Monday, May 4, 2020

"Emergency Measure": The Scholarly Soldier-Bookworms of the Korean People's Army

"Emergency Measure" (비상작전) is a story by Kim Ryong Yŏn that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in February 2006 and was reprinted in Chŏngnyŏn Munhak in August 2012. The story chronicles the Leader's generosity in ensuring that his soldiers are well supplied with high-quality reading material, at a time when his advisors are absorbed by the dire external threat of war.

This story gives good insights into the Party's views on literary fiction (both foreign and domestic), the ideal of the literate citizen soldier, and the function of the small libraries (covered in the previous entry) attached to various offices throughout the country. It also glancingly mentions joint military exercises, material shortages and book printing. There is a nice parallel between the US-ROK OPLAN for military readiness and KJI’s own “emergency plan” to send good books to the soldiers.

The Plot

KJI travels to a front-line military outpost with two trusted advisors, a Central Committee member in charge of propaganda named Pak Yŏng Hun and Politburo Deputy Director (총정치국 부국장) Ryu Sŏng Min. They are curious why he has brought them along, but assume that it has something to do with the grave security threat the country is facing.

    It's a time of extraordinary military tension. The US is pulling out all the stops to realize its expanded "Plan 5027-04" for war. It's different from previous plans in adapting new technology and speedier deployment for a quick decisive war. It focuses on capturing Pyongyang. They're redeploying the F-117 stealth fighters from Iraq and moving missile-equipped Aegis destroyers and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers into Korean waters. War is imminent. 

To their surprise, KJI seems more interested in a minor kerfuffle over a book. Pak is confused, so KJI fills him in on the story: 

At the army outpost they are about to visit, a platoon leader named Choi Yu Jin had been fostering an “our outpost-our school” program (우리 초소우리 학교) with the local middle school. One day when he had taken his platoon to construct a fitness training course at the school, he saw that the literature teacher Kim Suk had a copy of the old Soviet classic Zoya and ShuraA voracious reader, Choi immediately wanted the book so badly that he boldly approached the young female teacher.

   “I’ve heard of this book, but I never actually saw a copy before. I heard that Zoya is a hero like our Cho Ok Hee [a partisan fighter in the Korean War], and Shura of course is a brave soldier who sacrifices for his fatherland… Might I borrow it? Not only for myself, but to share with my soldiers and broaden their horizons.”

Teacher Kim was conflicted, explaining she’d like to help but she was barely able to borrow it from the county library herself; “There’s just this one copy and it’s really old.” But Choi seemed so dejected that she took pity on him and said he could have it if he promised to return it in 3 days.  

Having so promised, Choi took the book home to read; but the next day, it mysteriously disappeared from his desk drawer. He searched everywhere; he couldn’t sleep or eat; the brigade political division got involved; his sterling record was in peril.

Fortunately, the book thief finally came forward. Another platoon commander had filched the book, fully intending to return it, but then misplaced it. He, too, had been searching for days to no avail and felt terrible.

KJI assigns to Pak the "homework" of deciding how best to handle this case.

North Korean-style newspaper display rack (신문걸개)
Arriving at the base, they tour the library. KJI flips through the rack displaying the latest KPA newspaper; he asks which articles the soldiers read, and learns that they most eagerly follow the serialized novels. They recently enjoyed the novel Green Mountains (푸른 산악).

Then KJI quizzes the base librarian on his stock. The librarian looks distraught as he explains that several of the books KJI asks for are missing or not stocked. KJI interrupts, saying he understands the difficulty, and then makes a speech about his father's love of books and their revolutionary value. 

On the ride back to Pyongyang, KJI asks Pak if he’s solved his “homework.” Pak replies, 

“It’s because we didn’t do our job properly that there are so few books. Following you on this trip, my eyes have been opened. We must strive to print more books to send out, especially the novels that the soldiers are so longing for. After all, the officer wouldn’t have caused such a problem if there had been plenty of books in the brigade library to begin with.”

KJI says that this is the correct answer to his “homework.”

Pak remarks that he had expected this trip would be about concocting some “emergency measure” to deal with the current security crisis, not some minor trouble with books. But KJI says producing more books is precisely the “emergency measure” he had in mind. He orders Pak to make up a list of good books and work to print them ASAP. Ryu’s job is to select the best foreign novels, in terms of ideology and artistry (사상예술적으로 우수한 작품), for printing.

Some days later, KJI reviews the plans that Ryu and Pak have drawn up; he concludes that they are far too miserly and lack ambition. "I too value practicality," he says, "But there’s a difference between being practical and penny-pinching." Again, he declares that printing books for the soldiers is just the "emergency plan" they need to combat the enemy's moves.

Working together, they put forth a new plan to print all the books the soldiers want – both domestic and foreign. Pak is astounded when KJI insists on using the best quality vellum paper and binding: “We must spare no expense for our soldiers.” KJI himself selects the cover art for Zoya and Shura, and the new edition swiftly goes to print.

Reviewing the freshly printed editions, KJI takes Pak aside and asks if he can have 3-4 extra copies of each book. Pak and Ryu are puzzled until he explains that the copies are a gift to Choi Yu Jin and Kim Suk; one for each, plus a library copy.

