On my third full day in Korea, I was set to work. Originally the translators worked side by side with the reviser. They passed the reviser their translations as they went along. At the end of the day they would discuss the corrections. By the time I arrived they had settled on their present system. The translators send their texts to the Ansan Chodasso. The reviser does his work in his apartment. From time to time he is taken to the publishing house for a discussion, primarily to ensure that the revised version has not strayed too far from the Korean original.
The pattern for most language sections is that there are two revisers. One concentrates on revising the President’s Collected Works. In most languages they are now up to his speeches for 1980. The other reviser works on the periodicals they put out and sundry other works. In the English section, it was Michael who worked on the sacred texts while I did the propaganda. I had some qualms about this, about being involved in something I did not particularly approve of. I soon lost them when I saw that their propaganda was so stupid that hardly anyone was ever likely to read it and no-one could possibly take it seriously. The only valid contribution I was making to the country was helping the translators improve the standard of their English. It had been some years since the publishing house had had the luxury of two revisers for the English language. At first the quality of the translations I was presented with was not good. It was not so often that I was given something unintelligible to raise, but always the grammar was inaccurate and use of idiom inappropriate, while all the sentences were long and rambling.
To be fair to the translators, they had a very difficult job. It is much easier to translate from a foreign language into one’s native tongue than to do it the other way round. None of the translators had had the chance to live and study in English-speaking countries except for a few young ones who had studied in places like Zambia and Tanzania. They seldom had the opportunity to converse with an English speaker. They seldom had the opportunity to see an English language film. They did not have a great deal of access to books and periodicals in English. They did have some, but they were more likely to see a copy of Moscow News than Newsweek. In the circumstances their translations were not contemptible, and it seemed to me that in the time I was there they effected a vast improvement in their standard of translation by studying the amendments I made each week. By the time I left they were writing English sentences instead of Korean sentences with English words, although obviously they still made mistakes and there were some aspects of the language they could not master, e.g. when to insert and omit the definite and indefinite articles.
My staple fare was revising the three English language periodicals: the weekly newspaper, the Pyongyang Times; the monthly magazine, Korea Today; and a glossy pictorial magazine simple called Korea.
The Pyongyang Times is an eight-page tabloid that comes out every Saturday and is distributed around hotel lobbies and other public places frequented by foreigners. The bulk of the paper comprises articles translated from the national daily paper and organ of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Rodong Sinmun. The Pyongyang Times also follows the same format as Rodong Sinmun, which has six pages of what purports to be news. The first four pages deal with domestic matters, i.e. brilliant successes in agriculture and industry. The leading article on the first page is invariably along the lines of “Great Leader President Kim Il Sung receives special envoy of CPUs General Secretary,” or “New Hungarian Ambassador Presents Credentials to President Kim Il Sung,” or “Great Leader President Kim Il Sung Receives Syrian Government Military Delegation.” Page five is devoted to the heroic struggle of the working people and students of South Korea against the US imperialism and the puppet fascist military dictatorship regime. South Korea is always south Korea with a small s, as it is not recognised as a separate country. It is the southern half of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, currently under occupation by the forces of US imperialism. The back page is devoted to “foreign news”, not the real news of major events in the outside world, but reports on the great economic achievements of other socialist countries and fellow members of the Association of Non Aligned States. References to the other socialist countries except Cuba become relatively scarce after January 1988, when only Cuba met North Korean expectations that they would all boycott the Seoul Olympic Games in protest against the South Korean government’s refusal to agree to Pyongyang co-hosting the games except for a handful of minor events.
The front page of the Pyongyang Times is devoted to the President and always carries a picture of him with the week’s most important foreign delegation. The next four pages record the brilliant successes in the technical, ideological and cultural revolutions, none of which would have been possible without the wise guidance of the great leader or Dear Comrade Kim Jom Il, whether it be the construction of the West Sea Barrage or the cultivation of the Pyongyang variety of thick-headed spring cabbage. The back page used to correspond to the back page of Rodong Sinmun. Cuba has opened a new sugar mill. Congratulations on their forty-fourth anniversary of independence to the people of Lebanon, where “a great deal of effort is going into achieving national amity and unity”. In the last months I was in Pyongyang, however, the anti-South Korean propaganda was increasingly spilling over from pages six and seven onto page eight.
