Friday, November 1, 2019

Eternal Life (Part 1): Introducing Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter

Eternal Life is the final novel of the Immortal History series, which chronicles Kim Il Sung's life from his days as a guerrilla fighter through the country's founding, war and reconstruction, and on through his later years.  It was published in 1997 and co-authored by Baek Bo Hŭm (who later contributed the short story "Green Land" to the first anthology of stories about Kim Jong Un) and Song Sang Wŏn.

This novel covers the events of the last seven months of KIS' life, including the decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and his 1994 summit meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter.

Devoted readers of this blog might recall that this same summit was also the subject of the short story "Enchantment" (매혹), covered in one of this blog's earliest entries. That story took the point of view of First Lady Rosalynn Carter. This novel was written earlier, and the summit chapters alternate between the perspectives of KIS and President Carter.

In Chapter 15, we get a window on KIS' thoughts on the eve of the summit, as he sits in his office working and thinking through the night.

Chapter 15 Summary 

KIS recalls what he knows of the 39th president, including his childhood, family background, schooling (noting that he attended "a black primary school" in Georgia and later graduated 33rd in his class from the US Naval Academy), his early military career, his success in expanding the peanut farm he inherited, and his later political career.

The story lingers particularly on Carter's early encounters with nuclear technology as a young naval officer.
   That was when Carter became involved in the construction of K-1, the world’s first nuclear submarine. In the wake of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, the majority of America’s youth were basking in a sense of superiority as “citizens of the Great American Empire,” but the young Carter was filled with fear. He understood the horrific tragedy that the bomb represented for humanity.
   Five years later, participating directly in constructing another kind of nuclear weapon – a nuclear submarine – he wasn’t as fearful as he had been, but he felt a residual unease and a sense of emotional objection. Taking a sudden leave, he took his girlfriend Rosalynn (then a college student) and escaped to a resort in the South Pacific. Walking the beach, he tried to forget the 20th century evil that had so preoccupied his mind.
   At that time his views on nuclear weapons were not rooted in any political ideology. His objections stemmed not from politics but from his philosophy of humanism, or more precisely benevolence, which was a product of his Catholic faith.
KIS then recalls that he has heard that Carter is a friend of the Reverend Billy Graham, whom he has met twice before.
   “Billy Graham!” He whispered softly to Himself.
   In His mind’s eye He saw an image of Graham, his heavy build and fierce expression belying a gentle and charitable nature. As a Christian, Graham followed a creed of generosity. He had served as an army chaplain during the Korean War and faced censure for praying for KPA soldiers as well as American soldiers. But he did not waver, saying it was his duty to pray for all.
Reverend Billy Graham meeting Kim Il Sung.
Src: The Washington Post 
The story then delves into a history of McCarthyism in America, explaining how "Red Terror" caused innocent Americans to fall under suspicion. It notes that Graham would have been a target if it were not for his status as a Christian pastor, but that he sympathized with the victims and it was an important formative experience for him.
   Several decades later when Graham visited South Korea, he felt that he was seeing the rebirth of McCarthyism there. The “National Liberation” (주사파) furor strongly reminded him of American McCarthyism. This was a hysterical movement to round up and arrest the followers of Juche ideology. At the sight of so many Korean students, intellectuals, legislators and laborers being arrested, he saw the nightmare of the 1950s resurrected. And he began to wonder what it was about this ideology, this idea, that had the south Korean authorities so fearful and so many young people and citizen laborers (근로민중) risking bullets and violence to follow it.
Graham made his first visit to Pyongyang in March 1992. The story notes that this first mission, occurring just after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and amid expectations that the DPRK would soon follow, had an ulterior motive of observing the state of the country and assessing the likelihood of its collapse.

Dormitory in the American Compound of the Pyongyang
Foreign School, 1939.
Src: Shannon McCune Collection, UW-Madison
The story explains that Graham had a peculiar connection to Pyongyang because his wife Ruth had once lived there. The daughter of Christian missionaries in China, as a teen Ruth had attended the famous Pyongyang Foreign School for girls from 1933-36. The Pyongyang that Ruth had known, in those days before liberation, must have seemed shabby to her eyes. When she heard her husband was going there she had a lot to say about the city, none of it nice. 

But when Graham tours the city, he is impressed by the streets teeming with vitality, the tall new buildings emblazoned with banners reading “Long live our-style socialism!” Thanks to the devastation of the war, there are no buildings older that 30 years. 

With no old buildings anywhere, how is this place supposed to collapse? he thinks.

KIS then recalls his second meeting with Reverend Graham, which occurred just last January amidst preparations for the Three-Step Process meetings with the US. He recalls that "interest in the reverend’s visit was intense" because "Reverend Graham was the most popular and influential person in the US after the president himself."

After delivering the president’s verbal message of good will for the new year and passing a few pleasantries, they sit down to a banquet. KIS expresses to Graham “Since you are both Clinton’s friend and my friend, I hope you will help to make it possible for us to sit down together.” Graham promises to "carry your words with the same weight as the gospel.”

Now, as day breaks on the morning of the summit, KIS thinks hopefully that he can forge a friendship with Carter as he did with Graham.

