Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fate (#1): Did Kim Il Sung lure Che Guevara to his death?

I'm currently reading the 2012 novel Fate [운명], another gem from blog favorite Chŏng Ki Jong. The novel focuses on North Korean assistance to other communist countries in the late 1960s, and it is chock-full of entertaining scenes with well-known communist leaders: Khrushchev badmouthing Stalin to an unimpressed Mao Zedong, Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp toasting a newly arrived squad of North Korean fighter pilots, Kim Il Sung arguing with Kang Sheng and Liu Shaoqi about Nicolae Ceaușescu while an ailing Mao Zedong mostly sleeps, a hilarious who's-on-first type routine between Fidel Castro and a four-year-old Korean boy, and more!

Src: Benjamin Young,
Even within this rich field, the scene depicting the interaction between Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung (Part 2 Chp 17) stands out. The novel seems to imply that Kim's pep talk is what inspired Che to eventually leave Cuba and export a guerrilla insurgency to Bolivia. Which is kind of a weird thing to boast about, considering how that worked out for Che.

For most of us, if Che's December 1960 visit to North Korea is remembered at all, it is merely as one more notch on the peripatetic guerrilla's world travel belt. Che's famous 1964 UN speech, which gave shout-outs to just about every obscure battlefield of the global communist insurgency movement from Laos to Congo to Guadaloupe and Martinique, made no reference to Korea except to complain that Puerto Ricans had been sent to fight in that war.

"What are we, chopped liver?"
Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. 
Src: Miami Libraries Digital Collections

Che first visited Pyongyang as head of an economic delegation from the newly minted communist state of Cuba in December 1960. A historic overview of DPRK-Cuba relations can be found here. An analysis of North Korea's influence on early Cuban economic doctrine can be found here.

In the novel, during his visit Che requests a private meeting with the leader, where he thanks him effusively for his time and heaps praise on his achievements. There is the obligatory quibbling over titles as an excuse to showcase KIS' humility and Che's breathless adoration: 

   "Comrade Che, we are revolutionary comrades fighting against a common enemy; why do you address me so formally by my military title? Let's be friendly and just call each other comrades.” 
   “Thank you, but– you are the legendary hero who defeated the mighty Japanese and American empires, a great revolutionary, and the leader of the Korean people. How could I possibly...?”

After some more mutually complimentary banter, they finally get down to business. 

   “Our Cuba is a newborn country. Comrade Marshal, what strategy do we need to protect this just-started Cuban Revolution from invasion by the US empire?"
   “It's hard to put in a pithy statement, but in my opinion: To safeguard the fledgling Cuban revolution, the most important thing is to aim the spearhead of attack at the US empire globally [전세계적으로 미제에 공격의 창끝을 집중하는것].”
   “Yes, this anti-imperialist anti-US struggle must be waged on a global scale. We need to ensure that the US empire cannot strangle the Cuban revolution at a whim. This is the bloody lesson we learned from fighting the thieving Japanese empire for so long. A united front strategy, solidarity, that is key. Cuba, the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere, must not be left all alone. Many countries around the world, even small ones, must unite to strike the US empire everywhere and disperse and weaken their forces as much as possible [도처에서 미제에 타격을 주고 그들의 력량을 최대한 분산약화시켜야]. To put it in our Korean way, we must chop them up in pieces [각을 뜬다]. This is the most important strategy for the present anti-imperialist anti-US struggle.”

Che's response is cringingly effusive: “That's it! Comrade Marshal, those are very wise words. ...You are so right. This is exactly what I was hoping for!” He leaps from his chair in ecstacy. The author doesn't mention it, but I assume that Che also made that Korean heart sign gesture with his hands.

Later on, Che brings up the question of "parliamentary struggle” [의회투쟁], which some brainy Soviet academic types had been trying to sell him on recently [probably refers to Khrushchev's "parliamentary road to socialism" idea].

KIS promptly trounces on that idea: “We do not believe in this parliamentary struggle that some right-wing opportunists speak of. The experience of our revolution shows that only through armed struggle can one liberate one's country and nation from the domination and subjugation of imperialism and colonialists.” This is a central theme of the book that runs through all of KIS' interactions with the other communist leaders, covering events around Khrushchev's secret speech and the Sino-Soviet split, but with the DPRK depicted here as leading the vanguard against cowardly "Khrushchev-style revisionism" [흐루쑈브수정주의].

Is Kim Il Sung the Yoko Ono of the Cuban
revolutionary leadership?
Src: 조선중앙통신
This chapter is told from Kim Il Sung's direct first-person POV, an unusual choice and (I believe) a relatively recent innovation in North Korean leader representation literature. For my Korean linguistic sociology fans out there, he uses the "나" pronoun and plain non-honorific verb endings ["나는 그를 자리에 앉도록 권하며 말했다"]. 

We see this whole conversation in a flashback in KIS' head, as news of Che's disappearance reaches Pyongyang and Kim flashes back to their meeting. "Thinking back on it now, it seems likely that at that time [Che] was already thinking of lighting the fire of armed struggle in America's 'quiet backyard' of Latin America." If so, his advice may have inspired Che to move on from Cuba.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, the North Korean ambassador has a revealing late-night chat with Fidel Castro, who has stopped by for an impromptu North Korean propaganda movie night in the embassy garden. In a moment of candor, Fidel asks the ambassador what North Koreans think about Che's disappearance. The ambassador is caught off-guard, knowing that one "horrifying rumor" [끔찍한 소문] making the rounds is that "Fidel and his henchmen [심복들], who were afraid of his rising reputation, had quietly had him killed." 

   “About Che,” [the ambassador] began slowly. “Our Leader has taken a special interest. He often recalls that He was very impressed with Che Guevara when he visited Korea, and that he is indeed a revolutionary and patriot with a temperament worthy of a hot-blooded fighter.” 
   "Well…” Fidel listened carefully to the interpreter's translation and then said, “Che also had deep love and respect for Comrade Kim Il Sung. I remember when he left, he vowed to use His words as a guide for his future life and struggle.” 
   “He, er, he left, you say?” …
   “Only to the respected Comrade Kim Il Sung can I tell the truth about everything. Sooner or later the world will know; Che is now in a country in Latin America [라틴아메리카].”
   “Che wanted to create a second Vietnam here in Latin America, which is called the quiet backyard of the United States, to protect the Cuban revolution. Defending the Cuban Revolution, destroying the US imperialist world domination strategy, and liberating Latin American countries! This was Che's goal.
   "That country is now preparing for an armed struggle. He says when he visited Korea he met Comrade Kim Il-sung, who said that even small countries should unite to turn the main spearhead against US imperialism, in other words, they should chop up the US empire in pieces all over the world [작은 나라들도 단결하여 미제에 주되는 창끝을 돌려야 한다는것, 다시말하여 세계도처에서 미제의 각을 떠야 한다]." 

Src: Benjamin Young,
This passage again repeats the Korean term [각을 뜨다], a special term for how a hog is butchered by cutting off its limbs and head. This term recurs throughout the novel; KIS used it in the conversation with Che quoted above, and Che uses it later in a strategy session with his guerrilla comrades in Bolivia. 

