In the Flames of War


In the Flames of War is the third volume in The Peerless Great Man series of anecdotes and episodes from the shining revolutionary history of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. I picked this up during my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in September 2011. It was a particularly speedy read of 37 short stories of inspiration and devotion to the wartime struggle. The reader is made to believe that sacrifice is a necessary part of the Fatherland Liberation War (as the DPRK calls the Korean War) and that no one is immune from the hardships of doing without, not even the Great Leader. In some stories he is seen happily sleeping outside in the cold, and in the story entitled Meal of Minor Cereals:

“As he was looking around the kitchen, the General walked up to a pot and lifted the lid. The pot contained white rice. The cooks failed to read his mind. The General closed the lid and said gently but firmly.
“‘When the people in this area are all eating boiled maize, why then should I alone have rice?’ ‘When the people have to make do with second rate cereals, we should eat them as well.'”

The endless benevolence of the Great Leader manifested itself in Pieces of Meat, where, faced with the fresh ribs that would later be cooked for his own dinner, he ordered the meat be cut and distributed among members of his own military party. The Great Leader could not eat the meat, for:

“The great leader General Kim Il Sung led a simple life. He never permitted any luxury food to be served to him. He said that when the people were eating millet, he too should eat millet.”

Thus during wartime (or presumably even for decades afterward) those who were not fortunate enough to even have meat shouldn’t complain about it.

Typical of North Korean literature are its long sentences of endless strings which often are grammatically incorrect but in every case required multiple rereads. For example, in Boundless Trust, the story begins:

“In a speech he delivered at a short course for Party organizers and chairmen of the Party committees at production enterprises and chairmen of provincial, city and county Party committees on February 26, 1959, the General recalled with deep emotion that during the grim war an electrical engineer, an old intellectual, returned after carrying out the difficult task of connecting power cables in a forward area only 10 ri away from the enemy position.”

and in “Don’t Wake the Master of the House” the reader’s attention is smacked by the opening line:

“Before daybreak on May 10, 1952, the great leader General Kim Il Sung’s car drew up before a farmhouse in Wonhwa-ri, Tongam Sub-county, Taedong County (now, Wonhwa-ri, Pyongwon County), South Pyongan Province.”

All references to Kim Il Sung were prefaced by “the great leader”, which is standard North Korean practice, although I seem to be the only one who capitalizes that term in this book review. I have read enough North Korean literature to know that the formal title is usually capitalized. The heaps of praiseworthy adjective phrases for the General are seen in the opening lines of The Ruined “Christmas General Offensive”:

“On November 17, 1950 the ever-victorious, iron-willed, brilliant commander General Kim Il Sung sent for a former anti-Japanese fighter who was now commanding an army unit.”

Peasants always have lumps in their throats upon meeting the great leader General Kim Il Sung, and people often cannot speak in his presence. In An Old Story Told to Pilots, I was puzzled by one episode of intense devotion to the great leader General:

“That day the General sat with the pilots in the shade of a willow tree. The pilots were immeasurably happy to sit in company with the General whom they had been longing to see both awake and asleep.”

Does that mean the pilots were longing to see Kim Il Sung catching some ZZZ’s? That they wanted to hover over him as he slumbered? Or were the pilots so enamoured of the great leader General that they thought about him while they were awake, and also as they dreamed at night?

There is not much diversity in North Korean literature available in translation (and In the Flames of War lists neither an author nor a translator) but the short stories are generally entertaining for showing off the omnipotence and omniscience of the Superhero of the twentieth century, the great leader General Kim Il Sung.

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