Did Kim Jong Il Visit East Germany in 1960?

Kim Jong Il biographers appear to be conflicted about the young man’s whereabouts in the year 1960.  Was the nineteen-year-old future leader traveling around the German Democratic Republic, or was he getting things rolling at the university in Pyongyang which still bears his father’s name?  Or perhaps both?  His official biography, in any case, has him firmly at Kim Il Sung University.

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a new clue, unearthed on my last day of work in the Berlin archives earlier this month.  It’s included in a letter from Kim Il Song to East German leader Otto Grotewohl, dated 24. February 1960, in which Kim is describing some specifics of a North Korean delegation which had been invited to an East German “Frühjahrmesse [Spring Festival]” in the city of Leipzig.

Kim’s correspondence with Grotewohl is usually full of formulaic language of socialist brotherhood and gratitude and all that, but Kim seems focused here on the minutiae of the trip in a way that feels unusual to me.  The North Koreans had waited a long time to respond to Grotewohl’s original invitation (which had been sent on 30. November 1959), and Kim’s letter seems to indicate that the North Koreans had changed their minds and finally decided to send a delegation, led by DPRK Ambassador to East Germany, Pak Il Song [who is called Park Ir Sen in the documents; I need to check his romanization, however].

What seems a little weird, though, is that as eager as the North Koreans had been (and they were crazy eager) to display their orphans and choirs and goods in places like Mecklenburg earlier in the decade as a way of shaking loose more aid from East Germany, this time, they didn’t want any public events.   As Kim writes: “Ich bedaure jedoch, dass an dieser Messe die KVDR [DPRK] wegen einiger vorhandener Umstände nicht mit enim Ausstellung teilnehmen kann.”  The North Koreans just couldn’t do an exhibition at the Leipzig festival.

Kim Jong Il is not mentioned in the document, but to me, I think this is a piece of evidence which is just slightly disquieting, showing as it does Kim Il Song’s personal involvement in directing (one might even say micromanaging) North Korean involvement in the Leipzig events in a way that I haven’t seen in other areas, including the extensive documentation I looked through in preparation for his 1955 state visit to East Germany (which is another very interesting story involving his canceled visit to Buchenwald concentration camp and snubbing of some North Korean orphans, but I’ll have to save that for another time).

Historians in some ways are like symphony orchestra conductors; we have to listen for balance and gaps, and time the silences.  What this document doesn’t tell us is more important than it what it does, but it also indicates a line of query which might lead one, were one interested in laying out the most accurate possible biography of the man driving North Korea towards the precipice, to the Stasi archive in Berlin to fish out more surveillance files on the North Koreans in East Germany in 1960-61.

Along similar lines, I’m planning to revisit the akin chapter in the memoir Dienst des Diktators, where the author, a North Korean elite, describes his studying in East Germany from 1957-1961.  I’m quite sure he never mentions having met Kim Jong Il in those years, but again, at this point the study should be about context and forming the right questions.

Here’s the citation for you bibliographers:

Kim Il Song to Otto Grotewohl, 24 February 1960, in Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massen-organisation der DDR [SAMPO] im Bundesarchiv, Berlin, DC 20 (Ministerrat der DDR), Archivakte 15520.

This is a document which, inshallah, will be scanned and in my mailbox when I get back to the States, courtesy the Selke Firm.  And it’s in both Korean and German for you language fanatics, with Kim Il Song’s tremendous signature, but his embossed white letterhead probably won’t come through in the reproduction.  But please rest assured that, while in 1946 the man was agitating for more pencils (no kidding), the stock of his paper, by 1960, was amply thick.

Undated photo of Kim Jong Il, courtesy Northkorealeak.com

New German Memoir by KPA Colonel-Defector: Exclusive Translation of Author Interview

Mike Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch, the premiere web resource for Pyongyang court politics, today conveys news of a new memoir which has appeared:

Kim Jong-ryul, a former KPA [Korean People's Army] Colonel and employee of Kim Il-sung’s secretariat (and perhaps KJI’s Personal Secretariat), has told his story to two Austrian journalists and released a memoir in German Im Dienst des Diktators: Leben und Flucht eines nordkoreanischen Agenten (In the Service of the Dictator:The Life and Escape of a North Korean Agent).  Kim Jong-ryul was a primary operative in the North Koreans’ Austria operation, earning foreign currency and procuring various luxury products, technology and foodstuffs for the late KIS.  When the DPRK President passed away in 1994, Mr. Kim faked his death in Slovakia and subsequently took residence in Austria where he has resided for the last 15 years.