It's kind of a sore point for DPRK-Vietnam relations that North Korea allegedly tried to keep the carnage going in Vietnam so that the US would stay bogged down there and leave Korea alone, so it's striking that this novel apparently endorses the narrative that that was indeed the motivating logic of KIS' foreign policy toward the rest of the socialist camp in the 1960s.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Che soon turns up in Bolivia with his three ill-fated guerrilla units.  The novel explains that Che's guerrillas were betrayed by two spies among their ranks, a Mexican and a Bolivian (who had previously worked for the Bolivian Secret Police and Army Intelligence). The pair fled to the headquarters of the 4th Division of the Bolivian army and gave away Che's plans. And the rest is history. (For an accurate account of the campaign's demise, see here).

Incidentally, the Che/KIS conversation also features the following exchange:

   "Comrade Marshal, they say you personally commanded the fight throughout the long days of the anti-Japanese armed struggle, how is it that you never got injured... Is it true that the enemy’s bullets really avoided the hero of the nation?”
   "No. In fact, in the days of the anti-Japanese struggle, I almost died many times. How can enemy bullets avoid someone just because he is a commander? That was just a story that got passed down like a legend among our people... In fact, I was hit by enemy bullets several times. There were times when I would take off my backpack and shake it after a battle, and five or six bullets would roll down."
   "Isn’t that a miracle?"
   "No, not a miracle, but all thanks to my comrades. All the members of our guerrilla group risked their lives to defend their commander, and they kept me out of harm's way. The love and devotion of comrades stops even bullets. You might consider that a kind of miracle."

This quote nicely underscores a point that B. R. Myers has made, with characteristic acerbic crunchiness, on his blog: 

   "[T]he personality cult isn’t half as absurd as it’s made out to be. Spare me the bit about Kim Jong Il’s eighteen holes-in-one, and all the other tales foreigners laugh at, yet provide no primary sources for. 'They say Kim Il Sung could move through mountains, be in two places at once…' No; the cult twinklingly relates how his guerrilla victories made peasants believe he could. There’s a difference."

North Korea pundits, take note: From now on, let's have less talk about how NK propaganda says KIS can fly, and more talk about how it proudly implies he may have gotten Che Guevara killed...

In conclusion: This is an important novel, by an important author, that came out in an important year, and there are many, many more entertaining passages like this one; I'll try to share some more in the future. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how North Korea portrays its past relations with its communist allies.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Kwangmyongsong-30: North Koreans Fight Americans in Outer Space

"The Signal that Flew from Kwangmyongsong-30" (《광명성-30》호에서 날아온 전파) is a science fiction story by Shin Sŭng Gu (신승구) that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2016.

I stumbled across this story as I was searching for references to radiation [방사능,방사선,방사성] in North Korean literature for a forthcoming paper; more on that soon maybe.

This story has everything you typically ask for in a space drama: explosions, flying debris, solar flares, high-stakes meticulous telemetry calculations, a race against the clock, unscrupulous asteroid miners, dizzying space walks, an improbably young and beautiful astrophysicist, a brilliant mission control team scrambling ad-hoc solutions to life-or-death problems... and, of course, antimatter.

But I get ahead of myself. First, let us examine:

The Plot

Satellite Research Institute Director Jang Hyŏk is busily managing the final stages of his institute's biggest project to date - a massive solar array in outer Earth orbit that will collect energy from the sun's rays and beam it back to the surface via laser. This achievement is made possible by the satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-30, the culmination of decades of satellites launched by the North Korean space program.

They switch on the big screen, where an astronaut is floating in space, putting the final touches on the array. It’s Director Jang Hyŏk’s son, Yŏng Jun, freshly graduated from Astrophysics University and up on his first space mission.

As his son floats dizzyingly above the earth, he reports on the final repairs, and the two speculate that the enemy will "go apoplectic" [까무라치고말것입니다] when they hear of the array's completion tomorrow. Grinning, they terminate the connection.

Director JH is counting on Yŏng Jun for more than just the space array; he hopes his unmarried son will soon find a nice young daughter-in-law to come live with them [JH's anticipation of this is full-on creepy].

Just as he is thinking these thoughts, a gorgeous vision of womanhood enters his office. She seems familiar, and he immediately guesses she must be a reporter, or perhaps an actress; she shakes her head.

“I’ve come for a job.”
“A job? This is a space satellite research center.”
“I’m aware.”
“That is, one must have manly qualities to work here. Bold, gutsy…”
“That’s why I’ve come.”
She dug into her bag and presented her assignment papers; his eyes widened. “Graduated with top marks from the doctoral program of Astrophysics University? That’s fantastic, for one so young!”

After she leaves, an unnamed senior technician [기사장] speaks up: He was Comrade Ran Hee's graduate advisor, and knew her to be a passionate researcher, always in the library. Twice she’d won gold medals in international exibitions. JH sees how her expertise could complement their work; but still he worries that this "delicate greenhouse flower of a girl" [온실의 꽃과 같이 연약한 처녀] may not be tough enough for this stressful job. 

Director JH continues coordinating power grid issues late into the night. Just after 4 am, they receive a disturbing report from their space observation lab: A chunk of unknown material has flown off Asteroid 233, a 500-m diameter object between Mars and Jupiter. Measuring 50 m diameter, the chunk appears to be headed for Earth. 

North Korean satellite launch control 
center (Src: BBC)
JH is initially unconcerned; at that size it should burn up in the atmosphere – unless it is made up of solid nickel or iron, but those are rare. But the spacelab manager is suspicious; the trajectory is odd, as if the asteroid was aimed straight at their solar array. JH bangs away at his computer a bit and brings up the space view on the big screen. There: that bright red speck is the chunk from Asteroid 233. 

The sub-asteroid is unmistakably headed straight at Kwangmyongsong-30. Spacelab Manager recalls that yesterday’s imagery from the high-powered telescope on the space station had shown what looked like an explosion on A233, where the enemy had planted its flag. Our people on the space station had inquired and been told that they were extracting minerals. Now it seems likely that they had blown off a chunk to fire at Kwangmyongsong-30.

"What sneaky bastards. To calculate precisely all the variables – the asteroid’s position, the earth’s revolution and rotation, the speed of the projectile – they must have used a supercomputer [고성능초대형콤퓨터] to aim so precisely at Kwangmyongsong-30 and get the timing just right. If we do nothing, in hours it will blast our solar power station to smithereens."

Spacelab Manager spots another cause for concern; if it is composed of nickel and doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere, the asteroid is on course to strike North Korean territory. The estimated impact would be apocalyptic for the country. “The bastards are trying to kill two birds with one stone [일거량득],” Director JH observes.

Spacelab Manager suddenly brightens, remembering that they positioned defensive attack rockets around the array for just such a scenario. But JH says no; even if they blow it up, the fragments will continue on the same path. Even a small fragment could shatter the array they’ve worked so hard to build.

“But sir, what about Comrade Yŏng Jun?” Spacelab Manager seems about to cry.

People gather around, filled with determination to save the director’s son; but Jang stubbornly ignores their suggestions. Via satellite link, Yong Jun too rejects the team's offers to send a shuttle  [우주왕복선] to save him: “Thanks for your concern. But my fate lies with Kwangmyongsong-30. Do not fear.” 

Some time later, the unnamed tech who was Ran Hee's graduate advisor shows up, looking sweaty and out of breath. JH scolds him for being truant in their darkest hour, but Unnamed Tech just grins and says he was finishing up a project at the university with Ran Hee. He says they've found a way to save Comrade YJ and the space station.

At an emergency strategy meeting, they announce their audacious plan to "turn this asteroid into a tool to strike back against the enemy.”

