Thursday, January 3, 2019

Night Path (밤길): Hoop dreams on a North Korean manure farm

"Night Path" (밤길) is a story by Ri Yŏng Chŏl that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in July 2016.

This story uses basketball as a metaphor for collective work. The young, talented upstart soil technician visits a struggling collective farm and teaches its managers the true meaning of winning, both on the court and in the fields. 

It could be marketed as a sort of North Korean Hoosiers, in which a rural farm collective discovers the joy of basketball and in the process learns to work as a team to achieve their agricultural targets. Or it could be like a reverse Karate Kid - where the workers learn that the skills they honed through sports can also have practical applications in their everyday labors. Anyway, it's a sports story, and reading it taught me more than I ever wanted to know of the North Korean vocabulary for basketball moves and soil-mixing techniques.
North Korea farmers and the most majestic-looking pile of manure
you ever will see. Notice how it is surrounded by a pale aura of pure
 light and refracts a perfect rainbow.
Src: dprktoday

Story Summary

Team leader (분조장) Ri Ŭn Jin is returning late at night along the mountain path to his village. As he stoops to tie a loose shoelace, the beam of his flashlight illuminates his sweaty, sun-browned face. He springs back upright and treks onward with a vigor that belies his years.

He has trekked 60 li (1 li = 0.393 km) round-trip to the agricultural college for the final test run of a special fertilizer mixing technique (린회토분해균배합량).  It is the first step toward transforming their farm into the high-yield utopian collective they have planned, "a vision of a socialist fairyland," one worthy of a visit from the Leader. He thinks back on the long series of events that put him on this path…



It all started when Kim Myŏng Pil, a young soil technician from the famous Songhak Collective Farm which the Dear Leader once visited, was dispatched to their unit. 

KJU touring Songhak Collective Farm in 2013.
Src: Choson Shinbo
As they entered the farm’s bog fields, team leader Ŭn Jin proudly pointed out the 10-ton stacks of manure (거름더미) neatly lined up “like tanks awaiting the order to march.”
   “Since it was announced that the year of the 7th Party Congress shall be a year of increased grain production, our team has been fighting day and night to produce 40 tons per jŏngbo (9,917.4㎡). We’re the top producing team (분조) in the division (작업반). What do you think?” 
   Myŏng Pil glanced at the stacks of manure and gave his dimpled smile. "Isn't this the age of science and technology? Churning out mounds of manure is great and all, but shouldn't we be studying ways to boost production even more by using microorganisms and chemical agents?"
   Ŭn Jin laughed humorlessly, thinking of how his team had labored so many sleepless nights, fighting for every last gram of that manure. They were determined, by hook or by crook, to somehow raise their production to the level of Songhak Collective Farm, which the Dear Leader had visited. Such miracles had they achieved through the fierce competition between work teams... Then, just when they were so pleased with themselves for producing 40 tons, this new techie came in and acted like it was nothing!
The next morning Ŭn Jin woke to find Myŏng Pil practicing free throws at the basketball hoop outside the living quarters. The young engineer tossed the ball his way, challenging him to show off his skills. Ŭn Jin, who was once the pride of the farm's basketball team (농장롱구팀), tried for a jump shot; sadly the ball bounced off. He tried again; bounced again.

Determined now, Ŭn Jin stripped off his jacket and tried the one-handed jump shot that always worked back when he was on the team, three years ago; still no luck. Meanwhile, Myŏng Pil was getting nothing but net. Frustrated, Ŭn Jin monopolized the ball until he finally got a shot in; at that point they were playing in earnest. But Ŭn Jin kept screwing up, and Myŏng Pil won pretty easily.

His defeat brought back unwelcome memories.

Rice transplanting, usually done in May
Src: NK Chosun
Three years ago, just before rice transplanting season, Ŭn Jin organized a championship game between his team and the neighboring Songhak farm team. His teammates were all in their prime, young men recently discharged from military service. But they were no match for Songhak's superior ball handling and teamwork. He was so humiliated by their loss that he never played again.

