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.