Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Thousand-Ri Road of Learning (배움의 천리길): Revolutionary tween Kim Il Sung learns about American racism

배움의 천리길 [1000-ri Road of Learning] is a novel by Kang Hyo-soon that was published by 사로청출판사 in 1971 and reprinted by 금성청년출판사 in 2013. This novel came out at an important turning point in North Korea's cultural development: Kim Jong Il had taken charge of the Propaganda and Agitation Department (of which the Korean Writers' Union is a part), but had not yet risen to successor status, and was heavily invested in transforming the arts & literary bureaucracies to serve his father's developing cult of personality. It is not a part of the "Imperishable History" series, but only because the series had not begun yet - the first official series book, 1932, would come out a year later.

Kim Il Sung as a tween on the 1000-ri Road of Learning
(Src: uriminzokkiri)

This novel depicts Kim Il Sung as a young boy. It tells of his early life with his father in Paldoku (present-day Yanji) in Manchuria, his fabled journey of one thousand ri (400 km) to Pyongyang, his schoolboy days, and his later journey back across the Yalu River. This legendary journey is something all North Korean schoolchildren learn about, and select members of the Youth League recreate the voyage every year - reading this novel as they trek along. The story has been retold in several subsequent novels, but this novel was the first attempt. It thus represents an important formative stage in establishing the hagiographic tropes and style of all subsequent leader representation novels.

Youth League members recreating KIS' 1000-ri journey
(Src: Uriminzokkiri)
Young Pioneers visiting the Changdok school historic site.
(Src: Uriminzokkiri)

After graduating from a four-year elementary school in Paldoku, at age 12 KIS was sent to stay with with his mother’s family in Chilgol while attending Changdok Middle School. In the novel, while at Changdok the young leader organizes a secret study group comprised of his eager, if rather clueless, classmates, and begins developing his revolutionary ideology while observing people’s lives in the poorer parts of colonial Pyongyang. Eventually, he gets word that his father was arrested again by the Japanese. Entrusting his secret reading club to his friends, he again crosses the Yalu River, firmly vowing not to return until Korea is liberated.

The author, Kang Hyo-soon, is a children's book writer by trade, and his style lends a more playful tone to the boys' antics. While his friends tear around and compete together over normal boy things, KIS always takes on a teacher role, guiding them to see the realities of poverty and inequality in their occupied country. Though only about age 12 in the novel, he is referred to throughout as "The Great Leader" (대원수님).  This presents the author with a unique problem when he is talking with his young friends, who presumably don't know yet that he will one day be the GL, and wouldn't call him Il-sung either since he didn't come up with that name until about 1931. As far as I can tell, the author solves this conundrum by never letting any of them address KIS either by his name or any title. Mostly they talk amongst themselves, and then KIS chimes in to point out where their thoughts have gone astray.

Below is an excerpt from chapter 17 (original Korean at The chapter begins with the boys watching a soccer match in Pyongyang between rival schools Kwangsŏng and Sungdŏk. KIS uses the match to teach his friends about the value of collectivity over individuality; he observes that "Clearly, in terms of individual skills, Sungdŏk was better than Kwangsŏng. However, the Sungdŏk School players had grown conceited after scoring one goal in the first half, and they lost their lead to Kwangsŏng players while trying to show off their individual skills."

A soccer match in colonial Pyongyang, July 1925
(src: 마니아타임즈)

After the match the boys walk toward the river, passing by the rich American part of town (양촌). Passing a big mansion on the hillside, they see some American kids about their age playing with their pet dog in the yard, tossing cookies into the air for it to catch. 

“Do those children feel right, giving their dog sweets that even people can’t eat?” the Great Leader spoke as if to himself.

“Do you think it’s just sweets? Look how fat that dog is. I heard they feed him two chunks of meat every day,” [his friend] In-sam replied.

“What’s with giving dogs such good food? Meat that nobody else can eat,” said Yoon Byŏng-yi.

The Great Leader thought on it deeply. Here the Korean people, who are the true owners of this country, are naked and starving, and yet these barbarians from an island country are playing the role of masters of the country, and Americans from across the sea are making themselves at home in the midst of the most beautiful part of Pyongyang, the most beautiful city in Korea, living in luxury as if they own the place. What the hell happened to this world? How happy would we be if we chased away all those people and lived in harmony, just us Koreans?

