Saturday, September 2, 2023

Great drinking scenes in North Korean novels

"You first."
(Src: CNN)
Alcohol provides a beloved social lubricant and test of manhood on both sides of the DMZ. In North Korean literature heavy drinking is also sometimes used to represent emotional discomfort or insecurity. Here are some of my favorite drinking scenes from North Korean novels:

Guerrilla comrades get slappy

In The Night Before Liberation [해방전야], Kim Il Sung has a late-night confab with Zhou Baozhong, his former commander in the Red Army's 88th Brigade, at a guerrilla encampment in Ning'an, Manchuria in the spring of 1945. The two men share a drink and reminisce about old times. KIS speaks respectfully if a little patronizingly; Zhou's speech starts out polite and gets progressively rougher.

   Zhou Baozhong took out a bottle of Moutai wine from the pocket of his military coat, put it down on the desk with a bang, and poured the wine equally between two porcelain cups. He then placed a cup in front of Comrade Kim Il Sung.
  "Commander Kim, let's drink together."
  "Yes, let’s."
   Comrade Kim Il Sung drank without hesitation.
   Zhou Baozhong gulped down his own cup in one breath. Then he rubbed the back of his nose with his thumb and index finger and began sniffing those fingers. It seemed that he had picked up the Russians’ bizarre habit of drinking strong liquor without snacks [안주없이 강술을 마시는 로씨야사람들의 괴이한 습관을 그도 본받은 모양이였다].
   "Please, have some more…"
Zhou and KIS with comrades of the 88th
Brigade, circa 1942 (Src: WSJ)
  "Don't mind if I do." 
   Comrade Kim Il Sung drank. After a couple of sips, a stream of hot fire seemed to flow down his throat into his chest. "Such excellent liquor as this, and you’re hiding it here for yourself alone."
   "Hmmph!" Zhou gave no response except to snort. He drank half a cup (actually more like half a bottle) of strong liquor and sat motionless. The mood of the other Chinese in the camp had been jubilant, but Zhou looked pale and kept to himself. And now, he sat before Comrade Kim Il Sung acting like a volatile drill-sergeant....
   "Commander Zhou, something seems to be troubling you; please speak freely."
   "That's right. I came to put out the fire that is burning inside me." Zhou let out a rough sigh. "Commander Kim, slap my face."
   "No, commander–"
   "I was a very sinful bastard. How many times have I benefited from your help in the past? Anyway, I have no honor." Zhou grimaced as if in pain. "Really, I–"
   "Commander, please don't do this." Comrade Kim Il Sung was surprised at how angry Zhou looked, even as he struggled with self-reproach and pain...  "Commander, calm down."
   "No." As if his throat was drying up, Zhou seized his cup and drank the remainder in one gulp. "Today, I came to show you what kind of great man this Zhou Baozhong is."
   "Commander Zhou."
   "Please don’t try to stop me." Zhou let out another rough sigh and continued...
It turns out that Zhou is still remorseful because he couldn't help KIS and his friends years ago during the Minsaengdan incident, a time when the nascent CCP viewed its Korean comrades with distrust and had hundreds of them rounded up and killed. As he gets progressively drunker, he apologizes again and again to KIS for this and other failures. The intoxicated Zhou also enumerates several times when Kim saved his life and credits him for providing the tactics that won his greatest victories against the Japanese. 

Kim Il Sung's near-miss with the Minsaengdan purge and his enduring friendship with General Zhou are both well-established historical facts. The North Korean leader sent a personal condolence telegram upon Zhou's death in 1964, sent a delegation to attend his funeral, and recalled him fondly and respectfully in his memoir With the Century. Kim's memoir generally tends to be more honest and humble than Party-produced historical novels like the one above, in which the legendary Chinese general appears more like an accident-prone and frequently besieged guerrilla leader constantly in need of rescue or guidance from KIS. 