Those poor South Korean people. Even as the revolution and construction advance vigorously and energetically towards the complete victory of socialism in the North half of the Republic, where the broad masses of the people are rallied closely around the great leader President Kim Il Sung under the banner of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the compatriots in the South are tyrannised by the US imperialists and the Chun Doot Hwen-Roh Tae Woo puppet clique and have to toil from twelve to sixteen hours a day for subsistence wages. At least the minority of the population who are fortunate enough to have a job do. According to the Pyongyang Times, unemployment in South Korea is running at over 50%, this in spite of the fact that the South Korean puppet army is a million strong, and there are a further quarter of a million in the police force, not to mention a vast network of paid spies and informers. As if the mass unemployment, starvation wages and brutal suppression were not enough to cope with, there is also the pollution and disease.
On 21st November 1987, the Pyongyang Times carried a photograph of two men carrying cameras and wearing gas-masks. The caption read, “Reporters are obliged to wear gas-masks for news coverage in pollution-ridden Seoul.” It evidently did not occur to the editorial board that the presence of riot police in the same photograph might suggest to the reader a different explanation for the gas-masks.
It is reported in the same issue that 57.6% of the South Korean population are infected with the TB virus, “that the number of hepatitis patients totalled 4.5 million” and “there are 27,000 lepers”. Then there is the skin gangrene caused by eating pollution-infected fish, and, of course, AIDS.
Reporting an AIDS epidemic in South Korea, the Pyongyang Times for September 12th 1987 stated that this is more than just attributable to the presence of the GI’s. The US government actually posts AIDS-infected GI’s to South Korea as a deliberate policy. “The aim of dispatching AIDS carriers from the US is to enable the transmission and effects of the AIDS virus to be studied experimentally using Korean people as guinea pigs.”
It is difficult to comprehend the mentality that could be responsible for publishing such rubbish. It is one thing to tell such grotesque fairy stories to your own people to reinforce their sense of their own well being. Even that policy is fraught with long-term dangers if the authorities are still serious about wanting peaceful reunification of the country. The working masses are going to be pretty confused if they ever have to find out the truth about living standards in the South if these are the notions they are fed. It is another thing to direct this nonsense at the outside world.
What makes it even more ridiculous is that they do have plenty of legitimate ammunition with which to launch a propaganda assault on the South Korean rulers and the Americans. South Korea has had an atrocious record on human rights. The degree of autonomy that the South Korean government has been able to exercise is very much open to question. For a start, it is the American general commanding the US forces stationed in South Korea who has supreme command over the local army. It was noticeable that in the summer of 1987, Chun Doo Hwan did a complete volte-face about staging pre-Olympic elections and restoring the prominent opposition leaders, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, their liberty after “consultation” with a US special envoy. There clearly has been considerable popular discontent with the government in the South. It is known that Roh Tae Woo’s Democratic Justice Party resorted to fraudulent practices in the December 87 presidential elections. The military threat from backward North Korea cannot justify the proliferation of 1,000 nuclear warheads in South Korea.
Even when the North Korean journalists do address themselves to these issues, they invalidate their arguments by their exaggeration, tone of hysteria and incoherence.
Their stupidity cannot be excused on the grounds that they lack an adequate model for making external propaganda. In Japan there is a sizeable Korean expatriate community. Many of them either support the North or have to say they do if they want to be allowed to visit their relatives in the homeland. They have an organisation called Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. Each week Chongryon publishes an English language newspaper, the People’s Korea. This newspaper manages to put over the North’s case reasonably persuasively. It does not rely on wild lies and exaggerations. It also has the sense to play down the presidential personality cult. The Koreans would do better to abandon the Pyongyang Times, save on printer’s ink and paper, give the translators some useful alternative employment, and distribute the People’s Korea instead.
The monthly magazines, which I was told are distributed abroad as well as internally, are marginally more sober in their content, but still hopeless. The level of propaganda is too naive and the standard of writing too low.
