Friday, January 31, 2020

2009 (Part I): Introducing North Korean Readers to President Obama

2009 is the penultimate novel of the “Immortal Leadership” series, which chronicles the life of Kim Jong Il. It was co-authored by Song Sang Won and Kim Yong Hwan, published in 2014, and recently made fully available online at North Korea’s uriminzokkiri.com website.
As suggested by the title, the novel covers the events of the year 2009 – particularly the April Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite launch (also covered in the story Sky, Land and Sea) and KJI's brief summit meeting with former President Clinton. 

This post will summarize Chapter 4, which dedicated readers may find online in the original Korean here. This chapter is fascinating both for the biographical details it gives about US President Obama and for introducing one of the most truly sinister POV characters I’ve yet encountered in North Korean fiction.

Chapter 4 Summary

The chapter begins with a biographical sketch of “America’s 44th president and the first black man elected to that office” (see below). It particularly notes that his anti-war rhetoric has gained him popular support from poor Americans weary of endless wars.

On the eve of his election, Obama’s maternal grandmother "Marylin Damhum" (매럴린 담험) passes away from cancer, and Obama suspends his campaign activities to attend her funeral in Hawaii. A CIA operative named Conan seizes the opportunity and flies to Hawaii for a private word with the man he anticipates will be the next president.

Conan is your prototypical deep state operative, an old government hand who has “hung around like a fixed asset” through successive administrations. He’s hated Korea ever since his father died in the Korean War, but he’s learned to respect North Koreans after watching them outfox every American president since Truman. Now dying of tuberculosis, he is determined to see that the new administration takes a hard line. He’s disturbed by Obama’s peacenik rhetoric and feels the need to nip it in the bud, before America loses its position at the top of the unipolar world order (일극세계).

President Obama scattering his grandmother's ashes
in Hawaii. Src: DailyMail
After the funeral Conan and Obama have a long walk on the beach talking. Playing on Obama’s vanity, Conan calls him “Mr. President” and acts as if the election is already won. Conan gives the candidate a long-winded account of how past presidents have failed to rein in North Korea, at times growing so animated that spittle flies from his mouth. In the process, the reader gets a nice overview of the North Korean evaluation of post-war global events. Conan makes frequent references to how America has “invited God’s punishment” by failing to use its nuclear weapons to seize global supremacy. Obama is surprised at the calumny Conan levels against the current Bush administration, which he still purports to serve. 

   “Conan, aren’t you criticizing yourself?”
   At the unexpected interruption, Conan realized he had said too much.
   “My apologies, Mr. President, my intent was to criticize historical presidential policy. I suppose that includes the current administration and myself as well.”
   “Go on.”
   “With every new administration, the CIA and intelligence corps have hoped for a more hard-line uncompromising policy. We’ve advised this again and again. But they always went their own way.” 
    Conan began to lose heart. How could they entrust the country to this political newcomer lacking all knowledge and experience, who was a black man and a Democrat to boot? It was a tragedy, but he’d come to Hawaii to try to fix it.

Eventually the two men seem to reach an understanding. “God will not forsake us,” Obama assures him before they part. The next day is the election, and Obama wins as expected. A few days after the election Conan’s dead body is discovered on a Hawaiian beach, dead from apparent shock. But his work will be carried on by his son (Conan II) in a later chapter…
President Obama in Hawaii


Obama biographical details

The first several pages of this chapter are taken up by a biographical sketch of President Obama. The text notes his parents’ divorce, his brief education in Indonesia, his subsequent upbringing by his white grandparents in Hawaii, his work supporting low-income families in Chicago and his status as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, before going on to describe his entry into politics. 

   During his time as an Illinois senator, he caught the attention of the media and society with his witty speeches. This was at a time when the US was fighting successive wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, there was high unemployment and inflation due to the severe economic downturn and financial crisis, and the poor were having a harder time than ever. It was precisely this suffering and anti-war fervor that Obama was able to skillfully manipulate through his speeches, evoking public sympathy by presenting himself as an anti-war champion.
   He also gained popularity among blacks and Americans opposed to racism by speaking out about racism and vividly expressing his own experiences as a black man.

The text notes somewhat misleadingly that Obama was the only black senator in the US Senate (he was the only black senator at the time, but not ever). It states that he defeated “Hillary” in the primaries and secured the 218 delegates needed for the Democratic nomination. The chapter then includes a segment of Obama’s famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, with one interesting mistake:

   "There is no free America, no conservative America, only America (자유로운 미국보수적인 미국이 따로 있는것이아니라). There is no black America, white America, or Asian America, only America. There are patriots who oppose the Iraq war. On the other hand, there are patriots that support the Iraq war. We are all citizens who swear allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and defend the United States.” (direct translation)

Explaining that this speech is what made Obama “instantly famous,” the text adds:

  By transcending race and ideology, Obama’s speech rang deeply in the hearts of Americans who had been divided over the Iraq war. In his clear and convincing words, there was a passionate call for a return to the founding spirit of the US.