The next day cheers rang through the countryside as books were delivered to various outposts. The joyful shouts rolled over the DMZ, dispersing the clouds of war and drowning out the enemy’s guns. KJI concludes:
“These aren’t just books; they are artillery, and tanks, and planes, and warships. They are the General’s own special warheads that can crush the strongest enemy in a single blow.”

Book Shortages

This story is relatively forthright in exposing the shortages associated with recent economic problems, particularly in publishing materials. In the car with Pak and Ryu, KJI recounts:

    “Once I visited the home of General Staff Chief Choi (Choi Kwang?). His father, a veteran of the anti-Japanese struggle, had just passed away, so I found time to pay my respects… I noticed the bookshelf had been completely cleared out. His youngest son, a political officer deployed at the front, had come a couple days earlier and taken them all, heh heh. Saying his brigade wanted books. After all, since the Arduous March began we haven’t been able to print as many.” 
   He paused, too pained to go on... It was true the Arduous March had caused a shortage in both Korean and foreign novels. Though foreign literature was being translated and published in new collections, the lack of paper made it hard to keep up with the people’s voracious demand. This current trouble reflected the reality that the publishing divisions were far too busy working on new translations to care about reissuing old books like the Soviet classic Zoya and Shura

KIS reportedly favored delivering propaganda via
poetry and novels; KJI carried on this work but put
more emphasis on film.
The story also mentions that KIS had always said that novels were far more precious than gold, and KJI was constantly inquiring about library usage at every factory, office and army unit he visited.

When the brigade librarian begins apologizing profusely for not having certain books, KJI interrupts:
   “Comrade, thank you. Don’t worry about the missing books. This is just as I expected. I’m not ignorant of the problems with our book stocks. We want this library to have enough copies to lend any book to any soldier at any time. Both our Korean books and foreign books. 
   There should be many, many books.
   I’ve said it before, revolutionary novels have an extremely valuable effect in forming people’s world view.
   The Great Leader said novels, plays and films play a very important role in revolution, and that the biggest influence in His revolutionary struggle were the novels He read in middle school. The Great Leader told me many times of how He learned of the perils of capitalism, class inequality and other social vices through such books as Gorky’s Mother, Serafimovich’s The Iron Flood, Jiang Gwangci’s On the Amnok River, and Lu Xun’s short stories; those books were what elevated His class consciousness and led Him on the path to revolution. 
   People never forget the characters they meet through revolutionary novels.”

A good read (in Korean) on KIS' abiding interest in libraries:

Zoya and Shura

 Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya
Src: Wikipedia
These historical figures, Zoya in particular, seem to be well-known to older Russians, though my sources were less aware of the novel than the general historical incident.

Apparently Zoya was a young Russian pyromaniac recruited by the Red Army to burn facilities used by the invading Nazis and generally raise hell along their supply lines. She was captured and hanged by the Germans, but not before giving a rousing speech to the onlooking countryfolk and inspiring them to defend the Motherland. Her brother Shura became a soldier and died somewhat later in similarly heroic fashion; then their mother wrote a book about them.

The Korean Workers Party seems to have taken an abiding interest in the novelization of this story; this is not the first time I have seen it referenced favorably in a KWP publication. The official KJI biography "Benevolent Sun of Love" (은혜로운 사랑의 태양) repeats the story that KJI ordered a reprint of the book after noting its absence during a 2005 visit to a certain brigade library, claiming it had been particularly beloved by his father.

Given the KWP's well-documented aversion to most foreign literature, even that of friendly socialist countries, the ostentatious praise for this novel is even more remarkable and suggests that one of the Leaders may indeed have taken a direct role in approving it.

In an interesting coincidence, Shura was the nickname of KJI's younger brother who drowned in front of him at age 4. Both boys were born in Russia and initially given Russian names.

Government Spending 

This story is a good example of a common motif on issues of government spending. The officials are all stingy with funds until KJI gets involved; then they are awed and shamed by his generosity. 

When Pak and Ryu present their initial, overly conservative plan for printing, KJI chides them for being too cautious and calculating in their work (타산을 앞세우며 소극적으로 일하는). Pak responds

[Pak] “General! I was just thinking that we shouldn’t overdo it [with books] while people are still struggling just to live. And I thought we should focus on our Korean novels first before foreign ones, so for now – just five –”
[KJI] “We need to get these books out right now. It’s a fact that lately some people have been ignoring foreign things, saying they’re practicing Juche. That’s wrong. Of course, loving our own things is all well and good, but it’s also vital to understand Korea’s place in the wider world (자기것을 귀중히 여기고 사랑하는것은 좋지만 세계속에 조선이
있다는것을 알아야 합니다). Only by knowing the world can we truly take pride in our own things.”
[Pak] “General! You are wise.”

There is no self-awareness in such stories of what would seem obvious to us – that Kim spends money because he can. There is no hint of discomfort or resentment that KJI can afford to be generous, while officials have to be responsible and count every penny. Kim is like the fun grandpa who blows into town twice a year and buys the kids all the candy and junk food they can eat and takes them to the movies, while teasing the parents for being so strict.

Though the officials are reluctant to spend money on books, it’s unclear if this is because they lack funds or are diverting them to less-worthy causes. In this way, an imaginative reader could perhaps interpret the story as much more subversive than it was likely intended.