Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Eternal Life (Part 3): Kim Il Sung and Jimmy Carter on a boat

This entry continues my summary of select chapters of Eternal Life

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. The novel covers the events of the last seven months of KIS' life, including his 1994 summit meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter and Kim Il Sung in 1994
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 18, the Carter delegation is treated to a surprise boat ride on the Taedonggang River through the city. President Carter and KIS continue their negotiations and reach an astounding level of agreement.

The original Korean text is available here

Chapter Summary

The global news media waited with bated breath for news of the summit. After the first summit meeting, CNN announced that KIS agreed to hold off on expelling the inspectors if the US would provide a LWR, and everyone was waiting for the US response. CNN’s main office in Atlanta had postponed its evening news program twice, and The New York Times had delayed its evening print run. All the correspondents deployed to Pyongyang were tuned to Chosun Central TV, awaiting word.

While the media waited, a ferocious debate was playing out across board tables and conference calls. The pro-dialogue moderates, led by Clinton, debated the hardliners, led by Senate Republican leader and future presidential candidate Bob Dole. The debate revolved around 3 main points: 1) Is it better to spend $80 billion and just go to war with NK, or spend a tiny fraction of that to provide a light-water reactor; 2) If they do provide the LWR, how will they contain SK’s objections at being completely ignored; 3) How can they prevent the US from losing face by appearing to accede to Pyongyang’s demands.

The debate raged on into the early morning hours.

Just past 5am that morning, Jimmy Carter got Washington’s response: they would withdraw the UN sanctions resolution and hold  a 3rd round of talks to discuss the LWR. 

But in return, NK had to make important “concessions.”

That morning, Carter's delegation arrived prepared to play hardball; but they were surprised when the driver took them to the river instead of Kumsusan Hall. The change of plans was swiftly explained by Mun Sŏn Gyu, who was waiting to greet them. “Premier Kim Il Sung heard that you like boats, Mr. Carter, so He decided to take you out to the West Sea Battery on this pleasure boat.” 

Hearing this, the Carters looked delighted. “If we’re on a boat, he’ll have to sit still!” Rosalynn exclaimed, eyes sparkling at her husband.
Taedong River view with Juche Tower and 
May 1 stadium

KIS was waiting on the dock in front of his luxury river cruiser, the Moranbong. “Mr. Carter, why don’t we take a pleasure cruise to the West Sea. Along the way, we can say what we need to say.”

So they boarded and enjoyed a leisurely cruise through the city; KIS played tour guide, pointing out famous sights like the Okryugwan restaurant, KIS' childhood home on Mangyongdae hill, and Pyongyang's Arc de Triomphe.

A scrum of foreign reporters followed on a separate boat. At one point KIS suggested, “Before we get down to the main discussion, why don’t we give your media something to shoot?” Carter agreed, and they let the other boat pull alongside to take photos.

Then, observing people fishing on the riverbank, KIS asked Mun to slow the boat down. At Carter’s puzzled look, he said:

   “Mr. Carter, do you like to fish?”
   “I do.”
   “Then it seems we have a common interest.” Glancing at the fishers on the riverbank, He continued, “As a fellow fisherman I’m sure you understand, there is nothing more annoying than a passing motorboat kicking up a wake. It wouldn’t do for us to earn their ire while holding our very productive summit.”
    Carter looked at the fishermen again with new eyes, amazed that the premier could spare a thought for them despite being at the center of the world’s attention on this historic day… Thinking back on his own time as president, his face reddened in shame, thinking “I was a ruler and an administrator. As president I governed over people, but the premier supports his people.”

Finally, with a pointed look from Dr. Creekmore, Carter quit stalling and got down to business.
With great fanfare, Carter revealed that the administration was willing to open a third round of talks with North Korea on providing a light-water reactor. They also discussed possible paths to reunification and troop withdrawals from the NLL, before the subject turned to the UN sanctions resolution. 

   [Carter] “I want to pass on the rest of the message from the administration. Premier, the US has decided to withdraw its sanctions resolution against your country at the UN.”
   Carter watched closely for the leader’s response.
   But Premier Kim Il Sung just regarded him silently.
   “This withdrawal,” Carter went on, thinking He had misunderstood, “was communicated to me directly from the White House. They asked me to inform you personally.”
   Premier Kim Il Sung just looked bored, gazing absently out the window. Finally He spoke. “I thank you for passing on this important news. But it’s just a nice change.”
    “The truth is we’re not afraid of sanctions. We’ve survived under sanctions all this time; we’ve never been without them. We’ve faced sanctions from you, and from Japan, and others. We’ve been under sanctions so long that we don’t really think about them any more.”
   Carter was speechless as Premier Kim Il Sung went on. “In other words, whether you cancel the sanctions or not, we’re fine either way. This confrontation is your fault, not ours. You wouldn’t trust us, so we can’t trust you. You’re always trying to make us poor, but that doesn’t mean we are poor. No matter how much you try to pressure us, we’ll get on just fine. Please pass that along to President Clinton and your colleagues.”

Following this exchange, the subject turned to North-South relations. Carter delivered a message from ROK President Kim Young-sam, expressing willingness to hold an immediate North-South leadership summit to discuss matters of concern, including unification.