American mission residences on Namsan Hill, circa 1921.

This prompts KIS to remember what his father told him about Americans once, back in Manchuria. It was right after they had a visitor from Pyongyang. After the man departed, Kim's father said to him: 

“At one time, that guy wanted to be a pastor and got really into religion; now at last he’s found the true righteous path. He once thought Americans were good people and had great delusions about them, but now those delusions are shattered. Religion is like opium (종교라는것은 아편과 같아서), once you go crazy for it, you can't come to your senses and even if you hear that fermented bean paste is made from beans, you question it (팥으로 메주를 쑨다고 해도 곧이듣게 된단 말이다). That's why the Americans sent missionaries in first to spread religion and thus swallow up our fat country. They use religion as bait and capture the spirits of the Korean people - then they can lead them like an ox by the nose-ring (코투레에 꿰가지구) to do whatever they want.”

Wanting to know more, the young KIS asks, 

KIS' father Kim Hyŏng Jik
(Src: 한국민족문화대백과사전)

“Father, are the Americans as bad as the Japanese?”

“They’re exactly the same kind of bandits. From the first day America came into existence, they’ve feasted on the blood and bones of others until their bellies grew thick. Every clod of American soil is infused with the red blood of innocent Indians, and on top of that bloody soil they make merry.”

“Father, what’s an Indian?”

“Before North America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, indigenous people already lived there. Because their faces appear reddish, they are also called Red People (홍인종), but they are known as Indians. From the first day the Yankees (양키놈들) set foot on American soil, they began a merciless slaughter in order to steal their land and treasure. The Yankee jackals even initiated human-hunts to wipe out the Indians. They committed the gross atrocity of taking their scalps (머리가죽을 벗겨내는 만행), awarding 100 pounds sterling for a man’s scalp, half  as much for a woman’s or child’s scalp."

“Wow, they’re really vicious.”

“They encouraged the Indian hunts, deliberately planning their complete annihilation. One bastard named Harrison killed an Indian chieftain who had bravely resisted the Yankees, then took the scalp and made it into a belt for sharpening razors (면도칼을 가는 혁띠), giving them out as souvenirs." 

“Do they just let someone like that live in America?”

“Not only did they let him live, he eventually became president. Basically the US was a nest of jackals where they judged a person’s ‘contribution’ to the nation by how many Indians he killed and how terrible his atrocities were.”

“There are lots of black people in America too, right?”

“Indeed there are.”

“If the Indians were the natives, then how did all the blacks come to be there?”

“There are about 100 million people now living in America, but the majority are Yankees who came from Europe, and about 10 million are black. These blacks are descended from Africans who were captured (붙들려온) by European merchants in the 17th and 18th centuries. These European merchants dragged them to America and sold them for money. The Yankee bastards who had a foothold in North America took them and whipped them like oxen or horses, cultivating the wilderness (황무지를 개척했지). The vast farms in the southern United States today are built on the blood and sweat of black slaves.”

“In America, black people are treated worse than dogs, right?”

“That’s correct. Blacks have no rights whatsoever there. You know they aren’t even allowed to enter parks or restaurants where white people go? They’re just made to work like oxen or horses.” Father took a deep breath and went on. “In the short 150 years of its history, the path America has tread has been nothing but murdering people and extracting their blood, bones, and fat, and stealing other people’s territory.

“It should not be forgotten that these American jackals with their taste for robbery have long been eyeing the lands of the East, of Asia, and have set their sights on our country. It is important to understand clearly that Americans are not only as cruel as the Japanese, but also as insidious and sneaky (음흉하고도 교활하다) as the Japanese.

"The Japanese may be thieves, but they are exposed to the world as thieves; the Americans pretend to be good people while committing their thievery. In other words, the way of robbing is just different, but in essence, they are exactly the same.”

The Pyongyang Christian  mission’s school for boys, photo circa 1910.  (Src:

“Are the Americans in Pyongyang like that?”

“Just the same. In Pyongyang there are American-built churches, schools, hospitals and whatnot. But all those pastors and missionaries are really military spies. They pretend to do charity work to pull the wool over Koreans’ eyes, all the while they’re really scouting out opportunities to devour our country. They walk around drawing maps and taking pictures, just waiting for the right time to invade our country. But some foolish people still see Americans as “good” (선량한) - isn't it pathetic? This is especially true of religious people. They don't know that Americans are jackals disguised in sheep skin.”