Most of the other assignments I was given to revise were equally futile. I revised essays on economics and philosophy from the Academy of Juche Studies which would not have been considered undergraduate standard in the West. I revised the Korean Review, an encyclopedic introduction to all aspects of life in the DPRK, political, economic and cultural, which to be fair was quite informative. I also revised several books of anecdotes illustrating the infinite wisdom and love for the people of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung. They are like books of stories about Jesus that European children might be given to read in primary school. They are immensely popular with Koreans of all ages. It is symptomatic of how remote the North Koreans are from the realities of the outside world that presumably quite senior officials in the publishing house have deemed them appropriate for translation into other languages, oblivious to the fact that if they are read at all it will be with derision. There is a whole series of them under the generic title, The Peerless Great Man. There was also a long one purportedly written by a high government official which nearly drove me to distraction. It was called Anecdotes from the Great History. I came to refer to it as Forty Tons of Anecdotes because that was what it felt like to me.
The Kim Il Sung personality cult is designed to serve a dual purpose. Obviously it aims at binding the hearts of the people to their leader to obtain their unquestioning loyalty and obedience and unite them in a common faith. The quasi-religious element has been explicitly acknowledged. Kim Jong Il is quoted in the April 1988 edition of Korea Today as having said, “The cult of man by man is not just a simple sentiment.
“In our society the worship and adoration of a great man by millions of people does not emanate from any moral sense of duty or any logical thinking. If they do, they can never be true and firm.
“In short, the most sincere and firm veneration and worship are formed only by complete fascination for his personality.”
The other purpose of the cult is to present the people with an ideal of humanity which they must not only revere but try and emulate in their own humble lives. Here is half an ounce from the Forty Tons of Anecdotes in which the President embodies the revolutionary virtue of frugality and displays his innate egalitarianism.
“The officials who worked for the great leader wanted to have new winter clothes made for him and revealed their intention to him.”
“The clothes he usually wore on his on-the-spot guidance tours were somewhat discoloured and it was getting cold.”
“After listening to them the great leader said: ‘The clothes I wear now are perfectly adequate. Why should I need a new suit? Although a bit discoloured the ones I have will do, if they are remade, turning them inside out. They are good to wear when visiting factories in winter. I should like to have these clothes mended rather than have a new suit made.”
“At this the great leader admonished them:
“‘Are you going to make a king of me? You always want me to be given special treatment and you suppose it is for my own good. This will not do. Is it the proper way to go among the people wearing fine clothes? If I am dressed differently from them, the workers and peasants will not be as free and open with me.
“‘We should always share sweet and bitter with the people. Our daily life must be frugal. We must make a habit of saving and sparing everything. Only then can we improve the economic life of the country and the people’s livelihood.’
“He had spoken in such earnest that the functionary had brought his clothes to have them mended.
“I bowed before the outstanding modesty of the great leader who wanted to have his plain clothes mended, the winter clothes he had put on for years when leaving for his tours of on-the-spot guidance.
“There were several subsequent occasions when the great leader sent us his clothes to have them mended. Such frugality in life was one of his noble popular qualities.”
Here is another extract from the Anecdotes. This one illustrates the correct emotional orientation that the subject should have towards his leader and the leader’s warm benevolence. Remember that the narrator is a very high-ranking government official.
“The great leader bestowed on me, a soldier who had done his duty, more praise than I deserved.
“The great leader looked at me standing there overcome with emotion.
“He said with a smile:
“‘You have worked faithfully for us for over 30 years. Let’s have a souvenir photograph taken in front of ginkgo tree in honour of this memorable day.’
“Thus I sat for a photograph with the great leader before a ginkgo tree tinted with autumnal foliage. I cannot remember how the moments passed and when the shutters clicked.
I merely felt my whole body burning and my heart beating high beyond control. The vast blue sky over the motherland, every blade of grass and tree in the garden, nay, all the world seemed to be rejoicing over the great honour bestowed upon me. The memory of that day excites me even today.
“After having had a photo taken, I expressed my inner thoughts to him with a deep bow of thanks:
“‘Great Leader, I have so far caused you only anxiety. I have done nothing much to speak of.
“‘Nevertheless, on this memorable day you deigned to invite me like this and sit for a photo with me. I cannot find words to express my thanks for this honour and happiness. I will be faithful to you and dear Comrade Kim Jong Il to the end of my life. I wish you a long life in good health.’