The oblivious Myŏng Pil was full of encouragement: "Comrade team leader, you just need a little more practice. Right now the whole country is in a sports frenzy; we should put together a team!"

Changing the subject, Myŏng Pil showed him a soil fertility assessment he'd just ordered. Ŭn Jin was peeved, since he just done his own assessment six months ago. "Just like a new wife, meddling in her mother-in-law's kitchen," he muttered. To which Ŭn Jin placatingly replied, "Shouldn't a new wife help her mother-in-law?"

Several days later, a new farm plan appeared on the bulletin wall.
The blueprint for Dŏkwŏlsan village looked like a mother duck surrounded by her ducklings: neat homes laid out around a central structure with a basketball court, volleyball court, table tennis and various excercise areas. Off to the side was a scientific research facility, a threshing floor, animal pens, a greenhouse, and huts for cultivating mushrooms, earthworms and snails. A windmill spun beside the stream that flowed around the village and down into a series of catfish-breeding locks. 
Attached was Myŏng Pil's soil assessment, along with a detailed, plot-by-plot map of the various  fertilizers (유기질비료, 광물질비료, 미량원소비료, 흙보산비료) and soil preparation techniques (흙깔이와 소토구이, 소석회구이) needed to meet production targets. Ŭn Jin could hardly believe that the young technician did all this work by himself and wondered where he found the time, between rice transplanting, evening seminars and basketball practice.

Collective work team bulletin board with progress chart
Myŏng Pil proceeded to assign tasks to each member of Ŭn Jin's former basketball team, matching their particular skills (the guy who's best at "driving and turnovers" [속공과 빼몰기] was put in charge of studying livestock rotation, etc). Ŭn Jin was tasked with investigating phosphorous-based fertilizers. Myŏng Pil himself took charge of designing a more efficient irrigation plan.

Ŭn Jin felt anxious but excited about the magnitude of the task. Rising by one's own bootstraps! (자강력제일주의!)

Just then Myŏng Pil quietly asked, "Team leader, why don't you join our basketball team. With you, we'll have a great three-man combo. Let's challenge Songhak Farm to a game on the next holiday." It seemed Myŏng Pil had taken charge of the team.

Ŭn Jin was flabbergasted. He was already at his wits' end trying to manage cold-frame planting, tilling, soil preparation, and acquiring some new source of phosphorous; how on earth could he find time for basketball?

"Do you really think we can beat Songhak?" he asked.

"Only one way to find out. But I'm confident," Myŏng Pil replied with his dimpled grin.

The two men made a bet: If they won, Ŭn Jin would approve all of Myŏng Pil's recommendations for the farm. (It's unclear what Myŏng Pil would forfeit if they lost, but I hope it involved dimple reduction surgery)

---

Paekdusan Championship match, March 2018; teams are
fielded with staffers from rival central agencies
Src: dprktoday

The game was very close; they ended up losing by only 4 points. Ŭn Jin was astonished at how pumped up everyone was by the game. It seemed like the whole farm was buzzing with "sports fever" (체육열풍).

Meanwhile the farm plans were proceeding better than expected, and the new soil formula was producing unbelievable growth. The basketball team was getting positively cocky, asking who they should play next; Ŭn Jin remained a spectator. His seedlings got transplanted late and were yielding poor-quality grain. Reluctantly, he invited Myŏng Pil over for beers to pick his brain and crib his notes on soil phosphorite.
   Phosphorite exists abundantly in inland areas along the east and west coasts of our country and can be unearthed with very little effort. As the name suggests, it is a natural mineral rich in phosphorous and nutrients essential for growing all sorts of crops and is useful in multi-element mineral fertilizers and organic fertilizers.
   Ŭn Jin felt like his whole being was aflame with the need to acquire this phosphorite. But where, oh where could he find it?
The next day Myŏng Pil showed up staggering and drenched in sweat, but with a joyous gleam in his eye. He brought news: there was a huge amount of phosphorite in the No.2 team's mulberry field! It seemed he had hiked  60 li overnight to the Agricultural College to review their land survey data.