Forging Friends among Enemies

This novel, the short story "Maehok," and the novel Ryŏksa ui Taeha (excerpted earlier in this blog) represent relatively rare examples of North Korean literature describing interactions between the Leader and foreign dignitaries. I have searched in vain for examples of stories that cover more recent summits, such as Madeleine Albright's 2000 visit, Koizumi Junichiro's 2002 summit, and the later brief rescue missions by ex-Presidents Clinton and Carter. It could be that I simply haven't found them yet, or it could be that these later meetings were simply not important or successful enough to merit literary treatment. As a general rule, North Korean fiction will not cover an event until it is far enough in the past to allow for a settled and resolutely positive interpretation.

In all of these stories, the Leader always blows away his guests with his hospitality and benevolence. The visitors arrive ready for a fight, for prevarications and insults, and are surprised to find a leader who is more honest and forthright than anyone they've ever encountered. Visiting to Pyongyang for the first time, Graham has a revelation:
   He never would have imagined it when he left, but he was completely won over by Comrade Kim Il Sung’s grace, honesty, kindness and benevolent presence. Graham had expected that He would try to conceal the serious problems brought by the collapse of the communist bloc when assessing the state of His country. But it was not like that at all. Comrade Kim Il Sung concealed nothing. He was extremely frank in describing the difficult straits the country was in. He was even more astute than Graham himself in evaluating the problems brought on by socialist malfunction in other countries.
   This was completely unexpected. Listening in astonishment, Graham sensed that this was a man who would always speak the truth no matter who He was talking with; at the same time, he realized that socialist Korea would never collapse as long as such a leader was in charge. It takes a truly strong leader to acknowledge tough circumstances. When Comrade Kim Il Sung said “Korea will fight to uphold socialism no matter what,” Graham was completely convinced.
The chapter ends with KIS looking forward to his upcoming summit with Carter:
   Recalling His days with Graham, He softly whispered to Himself: “Carter said he met with Graham before coming to Pyongyang… The time has come for me to meet him and speak the truth. Maybe I can build a friendship with him too.”
   The Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who had a gift for forging friendships among the enemy, felt confident that His hopes would come true. 
This image of the Leader "making friends among enemies" is clearly the central theme of this chapter and other summit stories. He is shown extensively studying his counterparts before each meeting, learning intimate details of their lives. Graham's and Carter's biographies are picked apart for clues as to why they may be more amenable than other foreigners. Everyone who meets the leader is instantly charmed and becomes a steadfast defender. It is only the implacable, inscrutable, faceless American government that stands in the way of improved relations.

Christian Faith and Juche

A young Billy Graham traveled to Korea to minister to
US troops in 1952. He was not an army chaplain, as this
story suggests, but a civilian.
 Src: Billy Graham Evangelist Organization
The chapter describes both Reverend Graham and President Carter as men of great faith and fairness. It notes that Carter's Christian faith led him to abhor the nuclear weapons that other Americans celebrated, and Graham was censured for praying for KPA during the war. It also notes that Graham's first visit to Pyongyang had an ulterior motive:
Let me see for myself. For 100 years communist ideology has rejected all religious faith; how long will it be until its last bastion collapses?   This was the question he was sent to answer by then-President Bush. But instead of being a government spy, he ended up forging a deep friendship with the Leader. 
On that first tour, Graham visits a Christian church in Pyongyang.
   After praying there, he asked Comrade Kim Il Sung, “What are you doing to guarantee freedom of faith?”
   He replied, “As you saw, we have built a Christian church, even though our construction needs are great.”
   Overjoyed, Graham then asked, “I suppose you’ve noticed the commonalities between Juche thought and the teachings of Christianity?”
   “Similarities?” Comrade Kim Il Sung thought a moment and then said modestly, “Thank you for holding Juche to such a lofty comparison.”
   Graham didn’t press the matter any further. But he privately believed that Juche and Christianity shared the same basic ideal. That ideal was love.
On his second visit, when Graham attends a banquet in his honor, the Leader makes an unexpected gesture.
   “Let us pray,”  Comrade Kim Il Sung said as they took their seats around the banquet table.
   “What?” Graham gaped, as if he could not believe his ears.
   “Isn’t it a Christian custom to pray to God before a meal?”
   Graham was speechless. He, who had affirmed his Christian faith at age 16 and preached to 110 million people in 84 different countries, could hardly forget this basic rule.
   “The food is getting cold,” he said.
   Comrade Kim Il Sung merely waited, not picking up His spoon.
   At last, Graham rose and lifted his glass. “I thought I’d forego that custom tonight. Instead, let us toast the health of the Chairman, who is like heaven to the people of this country.”
   Comrade Kim Il Sung stood, waving His hand. “No, no, I’m not these people’s heaven, I am their servant.”
   “Then I bow my head all the more to you.”
This and earlier stories suggest that, rather unusually for a socialist state, North Korea's propaganda does not treat religion with scorn. Rather, it depicts religion and Christianity in particular as a stepping stone for foreigners on the way to finding the superior ideology of Juche. Carter and Graham's Christianity is described as "a creed of benevolence" that enables them to see past political enmity and embrace common humanity.

In the North Korean interpretation, it is not in spite of but because of their devout Christianity that these men are able to see the truth of Juche, while the godless politicians back home remain stubbornly opposed to it. The text openly acknowledges similarities between Christianity and Juche, but rather than acknowledging that the latter plagiarized the former, it suggests that the former foreshadowed the higher truth of the latter. The passage tying together Graham's Christian faith, his abhorrence of McCarthyism, and his curiosity about Juche ideology is particularly revealing.

Of course, it must be repeated, the official propaganda position is far removed from the actual treatment of people of faith in North Korea.