Kim Jong Ryul Dienst des DiktatorsAs Madden reports (with more detail and fewer gratuitous Nazi references than One Free Korea), AFP and AP have put out stories in English on the memoir, which was released yesterday at a book launch in Vienna.  To that list I would add this press release in Vienna which explains how Kim lived illegally in Austria (North Korean defectors now seen within the bruising politics of immigration) and this dispatch on derStandard.at, one of Germany’s best news sites and comment boards on Northeast Asian politics.

Since the author, Kim Jong Ryul, is himself fluent in German, the least we would-be-Pyongyangologists can do is to brush up on our Deutsch; fortunately Wednesday’s hoary foray into post-Bach speculations and clichéd intimations of Goethe has already achieved that purpose on this blog.

Thus, this blog is pleased to present you with more content you can’t find anywhere else on the Anglophone internet:

Das neue Leben des Waffenkäufers von Kim Il-sung [The New Life of Kim Il-Sung's Arms Purchaser], by SUSANNA BASTAROLI (Die Presse), 2 march 2010. [Full text in German here; translation by Adam Cathcart. Move the mouse over hyperlinked words to get a fuller range of meanings and implications.]

“Emil” was a confidant of the dictator-family, until he fled to Austria.  In a new memoir, journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and her husband Dardan Gashi set the story to paper.

WIEN.„Als Pensionist hätten sie mich gezwungen, Straßen zu fegen, Alteisen zu sammeln, Parteiversammlungen zu besuchen. Ich hätte keine Freiheit gehabt. Nur Kontrolle, jede Minute meines Tages.“ Wenn Kim Jong-ryul die Gründe für seine Flucht aus Nordkorea aufzählt, spricht er die Wörter langsam aus, so, als ob er jedes einzelne noch einmal genau überprüfen müsste. Kerzengerade sitzt der 75-Jährige während des Gesprächs mit der „Presse“ da. Die Körperhaltung, die ordentlich zurückgekämmten grauen Haare, das perfekt gebügelte Hemd: Alles vermittelt eiserne Disziplin. Kim Jong-ryul ist Ingenieur. Und er war Oberst der Personenschutzeinheit von Diktator Kim Jong-il.

VIENNA.  “As a pensioner/retiree, I was compelled to clean streets, collect scrap-metal, and attend Party meetings.  I had no freedom.  Only control, every minute of my day.”  When Kim Jong-ryul describes the reasons for his escape from North Korea, he speaks the words slowly, or, as if he really had to proofread every one.  Directly across the corner of a table sits the 75-year-old man in an interview with the “Presse.”  His bodily carriage, the grey hair combed neatly back, the perfectly ironed shirt: everything imparts an iron discipline.

Eine waghalsige Flucht

Sein abenteuerliches Leben haben „Kurier“-Journalistin Ingrid Steiner-Gashi und ihr Mann Dardan Gashi in einem Buch nachgezeichnet: die Kindheit, geprägt von Hunger, Besatzung, Krieg. Den steilen Aufstieg des ehrgeizigen Mannes, das Studium in der DDR, die Karriere in der KP. Die Krönung: ein Posten, von dem die meisten Nordkoreaner nicht zu träumen wagen.  Über 20 Jahre lang kauft der Oberst für das Regime im deutschsprachigen Raum ein, erwirbt Bespitzelungs technologie, Waffen, ganze Maschinenfabriken. Und Seidentapeten, Fliesen, Teppiche für die Diktatorenvillen. Geschäfte, an denen auch österreichische Firmen gut verdient haben, trotz des Embargos für Waffen und Sicherheitstechnik.

