Friday, February 1, 2019

Morning of Departure (출발의 아침): Overcoming hunger and sanctions to build a hydropower dam

"Morning of Departure" (출발의 아침) is a story by Pak Sŏng Ho that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in September 2016, coincidentally the same month when North Korea conducted its fifth and strongest nuclear test, a high point of international tension and sanctions.

A Youth Brigade speed battle dam construction team
Src: Yonhap
The story alludes to various shortages brought on by sanctions and illustrates how the state would ideally like communities to deal with them. It highlights the drive for local self-sufficiency and "자력갱생" (a common slogan that is best translated as "revival by one's own strength" or "rising by one's own bootstraps") in the context of a hydropower dam construction project in a remote county.

The story provides one of the more forthright portrayals of deprivation that I've seen in recent North Korean state fiction. Work teams are plagued by broken machinery, and workers are shown collapsing from hunger. The story also illustrates the trade-off between economic development and environmental damage as a very serious problem that is never really resolved.

Story Summary

At dawn, two officers of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Work Brigade headed back from Tŏkchŏn to their work site at the Sujŏng hydroelectric dam.

Brigade Commander (돌격대 대장) Ri Myŏng Sŏk  planned to stop by home and pick up a pig, "since we got the truck going and my wife worked so hard raising those pigs." Supply Chief (자재참모) Kim Jŏng Ho pointed out that Myŏng Sŏk must be really dedicated to his troops, given that he can't even eat pork.
A hydropower dam construction site in North Hamgyong, 2018
Src: Jaju Shibo
Myŏng Sŏk ignored him, lost in thought. Things had been tough at the dam project lately; everything was in short supply. Even the few trucks they had had busted wheels, so for the last few months they'd been moving tons of earth and rocks using only logs and burlap sacks. He'd repeatedly contacted the county and provincial offices for vehicle replacement parts, with no success. Finally, he decided to travel to the distant Tŏkchŏn auto parts factory himself.

When the factory workers heard the story of the isolated county working so hard to build a hydroelectric dam all on their own, they were so moved that they worked for days to supply all needed parts, as well as an abundance of spare tires.

Exhausted from the long journey, they pulled into the Sujŏng County People's Committee headquarters. Myŏng Sŏk pulled the tarp off and regarded their haul of tires and well-oiled machine parts, "grinning like a victorious general."

KJU complained about construction delays during a July
2018 visit to Ŏrang River dam, a hydropower plant under
 construction since 1981.
Src: Chosŏn Shinbo
The Party receptionist nervously approached. "Some people from the Provincial Ministry of Justice are here for you," he informed Myŏng Sŏk. "They know you're expected this morning... They said if you showed up here, we're not to let you go on to the work site. Orders from the higher-ups."

Myŏng Sŏk's good mood evaporated. He knew nobody at the Ministry of Justice who might have personal business with him. And that "don't let him leave" command did not bode well.

Myŏng Sŏk was led into a room where he was surprised to find his old army buddy Chŏl Yŏng. They greeted each other warmly, and Myŏng Sŏk suggested they go to his place for some roast duck.