Ran Hee elaborates: “I propose we use solar sails [태양돛] to change the meteorite’s path and avoid a collision. [...] A solar sail is a thin, filmy sail about 50 m wide and 0.075 mm thick; it can guide an object in the desired direction by using the power of sunlight. If such a sail could be attached to the asteroid, we could then use the angle of the sail to change its path.”

The room erupts in animated chatter; Unnamed Tech raps for attention. “It’s a simple problem. The force from sunlight is subtle, but in the weightlessness of space there is no resistance. The sail could move as fast as 200 km/s, and so catch up with this asteroid that is doing about 30 km/s.”

JH looks at the pair wonderingly. Is this what they’d been up to at the university this morning? Have they already built some sort of sail assembly? Suddenly he remembers where he’s seen her before: she was his son’s teammate at the international inventor’s competition, where they won gold! The photo is in his album at home. And his son had spoken fondly of "a doctoral student at the university." Could they be more than just colleagues?

   The First Team Leader spoke up: “Researcher Ran Hee’s idea is a good one. But… how do we get the sail to the asteroid’s position? Solid rockets [고체로케트] won’t work…”
   “That’s why we’re going to use the antimatter thruster [반물질추진기],” Ran Hee quietly replied. 
   The room erupted in agitated murmuring; as rocket scientists, they all knew that antimatter reacted violently when put in contact with regular matter, producing energy 1000 times greater than nuclear fusion. But where to find it? It existed when the universe was formed 13.7 billion years ago, but now there was no trace of it anywhere. 
The antimatter canister
from Angels & Demons
   You could hear a pindrop, as everyone hung on her next words: "That's right. The vehicle to transport the solar sail should be an antimatter craft, not a solid fuel rocket. It is a known fact that antimatter forms in clouds during thunderstorms. The problem is that the substance disappears almost immediately. But working with Comrade Yong Jun, I’ve developed a device to recover that antimatter. In fact, we have built an antimatter powered craft. I will fly this craft into space.”
   More disbelieving murmurs. “That delicate girl, flying up into space?” “But there are no female astronauts…” “But you’re supposed to have three months’ training before you can go up.”

    Jang Hyok’s voice cut through the noise. “No way. Absolutely not!”

   “Why – because I’m a woman? But if this is going to work, I have to be at Yong Jun’s side.”
   “Why is that?”

Unable to answer, she blushes and looks down. Coming to her rescue, Unnamed Tech explains that YJ and RH have always worked best together; "like a pair of meshed gears... they need to engage together to work." Reluctantly, Director JH approves the plan.

At sunrise, the antimatter craft launches with RH aboard. Moving at tremendous speed, it breaches the atmosphere in the blink of an eye and then begins a complicated rotation maneuver meant to unfurl the sail. Watching from mission control, JH tenses, knowing that solar sail deployment requires a meticulous calculation of the subtle correlation between the sail area and the vehicle’s rotational speed. 

After several rotations, it becomes clear that the sail is not unfurling properly. RH struggles at the controls, growing more frantic. Then a masculine voice cuts through her panic: “Ran Hee, listen to me. You have to adjust your rotation period to 3 seconds. Remember that this sail has a much larger area!” It's YJ, transmitting from Kwangmyongsong-30.
Everyone holds their breath. 3 seconds is a terribly fast rotation speed; can this mere slip of a girl withstand the centrifugal forces?

She does. The ship spins like a top, the sail unfurls magnificently, and she shoots off toward K30. There, YJ comes aboard and joins her at the controls, and they take off again, headed straight for the sub-asteroid. Closer and closer it comes, but they don't slow down. Finally, at the last possible moment, the craft executes a neat 180 degree turn and bites into the asteroid’s rear.

Clad in spacesuits, YJ and RH step out onto the asteroid. Despite the ferocious speed at which the rock is traveling, they can stand on it without any difficulty, because there is no atmosphere in the vacuum of space. 

Now they just need to install the solar sail. But instead, the pair seem preoccupied with setting up some instruments on the rocky surface. What the hell are they playing around with? 

   Jang Hyŏk screamed in frustration. “Get that sail set up. The asteroid’s nearing the power station.” 
   “Shouldn’t we check its composition though?”
   What? Check the asteroid's composition? When we're almost out of time... looking for evidence of the enemy’s scheme... The balls on these kids! [아, 얼마나 담이 큰 젊은이들인가?]
  Soon after, Yong Jun stood up. “This asteroid is a chunk of iron and nickel broken off from A233. It appears that the enemy laid explosive charges to blast it off. They wanted to obliterate Kwangmyongsong-30 and our space power station. And then, our country…”
   Jang Hyok shook with fury. “You old cowards, are you scared of our strong socialist nation? Surely not.”
   On the wall, the clock ticked mercilessly on toward disaster. Only 5 minutes from impact! And still the seconds ticked by. Finally the pair stood up from their labor.
   “Now to adjust the sail’s angle. What should it be?”
   “Do you have to ask? You know what our people want.”
   “Understood. We’ll send this rock back to A233, to crush it into oblivion. How’s that?”
   Jang Hyok and the technician shouted in unison. “That’s it! Even against this enemy who blocks us at every move, we’ve got to be smart about how we settle the score. Got it?”
   “Roger that!”

With the angle set, YJ and RH return to their ship and head back to K30. The asteroid slowly turns, narrowly avoiding hitting the solar panel, and heads back toward A233. In short order, that hive of enemy scheming will be shattered.

Soon after, YJ and RH come on the speaker together to report that the space power station is now fully operational. Their signal comes from Kwangmyongsong-30! 

Ah, how many trials and sacrifices led to this moment? How hard was the road? Hello world, can you hear it? The glorious shout of the victors who stand at the very pinnacle as a scientific and technological great power [과학기술강국]!

JH gives the triumphant order to switch on the power station. Instantly, the giant power transmission towers buzz and the grid comes alive, sending power out to every corner of the country.


There's a fair amount of geeky space science in this story; Neil DeGrasse Tyson groupies should take note.  Kwangmyongsong-30's mission is described in detail:
30% of solar energy gets blocked by the atmosphere and clouds, never reaching the earth’s surface… That is the advantage of going to space. Now many countries are trying to develop space power stations, but none has achieved the transmission system [송전체계] our country has. The transmission system that we developed is not a microwave-converted electromagnetic wave, but a laser light transmission cable [레이자빛수송관], and there is no need for noisy construction on the ground for a reception site.
In this way, the story deftly takes the country's expensive Kwangmyongsong missile program and makes it seem as if at some point in the future this will lead to a bottomless source of renewable energy that will benefit the whole country. The orbiting solar power plant described in the story resembles one that China has recently announced plans to build.

The story also alludes to North Korean astronauts working alongside non-Koreans at a "Space Station" [우주정류소] housing the high-powered telescope [대형우주망원경] that initially detects the explosion on A233; it is unclear if this is referring to the International Space Station or some fictional future endeavor.
Elsewhere, the topic of solar flares and radiation comes up:

Setting up a huge solar array in space was tremendously difficult. The greatest danger was the flares; these had become highly active recently on the solar surface, and they caused unpredictable magnetic phenomena. No matter how well protected, the astronauts were always absorbing radiation. Still, someone had to go; but who to send? After much deliberation, [Director Jang Hyuk] decided to send his own son, who had just graduated from Astrophysics University. 