A daring flight

Journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and her husband Dardan have set forth Kim’s adventuresome life in their book.  His childhood: embossed with hunger, occupation, and war.  His advancement as an ambitious man, the study in the German Democratic Republic [East Germany], his career in the Communist Party.  The crowning achievement: a post for which most North Koreans could not even dream.  For over 20 years, he bought the best for the regime which could be purchased in the German-speaking world, purchasing spy technology, arms, entire manufactured machines.  And wall tapestries, tiles, and carpets for the dictator’s villas.  These were businesses in which Austrian also made good money, in spite of the embargos against arms and security-technical items.

Die Drehscheibe des lukrativen Handels sei das neutrale Wien gewesen, dokumentiert das Buch: Die nordkoreanische Botschaft habe sogar zeitweise Konten bei der Creditanstalt (CA) eröffnet. Für großzügiges Schmiergeld hätten Beamte bereitwillig weggeschaut, wenn wieder einmal ein verdächtiges nordkoreanisches Paket die Grenze passierte.

Kim Jong-ryul führt seine Aufträge penibel durch. Kim Il-sung sowie dessen Sohn und Nachfolger Kim Jong-il vertrauen „Emil“, so sein Spitzname aus DDR-Zeiten. Geschätzt wird sein Fachwissen, sein makelloses Deutsch, die Treue. Keiner ahnt, dass ausgerechnet in ihm der Widerwille gegen das Regime täglich wächst. „Ich wollte in dieser Diktatur nicht mehr leben“, sagt er heute.

Im Oktober 1994 wagt er den großen Schritt. Mit einer Ausrede entfernt „Emil“ sich von seiner Einheit in Bratislava. Er steigt in einen Zug nach Österreich und taucht mithilfe von Geschäftsfreunden unter. „Mir war voll bewusst, was ich tat. Ich rechnete mit dem Tod, denn ich wusste zu viel“, erinnert sich der Oberst. Er hatte Glück. Raubmord – Kim hatte viel Geld dabei – galt bald als offizieller Grund für sein Verschwinden. Nach langer Suche gaben die aus Nordkorea eingeflogenen Agenten auf. Etwas mehr als ein Jahr später wird der Oberst offiziell für tot erklärt. Er wird als Held in Ehren gehalten.

The hub of this lucrative business was in neutral Vienna, documents the book: The North Korean embassy yet had opened up intermittent contacts with the Creditanstalt [Ed.: Located here in Vienna, the CA is part of Bank Austria.] For lavish bribes, the authorities were ready and willing to look the other way every time a strange North Korean packet passed through the border.

Kim Jong-ryul followed through scrupulously with these tasks.  Kim Il-Song and his son and successor Kim Jong-il called him “Emil,” his soubriquet in the time of the German [East] Democratic Republic.  His know-how was treasured, his immaculate German, his loyalty.  No one knew that he longed every day for rescue, for a will to resist the regime.  “I didn’t want to live in this dictatorship anymore,” he says today.

In October 1994, he took the greatest brave gamble.  Using a pretext, “Emil” departed from this unity in Bratislava.  He got into a car to Austria and went into hiding with the help of his business friends.  “I knew full well what I was doing.  I was bargaining with death, because I knew too much,” recalls the Colonel.  He had luck.  The official explanation for his disappearance was quickly given that he was killed by a robber, as Kim had lots of money.  A long search was undertaken for the flown North Korean agent.  A little more than a year later, the Colonel was officially declared dead.  He was held up as a hero in the DPRK.

Ein Leben im Untergrund

„Emil“ zieht in ein kleines österreichisches Dorf. Ein neues Leben beginnt: das Leben eines Unsichtbaren. „Jeder Tag war ein Kampf. Da ich den Kontakt mit der Polizei vermeiden musste, durfte mir kein Unfall passieren. Ich machte immer drei Rundgänge, bevor ich die Wohnung verließ; kontrollierte den Herd, alle Schalter“, schildert er der „Presse“. Ein österreichischer Führerschein, den er während eines früheren Aufenthaltes heimlich gemacht hat, ist sein einziger Ausweis. Er lebt sparsam, zurückgezogen. Die Präsenz des stillen, höflichen Asiaten wird im Ort problemlos akzeptiert. „Manche glaubten, ich sei Japaner, andere hielten mich für einen Chinesen.“

