposed to elements, and refused a hat so that he could suffer in solidarity with the female soldiers. He observed their drills and praised them. Noting that their skin and lips were chapped from the harsh winds and salty spray, he castigated the military bureaucracy for neglecting the women's needs. Later he sent them a shipment of skin cream.

As he walks the same gravel paths his father and grandfather once trod, KJU contemplates the tremendous devotion they both poured into developing this fighting force, and he worries that he cannot carry on their legacy with the troops.

---

While the rest of the brigade runs through drills for their new Supreme Commander, Myong-ok is stuck on cooking duty.

How quickly her luck has turned sour! Just a short while ago she had been in swimming practice and her squad leader had praised her progress. Indeed, a recent experience had inspired her to work harder.

Recently, several former brigade members had paid a visit on the anniversary of KJI's famous 1995 visit. Myong-ok met her namesake, former commander Myong-ok, who had gone on to graduate from the People's Economic College and become a respected Party member.

Persimmon Brigade women. Sign reads: "Doing our duty
for respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il!"
The two women bonded, as the ex-commander related how she started out training at same gun that Myŏng-ok has now, and despised her commander for putting her through endless drills. "But now I am grateful to her," she says. "If it wasn't for her harsh demands, I would not have become the woman I am today." Young Myong-ok resolves to henceforth follow orders with gratitude.

After some joint drills, the women gathered to share stories of the brigade with the younger generation. They tell the story of the skin cream, and the time they got to visit Pyongyang thanks to KJI, and the time he sent them each a photo album with a blank page at the front "for your wedding photo." The brigade alumnae recall that KJI was always lonely, missing his friends in the Persimmon Brigade. When he came to visit, it was like a father reuniting with his daughters.

Ex-commander Choi Myong-ok read aloud some fan letters from around the country, messages encouraging the women to train hard and thanking them "for making the General smile at last.” Then she tells them the story of how KJI got them to begin swim training.

KJI decreed that coastal troops must follow example of the famous wartime gunners of Wolmido, and learn to swim well. He even ordered new swim uniforms made for them. Then one day he took the entire brigade out to sea, where a swimming platform was set up, to demonstrate their swimming skills on the ocean waves. As they went through their laps, KJI noticed one soldier beginning to struggle. They tried to throw her a buoy, but she refused help and toughed it out to the end. Later it turned out that the woman had been ill and missed swimming practice. KJI praised the woman's perseverance, and promised to visit again “when persimmons are ripe.” She ends her story with the moral:
"We didn't think of it as merely a promise to come back at picking season. Persimmons are a fruit that withstands cold winds and only ripens to sweetness after the frost. In that sense, we believed He was promising to return when we had matured through harsh training into peerless fighters (일당백의 만능병사) and correct human beings."
After that, young Myong-ok took her namesake's words to heart and devoted herself to conquering her training.

---

Returning to the present, KJU continues his tour with the brigade's Executive Officer. Together they ponder a photo from the day KJI observed the women's swim practice. The General had prepared a sumptuous feast for them after their training, and in the photo they are all grinning at the banquet table. KJU wonders how they would feel if they knew that the General ate only one small rice cake that day, before rushing off to his next on-site inspection.

KJU recalled that his father always spoke highly of the women of the Persimmon Brigade; how they could handle the heavy guns and swim as well as any man. He also remarked that after completing such rigorous military service, for women such as these, surely their future work and family life would be easy by comparison.

They tour the rest of the facilities, including the barbershop modeled after the famous Kangsŏngwŏn salon and the garden where the women grow their own vegetables. KJU asks if the women need anything. Their answer: goose meat and ddŏk (sticky rice cakes). After his tour, KJU is treated to a musical performance by the women of the brigade. They perform “March of Korean Youth” and “The General and Our Persimmon Brigade,” and then regale him with stories of KJI’s visits.

Surrounded by loving soldiers, Kim Jong Un feels that "the nation's truest blessing is the 10 million soldiers united as one family." He recalls a foreign newswire report he read recently:
 "In 2012, newly elected leaders in many countries will make their first public moves. The world's youngest leader, Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un of North Korea, has already made waves by paying a New Year's visit to a military unit, greeting the troops and warmly grasping their hands. The world is paying close attention to Kim Jong Un's political style."
As the women sing a song about "firing the fusillade of unification," KJU thinks: "Yes, just as the Great Leader said, I believe in the soldiers and they will believe in me, and together we will walk the long road of revolution, until we achieve victory in the great battle for national unification." Here KJU seems weirdly tinged with self-doubt, and the sight of the women's faith gives him the strength he needs to carry on.