Later, when First Team Leader discovers that the asteroid is on course to hit North Korea, he explains the  magnitude of the threat by using a classic astronomy geek reference:

“Consider past history. In the early 20th century an asteroid 50 m in diameter struck in an eastern European forest. The fires and windstorms from the impact destroyed hundreds of sq km of forest, and all plant and animal life within 60 km was wiped out. The strong blast from impact was felt 700 km away, and airwaves were even detected by atmospheric pressure gauges thousands of km away in England. The smoke and fumes flew high in the sky, spreading dust pollution across all of Europe making the sky dark as night. The impact force from that 50 m object was equivalent to 10 megatons of TNT [뜨로찔].”

Despite the reference to "Eastern Europe," this passage is clearly referring to the Tunguska event which struck central Siberia in 1908. 

The science behind asteroid composition, solar sails, and antimatter is all described with a level of detail that could have been lifted from Scientific American or Cosmos. The gravity issues of landing and standing on a 50m asteroid are glossed over, but I prefer to think of that as an homage to the tradition of 20th century space operas. If this author is not a Trekkie, I'll eat my hat.

In Space, Everyone Is Equal

Most of the time, reading North Korean fictional depictions of technological advances can be pretty sad, especially the CNC stuff. It's clear that those stories come from the fantasies of people who are accustomed to struggling with ancient Soviet hand-me-down tech and pirated software patches that never work as they should. Everything is a little too shiny and perfect.

But here, the narrative has moved so far into the future that it has escaped the stratosphere of prosaic technological expectations. Let's face it, most space sci-fi doesn't stand up under any real scientific scrutiny. We're always thinking That would never work as planned and That would've definitely broken down by now and Gravity doesn't work that way. Most of us learn to turn off our brains so we can enjoy the story. 

On balance, this story does a pretty good job of working within the realm of the scientifically plausible. Obviously the antimatter part is pretty pseudoscience-y; but if we're going to bust them for that, we'd have to throw out half of Star Trek. The descriptions of the solar power station and the physics of unfurling the solar sail struck me as fairly believable and cleverly woven into the story.

The political rhetoric is subtle, almost invisible. The idea of the sun's power coming to their aid would definitely appeal to the lyrical sensibilities of well-read North Koreans, tying into the imagery of Kim Il Sung as "the eternal Sun" watching over his people from the cosmos. The author seems to hint at this at one point but never quite comes out and says it directly. I blinked for a moment when I read that the astronauts needed to "check the asteroid's composition" [성분을 확인해보아야 할] since "songbun checks" are so often encountered in a very different context in research about North Korea.

"The Enemy"

The title of this post implies that America is the bad guy in this story. But reading back over it, I belatedly realized that the author has done something very clever - not once does he actually mention America by name. The characters only refer to "the enemies" [적들] or "the bastards" [놈들]. The context [and the entire history of NK literature] leads the reader to assume that this refers to America, but the author has taken pains not to say so explicitly. And the ending, with the astronauts striking back at the asteroid mining operation on A233 rather than an Earthbound location, seems designed to leave "the enemy"'s homeland ambiguous. 

My reaction when I realized this

We can only speculate on why this might be. Other NK fiction has certainly never shied away from naming America as the enemy, and in the context of space conflict as we currently imagine it, who else could it be? 

But this story takes place in the fairly distant future; considering that it took NK about 20 years to get to Kwangmyongsong-4, we can project that  Kwangmyongsong-30 might roll onto the launchpad sometime around 2150. At that point, if we stretch our imaginations enough, "the enemy" could be almost anyone - China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Botswana... even aliens! I've decided it's almost definitely aliens.

I truly enjoyed reading this story. I even slow-clapped when the antimatter thing came up. And when I realized that they were going to get control of the asteroid, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see where they would send it. Four stars.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

"Dignity": WikiLeaks Joins the Socialist Revolution

"Dignity" (존엄) is a science fiction story by Ŏm Ho Sam that appeared in the September 2017 issue of Chongnyon Munhak

Ŏm has rapidly become my new favorite North Korean writer, stealing the place in my heart previously held by the late Chŏng Ki Jong. Ŏm also wrote "An Ordinary Day," summarized previously, as well as a 2004 story titled 부쉬소동 which I would dearly love to get my hands on (it apparently involves Middle Eastern mafia kidnapping President George W. Bush and installing a fake Bush in his place, using extensive plastic surgery). 

I cannot find any biographical details about this author, but judging from the subject matter and publication venue, I would guess that s/he is a computer science grad student or junior faculty affiliated with a major university. The story specifically mentions Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), open source software, and the LINUX operating system, and makes blatant allusions to WikiLeaks.

Like "An Ordinary Day," this story is categorized as "Science Fiction" (과학환상소설) and revolves around the Koryo System, apparently a proprietary creation of the author's. This is a transformative new socioeconomic order created by North Korean scientists in the near future, in which money is replaced by supercomputers that coordinate all production and distribution based on each individual's "intellectual labor and contribution to society." In this story, we get a closer look at the scientific minds behind this system's creation, as well as the shadowy globalist forces trying to destroy it in utero. Along the way we get intriguing glimpses of educated North Koreans' perceptions about roles and functioning of the global internet, hacking, the ICC, cyber security, big data analysis, virtual reality, and open source software development.

The Plot

The story opens onto a secret meeting of the 10 global titans of industry who form a shadowy global mega-conglomerate called "B.D" (yes, apparently North Koreans have picked up their southern brethren's bad habit of dropping the final periods from acronyms). A massive global financial crisis looms, but these 10 "kings" are more concerned about the recent development by North Korea of the Koryo System, which threatens to destroy the very foundation of the world they control by eliminating money altogether. After some acrimonious infighting among the Metals King, the Finance King, the Medical King, and the Oil King, eventually the IT King (Mark Zuckerburg?) speaks up and promises to come up with a solution before their next meeting.

A PUST classroom on October 2019.
Src: PUST Facebook page
Next we meet our main protagonist - Lewis, a young European coder who attended PUST for graduate school, fell in love with the Koryo System, and decided to stay in North Korea to help develop it at the Koryo Research Institute. One of his PUST lecturers is the Institute's director (소장) and offered him an internship (실습생). Despite being the only foreigner, he finds the state-of-the-art research facility to be a welcoming and stimulating work environment. 

One morning, he is reviewing a list of people and institutions that have downloaded the "detailed but user-friendly instruction manual" that he wrote for the Koryo system, when he spots a familiar name: Johanne Melbourne, his childhood friend! Not only that, but when he reaches out to Melbourne, he is amazed to discover that his old friend is actually "Angel" (천사), the ringleader of a notorious hacking group that exposes scandals and corruption around the world.

Via video chat, the two old friends catch each other up on their lives. Lewis gushes about his work on the Koryo System. Melbourne seems interested but nervous, and he asks if they can meet someplace private. Lewis proposes meeting that evening at "The Mermaid," an upscale underwater restaurant (수중식당) that has adopted the Koryo System. The reader is initially left wondering how such a meeting is possible, until several pages later it is revealed that The Mermaid has a cutting-edge virtual reality environment where patrons from all over the world can "meet" and dine together either virtually or in person. 