Ŭn Jin went to the mulberry field and discovered that the rocky soil was indeed flush with phosphorite. A frenzy of activity ensued as his team leapt to the task of harvesting the precious mineral.
Soil preparation and fertilizer mixing
Src: dprktoday

He'd just hauled off a fresh load and was on his way back with the tractor when he heard a cheer go up. Scurrying to the field, he found that the four work teams had set up an impromptu pick-up game with a loop of cane attached to a tree trunk for a basket. Watching the action, he noted that Myŏng Pil and his star players were the very picture of disciplined teamwork and technique, while the other side was disorganized but enthusiastic.

Ŭn Jin returned from the field that evening a step ahead of the team, to find that his wife had only just started preparing dinner. He hurriedly helped her grind some soybeans for a simple porridge (콩비지). No sooner did he have the fire started than the work team tramped in, with Myŏng Pil announcing that he was in the mood for tofu. Ŭn Jin thought he was nuts - tofu at this hour! How's he going to make it? But just fifteen minutes later, Myŏng Pil and his teammates had produced some perfect cubes of tofu made from the pressed beans.

As the two men settled down to some bowls of spicy tofu soup, Ŭn Jin enthused, "Once we mix this phosphorite into our soil, we can get a much higher yield!"

Myŏng Pil replied with his dimpled grin, "I disagree. Why not process the phosphorite using our new method?"

Ŭn Jin was ashamed that he hadn't thought of this. Looking down at his soup, he realized that the tofu was a metaphor for their different approaches. Whereas he would have settled for simple pureed soybeans, Myŏng Pil made tastier tofu cubes; in the same way, he would have simply mixed the phosphorite into the soil rather than processing it. Once again, the young upstart technician had the better mentality.

--

Three days later, their basketball team finally defeated Songhak Farm. There was no time to celebrate, as the whole farm scrambling to finish their assigned tasks from Myŏng Pil's blueprint. "Everyone became team players, gunning for the championship."

Cold-frame seedling planting (벼랭상모판씨부리기),
a late-winter farm task
Ŭn Jin had his hands full with the cold-frame planting, but spent every spare moment reading up on phosphorite: technical data and reports from farms that had used it. He learned that it is most effective when roasted at a temperature of 400ºC.

He suggested this to Myŏng Pil, but the young man just gave his signature dimpled smile and replied, "Roasting is fine, but would't it be even better to process it into fertilizer?" [at this point, I just wanted to smack that dimple off his stupid face].

Fed up, Ŭn Jin demanded to know just what Myŏng Pil wanted him to do.

The younger man replied, "Comrade team leader, why don't you try our own way (우리 식) of using phosphorus effectively? Why don't you think to dominate in agriculture?" Ŭn Jin is startled by the idea that farmers should seek to dominate (패권을 쥐다) just like athletes do.

Early the next morning Myŏng Pil produced a thick book of data on phosphorite-based fertilizer. Reading it, Ŭn Jin learned that the microorganisms in phosphorous have a strong decomposition effect. That made it ideal for developing organic compound fertilizers; but, he would have to travel to the provincial agricultural college to obtain the optimal mixing ratios based on their soil experiments.

He grabbed a quick dinner after that evening's study seminar, then took off, planning to walk all night to the college and back.  Somewhere along the dark mountain trail, he paused to check his watch. It was almost midnight. Even if he ran like the devil all night, he'd be late for the morning muster and disrupt his team's important soil treatment work.

As team leader, he couldn't bear to let his crew down. He hesitated, then turned and began reluctantly trudging home. Just then a light appeared on the trail ahead!