Concerned about this anti-war stance, the deep-state spook Conan studies Obama’s biography and identifies weaknesses and character flaws that he believes he can exploit.

   He found helpful “Barack and Michelle: Portrait of American Family” by Christopher Anderson, a writer famous for his coverage of Princess Diana’s death. According to the book, after completing his first year at Harvard University Law School, in 1989 Obama went to receive training at the famous Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, where he met Michelle for the first time. 
   A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, Michelle was reluctant to guide a first-year student. But Obama fell in love with Michelle at first sight and pursued her despite her haughty attitude. Michelle eventually gave in. After four years of marriage, Obama became an Illinois senator, but in his wife’s eyes he was a useless husband. When he came home he threw his socks and underwear anywhere and filled the room with cigarette smoke, even burning a huge hole in the rug.
   He was always going around in a plain suit jacket and jeans boasting about “changing the world,” but to Michelle he was a “lazy idiot” (게으른 바보). She told him politics was a waste of time and he should instead work at a big law firm and make lots of money. Obama would joke to friends that “My wife’s nagging is killing me.”
   Conan delighted inwardly. Obama would no doubt show the same habits in his politics. Hypocrisy and two-facedness, two essential facets of any US president.

Nuclear History

This chapter contains some excellent insights into North Korea’s perception of American attitudes toward nuclear weapons, through the thoughts of the malevolent Conan:

   Fate had made the US first to obtain nuclear weapons, which were like the fire of Zeus. Nukes were power, and power was everything. It was this power that had allowed Truman to defeat Japan and raised the US above all the world.
    With nuclear weapons, there was nothing the US could not do. But still it had not done all it should. It failed to secure a nuclear monopoly. It shared nukes with other countries. It betrayed the gods (or God) and paid the price. Other powers emerged, and America’s unipolar might was eroded.
   In the world of power, nukes could make anyone a superpower.
   In July 1945 Truman appeared at the Potsdam Conference to discuss the end of WWII and the post-war order, confident that the world was at America’s feet. Then the USSR had been able to match the US because it, too, developed nukes.
   The UK, once known as a great empire with colonies all over the place where the sun never set, lost its empire status in WWII but luckily escaped from becoming another middle-power because it, too, had a successful nuclear test in 1952.
   When France had its successful nuclear test in 1960, President de Gaulle shouted “Hooray for France! (프랑스 만세!) France is a greater and prouder nation as of this morning!”
   Experts believed that the reason China achieved equal power status with the USSR and détente with its erstwhile foe the US was because it had conducted a successful nuclear test in October 1964.
   Nukes were the reason why India had reached a nuclear accord with the US; why Pakistan, which had leaned one-sidedly toward China, was now embraced by both China and the US; and why Israel was able to brazenly take on the whole Arab world of 3 hundred million people. All was made possible by nuclear weapons.
   Conan felt himself heating up again. “Mr. President, when God gave us these weapons they were not intended for display or storage. They were meant to be used. But our past presidents have failed to follow God’s wishes.” 
    He returned to Truman. Truman should have used nukes in Korea in 1950. If he had, not only Korea but also its allies China and the Soviet Union would have been reduced to rubble, and the US would be rid of its two greatest foes. France and the UK might be potential rivals, but at present they are our allies. India and Pakistan may have nukes but they would not dare challenge the US. Israel gets its nukes from us, so they shouldn’t be a problem.
    Conan continued. “There were plenty of chances to use nukes in Korea even after the war. The US started deploying tactical nukes to Korea in the mid-50s, and by the mid-70s we had over a thousand over there. Beginning in the 1960s there was the Pueblo incident, the EC-121 incident, the Panmunjom incident – God kept giving us opportunities, but we just let them pass….”

The above passage is intriguing not just for its geopolitical outlook but for the way that this outlook is revealed through a truly nefarious POV character. In previous entries I have noted that North Korean-style socialist realism seems incapable of producing an unreliable narrator, but perhaps I spoke too soon.

The sinister Conan implies that Truman was too soft-hearted to use nuclear weapons in Korea. One can’t help but wonder how much North Koreans are aware of the conflict between General MacArthur and Truman over just that issue. Do they think well of Truman for overriding MacArthur’s wishes?  If “bad guy" Conan disparages past American presidents for being weak, are North Korean readers supposed to feel the opposite, that they had some virtue in restraint?