"Underwater restaurants" appear in at least two
Ŏm Ho Sam stories
Over dinner, Lewis explains the virtues of Koryo to a skeptical Melbourne, who shrewdly asks, "Is North Korea trying to use the Koryo System to take over global wealth?" Still, he keeps an open mind; he has always hated global capitalism, which is why he chose to become a hacker. Lewis tells him, "You may think that your hacking activities are righteous, but I would rather do something more proud and meaningful. Instead of just helping people as we do now, I think we should try to bring about a fundamental change in the lives and consciousness of all people... Why don't you put your brilliant brain to work on developing the Koryo system?"" Johanne says he'll think about it, and they promise to meet again next Sunday. But it was not to be...

Meanwhile, Koryo Institute Director Kim Ju Sŏng and Cyber Security Chief Myong Jun have been monitoring  Lewis' unconventional foreign contact. Myong Jun is concerned this may pose a security threat, but Director Kim proclaims his confidence that these foreign hackers are no match for Myong Jun's skill, adding:

"Isn't there a proverb that says you can't ferment beans if you're afraid of maggots [구데기 무서워 장 못 담글가=can’t succeed if afraid of failure ]? Don't jump to conclusions. Not long ago, Comrade Lewis came up with the idea of introducing a biological computer (생물콤퓨터) into the lab's security system. Very interesting stuff. It seems that if we confront a few challenges, our security system will develop more proactive security measures rather than passive ones.”

Their trust pays off when Lewis makes an innovative proposal to make the Koryo system code open-sourced; that way "not only will we expand usership, but also the program will be developed to a higher standard." Security Chief Myong Jun is worried that this may allow users with "impure intent" to "spread viruses or steal our secret materials"; but the youthful economic team director backs Lewis up: “After all, Windows dominated the computer world for so many years in the bygone IT era; but in the end wasn’t it quickly overtaken by Linux?” They decide to proceed with the proposal.

Meanwhile, the ten "kings" of B.D meet again, more desperate than ever to crush Koryo before it takes over the world. They've found out that the notorious hacker "Angel" is the nephew of a global charity fund manager, so they decide to blackmail them into assisting with their scheme. The IT King unveils his dastardly four-point plan:

1) To delay implementation of the Koryo system, secretly gain the cooperation of international hacker groups; have them hack into the database of the Koryo Research Institute and disrupt its operations.
2) Invest in Koryo to gain their trust, gain a majority stake and monopolize their name and profits. To this end, all B.D members must invest heavily.
3) If 1 and 2 fail, get the international hackers to bring down the whole system; if 2 succeeds, monopolize the system and ultimately transform it to serve our 'globalization' plans.
4) If 1, 2, & 3 all fail, spread a rumor through international charity foundations that the Koryo Research Institute and its supporters are causing a global catastrophe, and foment large-scale protests and condemnation.

Soon after, Koryo Director Kim gets a perplexing email from a certain “Globalization Corp,” congratulating them on the global success of the Koryo system and offering to donate some "cutting-edge technology." They kindly offer to send "some of our best experts" to assist and add that the system will have to be slowed down temporarily for installation and testing.

Director Kim is immediately suspicious; it seems “Globalization Corp” was launched just a few days ago, and yet it is offering state-of-the-art equipment on an enormous scale. Clearly, some dark game is afoot...

He promptly has his cyber security people to look into the organization; but all they can find out is that it is backed by some very big players. Then, Lewis recalls that Melbourne shared some files with him at their meeting, which he hasn't had time to read until now; the data reveals that Globalization Corp is a shell company [유령단체] "formed by the secret ultra-monopolist group B.D, to conceal their true identity." "Angel" had been able to hack into their recent meeting and learn their secret plan.

The deputy director suggests completely rejecting cooperation with Globalization Corp; but Lewis suggests that they refuse the equipment, but allow the specialist technicians to come anyway. Everyone is aghast at this plan except for Myong Jun, who sees the wisdom: 

   “I’m with Lewis, we can turn this to our advantage (화를 복으로 전환). If we can turn their technicians to our side, then those who tried to wield money to use them will eventually end up digging their graves with their own hands.”
   “Brilliant thinking, comrades. Right, let’s enlighten those engineers who’ve been used by that gang. It’d be unforgivably shameful to let the world’s intellectual creators of wealth continue to be driven by money. And we need to tighten up our database security anyway.”
   “Got it. I’ll double - no, triple - the encryption and firewall [암호와 방어벽]."

Lewis texts Melbourne as soon as the meeting ends. But the only response is an encrypted message:

  Lewis, sorry I can’t keep our appointment. I’m being threatened by the most vicious human scum. Beware of the "Globalization Corp" that is seeking to collaborate with you. They’re a shell company of the secretive B.D conglomerate. Don’t try to find me anymore. Just forgive me for being unable to live as you do. Your friend, Johanne Melbourne.

Later that same evening, the global news networks break some explosive news: the world-famous hacker “Angel” has been unmasked as Johanne Melbourne, and he is to be tried at the International Criminal Court!

Lewis is horrified for his friend. He immediately goes to see Director Kim and Security Chief Myong Jun, who have already heard the news. Myong Jun comforts Lewis: “Don’t worry so much. Since ‘Angel’ and his hacker group were sent to court, various people have argued for leniency, pointing out the humanitarian and righteous aspects of their activities.” 

Lewis blames himself for knowingly meeting a notorious hacker and potentially exposing them to impure elements; but Myong Jun says he has kept an eye on things, and there’s zero evidence that Melbourne's group ever tried to harm their system: "It’s clear that from the beginning, Melbourne was convinced of Koryo's superiority and just wanted to study it.”

Grinning, Myong Jun explains that they did as Lewis proposed and made Koryo open-sourced. Consequently, the world's best computer programmers have flocked in, further refining the code, and their virus and data leakage problems have vanished. “Now that all those hackers, who practiced their craft out of boredom, have became participants, they instinctively act to mutually police each other and catch any unhealthy behaviors... Everyone wants to be respected for their talents. You have to trust and respect people. When that respect is based not on power or money but on genuine love, people come together, and society, the economy, science and technology all develop at an astounding pace. That’s the core ideal of our Koryo system.”

Soon after, the Institute gets a surprising visit from an international charity organization seeking to learn more about their system. Leading this delegation is none other than Melbourne's uncle, Bill Melbourne. On the last day of their stay, Bill seeks out Lewis and personally apologizes for “nearly getting mixed up in the machinations of those who seek to destroy the globally acclaimed Koryo system.” He explains what happened in the days leading to Angel's unmasking. 

The night after their meeting at the Mermaid, Melbourne confronted his uncle with an astonishing declaration: "Uncle, people can never achieve dignity through faith and money. My comrades and I have decided to devote our lives to spreading the Koryo System, which loves humanity and values human dignity and ability. Be proud of me. I know my parents in the afterworld will be."

Bill was happy for him; but the next day, his nephew disappeared. He continues:

   "The next morning,  I got a call from one of our charity's big-time donors: 'Did you know your nephew is a world-famous hacker? ... He’s caused untold damage to the IT industry, and we have him in custody. We were going to expose him, but out of consideration for his talents and your reputation, we have relented. If he cooperates, both of you can preserve your good names. But you have to convince him.'
   "I consented; no matter how reckless, he was my only nephew after all. 
   "But when he came home, his attitude shocked me: ‘Those bastards, they wanted me to break into the Koryo system while I was online with Lewis, to disrupt it and plant distrust among the users. I’d rather die than do such a despicable thing.’
   "Discovering the nefarious plot of these so-called ‘philanthropists,’ I gave up on cooperating; then they threatened me. ‘Either convince your nephew or release a statement in your name denouncing Korea. Do it, or your reputation and your nephew’s life are both over.’ 
    "I ended up agreeing to participate in a forum denouncing Koryo as a threat to the world. But when Johanne heard this, he denounced me: ‘A charitable organization is supposed to help people do good, so why are you trying to condemn Joseon for developing the Koryo system? Are you opposed to helping people free themselves from money and live with dignity? Why? Because of the cash these corporations throw at you? Because of your position?'”