When the time comes to say goodbye, all the women gather round, reluctant to part with KJU.  Myong-ok is crying, so KJU offers her a hankie. There's a nice moment where KJU bonds with Myong-ok over the fact that they are both from Pyongyang.

Finally KJU gets in his car to leave. As the car pulls away, the women run after it, and suddenly Myong-ok runs out in front. KJU sees Myong-ok stumble running after the car, and orders the driver to stop.

KJU suddenly realizes why Persimmon Brigade was so dear to KJI. Persimmons are called the “filial fruit” for their health benefits to the elderly. But their sweetness only comes out after the first frost; in the same way, people can only mature through adversity.

KJU decides to take separate commemorative photos with each soldier before he leaves, a rare and time-consuming honor.
From left - Veteran independence fighters Choe Yong Gon, 
Kim Chaek, Kim Il, Kim Il Sung and Kang Gun;
North Korea, 1949.



After KJU leaves, everybody cries. They are particularly moved by KJU's generosity with the photos; the twins note that even their own father never took pictures with them side-by-side. Myong-ok recalls that KIS’ most treasured possession was an old photo of himself with his war buddy, Kim Chaek. Now that they have all taken a photo with the leader, they have essentially become his war buddies as well.

The story ends with more persimmon=woman ripening metaphors.




North Korea's Female Soldiers

The story mentions that the all-female coastal artillery brigades were formed long ago by Kim Il Sung to harness the untapped power of half the population to “push one wheel of the revolution" (혁명의 한쪽스레바퀴). The three most famous female brigades in North Korea are the Persimmon Brigade (감나무중대), the Pine Brigade (다박솔중대), and the Wildflower Brigade (들꽃중대). These brigades feature prominently in several legendary stories of the Leaders' compassion for the troops.

Apparently, the story about KJI visiting and promising to come again when the Persimmons are ripe is fairly well-known in North Korea, and effectively made the brigade a household name. The South Korean TV show "Now on My Way to Meet You" (이제 만나러 갑니다) did a brief segment on the Persimmon Brigade which can be viewed online here (relevant section starts at 12:13).

Not long after this story was published, the North Korean media site Uriminzokkiri published a feature article on the Persimmon Brigade. Since this brigade is famous for being one of KJI's favorites, it must have seemed important to depict their mourning over his death and their continuing devotion to the new Leader.

Beauty in Suffering

Several times throughout the story, the text repeats the refrain of the Song of the Persimmon Brigade:

Slender arms trained warrior-strong 
On the women who wield the heavy steel guns

The overriding theme seems to be that beauty is refined through hardship and purpose. There are allusions to the persimmon fruit, which "only gets its sweet taste after the first frost." While contemplating his father's concern for the women's chapped and frozen skin, KJU wonders:
If those women had been well-dressed in warm clothing, would the General have remembered them as fondly? If flowers are grown in a hothouse protected from the harsh sun and wind, would they touch the heart as deeply? ... Did not the General always feel that the sound of the fusillade firing accurately on command was the most beautiful song? And the women soldiers who lived as comrades-in-arms with their Supreme Commander, were they not the most beautiful in his heart?
Tears in North Korean Fiction

As has been observed elsewhere in this blog, North Korea's fictional characters are not afraid to cry, and the women of the persimmon brigade are no exception. The main character Myong-ok cries so frequently that her fellow soldiers seem to grow exasperated with her. 

There's a funny moment where the executive officer informs KJU that one of the young women is absent because the brigade sent her to represent them at the Youth Festival (Aug 28) celebrations in Pyongyang. Hearing this, KJU asks, “If that soldier knew she'd missed my visit, would she cry like the rest of them?" The officer replies, "Oh, that one would fall to pieces. She was always longing to meet the Supreme Commander." 

The leaders are usually an exception to the rule; I cannot recall seeing KIS ever depicted as crying tears of grief or anxiety, although he would perhaps cry tears of joy. KJI seemed similarly stoic, except when thinking about his father's suffering. In the new fiction since the 3rd generation succession, KJU seems much more fragile by comparison. His "eyeballs get hot" (눈굽이 후끈해지시였다) and several times he seems close to tears as he examines old photos of the brigade with KIS and KJI. 

A common pattern seems to be emerging: In this story, as in "Him in December" and "A Promise of Fire," KJU's momentary depression is relieved by observing some common citizen's act of devotion. The message seems to be that the new leader, though gifted with the blood of Mt Paekdu,  is extraordinarily young and fragile, and he will need the full faith and support of the people to succeed.

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