Changgom [Long Sword]
Hong Tong-sik (Pyongyang: Kumsong Youth Publishing House); Vol 1, published in 2005, 448 pp; Vol. 2 published in 2006, 451 pps.
Reviewed by Stephen Mercado
(For a slightly expanded version of this review, with source and explanatory notes, download accompanying PDF.) [PDF 68.2KB*]
Hong Tong-sik is a man of mystery who has written an intriguing work of historical spy fiction. An author from a nation seen as promoting domestic culture to bolster the regime while excluding all else has written a tale sprinkled with allusions to Western authors. A writer from a repressive regime infamous for isolating its citizens from the world has authored a spy novel almost surely based on intelligence literature published in Japan and the United States. In the tale’s two volumes, Hong writes of intelligence operative Chon Haeng-il, codenamed Changgom [Long Sword], and his actions against Korea’s enemies. In the first volume, the hero burrows into the heart of Japanese intelligence in Manchuria to thwart an Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) campaign against Kim Il Sung, leader of the fight to liberate Koreans from Japanese rule. In the second, Chon sabotages a US Army operation to seize all of Korea and destroy the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Hong’s fiction, as good fiction usually does, rests on many facts, in this case deployed at length and with accuracy over the period from 1940 to 1950 as the Japanese sought to expand their empire, were defeated, and gave over their country and Korea to US occupation. Atop this foundation, the author has erected a plausible plot held together with patriotic propaganda. Unlikely to be translated any time soon into English or to go on sale in Seoul, the novel nevertheless is available for purchase outside of Korea and for reading in several libraries in the United States.
The Mysterious Author
Except for this work, Hong is unknown. Neither volume of this tale includes information about the author, something occasionally found in DPRK books. Nor does his name appear in the pages of the Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun, Tokyo’s Choguk, Seoul’s Minjok 21, or any other periodical or book on North Korean literature. The only other place Hong’s name appears is as the author of a graphic novel, also titled Changgom, published in 2004 by a different publishing house in Pyongyang.
Although Hong lives under a regime known for strict censorship and enforced isolation, he refers in various passages to classics of global literature and writes of the world beyond his borders in far greater detail than some of his American contemporaries. In addition to citing the classic Korean tale of the virtuous maiden Chun-hyang, the author makes references to the poetry of Pushkin, the fiction of Stendhal, Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, and Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. In its description of Japan, including its intelligence organs, Hong’s story is far more detailed and accurate than that of, say, Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor.
Hong adds depth to his picture of Japan by mentioning landmarks, conglomerates, newspapers, historical events, and intelligence organizations. Clancy, by contrast, settled for a few tired clichés of American writers on Japan, including the defiling of fair American women by ruthless Japanese corporate executives. Nationalism may explain why neither author portrays Japanese villains in three dimensions, but Hong adds many more details while avoiding obvious errors in Japanese expressions and names.
Even though Changgom was printed by a youth publishing house, the novel reveals familiarity with foreign intelligence literature. Hong names specific IJA intelligence organs, from Second Bureau (Intelligence) of the Army General Staff in Tokyo to tokumu kikan (special service organs) in Manchuria. His references to US military intelligence officers in occupied Japan and Korea range from Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s G-2, to the less-known Col. Jack Canon, who operated in the shadows of occupied Japan as the director of the Canon Kikan. Other surprising details point to specific works found in few libraries anywhere, let alone, one imagines, in Pyongyang. One character in the book, a Japanese deserter from the IJA Nakano School for spies, names the school’s founding officers and piles up details about Class 1. Such facts are found in few sources, and their presence suggests that Hong read the class alumni history. Elsewhere in the story, there are references to Lt. Col. Jay Vanderpool, who operated with Philippine guerrillas in the Second World War before arriving in Seoul, via the CIA, to direct covert military operations against Pyongyang. Hong likely based his description of Vanderpool on such US intelligence histories as White Tigers or Dark Moon.
Hong’s knowledge of Japanese and American intelligence literature points to a man who, if not a current or retired intelligence officer, has had access to a decent library or two. If Hong were a veteran intelligence officer, he could be said to be following in the footsteps of such Western writers as Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, and John LeCarré. If he is not, work in fields like diplomacy or international trade could have given him an interest in foreign intelligence works and access to publications in the field. The dullest explanation would be that he is simply a writer who did his homework by checking out books from the Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang’s counterpart to the Library of Congress. If so, then one must assume that Pyongyang has one or more libraries whose shelves contain impressive collections of foreign works in such fields as history and politics.