Johanne Melbourne convinced his uncle that Koryo is a righteous cause worth fighting for, then turned himself in to stand trial at the ICC. Bill realized that his nephew was doing this “for all humanity, not just himself and his family name” and felt shamed at his own selfishness in comparison.

Bill met with the chairman of his charity organization, explained everything, and offered to resign. But instead of being dismissed, he was promoted to head the organization's delegation to North Korea. He says his entire delegation has been completely blown away by the Koryo system, and they promise to work together for its success. 

ICC in session
The story concludes with Melbourne's ICC trial, which garners global attention. The first day, he and his associates plead guilty. The members of B.D and others targeted by their past hacking demand the harshest punishment. This backfires on B.D, however, as over the course of the trial their various machinations against Koryo are exposed. Furthermore, representatives of various charities and NGOs testify on Melbourne's behalf, calling for leniency. Others demand that the hacked materials presented as evidence be released to the media.

At this point, fearing their dirty deeds are about to be exposed, B.D shuts up. 

The court finds the defendants guilty, but gives them a light sentence of 3 years of suspended license [자격정지], "in consideration of their lofty goals, transparency of spending, role in stopping B.D’s conspiracy, and voluntary confession." Meanwhile, the court gives a stern warning to B.D for "attempting to obstruct human development."

Secret Gang of Evil Global Industrialists

The best parts of this story are the brief interludes where we eavesdrop on the ten "kings" of the B.D organization as they plot to destroy the Koryo System. The story opens on a meeting in their swanky secret lair on a nameless Pacific island, featuring a heavy oval table with a world map engraved on it (the story does not specify that this lair is inside a hollowed-out volcano, but one assumes):

  The Oil King was first to speak. “You all seem tense. There’s no need to be so surprised. Isn’t this the world we control?”
  The Finance King laughed bitterly at these words, thinking: Hah, wonder how much crude oil is left... Don't you know that your days are numbered, you crazy old man? 
  The Oil King tried again: “Don’t worry. I can always freeze myself and come back to life to look after your grandchildren, hahaha. Ah yes, Persson, won't you buy my company's hibernation technology? As a collaboration, of course.”
  The Medical King ignored him, lost in his own thoughts. The currency’s going to be wastepaper soon anyway. It's horrifying. But that old man thinks that the famous paintings and antiques he’s raked up will save him. It's absurd. Hello, even if the fraudsters from your A.H corporation bring you out of hibernation, you'll probably at best be an "Ancient Human" for evolutionary biologists to study.
   The Oil King had tried to relieve the dark atmosphere with his outburst, but his optimistic words only deepened the uneasiness that had been floating around.
   Even when the anti-Wall Street protests broke out in the early 21st century, these ten had just laughed and sent the president, military, police, and other such salaried workers deal with it, while they hung out with beauties on tropical beaches.
  But now, the world structure was changing in ways that jeopardized their “leadership” status, ignoring their authority and threatening to overthrow them. They were not threatened by the passive workers' strikes and anti-Wall Street demonstrators with their placards and shouting. Nor even by the structural transformation brought by the violence of financial crises and wars that certain monopolistic capitalists had devised. It was a social transformation, based on the advancement of human consciousness and intelligence. At the forefront of this was the Koryo System program, recently developed by the Koryo Research Institute, now rapidly spreading via the internet…
  The Finance King turned to the IT King, who had been silent. “What gives? You haven't said a word until now. The truth is, you know better than any of us about this ‘Koryo System,’ our greatest problem. This system is a ‘monster’ created by your IT industry.”
  Everyone expected the IT King to have a stinging comeback; but after a moody silence, he spoke: “Gentlemen, I won’t deny that the Koryo system is a product of IT. However, I ask you to bear in mind that the IT industry is entering a new era. I'll discuss my ideas and strategy for coping with this situation at our next meeting.”

That next meeting, at the midpoint of the story, is where the IT King unveils the aforementioned 4-point plan. The members agree to it; but after everything falls apart and they are humiliatingly exposed at the ICC, they hold a final emergency meeting:

They were all shocked that the IT King showed up. “Hmmph, he’s got some nerve,” sniffed the Metals King. The room erupted in outrage: “How dare you drag ‘Angel’ into our business? In trying to cut off one wart, we grew a new one [혹을 떼려다가 혹을 붙인 ].”

“Thanks to you, we’re all completely disgraced.”

Facing this uproar, the IT King remained unphased. “... If you want blame me, go ahead. Anyway, we all agreed by consensus, didn't we?”

His calm words seemed to quiet them for a moment, but then a commotion arose again.

“A consensus, you say - but wasn’t the whole thing your plan?”

“That’s right. I warned you it was dangerous, too, the Oil King chimed in support of the Financial King. 

Disgusted, the Medical King put in: “I don’t recall you saying that.”

“What? How dare you challenge me, you little baby chick.”

“If I’m a baby chick, then you’re an old cow, am I right?”

Such was their "high-minded” style of argument. But gradually the gentlemen were reduced to merely grappling at and punching each other. The gentlemanly face and dignity they had maintained thus far disappeared, revealing the beastly ugliness of biting and clawing.

They’ve finally shown their true colors. What a sight! I'll never come to a place like this again, the IT King laughed bitterly as he departed. He had always prided himself as a scientist who contributed to the development of science and technology and as a man of enormous wealth. But now he was ashamed of himself for dealing with such disgusting humans.

These are objectively the most entertaining parts of the story; evil characters are always more fun than good ones, and the incompetent evil are better still. You can't help but wonder how North Korean readers feel when they have to return to the cloying moral sanctimony of Lewis and his comrades, who take up 90% of the story.

Wikileaks to the Rescue

I considered including a photo 
of Julian Assange here but
 decided against it, so here's
a wallaby instead

The character Johanne Melbourne runs a global hacker group that is clearly modeled after WikiLeaks. He and Lewis have been friends since they were children, growing up in an unnamed northern European country. Melbourne's uncle is "the manager of the northern Europe division of a famous international charity organization" [유명한 국제자선기구의 북유럽지부책임자] and raised him after his parents died, while Lewis' father is a former diplomat [외교관] who recently moved with his sister to New Zealand. Weirdly, it is repeatedly implied that this put them on very different socioeconomic tiers [한사람은 평범한 외교관의 자식이였고 다른 한 사람은 자선가의 자식이였다], with Melbourne's family being more elite, and that their friendship was remarkable for overcoming class barriers. 

Lewis recalls how the young Melbourne was "said to be a computer genius from a young age," "a quiet kid who did nothing but study." His hacking work seems driven by a strong sense of socialist morality, as he tells his uncle: "I have always believed that it is right to take the unearned wealth of the rich and distribute it to the poor and unhappy, and that exposing and punishing falsehood and evil is the only way to find the truth."