Kim Jong-ryuls Tage sind streng strukturiert. „Ich habe nicht viel an daheim gedacht. Ich hatte keine Zeit dazu“, sagt er fast ein wenig trotzig. Er macht Sport, kümmert sich um den Haushalt – und saugt alle Informationen über Nordkorea auf: liest Zeitungen, hört Radio, sieht fern. „Erst nach meiner Flucht habe ich erfahren, wie verbrecherisch das Regime ist“, seufzt er. „Das Volk hat keine Ahnung.“ Ob mit der Armut nicht auch der Zweifel an der Diktatur wachse? „Die meisten Nordkoreaner glauben, Amerika sei schuld. Schon Dreijährige müssen rufen: nieder mit dem amerikanischen Imperialismus.“

Freilich gebe es skeptische, gebildete Nordkoreaner, so wie er einer war. „Aber die haben Angst.“ Falls jemand Kritik äußert, wird die ganze Familie bestraft. Gulags drohen, oder der Tod. „Ganze Dörfer wurden in Strafaktionen vernichtet.“ „Emil“ erhebt zum ersten Mal leicht die Stimme. „Diese Leute müssen verjagt werden!“

An underground life “Emil” stayed in a little Austrian village, and a new life began: the life of an invisible.  “Every day was a struggle.  I had to avoid contact with the police, and couldn’t make any mistakes.  I always made three circles before leaving my home to make sure [that] my heater and all my circuits [wouldn't cause a fire],” he told “Presse.”  His only identification was an Austrian pass which he had made during his earlier clandestine activities.  He lived sparingly, behind the walls.  His presence as an Asian, he hoped, would be accepted without a problem in the small town.  “Most people thought I was a Japanese, others thought I was a Chinese.”

Kim Jong-ryul’s days were strictly structured.  “I thought very little about home,” he said a little too certainly.  “I had no time for that.”  He did sports, took care of his household — and found as much information about North Korea as possible: he read newspapers, listened to the radio, watched television.  “The first thing I found after my escape, was how criminal the regime is,” he fumed.  “The people have no idea.”  Did his views change about the dictatorship’s responsibility for [North Korean] poverty?  “The majority of North Koreans think that America is guilty.  You know three times a year, we have to get out and yell ‘Down with American imperialism!’”

Freedom created a skeptical, educated North Korean, and he was one.  “But I had anxiety.”  If his critiques were outed, his whole family would be persecuted.  Gulags loomed, or death.  “Whole villages would be exterminated by [Strafaktionen*] the regime,” he said.  For the first time, Emil lightly raised his voice.  “These people are necessarily hunted down!”

„Das ist mein letzter Schrei“

Der Ex-Agent weiß, was er mit der Veröffentlichung seiner Geschichte riskiert: „Die Nordkoreaner werden aktiv werden“, sagt er. Er klingt müde. Ihm ist klar, dass er seine Familie gefährdet. Seine Frau, seinen Sohn, seine Tochter, seine Enkelkinder. Er bereut den Schritt nicht. „Was hat man davon, wenn man im Untergrund stirbt, habe ich mich gefragt. Wenn ich schon als Verräter gelte, will ich auspacken. Mein Leben erzählen, alles sagen, was ich weiß. Das ist mein letzter Schrei.“

This is my final cry

The ex-agent knows what he risks with the publication of his history: “The North Koreans will become active,” he said.  He sounds tired.  To him it is clear, that he has doomed his family.  His wife, his son, his sister, his nephews and nieces.  But he doesn’t regret having crossed the Rubicon.  “I asked myself: ‘What does a man have, when he dies in the underground?’  Since I am already considered a traitor, I can only unpack everything, tell the story of my life, and say all that I know.  This is my final cry.”

***

Final thoughts by the translator: Kim’s account obviously provides some real connective tissue between Stasi techniques (and technology) and the strengthening of the DPRK security state which need to be further explored.  Having spoken with German archivists in Berlin last summer (and returning again soon), I am aware that Stasi files on Kim and virtually all North Koreans in East Germany are possibly accessible, although many restrictions exist, largely because individuals are still living and East German informers are trying to go about new lives in united Germany.