Father paused a moment before continuing, “In a way, it’s like two thieves have entered our little land of Korea. But so many of those engaged in the so-called independence movement cannot see it, and keep up their high hopes for the US thinking that they will help Korean independence – it’s so frustrating. But we can’t lose hope. That guest who just visited us, he also believed in Americans like heaven at first. However, after meeting and talking with me several times, his eyes have been opened."

This conversation gives a good introduction to the North Korean orthodox conceptions of religion, race and territory. In particular, there is no apparent argument here for multicultural society even as something that should be aspired to; rather there is a strong ideal of individual races as legitimate "owners" of their respective ancestral territories, living separate but peaceful lives until they are taken over or captured. 

Kim Hyong Jik's description of the black experience in the US was probably fairly accurate to the time when this conversation supposedly took place, circa 1924. The bounty hunting of Native Americans, sadly, is also true, although the timeline is a bit anachronistic. The part about "Harrison" probably refers to William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh – there are some legends that Harrison killed Tecumseh personally and took strips of his skin as souvenirs. That conflict occurred long after the colonial bounty hunting era, however, and one wonders what inspired the author to select that particular example out of all the Indian-killing US Presidents (I mean, Andrew Jackson is right there on the $20).

Harder to believe is Kim Hyong Jik's description of American missionaries as jackals and military spies, since he himself had worked as a protestant missionary and his wife Kang Ban Suk came from a devout protestant family. 

This probably does not seem very surprising to most readers - North Korea's reputation for erasing its Christian heritage is well-documented and often portrayed as just another typical case of communist-regime-hates-religion. But the story gets a bit more complicated in tales of colonial Korea, where Christian institutions played such a prominent role in aiding the Korean independence movement and resisting the Japanese. In South Korea today the association between Christianity, America, and colonial resistance is not too confusing, since the US was Japan's eventual enemy in WWII. But for North Korea, Japan and the US are both portrayed equally as eternal bad guys. Hence the above passage works hard to establish that even though American missionaries may have seemed to oppose Japan, they were and are no friends of Korea.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Ryŏksa ui Taeha (Part 3): WarBot3000 disappoints President Clinton

This post continues my selective translations of Chŏng Ki Jong's epic novel Ryŏksa ui Taeha (력사의 대하) , which offers a narrative account of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993. The following excerpt is translated from Part 3, Chapter 13, available online here

Like my previous excerpts, this chapter is narrated from President Clinton's perspective. The chapter follows the inner thoughts of the leader of the Free World as he prepares a dastardly attack on North Korea, with a science-fictiony twist as a computer war simulation goes awry...

The Plot

Clinton spent a sleepless night before the planned launch of Operation Focus. All was in readiness, the C3I command system awaiting his transmission of the secret code. It would start with the stealth fighters taking off from Anderson Air Base on Guam to demolish the Yongbyon nuclear facility. After that all will depend on the NK’s response, which will surely be swift and merciless.

But just lately he can’t shake the feeling that NK’s military minds are on to him. The declaration of quasi-war, the withdrawal from the NPT, and now these massive military exercises… Watching them via satellite TV from the situation room (국방성작전보고실), even the head of the Joint Chiefs - who had eagerly pushed to move up the operation date - turned pale and muttered in agitation.

As a saxophone player, Clinton applied his knowledge of music and particularly rhythm to the military analysis. In the exercise formations he perceived the gutsiness, resourcefulness and iron will of the NK commander.

Clinton asked his people to run the computer war simulations (전자전모의전쟁) again, inputting the new satellite data. Over a sleepless night, his awe and grudging admiration for NK’s tactical prowess turned slowly to anger. He arose red-faced and entered the 1st floor dining room thinking only of one thing: obliterating NK from the face of the earth.

'Leda and the Swan' by Paul Cezanne, 
He was unaware of Hillary watching him as the waiter wheeled in a cart piled with coffee, cream, sugar, toast, poached eggs, sandwiches, and strawberry jam. He just stared vacantly at the Cezanne on the wall, “Leda and the Swan.” 