Volume I: Thwarting Japanese Plans
The story begins in 1940 in Japanese-occupied Korea with the conviction of Korean operative Yun Chol for treasonous activity and his dispatch, along with a former student—the book’s hero, Chon Haeng-il—to Seoul’s notorious Sodaemun Prison. IJA officers stage a prison break for the two, presumably in the hope they will lead them to the headquarters of Korean resistance fighters and Kim Il Sung. The two elude the Japanese, but, trying to make their way to China are captured by Japanese pirates and thrown into the sea. With Yun near death, the two are fortuitously washed onto an island that serves as the pirates’ lair, though they are not there. The dying Yun asks Chon to complete what had been his covert mission, to foil an IJA plan to find Kim Il Sung and destroy his hidden headquarters.
Chon gathers up pirate treasure, leaves the island, and takes on the identity of a deceased Japanese schoolmate by the name of Takashima Yoshio. By one plot twist and turn after another Chon, as Takashima, makes his way into Manchuria and burrows into the Intelligence Section of the Japanese Kwantung Army Headquarters (KAHIS), which, under General Nomura Pingo, is in charge of Operation SPHINX, the plan to do in Kim Il Sung. In this environment, Chon walks the mole’s fine line between reporting on Japanese activity and exposure should Nomura come to suspect a Korean spy in his midst. At the same time, Chon must bear a long separation from his Korean fiancée while parrying the amorous advances of Nomura’s smitten daughter, Yomiko.
Chon eventually does come under suspicion, however, and is imprisoned and tortured on Nomura’s orders. Chon invents an explanation for the acts that had aroused suspicion, escapes the torture, and persuades Nomura to send him to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, even as the Japanese Empire crumbles. Tokyo capitulates in August after Kim Il Sung gives his order to the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army to begin a general offensive. The first volume ends in victory, with the freed hero, standing on a bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo, gazing at the blue sky in the direction of Korea saying, “Ah, Fatherland, my liberated Fatherland!”
Volume II: Sabotaging American Machinations
Chon’s moment of triumph ends abruptly in the second volume as US soldiers snatch him off a Tokyo street and take him to a US Army safe house where they are holding Nomura. Chon is asked to convince Nomura to turn over to Willoughby’s organization a cache of Japanese intelligence documents on China, Korea, and the Soviet Union. Impressing the Americans with his bearing and his fluency in English, Korean, and Japanese, Chon soon finds himself taken into their service and sent to a secret camp outside of Chicago to assess Korean agents undergoing espionage training for covert missions in North Korea.
From Chicago, Chon is sent back to Seoul, where he learns of a US Army plan, Operation DYNAMITE, to destroy the DPRK. As he had against the Japanese, he undertakes a secret effort to foil the scheme. The many plot twists include having to keep his distance from his fiancée, now running a bar catering to South Korean intelligence officers working for the Americans. Appearing at times are other Korean characters from the first volume. These include a disgraced newspaper editor and a pathetic intelligence collaborator abused and betrayed by his successive Japanese and American masters. In the end, Chon and his network manage to keep Pyongyang one step ahead of the US Army. In the end, Chon suffers the loss of his fiancée, who dies to save him, and he escapes to the north on the eve of the outbreak of the Korean War with her brother, a man of shifting appearances who, in the final scene, reveals his true identity as a fellow DPRK operative.
Fiction Resting on Fact
Hong has constructed his story on details of historical events that occurred during the period 1940–50. These include, among many others, the IJA advance into French Indochina in 1940; Lt. Gen. John Hodge’s instructions in 1945 banning Korean political organizations; the use of Japanese soldiers under Gen. Abe Nobuyuki to keep order in the US-occupied portion of Korea; the shuttering of the Korean Communist Party organ, Haebang Ilbo; and other acts that destroyed the legal left in Seoul before the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948.
Particulars of intelligence work depicted in the novel also rest on facts. In colonial Seoul, for example, Chon and a fellow Korean operative choose to meet in secret among the trees of Changchundan Park. The site was, in fact, a rendezvous for spies, according to the memoir of a Japanese police intelligence officer stationed in Seoul who recalled surprise at catching Soviet Consul-General Alexander Poliansky in the park with a Korean agent. Another example is the fictional character Nomura, who is clearly based in part on Lt. Gen. Arisue Seizo, the IJA’s last intelligence chief, who turned over the IJA Second Bureau’s files on the Soviet Union, China, and other subjects to US Army intelligence as part of a Japanese effort soon after the war to forge an alliance with the United States.
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As with many works of North Korean literature, Beijing and Tokyo book vendors stock Changgom. The Beijing Sunyong Scientific Technology Trade Company offers both volumes on its “Korean Publication” Web site for a combined price of EUR 15.50. The first volume of Hong’s earlier graphic novel goes for EUR 1.60. In Tokyo, fans of spy fiction can find both volumes of the novel for ¥2,800 yen at the Korea Book Center, a store run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. In the United States, copies are available at the Library of Congress as well as in the libraries of Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan.
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