This is a story about something that took place over ten years ago, during the 13th World Youth Festival. It is now Juche Year 88 (1999).1 Outside our window slogans on the street, visible everywhere, bear witness to the hardships we’ve suffered over the last ten years and the upheavals of today: “Let’s make this year shine with a great transformation in building a strong and prosperous country!” “Let’s continue the arduous march vigorously onward to paradise!”
But why am I bringing up a story from ten years ago? Here I am watching television with my daughter who has come home from school; on the screen workers across the country are struggling to construct a prosperous nation. Why should I be urging my thoughts back from today to an event of ten years past?
I’ve decided to save the answer for the end.
I participated as a guide and interpreter a decade ago during the summer of Juche Year 78 (1989) at the 13th World Youth Festival. . . .
That year the World Youth Festival was being held in Asia for the first time. People the world over made a huge commotion. The fuss they were making amazed me; you’d have thought it was being held on another planet. Would we be able to show off P’yôngyang, the capital of our fatherland, and rightly claim it as the home of friendship, goodwill, and solidarity against imperialism? Would we be able to say that the World Youth Festival, upon being held for the thirteenth time, had finally returned to its birthplace?
I felt an urgent sense of mission: I had to show the foreign participants the true face of our most wonderful and outstanding socialist fatherland, Korea, the land of Juche. And balancing that was my fervent wish that even the most trifling item that could cloud our country’s image would be absent.
Although the majority of the foreigners who came to visit possessed understanding and goodwill toward us, others were only half-believing. A very small minority even had hostile feelings.
I had long since learned a bit about “the Western World” with its fondness for circulating rumors where the socialist system was concerned; they would say that the entire tree was withering on the basis of a single dry leaf. At one point “they” had taken pictures of high-rise apartment buildings together with shops in small makeshift structures below and published them in the newspaper. The captions offered the bizarre explanation that the high-rise apartments were for the elite and that laborers dwelled in the low houses, which were in fact shops.
I therefore hoped that during the festival everything would be even more wonderful so that they could find nothing to carp at. I hoped that people would dress more attractively, that their smiles would be brighter and friendlier, that every single ornamental bulb would be more splendid! I felt a displeasure that I could hardly contain when our countrymen answered foreigners’ questions brusquely or in a fumbling manner (and such cases were not absent) or when I saw them, faces flushed, making a racket while waiting in line at drink or fruit stands. Why did they have to slake their thirst at that stand? Why did they have to have fruit now? Every time I saw people standing in line at a bus stop I wanted to shout, “Ladies and gentlemen! Can’t you just walk a stop or two?”
I realize now how futile my concern was. It was no different from worrying that a few bubbles floating up from time to time on the surface of a river might give the impression that its water isn’t clear. But at the time I felt nothing but nervousness and dread. That was ten years ago and, what’s more, at that point I had never met foreigners before. . . .
Of course I can’t say my apprehension at the time stemmed entirely from ignorance: once the foreigner I was accompanying saw someone standing idly in front of a drink stand; his unexpected question stunned me into silence.
“So he’s standing around like that because he doesn’t have any money?’
His question implied the man was begging.
Their fantastic notions astounded me on more than one or two occasions. I could only marvel at their ability to come up with such curious ideas.
But several of our own countrymen were completely unaware of their idiosyncrasies. Such was the man who met us in front of the drink stand. He was in his mid-thirties and his high forehead gave him an intelligent look. His gaze was sharp and the sun reflecting on his completely unwrinkled brow sparkled as much as his eyes-the sort of face people mean when they use the phrase “brains are mirrored on the brow.”
“Excuse me. I’m sorry, but why are you standing here?” I asked.
“I’m meeting someone.” Suspicion and displeasure appeared on his face simultaneously. “Why?”
I first explained who I was. “How does it look if you wait around in front of a drink stand with all these foreign guests? He thinks you’re standing here because you don’t have any money.”
“Don’t have any money?” He looked back and forth between the foreigner and me, blinking. “What a strange person. Why would I be standing around if I didn’t have money?”
Even this man, despite the intelligence reflected on his face, was thoroughly incapable of coming up with the word “beg.” So there’s no need to mention other people. Indeed, during the more than one week period I spent with the foreigner, even I could do nothing but look at him in astonished doubt a few times.
Not until I prompted the bystander with the term “beg” did he understand the import of the foreigner’s question. His brow immediately grew red, his rage unmistakeable.