But theirs was not a social visit; they'd come to investigate the situation at the dam. The mood grew tense; Myŏng Sŏk asked if they'd come to investigate some "economic crime" (경제건).
   "It's nothing so serious as economic crimes. Pfft, regular people have no idea what we do at the Ministry of Justice. First, why don't you tell us your motivation in building this dam."
   Myŏng Sŏk's face reddened. "Motivation? During the Arduous March, our General said his heart ached to see the factories shuttered for lack of electricity, and he urgently called for the construction of small hydropower plants across the land. Our project was grounded in the Party's own policy."
   As he grew agitated, their gazes hardened. Chŏl Yŏng replied, "Then how is it that you fail to understand what even a small child knows? Comrade commander! How can you know one thing and not the other? The land is the nation's first and greatest resource. What of the land destroyed by your construction project?"
   Myŏng Sŏk was nonplussed; then he surmised that their work must have caused some damage on the hillsides surrounding the work site.
   "Comrade director, I don't think 'destroyed' is the right word for it. When building an earthwork dam, it is unavoidable that we must excavate earth and cut down some timber. If you're going to label such necessary acts as 'destruction'..."
   Chŏl Yŏng's eyes narrowed; he reached for his bag and brought out some papers. "It seems you don't know what you've done. We've come to investigate charges of 'unplanned, unscientific' intrusions causing serious damage to the nation's land."
   Myŏng Sŏk carefully paged through the documents. Why, these are records from our construction work on the core walls and the earth berm. Is that what this is all about?
   "Comrade commander, you must have some basic knowledge of our country's environmental laws. And you've no doubt heard the talk of forest restoration. Let's speak plainly." Chŏl Yŏng exploded with anger, "It's the nation's land! The nation's land!"
Having been chewed out by his old buddy, Myŏng Sŏk stepped outside for a smoke.
Dam construction site of Baekdusan Sŏngun Youth Brigade
Src: Rodong Shinmun via NK News

After he left, Chŏl Yŏng noticed his companion Jŏng Ho sitting unobtrusively in a corner like a sack of grain. "You're the supply chief, right? Kim Jŏng Ho?"

"Yes, that's me. I was a squad leader until last month, when I was promoted."

Chŏl Yŏng and his young assistant exchanged a look. "Ah, then you were the ringleader of the incident with the pig, correct?" They pressed the reluctant Jŏng Ho for details.
....
It happened two years ago, during the rainy season. The downpour washed out the only road from the village to the worksite. With their sole supply route cut off, the workers rationed their diminishing food supplies and continued with construction. Myŏng Sŏk ordered a few men at a time to hike a roundabout route to the support vehicles and carry food back, but eventually even that route got cut off.

After three days of this, workers started collapsing from hunger. The younger men of Jŏng Ho's squad were particularly hard hit. Myŏng Sŏk chewed him out at the evening meeting: "What kind of squad leader are you?" Later on in private, he said, "We have to do something about this malnourishment problem. But the only livestock we have left are breeding stock. What should we do?"

Illustration from NK monthly "Soldier's Life" (군인생활)
magazine, June 2004
Src: RFA
The two men thought in silence for a while. As he always did when he was hungry, Myŏng Sŏk took several chugs of cold water from the kettle.

Jŏng Ho went to the kitchens, took the cook Ŭn Shim aside and whispered in her ear. Her eyes got round as saucers, but he told her not to worry, he'd take responsibility, just get a pot boiling.
---
Early the next morning, Myŏng Sŏk was interrupted by a knock on his office door. An orderly entered escorting a bedraggled old woman, her clothing torn and muddied from bushwalking 20 li from her home.
   "Commander, this grandmother says someone stole her pig last night, a 50 kg pig she had been raising for her grandson's wedding. Says it was brought back here. What nonsense! I told her nobody at our base would do such a thing, but sure enough there were tracks in the mud leading straight here."
   "Wait, are you saying you followed the tracks all the way here?" He asked the old woman.
   "There's no doubt. Do you think my sight's failed along with everything else? I raised that pig for my grandson's wedding, so you'd better find it. Folks can't just steal an old woman's pig without a word." And with that she plopped down angrily in a chair.
From the word "pig," Myŏng Sŏk had an uneasy suspicion. He called an emergency meeting of all the squads, declared that the culprit had shamed the good name of the Kim Hyok Brigade, and demanded that he be found and brought to justice.