It was Myŏng Pil. He caught up and asked Ŭn Jin why he'd turned back.
   "Comrade team leader, if you turn back now, that blueprint will never be more than a pretty picture. What of our future then? What of our dream to see the Leader to visit our farm?
   Comrade team leader, I'm ashamed to admit it, but there was a time when I too turned back along the night path. But I guess somehow I knew the shame would stay with me for the rest of my life. This was back when I was a greenhouse engineer at Songhak.
   We had been charged with carrying out the General's dying wishes by building a massive greenhouse project that would be a model for the Sŏngun Era.
   I wore my soles out trekking around to universities, libraries and big greenhouse units, trying to perfect our design. But it just wasn't enough to get us where we needed to be. So I decided to walk a night path of 120 li to the Greenhouse Science Institute. But to get there I had to cross the treacherous Solhŭng Pass, and it was so windy that the rain was hitting me sideways. I decided to wait and set out in the morning.
The Greenhouse Science Institute in Pyongyang.
Src: Tongil News
   But, wouldn't you know, that very night the Dear Leader was on his way back from touring the eastern front lines, and decided to make a detour up Solhŭng Pass to the Greenhouse Institute.
   Hearing this unbelievable news, I took off and ran all the way up the ridge. There in the mud I clearly saw the unmistakable tracks of His car. On that dangerous road, on that miserable rainy night, our Leader carried on!?...
   It broke my heart to think of our Leader traversing such dangerous roads in the middle of the night, all for the sake of miserable wretches like me who balk at a little bit of rain.
   That's when I made the decision. To carry in my heart the same undying love for our people as the Leader, to walk the night path to build a fruitful greenhouse operation for them all. And to ensure that our Dear Leader never has to travel such a treacherous road again.
   And it wasn't just me; the whole farm stepped up its efforts: visited countless research facilities, walked endless night paths, built a greenhouse that would serve as a model for the Sŏngun Era, and finally had the honor of welcoming the Dear Leader to our farm."
   Myŏng Pil fumbled with something inside his jacket. He produced a small leather bag, from which he drew out a handful of something crumbly.
   "This is the mud from Solhŭng Pass, that bore the tracks of our Leader's car." 
Thinking back, Ŭn Jin recalled that Myŏng Pil had been walking all over the countryside lately fetching schematics and material for various other team projects. Suddenly he understood. They needed to wake up from their mindless deification of Songhak farm, and seek dominance for themselves.
NK farmers rejoice that all plots are 100% planted.
Src: Rodong Shinmun

Ŭn Jin reverently took the clod of dried mud from Myŏng Pil's outstretched hand. He thought of all the treks his team members had made down the night path over the past months, working on their assignments.

He looked up at the starry night sky and thought, "How beautiful is the future for our country, with these faithful young people who walk the night path! How bright and promising! ... When we walk the night path together, the sunrise of the strong and prosperous Korea (강성조선의 려명) draws closer, when our nation rises to become the dominant champion of the world  (세계의 패권국)."


Leadership Material

The central conflict of this story plays out between the main character, experienced team leader Ŭn Jin, and his new soil technician, young newcomer Myŏng Pil.

Myŏng Pil is the sort of person we all love to hate - younger, smarter, more innovative, more energetic and just generally better at everything, the sort who wins every competition without really even trying. He is dispatched from Songhak, which I gather is like the Harvard of North Korean collective farms, to improve productivity on the farm where our story takes place. He takes over the basketball team that Ŭn Jin had previously captained and leads it to greater heights than the older man could have dreamed, meanwhile capturing the loyalty of all of Ŭn Jin's so-called friends and enlisting them to help modernize the farm. Ŭn Jin suffers a series of humiliations before finally learning to accept that the younger man's thinking is just better and that's that.

While his age is never given, Myŏng Pil is described as having "a firm body like ripened grain and a sweet, pleasant face like a girl's, with a striking dimpled smile." This dimple shows up every single time Ŭn Jin asks him a question (I checked). It's part of his personality; the dimple says that he knows Ŭn Jin is a moron but is too polite to say so outright.

