Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ryŏksa ui Taeha (력사의 대하) Pt 2 - The Clintons and Gores dine on not-so-humble pie

Back by popular demand, I am continuing my selective translations of Chŏng Ki Jong's epic novel Ryŏksa ui Taeha, which covers the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-94 from a North Korean perspective. Most of the story centers on Kim Jong Il, his advisors, and a young brigade commander named Oh Yŏng Bŏm. However, occasionally the perspective jumps to show the reactions in the US government. The following excerpt is translated from Part 2, Chapter 1 of the novel.


Clinton with staff aboard Air Force One
   Shocking news always comes suddenly. Clinton was reading an AFP report aboard the presidential plane. His aide, David,1 could sense the president's agitation from the way he flapped the paper in his hand, staring blankly across at the blithely chattering Commerce and Finance Secretaries. As head speechwriter for President Nixon and communications director for President Reagan, David knew all too well what sort of report could rattle a president this way, but scanning Clinton's expression now he could not begin to guess what had him so upset.
   Clinton and his entourage were on their way back from the 1993 trade and investment forum with major bank presidents in Los Angeles. It was the first major step toward the economic recovery Clinton had promised during the campaign, so naturally the finance and trade secretaries were engrossed in national economic issues and the problem of investment in Russia.
   But Clinton's attention was completely distracted by the report he had received in mid-flight.

   --- March 8, AFP ---
   Today in Communist North Korea, by order of Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il, the entire military and civilian population has been put in a state of quasi-war. This is the first time since 1983 that the hard-line communist state has issued such an order, having previously declared only a state of "battle mobilization" in response to the "Team" exercises, and it represents a clear escalation in the level of military response to the US threat...

