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.

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