“And you, comrade, took that silently? As his guide, you have to stamp those ideas out. Crush them! What does he think of us . . . ? If that’s not a challenge, then what is it?”
I had to sweat that day as a result of the foreigner and this “intelligent man.”
Given this incident, you won’t have much trouble guessing the worry I felt wherever I accompanied the foreigner. And it wasn’t just simple grandmotherly solicitude that made me feel a heightened sense of worry: in all truthfulness, my traveling partner was very unusual. He was a journalist from some Western nation and an exceedingly fussy companion. He had a reporter’s curiosity (which I liked) but a skepticism to match. He thought everything in socialist countries had been deliberately set up for the purpose of propaganda. Not until we went to see the splendor of Kwangbok Street firsthand did I have the impression he believed it was a street on which people actually lived rather than a film set.
He would frequently express doubt when I explained various things and squint at me as though playing the clown. It made me annoyed and uneasy every time he did that, and I grew irritated that I couldn’t figure out what it would take to convince him. I wanted to find something that would make his eyes pop out of his head and make him stare until his neck grew stiff. But I couldn’t figure out what that something would be.
But one day (perhaps the day before the festival ended?) I went out with him to the walkway along the Pot’ong River. I had intended to take him to some memorial or to an enchanting art performance, but he shook his head.
“I believe you one hundred percent about your outstanding architectural skills. World standard. The May 1 Stadium in particular is in a class of its own.”
I was at a loss for words, unable to divine swiftly what he was going to say.
“Nevertheless”–he looked at me almost craftily with a meaningful smile-“Ancient Rome also had its splendid buildings. And today New York is a forest of skyscrapers. Still, Harlem exists beneath those skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had its Harlem too. It’s not in any source, but I have no doubt that when the Colosseum was closed the poor lived there. Those details probably just wound up getting pushed aside by writings that praise its magnificence. History offers ample proof of how splendid monuments cloak a society’s darker side and add to the dignity of incompetent rulers. The bigger the house, the bigger the shadows.”
I was speechless-his ideas turned past and present into a mishmash. Apparently as far as he was concerned there was no such thing as historical development, just a process of constant repetition.
“There would seem to be some truth in what you are saying. But in our country . . .”
“Yes, I know. You’re going to say it’s different?”
A tricky smile was reflected in his eyes. To use the metaphors they’re so fond of, you’d have to say it was the smile of a devil.
“Well, let’s go back to yesterday. You said yourself that there used to be a ‘Harlem’ in this beautiful city of yours as well, right?”
“Do you mean T’osôngnang?”
“Yes, yes, that’s it, T’osônran. Let’s go there.”
And so we headed out to the banks of the Pot’ong River.
My companion refused to believe that the remains of the unhappiness, tears, contemptuous treatment, and disgrace of the T’osongnang era had been buried beneath the splendor of the gymnasium, the People’s Palace of Culture, the ice skating rink. But enough of our conversation-what I want to talk about here is not the past and the present. Maybe it would be most precise to say it’s about the “present” of ten years ago and the present of today.
Thick-trunked Korean poplars that give the impression of having been growing since time immemorial line the banks of the Pot’ong River between Pot’ong Bridge and Mansu Bridge. Nonetheless, if you cut into the trunks of those huge trees, you’d find their rings told a tale no more than forty-three or forty-four years old. Their age is consistent with the reconstruction that began after the war.
If you go in among them you will encounter the humid, astringent scent of rotting leaves decomposing into dark, fertile soil and people digging it up for their flowerpots. Because the trees are so tall and lush, neither the streets on the other side of the Mansu Bridge with their tall, gray buildings nor the splendid “Tower Street” on the opposite bank of the Pot’ong River are readily visible. The poplars’ long-stemmed, slender leaves rustled softly in the wind, the quiet twittering of birds wafting like the breeze among them. The street noise contributed to the impression of a constant chirping from the city’s birds. I felt as though I had entered a deep forest.
Upon setting foot within it, my fussy companion appeared to forget momentarily this mundane world. His eyes gleamed as he gazed up at the trees.
As I walked beside him, I pondered what had given rise to the finicky skepticism of his that doubted everything that confronted it in the first instance. . . . Personality is said to reveal a man’s history; it is not something simple that appears in a day or two.