“‘Thank you, thank you,’ the great leader said, beaming at me, his hand placed affectionately upon my shoulder.”
Many of the stories in this book and in The Peerless Great Man series have as their setting the President’s legendary tours for giving on-the-spot guidance. It is one of the appealing idiosyncrasies of Kim Il Sung, the man that is as opposed to the myth, that he has a most meticulous concern for the minutiae of his people’s daily lives.
Much of his presidential career has been occupied with touring the country, inspecting towns and villages, factories and farms, houses and schools, delivering instructions and advice. Wherever he goes plaques are erected to mark the occasion and the date. There is a plaque in the Pyongyang Department Store. There is one in the maternity hospital. On the first floor of the publishing house there is a plaque to commemorate a visit by Kim Jong Il, who is emulating the paternal model. Kim Il Sung was once asked when he found time to deal with affairs of state when he spent so much time on his on-the-spot guidance tours. He replied that these were affairs of state.
In the mythology the Korean people come across as a pretty witless bunch who would have struggled along under Japanese rule for ever had the great leader not come along to lead them out of captivity. He then had to teach these stupid ex-colonial slaves everything they know. The legends are full of instances of his having to point out the most banal errors to bewildered officials. It is fortunate for the Korean people that he is not the only man among them with a brain. His son has one too. So when their father leader finally shuffles off his mortal coil, his son will remain to do all their thinking for them. Already it is Kim Jong Il who has taken on most of the task of roaming the land putting things to rights while his father stays in his palace to receive the homage of envoys from abroad. Here is an extract from the Anecdotes in which the dear leader is giving on-the-spot guidance to the officials in charge of the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyant.
The International Friendship Exhibition is a curious institution. It has been an established ritual for many years that official visitors to the DPRK are expected to present the great leader, and latterly the dear leader also, with a gift as a token of friendship and esteem. According to the Korean Review, the president has now received over 28,000 valuable gifts from “heads of state, parties, governments, revolutionary organisations and people from all walks of life in 146 countries”. Some years ago the Exhibition was specially built to put the gifts on public display as an enduring testimony to “the profound respect and reverence held by the revolutionary peoples of the world for the great leader President Kim Il Sung” (Korean Review, p213).
“Thereupon he told them in detail how to run the Exhibition in a well organised fashion.
“Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il looked round all the display rooms. He said that all the visitors should be made to wear overshoes in the future and went on:
“‘In the interior of the International Friendship Exhibition overshoes should be worn without fail. This will inspire in the visitor due feelings of solemnity and prevent the carpets from being soiled . . .
“‘In the Exhibition not only our people but foreigners except for heads of state should be made to wear overshoes.’
“At that moment we blushed, conscience-stricken. Although entrusted with the important duty of the permanent preservation of precious national treasures, we had failed to think deeply enough about how to manage them more carefully.”
Of course there are some bureaucrats who simply will not be told. At one point in the Anecdotes we hear the president commenting, “I told our officials, I rang them up, time and again, not to let the mineral waters flow away uselessly but supply them to the people. However, they didn’t do it. If they made a small investment, they could by bottling it sell it on the train and in the shops but they don’t.”
It is always a good idea to incorporate a few rascally officials into the mythology. Then when things are not right in people’s reality, they can know whom to blame and sigh, “If only the Tsar knew.”
Kim Jong Il incidentally does not have to rest content with having his exploits recorded as marginalia in books about his father. There are whole books of anecdotes about his virtue and sagacity too of which The People’s Leader, Volumes One and Two has already been translated into English. There are also books of legends about the immortal woman revolutionary and mother of Korea, the cute Kim Jong Suk, the president’s first wife and Kim Jong Il’s mother, who died in 1949.
For a week or two I found my insane little job quite diverting, a pleasant respite from the pressures of social work in the inner city. After that, my work too became part of my nightmare. Most of the other revisers liked their job but I found sitting at a desk day in, day out, simply too boring for words. I ached to be behind the wheel of a car again, to drive down mean streets and experience strange and wonderful people.
Like everything else for me those first few weeks in Pyongyang, the social side of life had its novelty value. It was clear from the start that there was not going to be a wide range of entertainment on offer.