“Dad!” Chelsea tapped her plate for his attention. “Breakfast time! Behave, little children, no fussing, don’t spill!” She imitated her former kindergarten teacher to tease him. 

Clinton just nodded absently, then shocked Hillary by ordering a whiskey.

“What’s with you today?” Hillary asked. “A drink first thing in the morning?”

"I'm trying to boost my courage. Today is a very busy day…” He trailed off. 

He had a solo meeting this afternoon with French President Francois Mitterrand, followed by dinner. There was also a State Department meeting on Middle East issues, a meeting with the Asia wonks on trade frictions with Japan, and finally an operational gathering of the Defense Department and Joint Chiefs to issue the "Operation Focus" order. After a few bites of breakfast, he worked out his schedule with Thomas McClarty, his chief of staff.

He added, “I’m thinking of doing the talk with Mitterrand at Mount Vernon.” Mount Vernon was a National Park and the site of the first US President George Washington’s grave. “Prepare the yacht. And check if the greens are mowed. Mitterrand likes golfing.”

McClarty informed the president of “a troublesome matter” (시끄러운 일) – the ROK foreign minister keeps asking for a meeting. “He’s been waiting at the door for 2 days now, says he’s got a message directly for the president.” The man was persistent, even sending a request via "HHS Secretary Donna” (which must be Donna Shalala). Knowing the female official Donna was close with the president’s wife, he had apparently decided to forego formal diplomatic procedures and go around the back door.

Sensing Bill's displeasure, Hillary offered to stall the man by saying Clinton has to visit his mother-in-law at Walter Reed Hospital. It was a plausible excuse, and Clinton agreed. 

He asked Hillary's opinion about bringing up NK sanctions at this afternoon’s presser with Mitterand, but Hillary had another concern. “There’s a bigger issue, Bill. What's behind NK’s hard-line stance? I’ve been reexamining the order given by the KPA supreme commander, and it emphasized 'the united power of the Leader, the Party, and the people.' To us it sounds a little strange and totally new. But shouldn't we look into it?”

“Whatever,” Clinton looked gloomy. “I’ve got a war to start today.”

That afternoon Clinton talked with Mitterand aboard his yacht Chelsea on the way to Mount Vernon. He asked for France's cooperation in the UNSC on sanctions for NK, including "military punitive measures (군사적응징) as well as the obvious economic blockade.” When pressed, Clinton admitted only that he was considering a pre-emptive strike to destroy NK’s nuclear facility.

Mitterand: “Then it’s war?”

“That depends on NK’s response.”

“They won’t back down. They’ll strike back far harder than you can imagine.”

Mitterand meeting Kim Il Sung in Feb 1981

Mitterand chose his words carefully: “I am the only Western leader to have visited NK. I met with Premier Kim Il Sung at length and we exchanged views on many topics in world affairs… My strongest impression was that NK is a very independent nation with great unity between its people and political leaders...  There’s no other like it on this planet. You must tread carefully. They can’t be pressured.” 

Mitterand spoke at length about his impressions of NK, noting it "was never a satellite state of a greater nation like the Eastern European countries and some parts of Asia were" and  "As they don’t believe in God, their faith in the Party and Leader is absolute." (하느님을 믿지 않을지언정 당과 수령은 절대화하고있다.)

“Finally, there’s the matter of North Korea’s military power,” Mitterand went on. “A while back we had a Japanese delegation that was very uneasy about it. They said the KPA’s firepower far exceeds our expectations. They’ve been building up their military force ever since Kim Jong Il took charge of the KPA, so basically for 20 years...

Mitterand and Clinton at the White House in
March 1993.
"As I said, North Korea will never back down. So threats, blackmail, and war are not solutions. And we still haven’t found a solution for the situations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia, have we? Also, in war against North Korea we would have to be prepared for millions of sacrifices. Would the people accept that? Our allies will turn away too. That’s the way it is." He recommended instead "a long period of serious diplomatic maneuvering, compromise, and ideological offensives.”

Clinton was shocked by Mitterand's words. For the first time, he began to think about the word "compromise."

After the banquet with Mitterand, Clinton went back to the Defense Department's operations room. The defense minister and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were waiting for him. From their gloomy looks, he immediately sensed that the news was not good. 