Suspicion is a product of dissatisfaction. How could you go on living if you were perpetually dissatisfied? And life is long; it doesn’t just last a day or two. . . . I felt my annoyance and displeasure with him melt away slightly. I even felt an inward sense of pity toward him. Yes, I pitied him-this journalist who boasted of having his name appear in publications all over the world. What is as suffocating and oppressive to a human being as dissatisfaction? He had said proudly to me, “I’ve got a house, a wife, and a son. I’ve got my own car. I’m blessed. I don’t have any reason to worry about being laid off yet.”
Yet. That could refer to a day far in the future, but it could mean tomorrow or maybe even just an hour later. Nevertheless, he said he was blessed. Could happiness and dissatisfaction truly coexist? Is there such a thing as dissatisfied happiness? If there were, wouldn’t such happiness merit pity?
As usual there were a middling number of people along the riverside. Not a lot, but not inconsiderable. If the Taedong River walkway is bustling and crowded, then the Pot’ong’s is calm yet vital. There were more people sitting on benches or on the grass than walking-people reading, playing chess, chatting. . . . Even the strollers added to the atmosphere of peace and quiet.
Fishermen sat side by side at the river’s edge, as though forming a column of soldiers. Although they appeared both sunk in contemplation and impatient, it was nonetheless a strange “procession,” merry and full of life. Thoroughly oblivious to the activity going on around them, they kept their eyes fixed on the bobbers floating on the surface of the water, as though life’s most profound truths were hidden within the river that held their lines. I hesitated without realizing it as the foreigner and I walked slowly toward them: a middle school classmate whom I had met on the streets frequently over the past twenty years was included among that meditative procession. Having cast his line in the water, he sat puffing on a cigarette.
Nevertheless, I decided to walk behind him a little more quickly instead of making a show of recognizing him: it was difficult to predict exactly what would happen if we stood face to face. Even in middle school he had placed comrades in awkward situations more than once or twice. In our fourth year, an incident that occurred when we were having our Ch’ôllima class inspection made his naive simplicity an eternal topic of conversation.
Aware that the inspection was coming, we had spent the previous fortnight busily putting our drill books in order, making extracts from newspaper magazines and preparing scrapbooks, arranging the classroom and so on. Just to cite one example, we had polished and scrubbed the classroom floor until you could see the reflection of your eyebrows when you looked down at it.
The inspection went off successfully. But at the end of one meeting (a sort of question and answer session), “my friend” was nodding off and caught the eye of one of the team of inspectors.
“Didn’t you sleep well last night, son?” The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the remark was closer to a joke than a question demanding a response, the sort of thing that you could pass over with a silent blush, but he stood up, looking as though he’d just tumbled out of bed.
“No sir, I didn’t sleep well.”
“And why is that?”
“I was tidying up the classroom.”
“What sort of cleaning were you doing that kept you up all night?”
His next answer poured ice water down our backs. “Because we heard a class inspection was coming. . . .”
Although more than twenty years had passed, our conversations when we ran into each other made it obvious he hadn’t changed one iota. He was as simple and literal-minded as ever. His tendency to take jokes seriously regularly left his interlocutors feeling awkward.
What would happen if he were to meet this finicky foreigner? They were an extraordinarily ill-matched pair. I hastened our pace without explanation. Just a few more steps, and we would pass all the way behind him. But at that moment a group of youth passed by, swinging a cassette player that boomed out a song. The sound of the song getting louder and softer surged within the shaken cassette player like waves.
“I can’t live outside your embrace . . . I can’t live outside your embrace . . .”
My friend turned toward the young men. There was no escape from his sharp gaze. Our eyes wound up meeting.
I intended to pass by as though I hadn’t heard, but my companion looked at him. “Isn’t he calling you?” Exactly what I had feared was coming to pass. “There’s a saying ‘any friend of yours is a friend of mine.’ May I speak with him?”
It’s difficult for me to recall how I got through that hour. At times I felt as though my face were roasting in a bonfire, while at other moments it was though my spine had been doused with a bucket of ice water. The questions or answers darted along in a completely unpredictable fashion. I found myself breathless trying to keep up with it all.
“Do you have a job?” Such was the first query from my companion.
Instead of answering, my friend asked me a question in return with a dubious look. “Are there people without jobs? Come on.”
I had no choice but to explain to him that almost every country in the world had unemployment and that in my companion’s country the number of jobless was not insignificant. I informed the reporter that he worked as an assembler in a machine factory.
“Do you have a house?”