The second aspect requiring comment is the strength of Kim’s words.  The beauty of the above discussion is that we are not at the mercy of Daily NK translators, or, as in the case of Kang Chol-hwan, getting a refugee account told in Korean to a Frenchman which is then rendered into French, and, finally English so that you and I and George W. Bush can read it.  Instead, we have an account which has been conceived in German and told in German by the man who experienced it.  Which means that his use of language is very, very precise.  One example in the above dialogue is in his discussion of reprisals for traitors.  (Thus the asterisk.)  When he says “Ganze Dörfer wurden in Strafaktionen vernichtet,” he is using language which is directly appropriated from German discourse on the Holocaust.  “Vernichtet” is “exterminated,” a term used in genocide discourse, but “Strafaktionen” is a somewhat untranslatable term which implies rounding up for purposes of extermination, as in this scholarly article on Strafaktionen taken toward Lithuanian Jews in 1941.  If Kim’s desire is to use language to stir up animosity toward the DPRK, paint Kim Jong-il as a dictator in the Nazi mould, and exculpate his own crimes (which certainly his right to achieve as a courageous memoirist), he appears to be succeeding brilliantly.

Finally, as for the title of this post and its claim to “exclusivity”, if any readers become aware of translations of other interviews with the author, or of excerpts of the text, please leave a comment and a link if you are so inclined.

Elie Unfurls / Olympic Flashbacks

In my own archive, a very delicious sentence has crossed my palette and I simply cannot help but post it for the delectation of the Germanophones, or for those bridging into the Teutonic, or for those who may be commemorating the fall of the wall (le chute de l’mur, der Fall des verdammten Mauers), or for those who want to know that Asian historians have a righteous seat to warm in the Berlin archives.

It concerns my plans for August 2008 in Berlin, that Olympian summer, so I suppose I’ll translate it as best I can, attempting to convey the vertiginous, delightful, aye, virtuosic and even dangerous, grammatical feat which it attempts — and at which it succeeds.

And it portends the return of deep memory of return in one 36-hour period thrumming with my own resilient fear.  Fear that gripped me in the cold morning of Berlin in an empty train, past the Madonna posters, totally alone, into the granite teeth of the 1936 Olympic stadium, and from there to sleepwalk in awe to an airport and to find myself after a Moscow hallucination turned deep sleep turned horror at the utter aridity of Shanxi there, there in the heart of old Beijing, pedaling north toward the closing ceremony, somehow my feet and my body and my eyes in both Berlin and Beijing/Peking in a double-lidded day that was one, one where I witnessed the giant snake of PLA soldiers with submachineguns pouring out of the Worker’s Daily compound on the second-ring road in the darkness to block my path with my lady on a bicycle, one with the realization that the closing ceremony was guarded by anti-missile missiles, one where the Olympics were revealed to my quarter as a dress rehearsal for marshal law, one where my rickety trusty Peking bicycle was no good against this wall of green youth, one where I should not have said but did blurt out seditious things against Jiang Zemin in a Taiwanese cafe on Jiugulou Dajie, and one where I realized with blind serenity that Paris was dead but this place was alive, but that the life was seething and trying to move to the suburbs.  That was my Olympic day.

And the trigger for this memory?  Encounter with a letter, and a sentence, tapped in ’08 by the restless fingers at the klavier of one Eliezer!

avec l'Eliezer, l'ecologiste au Haut, pianiste brilliante, le gens vraiment drole, tellement mon ami, fraternatie eternelle.

avec l'Eliezer, l'ecologiste au Haut, pianiste brilliante, le gens vraiment drole, tellement mon ami, fraternatie eternelle. Et l'ecologist oceanique Amanda Branford!

The month was August, 2008, prior to the Olympic fete.  I am in Beijing, seeking Berlin: to be away from the capital during the games seems most prudent, and my Dean has generously ponied up a check to work with an assistant in the Berlin archives on socialist solidarity.  This grant will also facilitate, though it will not pay for, beer drinking with German workers while they watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and state first “See!  Just like the Nazis!”  as the PLA marches to raise the flag, and second “The Chinese era has now arrived” at the end of the ceremony.