Initially unaware of his old friend's new hobby, Lewis emails Melbourne after he spots his name on a list of foreigners who downloaded the Koryo System manual. Immediately a startling reply comes back, not from Melbourne, but from a user identified as "Angel":

   Lewis suddenly became very nervous about the security of his data. "Angel" was the name of the notorious hacker behind a famous website for leaking confidential information.

“Angel” and his colleagues hacked (해킹) into systems to collect detailed data on scandals (추문), misbehavior (비행), speculation (투기), and tax evasion (탈세행위) by big business tycoons and politicians. They then released the original texts alongside analyses of the legal and moral implications.

Lewis was about to terminate his connection with “Angel,” but then he thought there could be no harm in confirming his identity. He sent another e-mail: “...Now that we’re communicating, let’s do a video chat (동영상면담).”

There was no response for a while; perhaps the guy had been spooked. Just as Lewis was about to break the connection (접속을 중지), his interlocutor appeared on his quantum computer screen. Lewis couldn’t believe his eyes; “Angel” was none other than his old pal Melbourne. He promptly switched on his own camera, exclaiming, “Why Melbourne, I can’t believe you’re –  Well anyway, it’s good to see you.”

“Likewise. Pardon my rudeness earlier. If my true identity became known, it would cause a bit of trouble.

After Melbourne turns himself in, his trial at the ICC reveals that actually quite a lot of people around the world support his group's activities exposing the rich and powerful. Meanwhile his hacking group, won over to the side of righteousness, helps improve Koryo's open source system code and keep it secure from "bad elements." 

The author reveals a clear admiration for hackers and a perception of them as Robin Hood figures with an unerring sense of justice who only wish to work for the betterment of humankind, which naturally means they will eventually ally with North Korea in the fight against global capitalism. The associations drawn between open source code development and socialist ideology are also interesting to observe here.

The Mermaid Underwater Restaurant

This author seems quite taken with the "underwater restaurant" concept; his previous story "An Ordinary Day" mentioned that one had been installed at Okryugwan. The Mermaid is not only underwater, but has a virtual reality option:

    Melbourne already knew the location of the Mermaid underwater restaurant. He had looked it up on the internet. People said that the restaurant's dishes were numerous and of high quality, and it had a unique operating method that piqued Melbourne’s interest.

   The Mermaid was a restaurant that implemented the Koryo system. Not only were the number and quality of dishes the best, but they also using cutting-edge science and technology to create a virtual reality environment, so that even if the diners were physically located far away, they felt as if they were right there having a conversation and eating at one table. More importantly, the futuristic restaurant operated not using currency or credit cards, but by data on the contributions to human welfare development of patrons who were Koryo system members, based on analyses of their intelligence and intellectual works provided by the Koryo Research Institute.

   People who visited The Mermaid became determined to make their own contributions to the development of human society. A big conglomerate called Zeno once tried to buy the “Mermaid” at a huge price, as it irked them; but they were denied. Then they tried to get rid of it, but that backfired. One reporter criticized the conglomerate: “... You must wake up from the delusion of buying the Mermaid with money, and it would be wiser to increase your charitable donation instead. And rather than struggling to eliminate this restaurant, it would be better for you to quietly check out the Mermaid and try its service.”

Src: Eater Chicago

When the two old friends meet, they can feel the warmth of their greeting via the VR feedback. Lewis pays, since Melbourne is not yet registered on the Koryo System and thus has no credit. Lewis selects a rare and expensive wine, which Melbourne recognizes:

“Mmm, exquisite. You know, even the wealthy only drink this wine on special occasions.”

“It’s no surprise. In the past, if an ordinary worker came up with a creative idea, the business owner’s profit would multiply several dozen or even hundreds of times, while the creator would timidly accept a few pennies as reward. However, in today's highly developed knowledge industry, that is no longer acceptable. Once everyone receives sufficient compensation for their intelligent labor, inevitably the production and quality will increase while prices decrease.”

“Yes, but…”

“You don’t believe me? Everyone gets evaluated and treated according to his abilities and creation. Today, when production is unmanned and intelligent creations are increasing, anyone, even a worker, can receive high treatment if he/she has high intelligence."

Lewis continues to evangelize about Koryo over dinner. Melbourne is skeptical at first, but cannot deny being impressed by the swanky results. 


This academic article by Seo Dong-su of Shinhan University published in the The Journal of Korean Fiction Research in 2020 has some good analysis of recent trends in NK science fiction, including the above story. Seo also identifies clear parallels between Johanne Melbourne and Julian Assange.

North Korea's preference for LINUX systems is well-known; its homegrown Red Star OS is built on a LINUX shell. For a pretty good English overview check out this Reuters article. Much more detailed content on Red Star and various other aspects of computing in North Korea can be found at

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sunglasses in NK Fiction: Symbol of Badassery or Overwork?

The propaganda video promoting North Korea's latest missile launch has caught a lot of attention in the "North Korea is so weird" media circles. In this video sunglasses play a major role: Kim Jong Un not only wears them, but removes them in dramatic fashion at a climactic moment.

This reminded me of a passage I recently came across in the 2015 novel "Shine the Dawn" [ 아침은 빛나라 ] by Rim Bong Ch'ŏl. Part 1 Chapter 4 follows the adventures of Ryonha Machine Tool Factory engineer Ri Jŏng and senior researcher Ahn Shi Hak as they travel to Singapore to demonstrate their new CNC technology at a trade show.

Strolling the streets one evening after dinner,  Ri spotted a stall selling some sunglasses of the sort gangsters wear [깽들이 끼고다니는것과 비슷한 안경], and he bought a pair. Ahn Shi Hak's eyes widened, wondering if his companion had such proclivities.

When Ri showed up the next day wearing the glasses to an interview, Ahn fumed, saying it was inappropriate for a diplomatic venue...

It was only during Ri’s meeting with a Singaporean broker that Ahn got a vague sense for why Ri had stubbornly insisted on wearing those sunglasses. His counterpart was wearing the same kind. They were glazed like the kind a blind man wears, and gazing into them gradually one’s opponent would be overcome with anxiety. It was like stepping on the bottom of an unknown well.

To compare it to a battle, it was like one person lying down in a trench with only his gun poking out, while the opponent was up on the parapet shooting with his whole body exposed. Their counterpart, whose company had branches in various parts of Southeast Asia specializing in electronics and machinery trade, had clearly done his research on them.

The salesmen and the foreign broker get down to business. At a key moment in the negotiations, Ri whips off his sunglasses and coolly stares down his opponent. The move has the desired effect, throwing the broker off guard.

From the above, it would seem North Koreans, like South Koreans and Japanese, have an impression of sunglasses [색안경] as something that only foreign gangsters wear. 

This may seem puzzling given that the leader Kims - and only the leader Kims - are often shown wearing sunglasses. Actually Kim Il Sung never wore them, but Kim Jong Il began wearing them from the 1990s (reportedly for medical reasons). This excerpt from the 2002 novel Successor by Paek Nam Nyong gives some idea of how this was interpreted domestically. In the novel's first chapter, which takes place in the 1970s, KJI has just returned from a guidance tour of remote Chagang Province, and his father was waiting up for him:
   The Great Leader walked back over to the sofa where Comrade Kim Jong-il was sitting and stopped.  “Take off your glasses.”
  "Hmm?... "
  Comrade Kim Jong-il hesitated for a moment and then took off his tinted lenses [연한 색안경].
  “Your eyes are bloodshot. You’re not in good health. You knew I’d be worried, so you put on sunglasses.”
  “It’s nothing.”
    The Great Leader could not take His loving eyes off Comrade Kim Jong-il. “It’s been ten years since you started working with the Party Central Committee…” When the Great Leader thought of Comrade Kim Jong-il working so hard to lighten His burden, dedicating so much energy to pulling the locomotive of the Party and revolution without rest, His eyes welled up with tears.
I haven't seen any overt references to KJU wearing sunglasses in stories, but he appears with them in domestic media images often enough. This 2016 article recounts how KJI wore sunglasses to conceal his bloodshot eyes and prevent people from worrying about him, and the implication may be that KJU now suffers the same problem.  

