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, 
c.1882 
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.