   As Clinton scanned the report his eye was drawn to the phrase "By order of Supreme Commander." His left eyelid twitched as it always did when he was agitated, and a strange feeling struck him. After all, he was the supreme commander of the US forces. He was the one who had ordered the Team Spirit exercises and secretly laid plans for "Operation Focus."2 And the North Korean supreme commander had given a strong response.
   He scanned the quote from the North Korean media: "If the US imperialists and their south Korean puppets start another war, then our military and our people will fight to the end and deliver a devastating blow to the invaders and recover the dignity of heroic Korea - in the name of the Party, the Leader, and our-style socialism built on the masses. We must let our enemies know that they cannot touch one speck of our soil, not one blade of our grass." He re-read the strange phrases "the Party and the Leader," "our-style socialism," and "heroic Korea," struggling to divine the secret meaning hidden within.
   They dare to threaten us, he thought, biting his lip. This provocative language is a declaration of war! He turned to David and instructed him to contact the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs, to prepare them to declare a state of emergency the moment he got off the plane.
   Actually, when it came to matters of defense, Clinton was more inclined to listen to the Joint Chiefs than the bureaucrats in the Dept of Defense. The DoD oversaw the three branches of the military, but the Joint Chiefs were the highest organ for strategy and tactics directly under the president's command, and the generals and career officers formed his brain trust for military strategy.
   David said, "We're landing in Washington in 15 minutes. When and where should I ask them to meet us?"
   Clinton glanced at his watch; it was 18:45. Suddenly he remembered Hillary saying, "Don't forget, we've invited the Gores to dinner tonight." Since they couldn't spend their anniversary dinner alone, she had ultimately decided to invite the Gores.
   Clinton thought a moment. "Fine, tell them I'll meet them in the Situation Room by 8pm."
   No sooner had Clinton entered the White House than the Gores appeared.
   Both of the Gores were tall people. After working as a war correspondent in Vietnam, Al Gore had studied law at various universities. Though he was Clinton's junior by two years, he was already a veteran politician with 16 years in the Senate. His book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit was a national best-seller that had gained global recognition.
   "Mrs. Clinton," Gore greeted Hillary. "What's the occasion for having us to dine with you?"
   "It's our anniversary," she replied lightly.
   "Oh my!" Gore's wife, Tipper, gaped at her. "Why didn't you say so before?"
   Gore, too, was discomfited. "This won't do. To think we've come to your anniversary dinner without a gift."
   Hillary smiled. "No bother, I'm not even sure what the 19th anniversary is. Next year for our 20th we'll be sure to let you know, so you can get us a vase or something."
   They all laughed at that. Recently it had become the fashion in America to celebrate not only traditional anniversaries like the 5th (wood), 15th (copper), 25th (silver), 50th (gold), and 65th (diamond), but also new ones like the 1st (paper), 10th (tin), and 20th (china).
   "But you don't appear to be in a good mood, Mr. President," Gore continued. "Did those bankers get on your nerves?"
   Clinton shook his head. "It's not that, it's North Korea. I was hoping to talk with you about it. Let's go in."
   Historically, American presidents had always tended to keep their vice presidents at a distance, but Clinton had always been close with Gore both professionally and personally, as they were among the youngest in the administration. Whatever the issue, they always aligned their positions first before setting policy. Both southerners, they had fought fiercely in the Democratic Party primaries before joining forces to win the election. The three Gore children were close with Chelsea, and they always celebrated birthdays together.
   In the dining room, food was laid out on enormous oval table: Gore's favorite steak and sandwiches, asparagus, a creamy yellow custard cake, grilled vegetables and Mexican-style barbecue. It was hardly luxurious fare, but it was plentiful.
Bill Clinton loves Tango?
   A server poured beer and wine. First they toasted the couple's 19th anniversary. Lively tango music played from a corner speaker. The servers slid around the room in time to the music, delivering plates of food.
  Tango was Clinton's favorite kind of music. His favorite food was banana sandwiches, and he could drink copious amounts of foamy beer and wine. So all this should have put him in a good mood. However, his expression was tense and uneasy. Grasping his second glass of wine, he surveyed the group and suddenly began to recite:
All that is not worth, O deep, deep bottle,
The penetrating balm that your fruitful belly
Holds for the thirsty heart of the pious poet;
You pour out for him hope, and youth, and life
Here Clinton paused, and Gore continued:
— And pride, the treasure of all beggary,
Which makes us triumphant and equal to the gods!3 
   Clinton looked at him in surprise. "You are also a fan of Baudelaire?"