With these few exceptions, sunglasses are generally only worn by foreign characters (often associated with looking "like a mafia boss" [ 마피아두목처럼]), or occasionally by blind people.

Monday, April 11, 2022

How to become a writer in North Korea

Reading so many works of North Korean literature, one gets curious about the origin stories of these writers. Here is what I have been able to find out:

Literary Correspondents

An important feature of North Korea's state literary production system is the role of 문학통신원, or "literary correspondents." These are part-time writers working in various industries while producing stories, essays, or poems that depict their working life. Indeed, most of the biggest names in North Korean literature have histories of working in more humble industries like mining, farming, and manufacturing, and their stories reflect their backgrounds. Paek Nam Nyong (Friend, Field TrainRevival) was an accomplished lathe operator. Paek Bo Hŭm (“Green Land,” Eternal Life, Age of Prosperity) was some kind of botanist. Poet Kim Man Yŏng was a Chollima Steel Factory laborer. 

Winners of the 2014 "Our Schoolroom" Literary Prize
Registered literary correspondents get copies of the KWU literary circulars by subscription, and they attend annual training sessions where they get instruction on how to write ideologically "correct" and inspiring narratives. South Korean Professor Oh Tae-ho, in his 2019 essay "북한에도 작가가 존재한다," describes literary correspondents as entry-level writers who are scattered throughout the North Korean workforce to write stories about their industries. "Laborers, farmers, office workers, soldiers, students – anyone who shows aptitude for writing can become a literary correspondent. Because they produce stories while working directly in their industries, they play an important role in popularizing literature for the masses." 

Kim Ju-song was one such literary correspondent, and he describes the system in detail in his memoir [151-2]:

In North Korea, there are several stages that one must clear in order to become a writer. The first of these is becoming a “literary correspondent of the masses.” Any North Korean citizen, male or female, young or old, can do this. One simply visits the regional KWU office and registers with the officer in charge. After that, you work on writing stories and attend yearly “literary correspondent seminars.” 

These seminars usually last about one month, during which writers work on stories while staying at a designated inn near the regional KWU office. Finished stories are then reviewed by judges [審議員] in the masses’ production division [群衆創作課]; if they pass review, they may be published in a party literary journal. 

That journal is Chongnyon Munhak, one of the KWU’s central monthly circulars. If a LC gets three short stories and two essays published, he or she becomes certified as a “working writer” [現職作家] (the requirements are different for poets).

Working writers do their writing “part-time" while working at their respective jobs. In NK they are also known as "third-class writers.” To become "active duty" writers they must then publish a certain number of stories and essays in the central circular Choson Munhak. It takes great perseverence to get that far, and many fall just short of the goal.

Kim goes on to describe some of the perks that motivated him to become a KWU writer.  Even as a "working writer," one gets the much sought-after "business travel pass" [出張証明書] (granting permission to travel freely within the country for research), three months' paid vacation per year, and an invitation to participate in the annual KWU writers' seminar [全国作家講習] in the capital.

This article has some more good information about literary correspondent system. It says the KWU claims there are presently 1000+ LCs, most in their 20s-40s, working in Pyongyang and various regional factories, offices and collective farms. LCs are organized into literary units (문학 소조) at each workplace, tasked with writing stories based on things they witness and experience. 

Chongnyon Munhak and Part-Time Writers

Unlike Chosŏn Munhak ["Korean Literature"], which only publishes works by full KWU members,  Chongnyon Munhak ("Youth Literature") publishes a mix of full-time and part-time writers, as well as national fiction prizewinners who may be employed at various industries. Thus it is a better venue to find stories by younger, less established writers who likely aspire to achieve full-time status through their craft.

 Some Chongnyon Munhak stories will include short biographical details of the writers in their bylines, particularly if they are national prizewinners. Some authors of short stories published 2010-2012: 

  • Kim Hye Sŭng / Farm worker, Hwapyong Cooperative Farm, Wiwon County, Chagang 
  • Kim Myŏng Ho / Faculty member, Chŏngp’yŏng Agricultural College
  • Yim Jŏng Song / Laborer, Shinuiju Synthetic Fiber Factory, North Pyongan
  • Kim Myŏng Ch’ŏn / Laborer, Pyongyang Electronic Medical Devices Factory
  • Cho Hyang Mi / Student, Writers’ Development Program, Kim Hyong Jik University of Education

This last is the very program that author and defector Kim Ju-song tried so hard for so many years to enter, as described previously on this blog.

Literary Prizes

Another way for LCs to win recognition and advancement to full writer status is by winning one of the handful of annual literary awards that the KWU gives out. Winners get their stories published and may also earn educational scholarships or more permanent status within the KWU hierarchy. There are four main literary awards: The June 4th Prize [6월4일문학상], The 'Our Schoolroom' Prize [우리교실 문학상], the April 15th Mangyongdae Prize [4.15만경대창작상], and the Educational Thesis Prize [교육테제상].

Of these, the most prestigious is the June 4th Prize, named after the date that Kim Il Sung's guerrilla unit attacked the Japanese army outpost at Pochonbo; this prize is available only to KWU-registered literary correspondents. The "Our Schoolroom" Prize, named after a famous poem that Kim Jong Il allegedly wrote in gradeschool, is awarded to elementary and middle school students. The April 15th Mangyongdae Prizes are for youths who have completed middle school, and the Educational Thesis Prize is for teachers. Prizewinners are selected by the Amateurs Guidance Department [신인지도부] of the KWU.  

Serial prize-winner Ri So Yŏn

North Korea takes great pride in its system for fostering writing talent among "ordinary people," and newspapers frequently print articles about prizewinners highlighting their ordinariness. This 2016 article introduces one Ri So Yŏn, a student at the Namsan School in Pyongyang who at an astoundingly young age has already won the Our Schoolroom Prize and the April 15 Mangyongdae Prize. The article describes Ri as being "born to an ordinary family" [평범한 가정], but Namsan is known as the ultra-elite school where many scions of high-level officials are educated.

Last year the North Korean newsmagazine Tongil Shibo ran a feature story about one literary correspondent, Kim Hye Gyŏng, a factory control operator [조종공] whose poem won first prize at the National Masses' Literature Prize Contest [전국군중문학작품현상모집]. Kim is described as "an ordinary 20-something laborer" who "loved to read books from an early age" and "writes poetry in rare scraps of spare time after work, even when commuting, late at night, or early morning." The article notes, "Every time she writes a new poem, Foreman Kim Chang-il and the other factory employees are delighted as if it were their own, becoming her first readers and informally 'evaluating' the works," and concludes "What would have happened if this ordinary working youth [평범한 근로청년] was born in a society like south Korea, where money governs everything? Perhaps they may hold onto a dream of writing poetry, but they can't even think of letting their literary talents blossom fully."