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.

6 thoughts on “New German Memoir by KPA Colonel-Defector: Exclusive Translation of Author Interview

    1. Danke sehr fuer die Nachrichten, Werner. Es interessiert mich viel, dass dieses ziemlich wichtig Schlagpunkt (Kims Anforderung im 2006) nicht im neuveroeffentlich Buch des Kims klar gemacht war. Sonst haben wir etwas neu zu ueberlegen… Wenn ein Mann, wie dieses, das ehemaliger Geheimdienster ist, haben wir nicht das Beduerfnis, unserem selbst zu fragen, ob alles seine grausame Geschichte Wahr ist? Deswegen danke ich Sie nocheinmal fuer die obenerwaent Link.

  1. I read the book already, maybe 30% of the book describe KJR’s life, the other 70% are the author’s (a journalist) thoughts about NK, its history, politics, the ruling family and social problems in NK.
    And, it is not written in an academic style, but more like a newspaper.
    Thus, problems with accuracy, e.g.; the author describes Kim Il Sung as “the son of a farmer” (?!)

    1. Thanks Werner, I’m waiting patiently for my copy to arrive (probably going to take another month…)…so it is good to know the style of the text and that the editor/journalists take the lead for much of the book. So in that sense it may not be a conventional memoir at all. I spend some time in Berlin every year, but I think this time I’ll be spending more attention on the books about North Korea and their quality. It appears that this one is somewhere in between.

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