But first I had to get to Berlin.

Enter Eliezer.  Here, he e-mails to Berlin to introduce me to his friends (become my friends! and blessedly so!), absent other various connecting points.  Although his head is still firmly on his shoulders, and though he would surely eschew and disavow my attempts from this Lutheran citadel to claim so, Eliezer here acted as a kind of harbinger, a John the Baptist/Johannes der Täufer, functioning as a kind of poetic prophet of Wanderlust who has momentarily set aside the rough cloth of his own ecological disciplines to prepare the way for a heralded yet as yet insubstantial being, alleged to be a man.  Without him, my journey, so epic in my own mind, would have had a path that tunneled into itself, like a failed predator drone or a salmon that longs for the darkness instead of the heights.  So I quote from his correspondence and follow it with my translation:

Drittens (und der eigentliche grund dieses mails), habe ich einen sehr guten alten Freund, der Adam Cathcart heisst, der als hoechstbegabter cellist und hiphop freestylist gilt, der auch ein doktor, der menschen nicht hilft, ist, aber diesmal von ostasiatischen geschichte, der gerade in beijing sich befindet, moechte aber die olympische Verwirrung vermeiden und sich eine Flugkarte nach Berlin, wo man die kurioese kulturelle austausche und weitere Verhaeltnisse zwischen der demokratischen Republik Deutschlands und die nichtdestoweniger demokratischen Volksrepublik Koreas gut forschen mag, besorgt hat. Der, vor allem, ein toller, lustiger, lebenslustiger Kerl ist.

Third (and the actual basis for this letter), I have a very good old friend, who is named Adam Cathcart, who can be considered a highly-talented cellist and hiphop freestylist, who is also a doctor, a man who, if not helped — though he now find himself directly in Beijing, in the midst of East Asian history, wishing to avoid the Olympic imbroglio, having in his hand an airplane ticket to Berlin, where he aims to research thoroughly the curious cultural activities and further circumstances between the German Democratic Republic and the not-to-be-considered-lesser Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — would have great sorrow.  He, above all, is a fine, affable, and live-affirming chap.

Elie unfurls a sentence which is more than kind to the point of exaggeration: but more importantly, its arc inspires.  As do poems from Felix in New Cologne, and walks in the park with he and his kids, and children’s songs, and bike rides on an ancient steed through lightning storms in the Tiergarten, and placid statues of Goethe in the turbulence, and exhibits on Alexanderplatz, and passing out in a small movie theater which is actually my temporary address at the Institute for Chaosstabilization on 45 Old Cophenhagen Street near the old Soviet anti-fascist memorial and East Germany’s greatest Kettewurst stand.

Which is to say, apart from whatever nostalgic or narcissitic impulse started the translation above (for which I am very sorry and plan to recite the Lutheran catechism this evening, thus absolving me of all the things I have done and more importantly from all the things I have not done),  I plan to bash out some new writing over the weekend based on this otherwise-combustible stack of documents in my grasp from Berlin.  If the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall accomplishes nothing else — because, Scheiße, who really needs Vergangensheitbewähltigung anyway? — it ought to revive my work on socialist internationalism, the role of music in supporting and bringing down dictatorships, and the comparative meaning of commemoration in the PRC and the ehemaliger DDR.

And Japanese war criminals. Although it won’t pay for my brood or the new rims on my immense Escalade or the giant motor on my boat, a hot hot hot new article of mine on this topic is coming out this December in China Quarterly.  Oh, right, in the blogging world, it doesn’t really matter that it’s the top journal in my academic field, because December is, like, forever away, and this whole “proofs and editors” thing is a little square, not to mention tiresome “peer review” by anonymous experts.  So maybe I should put a damper on that until it hits.  Right!  Sizzle, sizzle….es zischt!

Berlin Olympic Stadium mini-model, Herzog & Meuron Architects, Hamburg, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart

Berlin Olympic Stadium mini-model, Herzog & Meuron Architects, Hamburg, July 2009, photo by Adam Cathcart