Barely holding his anger in check, Myŏng Sŏk returned to his office to find the cook Ŭn Shim sobbing and clinging to the old woman.
   "This is my grandson's bride," the old woman said. To the bewildered Myŏng Sŏk, she explained, "Jŏng Ho is my grandson."
   Like a tiger that hears its name called, just then Jŏng Ho appeared. The old lady lamented: "Oh, Jŏng Ho, your poor granny's really lost her marbles. So it was you took my pig. If only I'd known."
   "Jŏng Ho, is this true? Did you take your grandmother's pig?"
   "Yes, sir. It seemed a good time, as Ŭn Shim had cooking duty. Sorry my granny caused such a fuss. But how else was the squad to get any meat?"
   Hearing this, Myŏng Sŏk apologized to the old lady and announced that Jŏng Ho had acted on his orders.
   "No matter," she said. "I heard the whole story from Ŭn Shim, how your supply route got cut off and you were all suffering here. If I'd only known, I'd have brought the pig myself. I was part of the Chollima Struggle in the '50s. It seems my grandson is not as worthless (시러베자식) as I thought, that he can put the group's needs above his own, and that gives me more joy than any number of pigs."
All was forgiven, and they decided that once construction is done, they would hold the wedding ceremony on top of the dam.
   As Jŏng Ho finished his story, Chŏl Yŏng and his assistant burst out laughing.
   "But you shouldn't have taken the pig without a word. If you'd just explained the situation, surely she would have given you the pig."
   "Yeah, that was my bad. I guess I was a little worried that she'd say no, and then when I found the place empty I remembered she'd mentioned going to town for some fabric. So I figured I'd best just take the pig and tell her later."
   Chŏl Yŏng felt his heart lightening. "So it wasn't your commander's order."
   "What? Of course not! Actually he'd told me to take a pig from his own home, a breeding sow. But I couldn't do that to his poor wife, when she was already making such a sacrifice of raising pigs just to give them to the army, without even a taste for herself. You know how women feel about their animals. So I took my granny's instead, forgetting how the commander'd react. Then the commander made the political commissar (정치부대장) swear to secrecy, so the others wouldn't get it in their heads to do what I'd done. Didn't want to burden their poor families...
   "I found out later that the commander's wife brought her breeding sow to my granny's house. Said to serve it at my wedding feast. That's the sort of guy our commander is."
Youth Brigades are supposed to maintain their own self-sufficient
"rear support" (후방사업) for food and supplies, as highlighted in
Rodong Shinmun (via NKNews)
Myŏng Sŏk re-entered the room and ordered Jŏng Ho to go on ahead to the construction site, saying he'd be along shortly. He felt awful about causing this problem. From the beginning, they'd worried about the environmental damage, but he'd been so focused on meeting the Party's construction schedule that he told his officers to focus solely on the dam.
   "I've been so focused on building the dam, I never thought this would happen. I figured there'd be time to restore the damage later. I take full responsibility."
    At his words, Chŏl Yŏng pounded on the desk. "Responsibility? What good is responsibility, when the forests are destroyed and the land is unusable? Look, if the reservoir overflows before the hillsides are repaired, they'll wash out and destroy the forest. How can you possibly take responsibility for such a disaster? Of course, if you finish this dam you'll be commended and promoted, but what of the damage you do to the poor mountains that can't speak for themselves? What would become of our Party's policy, if everyone thought like you? Did you ever consider that?"
   Myŏng Sŏk felt like his chest was full of ice water. He hung his head in shame.
---
Early the next morning Chŏl Yŏng entered the office to find Myŏng Sŏk waiting for him with an earnest request:
"I know I'm in no position to make demands. I'm a wretch unworthy of being even a part of this brigade, much less its commander. But if you give me a chance to clean up the crime I've committed, I'll ask for nothing more."
Unbeknownst to him, Chŏl Yŏng had traveled to the construction site and spoken with the county's Party headquarters. The workers all took responsibility for the damage and staunchly defended the commander's leadership. The Party headquarters expressed regret that they had been unable to support Myŏng Sŏk's shock troops better.

Chŏl Yŏng understood Myŏng Sŏk's need to provide for his troops. But that just made things harder. Whatever else he achieved, the fact remained that he had damaged public land - a grave crime.

The next day, as requested, Myŏng Sŏk was allowed to return to the work site as a regular worker. The story ends with him slinging his bag over his shoulder and heading out to the work site.