Reluctantly, he said: “Alright, Let’s see it!”

On the big screen, the North Korea war simulation appeared. First all the U.S. military bases and forces across Northeast Asia were introduced, along with both sides’ troop numbers, locations of military and coalition forces, tactical bases, transport routes, communications networks, and numbers of various weaponry. 

The U.S. capabilities included more than 1,000 planes, 250 ships, various strategic weapons, and standby infantry troops. The simulation played out various battles with NK forces across air, ground, and sea, including missile strikes, anti-aircraft battles, and guerrilla combat with NK special forces, all depicted via complex symbols and arrows as if a real war were being fought on the screen.

Lieutenant General Wilkeson narrated everything - the areas of operation, the designations of various forces, the tactics and battle formations. The simulation lasted 40 minutes, but Clinton stayed riveted the whole time.

At last, it was finished. The simulation showed that two weeks after beginning hostilities, the North Korean troops would have advanced deep into the South, annihilating more than 400,000 U.S. troops and winning the war. The estimated material losses for the US would reach $80 billion.

Clinton was aghast. What the hell? Who could imagine that the U.S. military, which boasted of being the world's strongest, would suffer such a devastating defeat? Although they had accurate figures from each branch for U.S. troop numbers, weaponry, and operational plans, they had only input their best guess of North Korea’s numbers and tactics. In fact, they knew very little about their forces and tactical capabilities.

But even so, to reach such a miserable defeat in just two weeks. How could it be? Clinton had believed that the post-Cold War era was a period of de-ideology, a time of realism and power. Power-oriented times! How could the U.S., the world's only superpower, be outfoxed every step of the way in a nuclear showdown with this tiny country, North Korea?

Even the French defense minister had warned that North Korea was completely different from Iraq, saying, "It's not much use if the US strikes the suspected nuclear site... A military attack would just trigger retaliatory strikes from NK, turning the entire Korean peninsula into a sea of fire.” The computer had just backed up his words with scientific data. They couldn’t ignore this result from a computer developed with state-of-the-art science and technology. The machine had no emotions and did not care about anybody's feelings, even the US president. It just produced scientific, absolute calculations.

Clinton despaired. He felt that he had lost the absolute power he had believed in. For a realist like him, it was the last straw. His whitened lips were twitching. The unexpected shock left him speechless, sitting stiffly in his chair, his generals motionless behind him.

Random trivia

The thing I love about reading Chŏng Ki Jong stories is tracking down the random easter eggs he puts in from time to time, trying to guess how he hit upon these eccentric factoids, why they appealed to him, and why he chose to alter certain seemingly minor details. This chapter is particularly rich in such bits and pieces.

• Leda and the Swan

Investigating this led me down a fascinating rabbit hole. Apparently the question of which Cezannes have hung in the WH and how they got there is the subject of some intrigue. I couldn’t find a straight answer about whether any Cezannes hung in the Clinton WH. But it seems fairly certain that “Leda and the Swan,” at least, was never there at any time, which makes me wonder why the author goes out of his way to mention it specifically.

• Presidential Yacht Chelsea:

This novel repeatedly mentions that Clinton had a presidential yacht named Chelsea, explaining: “Historically, other US presidents had named their yachts after their political idols or their hometowns, but Clinton chose his daughter’s name, following the fashion started by world-famous billionaire Onassis who named his yacht Christina after his daughter (now infamous in Greece for having been seduced by a Soviet spy).” 

Apparently presidential yachts in fact used to be a thing, but the last was retired in 1977, and none of them was named by a president. I can’t find any evidence that Clinton ever had any kind of boat named Chelsea.

The Christina Onassis KGB story is another one that I did not know; it is puzzling that this story takes such a long walk just to brush up against that old bit of 1970s tabloid gossip.

• “Brutus”

At one point Clinton is contemplating the “women problems” that plagued his campaign: “One Arkansas opponent claimed in court that he’d had affairs with 5 women; then a certain nightclub singer 프루투스 revealed in the weekly magazine 명배우 that they’d carried on a 12-year affair from 1977 to 1989.”

It's passages like this where I really earn the big bucks as a translator. I was able to figure out that 명배우 was Star, and the second part clearly refers to Gennifer Flowers, but I couldn’t figure out why he was calling her 프루투스. Finally it hit me – Brutus! It's a Shakespearean reference, with weird North Korean spelling. I'd like to see Google Translate figure that one out!