   "I just memorized some bits in college."
   "I see. Let's leave Baudelaire to his bottle and cut to the chase then." Clinton set his glass down and turned solemn as he spoke in a clipped tone. "Today North Korea responded to our Team exercises by declaring a state of quasi-war. Tonight all the networks will be buzzing about this. It seems like they've finally reacted to our ratcheting pressure. But is that all it is? The thing that surprises me is that they've taken such a hard-line response. It'd be one thing if we attacked their nuclear facilities, but why get so hot and bothered over some exercises that happen every year? It's true that the Team Spirit exercises are the largest in the world; NATO's exercises don't even compare. But it's been that way for a long time. So what are we to make of this sudden hard-line stance? Could it be that they've somehow sussed out our secret plan? If so, is this their declaration of war?"
   He paused, lifting his glass and taking a deep breath. Then he mumbled, almost to himself, "It doesn't smell right. What on earth are they planning?"
   All were silent. Hillary attempted to interest the Gores in the food, but they demurred. At length, Hillary threw up her hands and shrugged as if to say "What sort of anniversary dinner is this!"
   But Clinton failed to see her gesture. He was staring at the opposite wall, where a famous quote by President John Adams was inscribed in gold. It was a prayer he had spoken when he first set foot in the White House. "I Pray Heaven To Bestow The Best Of Blessings On This House And All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof."
John Adams' prayer engraved in the mantel in the White
House dining room
   He hoped that one day some wall in this house would bear the portrait and quotation of himself, 42nd President Bill Clinton. Why not? Lincoln's quotation was inscribed under his portrait in the Lincoln Bedroom: "I did all that I could to the best of my ability."4 Why couldn't he hope for the same? Was he not the president of the world's sole superpower?
   But first, he had to solve the North Korea problem. All the great leaders throughout history had found some way to display their strength, cunning and will soon after taking power. This was true of the "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck, Friedrich, Hitler, and even Truman,5 who ordered the atomic bombings. And more recently: England's "Iron Lady" Thatcher unhesitatingly waged war over the Falklands, Reagan swallowed Panama in one gulp, Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan, Bush fought the Gulf War.. Without these bold acts, the shine would wear off of their crowns and they would soon be forgotten.
   This was Clinton's view of history and greatness. And he believed that history had assigned him the task of a "20th Century Fall of Troy." That which had bedeviled all previous US presidents - the conquest of North Korea - he, Bill Clinton, would achieve.
   However, he was beginning to sense that the conquest wouldn't be as easy as he had hoped. North Korea's hardline response had rattled him and left him feeling deeply uneasy.
   Hillary's whispered "Bill!" broke him from his reverie. As if waiting for an opening, Gore spoke, picking up the dropped thread of their conversation.
   "Mr. President, I think we need to take a strong stance on this, one befitting the world's most powerful nation. No matter what they do, we should stick to our original plan."
   He was obviously referring to "Operation Focus." Catching the gleam in Clinton's eye at his words, Gore too began to get excited.
   "The time is ripe. North Korea's hardline response gives us just the excuse we need to strike their nuclear facilities. This aggressive declaration, right at the time when they were supposed to open their nuclear facilities to the world - isn't this the golden opportunity we've been waiting for? Mr. President, Napoleon once said, 'The enemy commander was not incompetent. He was simply thinking of too many things at once.' So many past American presidents have made the same error: trying to think of too many things at once and losing their chance. Think about it. Johnson with the Pueblo incident, Nixon with the EC-121 incident, Ford with the Panmunjom incident. Each time they contemplated a massive retaliation, even moved forces into position, but then at the critical moment they overthought it. And what have we gained? Our allies have lost faith in America's ability to stand up to the communist bloc. We've been knocked on the head and humiliated by North Korea time and time again. We can't follow their lead."
   Clinton liked Gore's speech. It didn't matter that he had merely spoken aloud what everyone in the room already knew. After all, after 3,000 years of human history, there's nothing new under the sun. We're all just picking up the fragments of old thoughts, dusting them off and calling them our own.
   At length, Clinton spoke. "You're right. I think I'll go over to the Situation Room to review Operation Focus one more time."
   Clinton brightened and the table grew lively again as they began tucking in to the beer and sandwiches.
   It was at that moment that Tipper, who had been silent all this time, muttered quietly: "How can such a tiny country dare to stand up to the United States..."
