Im Dienst des Diktators: English Translation [3]

Chapter 4 of North Korean defector Kim Jong Ryul’s memoir is entitled “Im Wunderbare DDR [In the Marvelous German Democratic Republic],” and is probably in fact the most fascinating chapter in the book.  Continuing now with the translation from Im Dienst des Diktators (previous episodes can be accessed here):

Chapter 4 “In the Marvelous German Democratic Republic”

Shrill and loud, the merchant on the train platform was hawking golden fruit, and Kim Jong Ryul’s interest was immediately awakened.  He craved anything edible, even the unknown foods, as the feeling of satiation, of being full, was also rarely known to him.  At the train station in Irkutsk, he was suddenly staring at ten golden fruits, the likes of which he had never seen before.  Without delay he peeled the skin from the fruit and bit — under the anticipating gaze of his colleagues — into a grapefruit!  It was a bitter suprise, the that famous fruit was in fact only sour.  Angry that he wasted his worthy rubles, Kim Jong Ryul pitched all the fruits out the window as soon as they left the station for Moscow.

For days he and his North Korean student colleagues sat in a train car moving West.  Increasingly, it was strange to understand that he, having been literate for 12 years, was going as one of only 20 students to the GDR to study mechanical engineering [Maschinebau, litterally "the building of machines'"].  In the previous three years he had, with an iron will and an unceasing hunger for knowledge, done what would have taken other students ten or more years.  In July 1955, just a week after taking the national examinations, Kim Jong Ryul had been awarded a stipend for study abroad.

The authorities of the communist Education Ministry [where Kim had worked during the Korean War] had had problems even finding a building in which to stage the national exam, given that it was shortly after the war, the capital lay mainly in ruins and ashes, and more than 1000 students needed to take the test.  They were the brightest minds in the country.  These were the students in line to study outside of the DPRK, so as to learn the newest knowledge and return home with it so as to bring their country forward….[p. 52]

The costs for their study would be borne by the socialist brotherly states, giving student stipends in an act of solidarity with the reconstruction of postwar North Korea.  Kim Jong Ryul took the exam without great stress and thought he would study consumer goods technology in Bulgaria.  But his mentor at the Education Ministry, the man who had set him up with the print job during the war, had grabbed the young man and told him “You need to study to be a machinist.  The best place for this is in East Germany.  You are going to be an outstanding specialist [du wirst ein hervorragender Techniker werden]“.

And so, Kim Jong Ryul stood in front of the newly constructed railway station on Pyongyang, one of 64 students with the fortunate task of going to the brotherly socialist lands of Eastern Europe…[p. 53]

Im Dienst des Diktators: Translation [2] — The Korean War Years

Having now read a bit more than half of the new memoir/expose by former North Korean arms dealer Kim Jong Ryul, I wanted to share a few more thoughts about the book and translate another portion of the text.

Although the book is getting attention for its detailed description of DPRK purchases in Vienna and the German-speaking world, not so many Anglophone commentators seem to care for the really Korean aspects of this story.

Kim Jong Ryul’s childhood is described through some tinted glasses here, but it’s worth noting that his father was taken away from his northern village to work for three years as a laborer in Japan, returning only after the Japanese defeat in the Second World War.  His father’s early joining of the Party — in 1946 — would prove to be his son’s greatest defense in future years, as an unquestionably solid “class background” resulted.  Scholars interested in the dynamics of regime consolidation in the earliest years of socialism north of the 38th parallel get a few more details here (pp. 37-39).

Unfortunately, Kim’s voice is consistently overtaken by the omniscient narrators, who frequently interrupt his story with a three-page spiel of general background on Korean history which could easily be found elsewhere, and in more expert hands.  But they write well and context isn’t in itself a bad thing to have.  And, since writing for a German-language audience, we get little tidbits like this view of the Korean War:

The intensity of the war is evidenced in the actions of the formidable of the U.S. Air Force [veranschaulicht der gewaltige /Einsatz der US-Luftwaffe].  In the space of three years, they dropped more bombs on the city of Pyongyang alone than on all of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.  After the end of the war, virtually no intact buildings were left standing in the destroyed cities (p. 42).

Kim Jong Ryul’s personal experiences in the Korean War are described (pp. 43-46).  When the war breaks out in 1950, he is 15 years old, working at a print shop for a Party school in Pyongyang.  (Very much at odds with societal findings by scholars like Charles Armstrong, Kim describes himself in this period as being totally uninterested in politics.)  Under the weight of U.S. bombers overhead, Kim and his colleagues schlepped all of the school’s printing implements to the Pyongyang train station and moved towards China with the entire staff and student body of the school, totaling over 700 people filling more than 20 railroad cars, stopping occasionally when the danger of air raids loomed, and dispersing into the woods to flee the angel of death (p. 43).