Cold War fraternizing

In Eternal Life (1997), there is a drinking scene during the final banquet concluding the 1994 Carter summit. Kim Il Sung offers Jimmy Carter some Kŭmchŏngju (a Korean sake-like drink served hot). Carter says that reminds him of a story:

   “As you know, during my presidency I had a summit in Geneva with Brezhnev of the USSR. We were drinking cognac; Brezhnev had drunk himself senseless, but I was still sober. Observing the diplomatic niceties, I drank when he drank and vice versa. So we had drunk the same amount,” Carter said laughingly.
   “Are you really such a strong drinker?” Comrade Kim Il Sung looked surprised.
   “No, the secret was in my cup. I had a special cup that was the same shape and size as Brezhnev’s, but neutralized the alcohol each time it was filled. Drinking like that, Brezhnev said all sorts of things he shouldn’t have. I learned much of his true feelings that way, and quite a few Soviet secrets as well.” ...
    Comrade Kim Il Sung joked, “Mr. Carter, there may be a trick in these cups as well. Better be careful.” 
   “I think you’ve already gotten me drunk somehow. Else why would I tell you that secret from Geneva?” 

Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev feeling
tipsy in Vienna. Src: Getty Images

This is likely either a misunderstanding or a creative reinterpretation of a story related in Jimmy Carter's memoir, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, published in 1982, in the chapter on the SALT III talks in Vienna:

   [At US Embassy banquet:] "During supper we offered several toasts, and [Brezhnev] bottomed up his glass of vodka each time, teasing me when I failed to do the same…" 
   [The next night, at the Soviet Embassy] "Again, Brezhnev offered frequent toasts. I arranged with the waiter for a tiny glass, shifted to a somewhat milder drink, and joined in the bottoms-up ceremonies along with everyone else."

Carter's memoir makes no mention of extracting any valuable secrets or confessions from Brezhnev on that occasion; rather, aides recalled being concerned that Brezhnev might manipulate the teetotaling Carter into a more malleable frame of mind through alcohol. But it's possible that the North Korean author was working with a different version of the same story from the Russian side.

Reporter outdrinks his source/censor

Fine wine sets the scene for a subtle battle of wits in the novel Blue Skies (1992), set in Seoul under the Fifth Republic dictatorship. The plot revolves around North Korea's donation of flood relief supplies to South Korea in 1984 - an act of generosity that they doubtless expected would be rebuffed as usual by the proud ROK government, and that struck a heavy blow to the North's already tenuous financial liquidity, although of course that is not mentioned in the novel. 

Flood damage reporting in Kyŏnghyang Shinmun, 3 Sept 1984
Src: Naver Newslibrary

The main protagonist is Han Young-guk, a veteran reporter for Dong-a Ilbo who reports on both the flooding and the NK relief deliveries, using his superior wit and literary references to slip his subversive reporting past the eyes of the dictatorship's troglodite censors. Han shares a tense symbiotic relationship with Lee Byŏng-chan, an officer in the Ministry of State Security responsible for devising the Press Guidelines - sort of like daily talking points that the Chun regime issued to control the media narrative. In the scene below, Lee has asked Han to join him for dinner "just to chat" – leaving Han immediately suspicious and wondering which of his recent articles has gotten him in trouble.

   Their private dining room was quiet. Outside, the bar area was raucous and lively, but this room, with its thick soundproofing, gave off an otherworldly atmosphere. A cool breeze blew from the cooling fan, and the neatly set table was stocked with alcohol and snacks for two.
   Baring his white, plump arms, Lee Byŏng-chan treated Han Young-guk with refined manners and courtesy as always. In terms of personality and knowledge, Lee Byung-chan's existence seemed an insignificant object in gray-haired Han’s eyes, but considered in terms of power, he was always a fearsome presence that gave Han goosebumps over his whole body.
   “Have some wine. Then we’ll talk.” Lee smiled through his gold-rimmed spectacles as he poured. “It’s a little out of order, but since this is a famous Italian wine, I think we’ll be okay. This is a Valpolicella. Here, have some.”
   With a tone that said: Who cares if you don’t serve the wine after clear liquor as in Western-style drinking, Han Young-guk chided Lee Byung-chan for his quirky attempt at showing off: “However fine this wine may be, I'd like it better if you'd just get down to business already.”
   “Business? Ha ha ha, that’s so you...”