KIS responded immediately in the affirmative. Again Carter was perplexed; he had expected heavy resistance. “Premier, I’m sure you feel a lot of anger toward the South Koreans; are you really willing to meet with them?” KIS replied their nationalist mission must supercede any ill feelings. Carter was overjoyed, but he felt a twinge of misgiving at the thought of "a mere political hack" like Kim Young-sam going up against a great statesman like KIS.

The river cruise concluded on a high note with a banquet featuring hot Kŭmchŏngju liquor. KIS delivered a heartfelt speech on Koreans' universal desire for unification and invited Carter to tour the newly uncovered tomb of Tangun "on your next visit." 

Foreign perspective

In addition to illustrating KIS' skilled statesmanship and clarifying policy stances, this chapter also takes advantage of the occasion of a foreign visitor to portray North Korea through an experienced world traveler's eyes. The text at times reads like a travelogue highlighting the famous sights of Pyongyang as the Moranbong cruises past them.

As the two leaders chat aboard Kim’s riverboat, the subject turns to the nature of the North Korean people.

   Carter suddenly became contemplative. “I’ve traveled all around the world, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leader who serves his people as sincerely, or a people who revere their leader as much as they do here.”
   “Thank you. It’s long been the way of our people to view loyalty and filial duty as virtues... We are a wise and sagacious people. It’s said that the Jews are the world’s most gifted people, but Koreans are actually even more gifted (재간있다). They say the Jews are special because they produced Jesus, who sacrificed himself for them. But it was because of Judas, a Jew, that Jesus was betrayed and nailed to the cross to die. So it seems that the Jews are a gifted people, but prone to betrayal. Our people have wisdom but also value loyalty (신의) as much as life itself.” 

In this passage, we see the North Korean people through Carter's eyes. KIS uses another race, the Jews, as a reference point to point out that Koreans are equally intelligent but superior in loyalty. It is telling that Carter is presented as a reliable witness to the virtues of the Korean people precisely because he has “traveled all around the world” and thus presumably has the global experience to compare Koreans against other races.

Carter's perspective also works to illuminate the contrast of North and South Korea. At one point, KIS presents his stance on reunification:

    “Our policy is to pursue unification as one people, one country, two systems and two governments. In other words, the separate governments of North and South will remain in place, with a common chairperson placed over them. That way we will stop fighting, and there will be no more unfortunate problems between us and the US. How about it? Will you lend your support to peace on the peninsula? Think how that would raise your profile as a master negotiator.”  
    “Great.” Carter felt pleased... “Premier, can I ask you something? ... Right now, the thing that worries South Koreans the most is that your side is insisting on unification without foreign interference, but they worry that if the US military withdraws you will attack them.”
    “As I’m sure you know, we have proposed a troop draw-down to 100,000 on both sides of the peninsula, along with US withdrawal. But the South Koreans don’t talk with you of our intentions.”
   “Really?” Carter looked thoughtful.
   “See here. It’s because you’ve been dealing only with them that these misunderstandings occur. But so far I haven’t complained about this unfair treatment. After all, it’s not Chinese or Japanese you are dealing with, but Koreans of the same blood as us."
   Thinking back, since his arrival, Carter hadn’t heard anyone say one bad word about the South... But what of the other side? Any time South Koreans so much as met an American they went crazy slandering the North. Carter had listened to them of course, but their calumny was so extreme that it was just embarrassing. It was frankly disappointing to see how far they had fallen from the spirit of national solidary compared to the Northerners. 

Here Carter again seems to serve as a reliable worldly witness to the superiority of North Korea. His perspective is a powerful tool because he is motivated to side with the South, yet he can't help but be swayed by the superior Northern manners.

Hidden Forces in US Politics

Toward the end of their ride, Carter discusses the current political dynamics in the US.

   “Our country now has a president with a Senate majority for the first time in many years. This means our current president can consider new approaches that would never have been possible for Bush or Reagan.”
   “That’s good.”
   “But unfortunately, the president faces many political obstacles, both domestic and foreign. Of course, his election victory means that the political forces supporting him are on the rise. Among them are many people who are very sensitive to ecological and technological issues; they are strongly opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, there are people who feel differently, too many for the president to ignore. Our relations with Europe are more complicated now too, meaning he has to deliberate with them on foreign policy more than in the past. In my view, these and other factors limit his ability to compromise on the Korea issue. But I can give you my personal guarantee that President Clinton is making a good faith effort to ensure that all these issues get resolved fairly.”
   After thinking quietly for a moment, Comrade Kim Il Sung replied solemnly, “I believe you.”
   What He was referring to was not Clinton or his administration, but the deeper forces directing the superpower from behind the scenes, the forces that had no choice but to wave the white flag before our Republic. And His belief was based on faith in the might of our Republic that no force on earth could hold back. 

This passage illustrates a recurrent theme in NK fictional depictions of summit diplomacy. Anyone who meets KIS in person is immediately won over by him; but this presents a problem when the diplomat is a foreign leader with actual power. If KIS' summit diplomacy is such a resounding success, why didn't the whole conflict end after the Carter summit? Here is where mysterious "deeper forces" step in to block further progress. 

It would seem that North Korean fiction writers are big believers in the "deep state."


Dr Creekmore's book, A Moment of Crisis, tells the story of this summit from the US viewpoint. C-SPAN has video of Creekmore and Carter reminiscing about the trip while promoting the book in 2006.