Anyway, it's interesting that apparently NK readers are expected to have enough familiarity with Shakespeare and/or Roman history to immediately associate this name with backstabbing, without any further context or clues. 

• Mount Vernon Country Club

The chapter says Clinton took Mitterand on his yacht to go golfing at Mount Vernon. I can’t figure out if the two ever golfed together; but Clinton never visited the Mount Vernon historic site as president.

Clinton's press conference with Mitterand in March 1993 can be viewed here

• USS Augusta

Thinking on historical precedents, Clinton recalls:

    When Truman ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, immediately after signing the order he boarded the USS Augusta bound for Europe for the Potsdam Conference. He wanted to distance himself, so that when the news of the devastation came three days later, it would seem far away and unconnected to him.

This timeline is a little twisted. Truman was on the USS Augusta when the first bomb was dropped, but he was heading home from Europe, the Potsdam Conference having already ended the week before. The timing of Potsdam is pretty important and a well-trod subject among WWII historians. Also notable, there was no “order” signed by Truman authorizing final use of the bomb; after Trinity he had simply authorized Stimson to use it at the first tactical opportunity. Truman had drafted a press release announcing the bombing before setting sail, which may be what the author is referring to.

Depiction of Hillary Clinton

This chapter provides another revealing exchange between Bill and Hillary, as she helps him dodge the South Korean foreign minister:

      Watching Hillary, Clinton thought to himself that she was his real chief aide. She could handle anything. They met at Yale, in the university library. Back then she was a mousy girl always sitting in the far corner with a stack of books, and he almost didn’t spot her. But she turned out to be infinitely talented, clever, and calculating.

During last year’s election campaign, he’d faced many attacks. The worst concerned his dodging of the Vietnam draft. Second was his active opposition of the Vietnam War while on scholarship at Oxford, when he protested at the US Embassy. Then there were the women problems…

Just when even Clinton, with all his clever words, was floundering, Hillary stepped up like the lawyer she was and skillfully washed away all the stains of his impropriety.

It’s a fact that behind every great politician are trustworthy aides. If you look at the great men of history, Lincoln had Seward and Grant, and Churchill and Roosevelt had their core aides. But no other U.S. president had an aide as selfless, absolute, and wise (사심없고 절대적이며 현명한) as Hillary. Clinton himself had confessed that without Hillary's help, he would never have become president.

This novel's depictions of Hillary are generally positive, if a little bit manipulating. She is shown as having more respect for NK than her husband, seems to have read more on the subject and is generally the angel on his shoulder telling him to be careful. This contrasts to the later depiction of her in the novel 2009 as an "old woman" who is disrespected by her state department underlings. Her long presence in US politics makes her a relatively familiar character in NK fiction and therefore a useful subject for analysis of North Korean changing views of women in positions of power.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

2009 (Part 2): Explaining the 2008 Financial Crisis to North Koreans

2009 is one of the final novels 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 is now fully available in the original Korean here at North Korea’s uriminzokkiri portal. As suggested by the title, the novel covers the events of the year 2009 – particularly the April Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite launch and KJI's brief meeting with former President Clinton. 

This post covers chapter 10, which includes a lengthy discussion of the global financial crisis by two of the most sinister characters we've uncovered to date - the American diplomat "Conan Jr" and his mentor "Hulbert," a seasoned deep-state operative. Conan Jr is the son of the recently deceased Conan Sr, last seen corrupting presidential candidate Barack Obama in a previous post, and Hulbert is an old friend of Conan Sr's

This chapter is a timely reminder that there was a time not too long ago when North Korea and its Chinese ally were loudly complaining about a global pandemic that originated in the US and spread to infect the whole world - the 2008 financial crisis.

The chapter also features a rare treat in NK fiction - an orgy scene. Set at a sandy beach in Pearl Harbor, this bacchanalian riot forms the backdrop for our anti-heroes' discussion of their financial woes. 

   The harbor was filled with pleasure boats on which fat tourists feasted, drank, and indulged in carnal behavior with all genders. The mainland was on the verge of sinking under a financial tsunami, but it seemed to matter little to these wealthy mainlanders who spent every weekend vacationing in perpetual warmth here. 