Once more my friend questioned me rather than responding. “What kind of house?”
“The house you live in, of course-what other house would it be?”
“What is he talking about? How can anyone live without a house?”
I was both aghast and angry. He was acting as though he were having a conversation with me, not the foreigner. “Don’t you ever look at the papers? Haven’t you read that there are lots of homeless people in the world?”
“Aha!-” At that moment my dim-witted friend let forth a long exclamation, as though beginning to understand. “So that’s the kind of country he comes from?” He looked at him with a vague expression of pity and shook his head. “Life must be hard.”
I could not translate his words as they were, so I said my friend lived in a home that had an attached bath and toilet.
“Ahhhhh-” The lengthy sound emitted by my companion carried not admiration, but rather considerable disappointment at my friend’s possession of both a job and a home.
At that moment another group of young people walked by, carrying a cassette player blaring music. There were quite a few cassette players.
My friend turned from this “unfortunate” inhabitant of capitalist society to the cassette player. Following his gaze, my companion quickly asked, “Don’t you have one at home?”
My friend shook his head. “No.”
There was no need to translate.
“He said no, right?” My companion grew excited. The conversation was turning in the direction I had dreaded.
Life is not always made up of satisfaction. There are shortages and times of dissatisfaction. But if the conversation were to travel along those lines . . .?
I spoke to my friend in a low voice. “Think carefully before you answer.”
My friend couldn’t even make out what I said, but my companion perceived the extent of his obtuseness. He flashed a victorious smile at me. “Please don’t interfere. I wish to speak with your friend.”
I shrugged. “Aren’t you already speaking with him?”
“That’s true. But please translate what he says exactly. Don’t let it turn out like Molière’s Turkish.”
My irritation rose. “I am translating exactly.” I pointed to the recorder he was carrying and said coolly, “You’re going to confirm things later, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’m not doubting you at all. Not in the least.”
And so began the “interview” between my cunning companion and my friend whose simple-mindedness knew no bounds.
“If you don’t have a cassette player at home, then what do you have?”
At this point even my friend, if he possessed a modicum of perception, had to see where this “respectable” foreign journalist was trying to lead him. But my friend responded readily without appearing to think especially hard. “I’ve got four children and a wife.”
Again I was forced to explain. “He’s asking what kind of goods you have at home.”
“Goods?” My friend blinked, as was his habit when he was perplexed. “What a strange person. A home is for people, not for goods, like a storehouse.”
I was so taken aback I couldn’t suppress a laugh. But nevertheless I was supposed to interpret, and exactly at that. “He says a home is a place for people, not a storehouse for goods.”
“Ah, I’m sorry.” The journalist apologized, apparently thinking he had made his interviewee uncomfortable. He was polite to a fault. But I saw that a hunter’s craftiness and patience lurked behind his courteous manners.
“Do all your children go to school?”
“Only two?” My companion grew excited. He raised his two middle fingers and counted them off. “There are two who can’t attend school?”
My friend nodded promptly when he saw the two raised fingers, as though admiring the foreigner’s quick arithmetic. As before, he had not guessed that the foreigner was digging for information with a particular aim in mind.
“What do the two children who don’t go to school do?”
“What do they do? One goes to kindergarten and the smallest is at a nursery.”
“Pardon?” My companion simply stared vacantly at my friend, while he, with equal lack of comprehension, simply looked back at him, blinking.
It would have been difficult to find more contrasting conversationalists than these two: a wily journalist, trying to disguise his real intentions and tossing out questions in order to receive hoped-for answers, and my friend, naive to the point of foolishness, without a clue what these questions were fishing for, answering unreflectively. Their dialogue seemed to flow smoothly, but at the same time, when one talked of chalk, the other spoke of cheese. The journalist would at first grow pleased the conversation was being dragged in the direction he intended, but then he had no choice but to realize his satisfaction was over answers that missed the point of what he was asking. It was a confrontation between fully armed cunning and completely defenseless simplicity.
It will probably be better at this point to relay their conversation without further explanation.
Journalist: I imagine you must have a lot of worries with four children.
Friend: I can’t relax a single day.
Journalist: Yes, that must be the case. (This response raised his spirits, of course). What’s your biggest worry?
Friend: That my kids will be distracted by toys and won’t pay proper attention to their schoolwork. And the one in kindergarten is such a troublemaker that he causes a ruckus every day. Just yesterday he let tap water run all over the kitchen floor so he could sail paper boats on it. The water ran through the corridor all the way down to the lower floor. It was a huge mess. Things like that are making me grow old before my time.