   Gore laughed. "That's a question for a psychologist like you."
   "I'm thinking," said Tipper in her quiet but firm way. "Look at Israel. It's a tiny country too, but still they push us around. American presidents have always sworn to protect Israel, at any cost. Why is that?"
   Gore explained. "Isn't it obvious? It's because the Jewish lobby has America by the throat. They own most of the banks and insurance companies, and also control major scientific research institutes and the media. They wield absolute power in all financial and intellectual areas. They constantly boast about Marx, Freud and Einstein, and claim their race instigated all the great turning points in human history. Without the support of America's 6 million Jews, we couldn't do anything."
   "In that case," Tipper pressed on, "What's the basis of North Korea's power? What gives them influence over us? That's what I want to know."
   Gore glanced at Clinton, who had been following their exchange with interest. "Mr. President, the fact is that we don't know much about this country. The TV networks BBC and CNN have bureaus and correspondents scattered all over the globe, but they haven't been able to penetrate North Korea. From what I hear even the Japanese, right under their noses, have no idea. It's spooky."
   "People fear what they don't know," said Clinton. "The unknown always seems mysterious and spooky."
   "Fine!" Hillary cut in. "If we're going to dine on politics tonight, I'll do my part." She excused herself a moment and came back bearing a small book.
    "I found something interesting in this analysis by the British Defense Ministry's Center for Strategic Analysis. It hints at how the North Koreans are able to exert so much influence on the world." She opened to the spot she had bookmarked. "In the quiet village of Murare in Zimbabwe there is a minor, unknown newspaper company. One day a female reporter for this paper came across a big scoop. She had lived in this farming region for many years and had come to know all the people there. This tiny insignificant newspaper reported that some North Korean military advisers were to train Robert Mugabe's private army, the 5th Brigade. Suddenly this little no-name newspaper became world-famous. Robert Mugabe was furious. He called the reporter to the capital, interrogated her, and demanded that she resign.
   "Two years later, the 5th Brigade earned fame by ruthlessly repressing some reactionary forces. Thanks to the 5th Brigade, Mugabe was able to pacify the unrest and solidify his political base."
   Hillary closed the book. "It was just a handful of advisors. They didn't bring over any fancy new missile technology. No aircraft, no artillery, no tanks. And yet, with their training, this 5th Brigade was mightier than the dozens of units allied against them. And today, Zimbabwe remains one of the most politically stable countries in south central Africa."6
  The Gores seemed disquieted by Hillary's speech, but Clinton brushed it off. What he needed now was faith and courage, not tiresome reflection. "Let's not talk about North Korea any more. Whether they declare war or not, I'm inclined to just ignore them!"
   In the Situation Room, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Shalikashvili, and various officers were assembled awaiting the president.
The Clinton-era situation room
   It was a big square room, its walls covered with maps and TV screens, with swivel chairs laid out for the president and his advisors. Since Reagan's time the president had a specially constructed chair that allowed him to survey the room from a reclining position. Clinton sat in that chair and thought about how it was from this spot that Reagan had dreamed of his Star Wars, and Bush had reveled in the carnage of the Gulf War. One day soon, he would watch his Operation Focus unfold from this chair.
   He gestured for Aspin and Shalikashvili to sit nearby. "You've all heard North Korea declaration of quasi-war today," he said, swiveling idly in his chair. "What does it mean? I'm inclined to think that their hardline response suits our purposes. It allows us to move forward with Operation Focus without any obstacles. What do you think?"
   Clinton's tone implied that he expected not discussion but affirmation, and the two men spoke simultaneously: "That's right, Mr. President." "I concur, Mr. President."
   "Good, then let's review our progress."
   General Shalikashvili glanced across the table at Deputy Chief of the Army John Wilkson. He was a close associate of Clinton's and the chief architect of the plan.
   Lieutenant General Wilkson stepped forward. "Mr. President, the first stage of the operation is complete. If I could direct your attention to the monitors..." He fiddled with the remote control and suddenly an image of a lush tropical island filled the big screen.
   "This is Guam," Wilkson said. Viewed from the air, the island was a dense tropical jungle crisscrossed with roads, harbors and airstrips. It was clear that whoever had prepared this material for the president had poured considerable artistry into the production.