I'm not sure there is a beach in Pearl Harbor, but the author makes a point of setting this scene there. To complete the image, somewhere nearby a Hawaiian native sadly plucks out a song of his stolen ancestral land on a ukelele. The text continues:

   Even as their sacred Statue of Liberty gazed down on thousands of jobless street-dwellers and the lowest caste wandered Harlem clutching empty bellies, even with the “Dollar Empire” on the verge of collapse, in this place they had endless time and money to spend.

   It was a “last supper” of sorts. The financial crisis had been caused by real estate conglomerates chasing huge profits from skyrocketing housing prices, as the lower classes had gotten tangled up in speculation by taking out loans from them to buy houses. When housing prices plummeted and those people were unable to pay back their loans in time, the banks’ capital fluidity system collapsed. But the signs had appeared well before then.

   The sharp decline in the US economy after 9/11 had brought about the current crisis. Everyone knew the cause was the excessive military spending for the invasive wars the US was waging all over the world. 

   Last year all the big banks had crumbled like autumn leaves, and the three big car manufacturers were facing imminent bankruptcy. 

The text proceeds to name-check the major losers of 2008 and 2009: Ford, Kodak, Motorola, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch – with very terse descriptions of each company's type, size and age (e.g. "Top-3 investment bank Merrill Lynch, boasting a 94 year history"). 

Hulbert tries to convince a skeptical Conan Jr. of the seriousness of the situation, quoting a recently published op-ed entitled "Public companies - America's downfall."

This illustrates a common conceit used in both fiction and news articles in NK - the Respected Foreign Expert's editorial. For all its demonization of the West, the Party clearly craves recognition from Western media and punditry. Quotes like the above, some fabricated and others taken out of context from actual articles, are used to corroborate the regime's image of itself and the world. 

At another point, the chapter quotes former President George W. Bush remarking on the 2008 financial crisis, “I felt just like the captain of a sinking ship.” This appears to be a reference to a quote found in Bush’s 2010 memoir Decision Points. The author then takes the sinking ship metaphor and runs with it, all the way to one of North Korea's favorite historic events:

   America’s economic growth had been largely driven by the dollar-based financial system. Its “economic growth” was based not on actual increases in production but on profits gleaned from the dollar circulating as the global currency. The result was financials backed by financials, with no connection to production. The US reaped tremendous advantages from the dollar system.

   But now, circumstances had changed.

   Global production in goods and services had reached $50 trillion a year, but securities like stocks and bonds amounted to $150 trillion. The plummeting prices of low-income housing mortgages brought chaos to the financial markets, as everyone wanted to convert their securities into cash. But no matter how many loans the central banks of America and the Eurozone gave out, they could not generate enough cash to convert $150 trillion in “fake money” securities.

   At last, the collapse of the “Dollar Empire” was underway. Just as the Titanic, the symbol of early 20th Century capitalist material culture, had sunk, now a century later the seemingly unsinkable “21st Century Titanic” was sinking.


NK children's comic about the Titanic.
Src: NK경제

Seasoned Pyongyang watchers will know that the regime makes much of the fact that the Titanic sank on the very day of its Great Leader Kim Il Sung's birth, a date that now marks Year Zero on the North Korean calendar and is commemorated on the annual Day of the Sun holiday. Thus the author seems to be hinting here that another Korean Great Leader will be born amid the sinking of the global financial system.

Hulbert fixates on China's power over the global financial system, notably referencing the "dollar dumping" theory:

   “Presently China holds an astronomical sum in US currency reserves and bonds. If it decides to sell off its bonds or convert its dollar holdings to euros, the US will either collapse or be compelled to defend the dollar’s position as the global trade accounting currency with military force. In short, war is inevitable. Many people had pointed out that the Iraq invasion happened just after Saddam loudly threatened to change his oil trading currency to euros.
   "Late last year, as the America-based financial crisis spread to the world, China established the Asian Financial Cooperation Exploratory Committee. The Asian Monetary Fund (AMF), which was proposed by Japan but founded by the US in response to the Asian Financial Crisis, was a plot to impose a common virtual currency (가상통화) and even create an Asian Central Bank.”