Journalist: (Momentarily silent). I don’t quite follow. (This exchange had also been a case of chalk and cheese).
Journalist: How much do you earn per month?
Friend: I did pretty well this month. I even received a bonus as a prize.
Journalist: How much do you make in dollars?
Friend: Well, let’s see.
Journalist: Let’s say ninety or one hundred dollars.
Journalist: Can six people live on that money?
Friend: Of course.
Journalist: I don’t follow again.
Friend: Now, really!
Journalist: Well, let’s talk this over. Do you intend to send all your children to school?
Friend: They can’t go anywhere else.
Journalist: Do they get sick sometimes?
Friend: Yes, certainly. They catch colds and . . .
Journalist: And you still have to eat, don’t you? Six people . . .
Friend: Ah, sure.
Journalist: Fine. (Rubbing his hands together in satisfaction, the preparations for his attack having been laid). But how can you do all that on your income?
Friend: Why do you think I wouldn’t be able to?
Journalist: First you have to pay rent, right? My income is quite high, but more than half goes to housing costs.
Friend: More than half? (Surprise). Then I guess he doesn’t earn more than twenty won a month. (Looking at me as he said this, of course).
Journalist: No, it’s much more than that.
Friend: At any rate, if more than half of your income is for rent, it wouldn’t seem to be more. We pay about ten won a month.
I explained to the journalist that in our country we actually don’t pay rent, but simply a maintenance fee. He fell silent. After a while the conversation resumed.
Journalist: You need money to send your children to school, don’t you?
Friend: Money? Why?
Journalist: Why? Don’t you have teachers at school?
Friend: Of course we do.
Journalist: And there are classrooms, teaching equipment, furnishings, etc.?
Journalist: Then don’t you have to pay?
Friend: Why would we have to pay? It’s a school. Of course it has all those things.
The conversation returned to its starting point. If I don’t edit at all, then dialogue in which the phrase “Why are you asking?” will recur without end. I had long ago explained to my companion that our nation had a free education system, but when I did, he merely grumbled peevishly without looking at me, “I’ve heard that story before.”
In a sense you could look at this as ignorance bred by suspicion. Skepticism can make people intelligent, but it can also have the opposite result.
Journalist: Let’s leave that subject. What do you do when your children are sick?
Friend: We go to the clinic or the hospital.
Journalist: And I presume you have to pay there.
Journalist: Well, they have to receive treatment or be hospitalized, don’t they?
Friend: But why would we have to pay?
Again the conversation returned to where it had started.
I myself could not readily come up with the proper response. Only after several minutes did the words “universal free health care” occur to me. I discovered once more that if you live in a system since the day you are born, you think that is how the rest of the world is. Rather I grew surprised at these other ways of life, maybe because custom can truly be called a second form of nature.
Nevertheless, I didn’t tell my companion of my “discovery,” because it was obvious that he would say, “So I’ve heard.” Suspicion can bring someone who is smart and perceptive to real extremes . . . Again, I felt an emotion akin to a sort of pity for my companion.
Still, my journalist companion refused to retreat. Tenacity seemed to be a quality inherent to his occupation.
“So you’re saying you don’t need money?”
“Why wouldn’t I need it? I need it to buy my children soft drinks or to give them rides on airplanes . . . amusement rides, I mean . . .”
The journalist shrugged and stretched his arms outward in incomprehension. My friend regarded his wide outstretched arms with amusement and looked at him blinkingly. Assuming the conversation had ended, he turned back to his fishing rod. . . .
The interview fell flat in the end.
I don’t remember what I thought at the time. I do recall looking enviously across the river to the boardwalk in front of the People’s Palace of Culture: there at the boat dock several foreigners and Koreans were laughing raucously together, taking photos, and exchanging addresses. I probably also wondered regretfully why I had not been assigned to guide one of those friendly foreigners. I had already given up the idea that my companion might become sympathetic to our cause. . . .
At that point another fisherman appeared and began to set out his equipment next to my friend. He seemed to be a very impatient person. When his fishing line got tangled and didn’t unravel right, he tugged at it suddenly and burst into anger. “Ugh! You jerk! I just . . .”
