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

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German / North Korean border region / US-North Korea relations / War Crimes

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

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

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