Knows everything, loves basketball, and has a dimpled smile - who else do we know who matches that description?


Symbolism of the Night Path

"To walk the night path" (밤길을 걷다) is a phrase that recurs throughout the story. Early on it becomes clear that it's not just some random path that happens to lead to their particular village; it's the symbolic path that all North Koreans collectively walk for the sake of developing the country: "Everyone was walking the night path to bring that blessed day closer [when KJU would visit the farm]." The phrase may be intended as an echo of the "forced march" (강행군) term that is associated with the Leaders' guidance visits.

Here "night" seems to imply overtime, extra work that is done in addition to daily tasks. The last two pages of the story really drive home this message, talking about how each team member "walked the night path" to do extra research on their assigned tasks. Ŭn Jin's choice in the climactic final scene - continuing to walk to the university, even when it means being late for work the next day - implies that "walking the night path" (doing extra research, taking a chance on a new method) should take precedence over slavishly executing one's daily tasks.

North Korean farmers always max out their Fitbit step goals.
Notably, the "night path" is associated with innovation, rather than labor. For instance, Myŏng Pil disparages the team's record-breaking manure production for failing to use new technology. When Myŏng Pil presents his blueprint to the farm, the unit supervisor (반장) praises his initiative by saying: "In today's knowledge economy, a true model worker (혁신자) does not simply double or triple output, he uses science and technology to get the job done. The key to victory is not hands and feet; it is cutting-edge technology. In the final battle for victory, everybody has a job to do."

In the closing lines, the "night path" is tied directly to the "strong and prosperous" slogan: "When we walk the night path together, the sunrise of the strong and prosperous Korea (강성조선의 려명) draws closer, when our nation rises to become the dominant champion of the world (세계의 패권국)."

National Sports Frenzy

The characters in the story refer to a "sports craze" (체육열풍) that is sweeping the nation. Since Kim Jong Un took over, the regime has invested in several high-profile new athletic facilities, and North Korean media reports have increasingly highlighted both national and local sports.

In October 2014 Rodong Shinmun posted an editorial entitled "온 나라에 체육열풍을 더욱 세차게 일으키자" (Let's Foment Sports Fever More Strongly across the Entire Nation) that is not available online but was covered by both Tongil News and Daily NK. The editorial highlighted the growing interest in amateur sports and sports festivals, and was viewed as heralding a new emphasis on athletics reflecting the new leader's personal priorities. South Korean researcher Hyŏn In-ae has noted that in the early KJU era some state resources were diverted from the arts to promoting athletics.
Spread of various amateur athletics in NK
Src: tongilnews

A March 2018 post on dprktoday entitled "February boils with sports fever" includes some nice color photos and a rundown of the "Paekdusan Championship" basketball finals, as well as national volleyball and taekwondo championships. This October 2018 article from Uriminzokkiri continues in a similar vein.

NK's Alternative Soil Technologies

I couldn't figure out exactly how they were producing the manure piles on the farm; the text said something about "통이 실한 김발" (??) growing in a "포전", which could mean a truck garden or some sort of bog.

The latter would make some sense, as algae fertilizer is one strategy that North Korea has devised to counteract the effects of international sanctions (as detailed in this very technical report from 38 North). Sanctions have made it more difficult for the North to import the petroleum and chemicals it needs for its traditional chemical fertilizer. To compensate, North Korea has been promoting the development of compound fertilizers from organic materials. They have particularly focused on developing algae farms in lowland areas.

In February 2018 Uriminzokkiri posted this Rodong Shinmun editorial on advances in microorganism-based fertilizer. A 2017 post from DPRK Today on "cutting-edge" advances in cold frame seedling planting goes on at length about how agricultural scientists and farmers are working together to increase yields.

The farm in this story seems to be mainly involved with the manure-producing operation, although they also apparently grow rice and raise livestock. It is unclear if all collective farms are expected to produce their own manure, or if this is a special farm dedicated to producing manure for the wider region.