   Gazing at the land that he had never visited in person, Clinton recalled how Japan had seized the entire island the day after attacking Pearl Harbor, and how America had recaptured it over 20 days of ferocious fighting in 1944 during which 10,000 soldiers perished. Today Guam hosted a U.S. strategic air base and a naval base with Polaris missile-equipped nuclear submarines, part of the crescent of key strategic outposts in the western Pacific along with the Marshall and Caroline islands.
   "This is Anderson Air Base," Wilkson continued. "Right now our stealth bombers are departing for Air Base K47 (Ch'unch'on) in South Korea. Flight time is 3 hours 24 minutes, and they will evade radar detection until they reach K47. They will detect their targets and conduct an attack drill without support aircraft.
USAF F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
   "The F117-As will fly in a formation of three. The target has been set up to closely resemble Yongbyon plant. They've already run three successful attack drills."
   On the screen, the stealth fighters were launching missiles at imaginary targets labeled A, B, C, and D, which blew apart in rapid succession.
   Clinton couldn't tear his eyes from the screen. He had no doubt of the operation's effectiveness, but his attention was captivated by the feeling of watching a movie he himself had created.
   He loved the stealth fighters. It pleased him immensely to think that he had such powerful high-tech weapons at his disposal.
   Development of stealth fighters had begun in absolute secrecy 15 years ago as part of "Project Possibility 21BC," a futuristic vision of 21st century fighter aircraft, but the project had advanced faster than they could have dreamed. The military-industrial complex "Northrop" had been developing the project under strict control and surveillance at a factory in the southern California town of Palmdale.
   The aircraft's external surface was complex and irregular so as to disrupt radar and absorb radio signals, making it impossible for enemies to detect... It was this craft that allowed U.S. forces to destroy 31% of their strategic targets in Iraq within the first 24 hours of the Gulf War.
   There could be no doubt that these high-tech aircraft would annihilate North Korea's nuclear facilities instantaneously. So why did Clinton feel so uneasy? Was it all because of their recent statement, all but declaring war?
   Wilkson's presentation continued. On the screens appeared the carrier fleets from Yokosuka harbor in Japan and Apra Naval Base in Guam. Wilkson gave a detailed explanation for the military layperson president. Though Bill Clinton was the commander in chief of the U.S. military, he was not responsible for the detailed strategic planning; he need only give the command for war.
   When Wilkson finished his presentation and shut off the monitor, he spoke: "Is that all?"
   "Yes, sir!" the deputy chief answered.
   Clinton's anxiety was easing a bit, but he gave no sign. He shook his head slowly as if unsatisfied. The assembled officers exchanged uneasy looks. What more could he want? Had they not provided the highest precision technology, the best hand-picked pilots?
   "Without tactical success there can be no strategic gain," Clinton said, recalling a line from Clausewitz's Theory of War. "We must match North Korea's provocation by showing that we have set a ticking time bomb for actual war. Our B1B nuclear bombers, stealth bombers and aircraft carriers are not enough."
General Shalikashvili gives a presentation with Clinton, Gore
and the Joint Chiefs in attendance
   Seeing their confusion, he stood. "We have to show them that the nuclear time bomb is ticking. Do it secretly, but in a way that gets their attention - that's the only way to scare the strategic minds in a hardline communist state."
   At last the assembled defense officials saw what the president was asking for. Astonished, General Shalikaskvili spoke. "Yes, sir! I see how we must respond. I'll order Seoul to have C3I operational."
   Wilkson quickly threw up a map of Korea on the monitor and explained to placate the president.
   C3I, an acronym for Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence, is the strategic command system in the event of nuclear war. It encapsulates the systems for:
  1. ordering a nuclear strike
  2. targeting and conducting attacks
  3. collecting and transmitting intel to central command
  4. all other strategic military communications
   The U.S. had only two forward command centers for C3I: NATO headquarters in Western Europe, and Seoul in the Far East. Even during the Gulf War there was no need for such a top-secret system.
   Clinton was satisfied. He felt the respect for his military acumen in all the officers' eyes. Joking around with the officers, he suddenly felt the urge to go out for a fast drive or a round of golf.
   But alas, it was the middle of the night, and he still had a pile of work to do. America's economic headaches, trade frictions with Japan, the Russia problem, Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and the Middle East... altogether, he hadn't had a good night's sleep since his swearing-in. But his newfound faith in Operation Focus had lifted his spirits. When C3I became operational, how would the North Korean supreme commander react? According to a report he read from the Kim Jong Il Research Center, a think tank established during the Bush administration, Kim Jong Il's military leadership style was characterized by:

