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