My friend, who had been watching him with his head tilted, gave a happy cry. “Comrade Foreman! What are you doing here?” “Huh?” The man turned. But rather than greeting his happiness in kind, he instead said “Comrade?” and looked away. He looked even angrier, but my friend hurried over to help as though he had received the warmest possible greeting. He drew the tangled fishing line toward him and issued a continuous stream of “directives.”
“Ah, ah, don’t tug it . . . Like this . . . Like this . . . Pull it out this way . . . Right . . . Right . . . There! Would you like some bait?”
“I’ve got my own bait!” The friendly gesture met with a blunt refusal. Something unpleasant must have occurred between the two.
The foreman was obviously unusually hot-headed. As soon as he cast his fishing line, he turned to my friend. “What in the world was that about yesterday? How can somebody do that? You’re not satisfied until you’ve cut down your foreman in front of the whole factory?”
My friend’s eyes immediately grew wide. “What? When did I ever insult you?”
“Don’t play innocent! We’re in the middle of the first successful test run of the automation system, and you say if I had given my approval earlier, it would have happened three months ago? What did you mean by that? You’re not satisfied unless you spoil a happy occasion with that kind of remark?”
My friend blinked violently. “Why is that insulting you? It just popped into my head and it was true . . .”
“Look here! Don’t pretend you don’t know!”
I could guess at once what had transpired. It was clear that something had taken place similar to what had happened during our school days. He had put the foreman in a tough spot during a successful trial run, just like he had with us long ago during the Ch”llima class inspection.
“Are you saying I did something wrong?”
The foreman cast him a disdainful look. “Who said you did something wrong? I’m fully aware you’re a straight shooter, Comrade Kang. Sometimes people don’t like you, but I know there isn’t a single person who doesn’t think you’re right. . . . Still . . . .”
My friend appeared a bit flustered by this left-handed compliment. “Well . . . you can’t say that the test run occurred three months ahead of schedule . . . I should have said something else. It’s just that I was so excited . . .”
“Of all the . . .” The foreman’s anger appeared to have subsided somewhat. “Enough,” he sighed. That’s what people expect from you, Comrade Kang.”
That’s what you expect from Comrade Kang. You could say that summed up my friend. There are many people like him in our society, people whom it’s impossible to hate even when their frankness makes for awkward situations.
“What are they talking about?”
I explained to the journalist that the production line had been automated at my friend’s factory. I was concerned how I’d explain the ill will between the two. How would I be able to make him understand how a worker had “criticized” his foreman. . . .
But to my surprise he nodded vigorously before I could even speak.
“I can figure it out!”
I was stunned. Figure it out? Compared with his earlier incomprehension this was an astonishing advance. A leap! He continued excitedly, pleased with his own “progress.”
“I understand why there are bad feelings.”
I grew suspicious. Had he merely been feigning ignorance of Korean up until now? If not, how could he understand the subtleties of the relationship between these two?
“Shall I tell you?” He was exultant. “They’re depressed because going to automation means they’ll lose their jobs, right?”
“Pardon?” I burst into laughter in spite of myself. I couldn’t help it. A saying came to mind: “No matter how big your steps are, you can’t outrun your pants.” I think it’s a European proverb. No matter how many leaps a person takes, he can’t escape the constraints of his own life, just as the monk Xuan Zang in Journey to the West, for all his greatness, can’t exceed the grasp of the Buddha’s palm. My companion’s dazzling “progress” also remained progress within the confines of his own life.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Please excuse me.” I was going to explain the content of their conversation, but he flashed a shrewd smile and parried my words amicably.
Saying he wished to speak to my friend directly, he turned to him. “What do you think of the introduction of automation?”
“Have you forgotten that an automated system might be able to perform your work instead of you?”
“That’s a good thing.”
“A good thing? If your job disappears?”
“If my job disappears?”
“Won’t you lose your job if an automated system can perform the work you used to do?”
There was no way my friend would understand the tenor of an argument used by the various Luddites who have appeared in history. He looked over at me in confusion.
“I don’t get what he means.”
This was not simply a case of question and answer at cross-purposes but a complete breakdown in communication. The longer the conversation proceeded, the higher the wall of misunderstanding grew-more as a result of their mutual inability to comprehend their respective complexity or simplicity than the two opposing systems from which they came.
I could not restrain my impatience and said to my friend, “Can’t you just say we don’t have unemployment in our country?”
“What? Are you telling me he doesn’t know that?” Stunned, my friend started to grow angry with me. “What do you want me to say to somebody who doesn’t know the first thing about our country!”
