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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]
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)
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.
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.
As 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.