  1. accurate judgment
  2. firm decisiveness
  3. merciless strikes against chosen targets

   But today, with the most powerful military hardware and nuclear weapons in history at his disposal, the situation was different. He was certain of it.
   "How long until we attack?"
   "Eleven days left, sir!" came Shalikashvili's reply.
   "Hmmm." He cracked his knuckles. In just 11 days, the world would be in for a big surprise. "Very good," he grinned. "I think I'll just ignore it then!"
   The assembled officials looked confused, having no idea what he was referring to. Clinton himself seemed unaware that he was repeating his earlier words in response to the North Korean declaration.


1. From the biographical details given, "David" in this story is clearly David Gergen. It is unclear why the text neglects to give his last name; this could be a coy way of avoiding specificity or it could reflect North Korean confusion about how surnames work in English. In the previous excerpt, Clinton's adviser "Tommy" McClarty was given the same treatment, although his full name was given upon first reference. President Clinton is always "Clinton," but Mrs. Clinton is always "Hillary." Al Gore is "Gore" and Tipper Gore is "Tipper."

2. "Operation Focus" (포커스작전) was also mentioned in the previous excerpt. In the novel, this is the code name for Clinton's secret plan to stage an invasion of North Korea, using the Team Spirit exercises as cover to assemble the combined forces. It's a matter of conjecture how the author came up with this name. Interestingly, the same code name was used for the surprise Israeli missile strike against Egypt which started the Six-Day War in 1967.

3. The Korean translation of Baudelaire in the story is actually extremely rough.  I used the William Aggeler translation once I figured out which poem they were reciting. For those who are interested, here is how the verses appeared in the story:
그 무엇도 너만 못하구나
오 그윽한 술잔이여

너는 나에게 부어주더라
희망과 젊음과 사랑을
너는 우리를 승리자로 만들더라
신과 같이 되게 하더라!
And here is the original French:
Tout cela ne vaut pas, ô bouteille profonde,
Les baumes pénétrants que ta panse féconde
Garde au coeur altéré du poète pieux;
Tu lui verses l'espoir, la jeunesse et la vie,
— Et l'orgueil, ce trésor de toute gueuserie,
Qui nous rend triomphants et semblables aux Dieux!
4. The John Adams quote is actually inscribed on the mantel in the White House dining room, though not in gold. I couldn't find the exact quotes from Lincoln and Napoleon, so I just translated them verbatim.
Nazi propaganda card showing Frederick the Great,
Bismarck and Hitler

5. The four leaders Clinton admires are listed in the order given: Bismarck, Friedrich, Hitler, and Truman. By "Friedrich" I assume the author refers to Frederick the Great. The three German leaders were famously depicted together in Nazi propaganda.

6. The North Korean military's role in training Mugabe's 5th Brigade has been reported widely. North Korean advisors also helped to train Uganda's military in the 1980s.

Clinton's motivation

This is the second excerpt we've seen that shows President Clinton's sense of competition with past presidents and world leaders and his need to achieve personal greatness as president. The novel repeatedly emphasizes fame as the major driving force behind Clinton's determination to invade North Korea. It is somewhat intriguing that Chŏng works so hard to convince the North Korean reader of why an American president would want to attack their country.

This excerpt goes a bit further in explaining the U.S. president's role commander in chief and suggesting that Clinton, as a "military layperson president" (군사작전에 문외한인 대통령), has a bit of an inferiority complex toward the Joint Chiefs. Even prior to the sŏngun (military-first) era, North Koreans had no concept of civilian command over the military, having always had a military commander as their head of government.

Women as voices of reason

The wives in this story play important roles in softening their husbands' pride and bloodthirstiness. Tipper Gore in particular is a sympathetic character, asking questions about North Korea's power that nobody else seems to have pondered. Hillary Clinton displays bookishness, bossiness and a respect for the underdog in global military affairs.  Bill Clinton and Al Gore both come off as rather patronizing and dismissive of their wives' words of warning.

This portrayal of female characters resembles that already seen by Hillary Clinton in the previous excerpt and by Rosalynn Carter in "Maehok." All good fiction writers know that putting too many scheming bad guys in a room together can be boring; there has to be somebody with a modicum of humanity and common sense so that the really evil guys can have someone to argue with in their secret lair. In North Korean depictions of the U.S. government, the wives of the leaders seem to be appointed this role.

Regional politics

Another thing worth noting is how these stories make reference to north-south regional enmity in U.S. politics. In "Maehok," Jimmy Carter took pride in being the first southern President since the Civil War; in this story Clinton and Gore bonded over being southern. I don't know what to make of this, but it's compelling to think it may be an echo of the embedded regional rivalries that play such an important role in Korean politics.