I was taken aback by his speaking so frankly and recklessly, because the journalist carried a recorder. Later he would be able to have whatever my friend said translated exactly.
I delivered my friend’s remarks after “processing” them so they would be softer. “He says that you wouldn’t ask such questions when you learn about our country.”
The journalist’s face seemed to pale a bit. He pressed my friend in an almost challenging manner: “You’re telling me then that you don’t have the slightest anxiety about your house or your job?”
A single “That’s right” would have sufficed here, but my sincere friend was intent upon giving the courtesy of a concrete answer.
“Of course I do. I’m concerned about whether we can accomplish the goals we’ve decided upon for the month or that we might produce goods that aren’t up to standard. And as for my house, my kids. . . .”
“Those aren’t anxieties, they’re worries.”
“Huh? What’s the difference between anxieties and worries?”
“Oh, never mind, never mind.” The journalist quickly stood up. “Let’s go!”
I could not help being surprised at the sudden declaration that the interview had closed. This “gentleman,” who had made a point of excessive politeness in every circumstance, had simply stood up without his partner’s leave. This was clear rudeness.
But at that moment I felt suspicion more strongly than displeasure over his rudeness. He had boasted about having traveled virtually all over the world and had not shown surprise, admiration, or even changed expression over anything splendid, magnificent, or beautiful. How could my friend’s simple, unremarkable words cause his expression to change so frequently and make him lose his innate gentlemanly composure? Was he disappointed over his extreme simple-mindedness?
At any rate, the interview was a failure. A complete flop! Thus I thought as I trailed behind him.
After walking a few steps, the journalist turned toward me. I assumed he was about to apologize for his rudeness, since he was the sort of person who said “I’m sorry” after just grazing another’s sleeve while walking in the street.
But the words that issued from his lips were not an apology. “It’s impossible not to know some sort of anxiety. Even God, if he were being frank, would probably say there is anxiety in heaven. Zeus also lived in anxiety. Modern life is anxiety heaped on anxiety. But . . . he says that he doesn’t know anxiety?”
He still hadn’t realized his rude behavior. I couldn’t understand. What in the world was it about my friend’s words that so confused this “gentleman”?
“Didn’t you hear him firsthand?”
” . . . ”
We walked, the rich black soil meeting our footfalls with spongy resilience. Moist air, the heady scent of rotting leaves-the fresh scent of the earth being perpetually renewed.
A little way ahead a young girl with a red kerchief around her neck was loading soil for flowerpots into a basin. She saw my companion and quickly stood up to give him the Youth Brigade’s salute, beaming a smile. The slender tips of her fingers were smeared with moist, dark soil, an attractive sight.
After passing several steps beyond her, my companion suddenly stopped. He turned back to look at the girl, and a subtle smile flashed on his face as he regarded me. He had the expression of someone who has seen through a secret another has strived hard to conceal. “You people are truly amazing!”
“Yes?” I looked at him dubiously. What was so amazing? Was this admiration or scorn? His next words, however, left me speechless.
“‘Was that man really a worker?”
What was he talking about!? I just stared at him. He became even more triumphant at my silence.
“There’s no way he can be a worker!” He answered his own question, growing even more enthusiastic.
I thought he was joking. I almost laughed, but he kept speaking seriously without a smile. “If your friend is really a worker, then I can’t help but admire the way you have prepared even your laborers!”
“I beg your pardon!?”
What brought this about? Was there something particular my friend had said? No, he was just telling things as they were. It was true he said he had no anxiety about the basic necessities, food and clothing, but he hardly led a luxurious lifestyle. . . . So what was it that made this thoroughly ordinary life seem more unrealistic to this foreigner than grand streets or artistic performances . . .? Our lifestyle, our day-to-day way of living that we are as used to as the air. . . .
“Every life has some anxiety.”
I didn’t answer. Silently, I pondered myself and my own life. And I pondered life in this country of ours, where the completely frank answers of a laborer could make a journalist who has traveled the world over believe that they were merely “propaganda” for the socialist system.
Something fell from above-a green leaf, perhaps dislodged by a cheerful bird, or the cool breeze off the Pot’ong River. It glided slowly to the ground in front of us. A sunbeam quietly followed, piercing the lush foliage. As the wind blew, the net of light shimmered like waves.