At the Chinese border (which was either at Andong or Ji’an, the authors don’t bother to ask, reproducing the worst and ubiquitous problem displayed even by people like Mike Kim for whom “the border” with China is all one big amorphous thing), the train is stopped.  The Chinese were allowing only students, teachers, and fuctionaries into the PRC.  Refugees who had clung to the train were not allowed in.  More to the point, Kim Jong Ryul was not a formal student at the school, and was thus denied entry to the PRC.  Thus he, along with others, began walking south in the direction of his hometown, a refugee within his own country.  They walked day and night, and found sufficient food — but also found American soldiers moving north.  He and his friends were shocked nearly to death, having been strongly inculcated with the idea that the “American devils” would shoot them.   Instead, the GIs threw he and his friends some sustenance and chocolate bars.  Kim finally ended up in his hometown.  His family has fled to the city of Pyongyang, where daily air raids are sinking the city into ashes…(p. 44).

A neighbor remains, however, and, knowing Jong Ryul’s aptitude with printers, seeks out an official in the Workers’ Party who can use the young man’s skills.  He is thus brought back into the embrace of the North Korean state, and imbued with the notion that he simply needs to work hard, study hard, and ultimately join the Party.  His workshop is 1.5 kilometers from the ministry for which he worked, allowing him, along with his 1000 colleagues in the ministry, access to a precious item: ten Czech-produced vehicles given to Pyongyang by communist “brothers” before the war.  This appears to be Kim’s first encounter with the technologies which would later form the centerpiece of his career (p. 45).

On one day, however, he has to flee his vehicle and see it destroyed by an American air raid.  “It wasn’t your fault,” his supervisors tell him, surveying the smouldering wreck.  Kim told his biographers that he never thought of the possibility of his own death in those years, but did flee many, many times during air raids into the bunkers built by the Japanese while the sirens wailed for what seemed like hours.  Emerging from the bunker, he saw body parts hanging from tree branches, craters meters deep in the streets.  Closing his eyes, he can still perpetually see those images.

For two years, Kim Jong Ryul lived underground in a tunnel system.  He slept in a bunker 70 meters under the ground next to the Education Ministry in Pyongyang. However, in 1952, at the age of 17, he was given the chance to leave the city, taking a small backpack to the “Jong Ju” school 150 km north of Pyongyang. (p. 46).

He then immerses himself in education, focusing on physics, but also reading literature classics like “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “War and Peace.”  The lack of food brought him to a rapid understanding of which wild plants could be eaten, while, at the same time, in his science classes, he learned that living things need protein to survive.  (p. 50)

Korean War Memorial detail, Bozeman, Montana -- photo by Adam Cathcart

Im Dienst des Diktators: English Translation [1]

Not long ago, a new high-profile North Korean defector emerged with a tell-all memoir of intrigue in Vienna and Austria, which was covered on this blog via an exclusive translation of an interview with the author.  Unfortunately, so far as I know, no plans exist to render this memoir — a new (and potentially vital) source of information — into English.  Thus I am pleased to bring you the first installment in what I hope is a series of sporadic translations of original portions of the text.  Afterwards I’ll say a few words of assessment of the text more generally, since I’ve been chewing on it for about two days now, in between a few other pressing matters.

Im Dienst des Diktators: Leben und Flucht eines nordkoreanischen Agenten p. 34 [translation by Adam Cathcart]:

Chapter 3: Korea Against Korea

On one day which was like any other, the hated Japanese police disappeared from Kim Jong Ryul’s village.  The police post in Hijong was empty, and no sign of the decades-long Japanese presence remained.  In the village people began to prepare to hope that the rumors were true: that the war was over, that Japan had capitulated, and Korea, finally, was free.  On 15 August 1945, the happy news finally came to the 50 inhabitants of Hijong that they could immediately start to celebrate.  Kim Jong Ryul ran around the village and screamed like all other children in the countryside: “The war is over, the war is over!”  With a stupefying joy, on this day what had long been forbidden was now allowed: The hymn of — free — Korea could be sung, the flag raised, and everyone could shout together: “Free!  Free!”  The enthusiasm over the end of the war had hardly concluded when Kim Jong Ryul’s family received the happy news that his father, who had been taken (verschleppte) to Japan was now coming back from his bondage.

No sooner than his father returned, than the first communist strode into little Hijong.  In his joy of having the gift of his long-missed father back by his side, Kim Jong Ryul also recognized that new men in power in the village quickly became strangely alert.  In the orphaned police house, armed peasants now greeted rebel quarters with friendly attitudes, and communist patrols moved more than daily through the village.  From the first day of their appearance, led by those who had returned from the Soviet Union, it was very clear: From this day forward, this [communism] would be the tone.

Translating this full page of German prose reminds me that German tends to be longer than English…

In any case, this excerpt should indicate to interested readers that there is much more to this text than a simple retelling of North Korean arms dealings in Vienna in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that Kim Jong Ryul describes the duration of his life within the embrace of the DPRK.  In particular, Chapter 4 (pp. 52-74) is an in-depth look at the lives of North Korean students in East Germany from 1955-1962, a very significant topic (Kim Jong Il spent a lost year in East Germany in 1960-61 when the wall was about to go up) about which I’ve got a few interesting documents from the Berlin archives and hope to read more.