from the February 2009 issue
Since the ideology and values conveyed in children’s books tend to be relatively transparent in all cultures, I hope this excerpt from Blizzard in the Jungle gives a useful glimpse into the self-representation of a country we little understand. Blizzard in the Jungle is set in an unnamed African country—something that may come as a surprise for many American readers who think of the DPRK as a fortress nation entirely cut off from the rest of the world. The two heroes of Blizzard in the Jungle are North Korean doctors whose surnames are both Kim, making them stand-ins for Kim Il-sung (the Great Leader) and his son, Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader). They are cast as the rescuers of a multiracial group that elects one of the Kims as their leader for his virtuous qualities. He directs them in what appears to be a doomed endeavor, going contrary to the apparent common sense of thee Americans in the group. (In the end, this strategy—symbolic of ascending Norrth Korea’s Mt. Paekdu, the mythic birthplace of their leader—turns out to be the better plan, and the selfish Americans meet an appropriately gruesome fate.) In the course of the following excerpt, which is about 25% of the entire story, the hero has occasion to repeat kernels of North Korean wisdom and strike several poses that mirror those of Kim Il-sung found on statues and in paintings familiar to all North Koreans. North Koreans are characterized as the wise, open-minded, benevolent saviors of a people oppressed by the "Mafia."
Actually, the fact that North Koreans are writing politically-charged comics set in Africa should come as no surprise. Less than a decade ago, North Korea supplied the Kabila regime of the Democratic Republic of Congo with troops and advisors during the civil war in exchange for access to Congolese uranium mines, the very same mines that had provided uranium for the first American atomic bomb. In the 1980s, North Koreans trained Zimbabwe’s Fifth Brigade, which was responsible for massacres in Matabeleland. North Korean military advisors have also been very active in Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Uganda where they have run training camps and overseen the use of heavy weapons (such as tanks) imported from the DPRK. North Korea represents itself as fulfilling a mission to aid burgeoning nations in distress, while they are one of the major arms dealers in the world and want to be first in line to exploit these countries’ resources.
Many Americans well understand the stereotypes of North Korea. We certainly see enough of them, particularly after the carefully orchestrated PR of the recent New York Philharmonic performance in Pyongyang. With the multi-billion dollar joint industrial complex in Kaesong on the verge of opening, only an hour and a half drive from Seoul, and North Korea poised to be one of the cheapest skilled labor pools in the world, we will be seeing much more of North Korea in the news in the near future and perhaps trading with them sooner than we think.
Blizzard in the Jungle was published in 2001, so the presence of a character named Zacharias on board an airplane downed by terrorists is probably just coincidental with the Zacarias Moussaoui of the 9/11 attack (although "Flight 47" adding up to 11 and the 45 lost passengers adding up to 9 makes one wonder, given that the North Koreans put the date before the month). The airplane downed by the "Mafia" is actually an ironic detail, since it was North Korea that was responsible for the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in November of 1987 that killed 115 people.
Translated from Korean by Heinz Insu Fenkl and by Geesu Lee
Heinz Insu Fenkl is an author, editor, translator, folklorist, and professor of creative writing at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His fiction includes Memories of My Ghost Brother, which was a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection in 1996 and PEN/Hemingway finalist in 1997. His most recent prose translation, Yi Mun-yol’s short story, “An Anonymous Island,” was published in the September 12, 2011, issue of the New Yorker and his most recent short story, “Five Arrows,” was published in the August 3rd, 2015, issue of the magazine. He is currently working on a new translation of the classic eighteenth-century Korean Buddhist novel Kuunmong by Kim Man-jung.
Geesu Lee is currently attending Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York. He is the proctor of an international student dormitory, and has done volunteer work at a hospital, a pharmaceutical company, a children's rehabilitation center in Shanghai, a post-Katrina reconstruction project in Louisiana, and a leper colony in South Korea. He plans to study international relations in college.