Youth Work Brigades

The workers in this story are members of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade, one of several such "shock troops" that get deployed to priority construction projects around the country. The members are organized into military-style ranks and approach construction as a "speed battle." The first formed in 1946, and they fall under the jurisdiction of the Youth League. Facilities will often have the word "youth" in their name indicating that they were constructed by a youth brigade.
Baekdusan Youth Brigade at a dam construction
 site in Ryŏdan, N Hwanghae
Src: Rodong Shinmun via NK News

The brigade in the story is named after Kim Hyŏk, a fighter in Kim Il Sung's partisan unit in the 1920s and 30s who later became a core member of the early KWP. The workers are motivated not to sully the illustrious name of their brigade. After hearing that the old woman's pig has been stolen, Myŏng Sŏk delivers this impassioned speech:
   "Comrades, I'll be brief. Look what it says on that banner there. We are the workers of the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade (김혁청년돌격대), inheritors of the revolutionary anti-Japanese struggle. You all know the story of how the Great Leader, during that time of deprivation and hardship, sent back the cow that had been donated by the farmers of Yaksudong, and then he and his fighters gathered radishes in the fields instead.
   Why? Because he recognized the hardship of the farmers, who would have to plow the earth with their bare hands once the cow was gone, and the sacred fellowship of his fighters, who were themselves sons of the people. In this way he showed the true colors of his guerrilla army, who took up arms for the freedom and liberation of the people.
   Our battalion was given the sacred charge of bringing the people a better, more cultured lifestyle by building this dam. And yet, on this sacred battlefield, one of our number has taken the people's pig without a word of apology. Can such a comrade be forgiven?
   Absolutely not! Find out who it is right away, and cast him out."
   The room erupted in a violent clamor. "Who is it? We'll tear his legs off!"
   Holding his hand up for silence, Myŏng Sŏk said, "If such a person exists in our battalion, we'll find him. But this I swear: no matter what happens, yesterday, today and tomorrow, we are always the Kim Hyŏk Youth Brigade."
KCTV has broadcast several documentaries in the last year highlighting the work of youth brigades, which can be viewed on the dprktoday YouTube channel. This one posted last August follows a similar youth brigade's achievement in constructing a dam in South Pyongan. And this Ken Burns homage depicts a proud young brigade member's letter home from "the front."

South Korean defector variety show 이만갑 featured the youth brigades in this episode (with an appearance by our friend Kim Ju-song!).

A list of all known Youth Brigades is available at namuwiki: https://namu.wiki/w/속도전%20청년돌격대


Land versus Infrastructure

The Justice Ministry officials are dispatched to Sujŏng after receiving a report from the Bureau of Forest Management alleging destruction of public land. The report alleges that dam workers had excavated hillsides and downed trees all around the construction site, and made no move to repair the damage.

Damage to trees and earth is a particularly heinous crime as it exacerbates flooding, a killer problem in North Korea. Notably, it is flooding that causes the team's malnutrition problems in the first place, by cutting off their main supply route.
Village washed out by severe flooding in Sept 2016 
Chŏl Yŏng is enraged that his old buddy Myŏng Sŏk could be so irresponsible, and delivers an impassioned speech:
   "See here, Comrade Myŏng Sŏk, the treasures of the Sujŏng River Valley do not belong solely to you or your team; they are the shared property of all our people. As I was reading this report, I thought back to when we were in military service together. That time I chopped down a young pine behind our barracks to replace a shovel I'd broken, what did you say? That I could get all the wood I needed from the fallen brush up in the hills, instead of chopping down a young tree close at hand; what if a thousand, or ten thousand, other soldiers did what I'd done; that I should remember our mission was to protect the homeland. Your words really cut me to the heart. Remember how happy you were after I walked 30 li to the tree nursery and came back with a new pine sapling? ... Where'd that guy go? Did you lose your soldier's heart along with your uniform?"
This is probably the most interesting and innovative part of the story. Both men are sympathetic characters representing socialist ideal types. The brigade commander's good work under harsh conditions is praised, and the urgent need for electric power is acknowledged. Yet their dam project comes under fire for damaging the environment. Chŏl Yŏng represents the fair-minded Justice Ministry official who cannot circumvent the law, even for the sake of an old friend.