At that moment I suddenly recalled a documentary I had seen of the earth as viewed from a satellite. From the pictures shown it had been difficult to imagine the land I dwell in and see every day. If there had been no explanation that it was the earth, I would have concluded it was another planet. . . . Perhaps this was precisely the same difference between how our way of life appeared in our own eyes and those of the foreigner, how it appeared from close up and from far away. . . .
Nearly ten years have passed since then. . . . Ten years, but those ten years have not simply been 3,650 days. Tears come to my eyes, unbidden. During the last ten years we have gone through a great number of calamities. We’ve experienced more upheavals than people in other eras faced in a whole century. With the collapse of socialism, the Soviet Union, which had seemed eternal, splintered into several capitalist nations and almost all socialist countries collapsed in succession and reverted to capitalism. Our socialist fatherland is under siege from global imperialism. In the midst of all this, our nation suffered an enormous trauma, as the Great Leader, the founder of socialist Korea, left our side. And from that point for several years in a row we have suffered destructive natural disasters, as though nature itself had formed an alliance with the imperialists and their policy to isolate and choke us with a blockade.
And so we embarked on the “arduous march.” In the 1990s we once more set out on the arduous march that the patriots of old traveled sixty years before. The “arduous march” has ended, but more than a few difficulties remain. We have shortages of more than a few things. Our decorative lights and streetlamps are dark.
Knock, knock, knock. The sound of someone at our door interrupted my thoughts.
It was the leader of our neighborhood unit. “Please go to the clinic for a vaccination-”
“A vaccination?” My daughter, who had been watching television, grumbled worriedly, and my wife came in from the kitchen and immediately started to scold her.
“You have to change your clothes as soon as you get home from school. What are you doing?”
My daughter reluctantly got up, pouting. “That’s all you ever say.”
Every evening almost without fail this mother-daughter bickering repeated. My daughter liked the school uniform she had been issued this time and was loath to take it off, while my wife would say, “With life so hard these days, how can you . . .?” Things could hardly be different, given this uniform that led to tears.
Outside our window it was gloomy, with streetlamps only lit at intervals. Car headlights were also but few.
Nevertheless . . . I returned to the thoughts that the knock from the neighborhood leader had interrupted. What had really changed in our lives? What have we lost . . .? Until ten years ago we hadn’t known. Everything was habit with us. Only when socialism collapsed in several countries and they reverted to capitalism did we realize afresh just how much we had. Moscow, Warsaw . . . the streets overflowing with the unemployed, the homeless, children who had lost their schools, people breathing their last outside hospital gates. . . . Nevertheless, nevertheless! Our way of life . . . Everything is scarce and difficult, but we have lost nothing. Our way of life, our way of life still continues on in its track, unchanged.
On the other side of the road, illuminated by the streetlights and the headlights of the trams and cars, a slogan stood out as though breathing: “Let’s make this year shine with a great transformation in building a strong and prosperous country!” And our Kwangmyôngsông Satellite Number One will be speeding along constantly in infinite space, a scout for our great nation.
From the corridor came the sound of knocking at each and every door. A receding voice called without interruption, “Please hurry to the clinic for a shot!” . . .
Now I have to tell you why today I wanted to look back upon something that happened a decade before: it’s because today I met that finicky foreigner from ten years ago. Of course, this second encounter wasn’t direct, but occurred via the newspaper pages. . . .
This is what he wrote: “I used to think that people everywhere throughout the modern world lived without a future, that nothing existed but desperation and anxiety. But today I have discovered a land where people live with boundless hope for the future-North Korea, which I am revisiting after ten years.
“Ten years ago in this land the ornamental lamps on the roads were enchanting and glimmering; the dazzling streetlights were like the pattern of a night butterfly’s wings. At that time I did not believe that the people of this land lived in ignorance of anxiety.
“Nevertheless, ten years have passed, and, having traveled through several nations in Eastern Europe, I have come to realize as I walk through the roads of this land that, although few decorations are illuminated and the street lights are dim today, this indeed is a nation that knows neither desperation nor anxiety, a land filled with confidence in the future. . . .”
This translation was originally published in Acta Koreana 5, no. 2 (2002): 81-97.
Translator’s Note: I would like to thank Frank Hoffmann, Kim Mi Young, David Kosofsky, and Yu Youngnan for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this translation.
1North Korea has its own dating system, the Juche calendar, which treats the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth, 1912, as Year 1. The original text gives both dates.