Conan Jr says he’s more worried about the present, and specifically North Korea. He sees great potential in their collectivist work ethic, and foresees that North Korea’s economic power will soon surpass America’s. As evidence he cites recent remarks by the president of Ecuador, blaming the capitalist system for the financial crisis and calling for a new global economic model. 

Gesturing to the carnal excesses playing out on the beach, Conan Jr frets: 

   “Hawaii is no longer a natural world of birds and fish, it has been taken over by humans degenerated into wild beasts. This scene of our people living only for the moment, gathered together to feast and drink themselves into oblivion, represents the doom of America. 
   "Meanwhile Koreans are building for the future; if it comes down to a confrontation, there’s no guarantee we will win. Think of our future – we who crowed loudly about Korea’s impending collapse; how pathetic that we should collapse instead."

Days later, Conan Jr goes over Secretary Clinton's head and sends a memo directly to President Obama. He advises the new president to "apply military pressure tactics to make [North] Korea back off from economic development" and to "use the dollar’s power to max effect to prevent Korea from establishing outside economic cooperation partners while blocking their import of necessary equipment and technology," applying UNSCR 1718 if needed. In closing he warns, "In Northeast Asia, Korea is every bit as important as the big powers Russia and China."

Monday, October 19, 2020

New Novel Series: Kim Jong Un's Amazing Journey

There's big news in the world of North Korean fiction! A once-in-a-generation event! 

The Korean Writers Union has finally released the first novel in the official biography series for third-generation leader Kim Jong Un, and with it has announced the name of the new series. 

As all worthy fans of North Korean literature know, for decades there have been two series of novels, or 총서, that represent the apex of the party's literary canon. Only the very créme de la créme of KWU authors are permitted to contribute novels to these series: 

  • 불멸의 력사 (The Imperishable History) 
  • 불멸의 향도  (The Imperishable Leadership) 
The first series depicts events in the life of Kim Il Sung, beginning with the novel 1932 published way back in 1972, and includes the novel Eternal Life featured elsewhere in this blog. The latter series does the same for Kim Jong Il, beginning with the novel Morning Sun (아침해) published in 1988, and currently comprises 36 novels including blog favorites Great Flow of History and 2009

Doing the math, we find that second-generation leader Kim Jong Il's series began publishing six years before he took over as leader, but eight years after he was informally anointed successor.

Kim Jong Un's ascent to leadership was much more precipitous, so it makes sense that his series would not begin right away. But fully ten years after he was declared the successor and nearly nine years after he inherited leadership, I was beginning to wonder if it would appear at all. My sources tell me that as recently as 2015, the word on the Pyongyang street was that KJU had opposed having his own novel series, on account of he's so humble.

But at last, the big moment is here. The title of the third-generation leadership series of biographical novels is....

....  drumroll....

....  drumroll....

....  drumroll....

💂💃💪 불멸의 려정  👯💥👽

...which I am going to translate as "The Imperishable Journey."

The first book in the series is entitled 부흥, which is one of the big slogans of the KJU era and means "revival" or "revitalization."

The publication was announced on various North Korean print and online media last month, with statements implicitly connecting it to the 75th KWP founding celebrations. The formal KCTV announcement can be viewed here.

Its author is none other than Paek Nam Nyong, whose novel Friend was recently translated and published in English by Immanuel Kim, and who is probably the most internationally well-known North Korean author. Paek also previously authored four novels in the Imperishable Leadership series including 야전열차, which tells the story of Kim Jong Il's final year.

Star novelist Paek Nam Nyong with
Immanuel Kim in 2015. Src: VOA
For more on this author, check out Immanuel Kim's interview with him ("The Interview: Life of North Korean Author Paek Namnyong," Journal of Korean Studies, 21.1, Spring 2016) . The interview is a real treat to read, as Paek discusses his childhood, favorite Western novels, family life, and finding inspiration at a divorce court.

It will likely be some time before I can acquire a copy of 부흥 and review it for you, my devoted readers. But judging from the KWP media reports, it appears to focus on KJU's early education reforms and certain technical projects. 

I guess it was too much to hope that the author of Friend would pen a buddy-comedy of Trump and KJU tearing around Singapore together in the Beast, evading their security details and causing general mayhem. He could've titled it Friend II: 2 Fiery 2 Furious! 

*emojis added for emphasis

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. 

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.