I've previously covered the land preservation campaign aggressively promoted under Kim Jong Un's leadership and the toll that deforestation and flooding has taken on the country. But I've also highlighted several stories depicting hydropower as an urgent priority. This story brings these two issues into conflict, with no satisfying resolution. The ending comes off as strikingly half-hearted compared with most other Chosŏn Munhak stories, which typically end with everything fixed and the characters cheering, crying, and rattling off revolutionary slogans.

Sanctions and Self-Sufficiency

The story describes several creative ways that characters deal with material shortages and lack of public support. As more and more vehicles break down, the workers are forced to move tons of earth and rocks using only logs and burlap sacks. Lacking proper tools, Myŏng Sŏk sets up a forge and wields the hammer himself to sharpen old pickaxes and chisels and repair what he can.

These shortages are directly tied to the external sanctions placed on the country:
   The Arduous March (고난의 행군) was over, but the Hard March (강행군) continued. The US imperialists' harsh policy of isolation and pressure (고립압살책동) only made the job harder for the county's people in their struggle to defeat nature through their own strength.
   The brigade had been laboring determinedly under tough conditions to achieve its targets, but everything was in short supply.   
At Tŏkchŏn, the auto parts factory workers are moved by the brigade's plight that they work overtime to complete the whole order in three days. When Myŏng Chŏn tearfully expresses his gratitude, the factory's Party secretary replies:
"Comrade Commander! Our drivers have even donated all their spare tires. We're helping because the work you do brings joy to the General. Know that our workers here in Tŏkchŏn are awaiting news of your dam's completion. We're counting on you!"
When the brigade workers begin collapsing from hunger, Jŏng Ho adds meager spoonfuls of brined corn to  the meals of the youngest workers, "since the youngest ones are hardest hit by malnutrition." He finally decides to slaughter the pig from his own wedding feast to feed the brigade, leading to the misunderstanding with his granny.

As Chŏl Yŏng travels 20-li to the construction site, he observes various signs of the brigade's efforts to become self-sufficient. The road in is lined with neat rows of acacia trees, an auto repair shop, greenhouses bursting with ripe greens and tomatoes, mushroom cultivation sheds. "They had transformed the whole area around the dam site into a base of self-sustaining revival (자력갱생기지)," he notes approvingly.

Brotherly Love

If I was a proper literary analyst, here is where I would dive into the homoerotic undertones of Myŏng Sŏk and Chŏl Yŏng's relationship.

After their awkward reunion at Party headquarters, Myŏng Sŏk reflects on the last conversation he'd had with his friend, a few days before their military discharge. Sitting on the grassy riverbank surrounded by dragonflies, Chŏl Yŏng asked him what he wanted to do in the future.
   "I'll go into construction. I want to build grand, modern buildings with my own hands on this land that we've been defending. Buildings imbued with the spirit of the soldiers that protect the fatherland. What about you?"
   "Me? I'll become a flower."
   "?"
   "A single bright, fragrant flower to congratulate you on all those grand buildings you've constructed."
The flashback to a bucolic riverbank conversation from one's younger days is a staple of Korean romantic dramas. The flower metaphor seems like a weird thing to say to one's army bro, but Chŏl Yŏng remains committed to the image. At the story's end, as the two men part, they have this exchange:
   "See you at the dam's opening ceremony," Myŏng Sŏk said lightly.
   "Why wait til then? I'll visit all the time. And when it's completed, I'll be the flower of congratulations held to your bosom. Let this be a fresh departure for both of us."
   The two men embraced. 
I imagine that 11 years of compulsory military service often leads to some pretty close friendships, and it is intriguing to think that this could be one North Korean writer's subtle way of alluding to such relationships. Then again, in South Korea the bar for what two guys can do together before they are suspected of being "gay" is much higher than in the West, and North Korea may be the same way. But this is all a bit above my pay grade, so I'll just leave it there.

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