[Lee insists he just wants to chat, Han says I don’t believe you]

   “…Come on. I need to know my role so I can memorize the lines and perform, don’t I?”
   Lee knew he was no match for Han at eloquent speech. That's why alcohol was needed. Deducing his inner turmoil as usual, Han casually raised his glass and drank. It felt like an icicle trickling down from his throat to the pit of his stomach. But he didn’t reach for the snacks. The effect of alcohol would be greater on an empty stomach.
   “To be honest, I want to give you some news.”
   “That’s right. You must have heard the report that the North is offering to send relief supplies, right?”
   “Ah, that!” Han nodded lightly and smiled as if the news was insignificant, then lifted his full glass of wine and drank it down. A mischievous smile crossed Lee's thin lips. 

   “What about it?” Han set down his empty glass and gently wiped around his mouth. “Are you going to ask me to make up [a narrative] that we don’t need the supplies?”
   It was a slightly challenging question. After a couple of drinks, he unconsciously got more ballsy [저도 몰래 담이 커졌다]. Feeling depressed lately, Han found it harder not to vent the resentment in his heart. But he never crossed the line. He know very well what lay behind the smile of the guy sitting across from him talking of “kindness” and “a favor”.
   "No. Han, you’re always so impatient.” Cooling his agitation in this way, Lee continued with that sly smile that seemed to draw out a person's soul. “This time, we’re going to issue a statement that we will accept the North Korean relief supplies.”
   “What, really?!” Han sat up, perking his ears.
   “It's true. It'll probably go out on the morning news tomorrow. Then the whole world will surely be astonished like you are now.”
   Han was shaken. This was an amazing scoop that would cause a sensation in the news world. But underneath his excitement he felt his sharp sense of caution relentlessly constrain the bounds of his emotions. He couldn't figure out why Lee would secretly inform him first about this important incident that the authorities had not yet announced. He struggled to suppress the excitement boiling inside him and shook his head with willful calm.
   “I don’t know. I can't believe it at all.”
   “It’s true. I too was unsure at first, but this is an undeniable fact. On September 8th, North Korea announced that it would send 50,000 sacks of rice, 500,000 m of cloth, 100,000 tons of cement, and medicines as relief supplies. Those amounts are considerable.”
   Lee poured more wine into Han's empty glass. 
   Han, still doubtful, asked again: “Byŏngchan-kun, don’t jerk me around, speak plainly. How did the authorities come to accept North Korean aid this time? It can’t be just good faith taking the North's intentions at face value...”
   “As usual, I bow my head before your sharp deductive skills. You’re right. 'North Korea' [북한] announced to the world that it would send relief supplies, but in reality it is an empty shell [빈껍데기].”
   “An empty shell?”
   “They’re trying to launch a propaganda offensive with nothing to give. So that when we don't accept it, they're going to criticize us to the world, saying 'Look, there is no brotherly love, no humanitarianism, no care for the people'. This is a cunning trick of the communists in 'North Korea'.”
   “I don’t know. I can’t believe such a thing...”
   “Ha, you don’t believe it?! According to information from our National Intelligence Service [KCIA], 'North Korea' cannot afford to give us that much rice right now. So, if we say we will receive relief supplies, 'North Korea' will have to go to the Soviet Union or China to import cloth and rice; but we wouldn't give them time to do so. Then, you can imagine how things will turn out. Isn’t this a great opportunity to show off your writing skill?” ...

The conversation continues in this way, with Lee attempting to throw Han off his game with drink and flattery, seemingly unaware that the veteran reporter is basically immune to both. In a flashback, we get a sympathetic glimpse of Lee's point of view: he has been under extreme pressure from higher-ups in the Ministry to get his pet reporter on a tighter leash. He is also insecure about his own mediocre education and thus uses alcohol as a crutch to feel more at ease with Han, his senior and intellectual superior. 

Because this is a conversation between two South Korean characters, they use the South Korean words for North Korea (북한) and South Korea (한국) throughout, although always in scare quotes.

Useful drinking vocabulary:

고뿌 North Korean for "cup" - loan word from Japanese loan word from English
모태주 Moutai liquor
워드까 North Korea spelling of "Vodka"
마사무네 North Korean word for Japanese sake (orig. alternative reading of 正宗 [청주], a brand popular during the colonial era)
안주 Snacks served with alcoholic beverages, the same in North and South
찰랑찰랑한 술잔  a full, almost overflowing glass
꿀꺽꿀꺽 onomatopoeia for gulping down a drink