Excerpt from 'Sweet Potato' by Kim Tongin (1925)

Image from 'Gamja' (1987), directed by Byeon Jangho

Image from 'Gamja' (1987), directed by Byeon Jangho

Fighting, adultery, murder, begging, imprisonment – the slums outside the Ch’ilsŏng Gate were the point of origin for all of life’s tragedies and conflicts. Pongnyŏ and her husband were farmers – the second in class ranking (scholar, farmer, artisan and tradesman). Pongnyŏ was poor but raised in a household that upheld principles. The strict rules of the sŏnbi were left behind once the family fell into the rank of farmer, but some level of discipline, order and intelligence lingered. Pongnyŏ, who grew up in that house, still enjoyed the creek where she played naked with the other girls, and wore pants as she casually walked around her neighbourhood, but in her heart, she still held on to a vague sense of discipline and morals. The year she turned fourteen, she was married off to a man in her neighbourhood for eighty wŏn. Her new husband (an old man is more like it) was twenty years older than she. In his father’s generation, they were pretty well off as farmers, owning several patches of land, but as time passed, one or two began to disappear. The eighty wŏn that he spent to purchase Pongnyŏ was the last of his assets. He was an incredibly lazy man. If a patch of land was given to him through an elder’s connection, he would simply scatter the seeds and never tend to them. By the time autumn came, he would simply say, ‘The crops were no good this year,’ and bring nothing to the landowner. He’d keep the harvest all to himself. And so he could never maintain one field for more than a couple of years. After several years of this, he lost the goodwill of everyone in town.

When Pongnyŏ first got married, she was able to get by thanks to the help of her father during the first three or four years. But even he, who had a sŏnbi background, began to grow bitter at the sight of his son-in-law. The couple even lost credibility at Pongnyŏ’s own home. They had no choice but to go to P’yŏngyang as labourers. But for the lazy husband, labouring certainly was not a good fit. He would take his A-frame to Ryŏngwang Pavilion to stare at the Taedong River all day, so how on earth could he make any wages? After three or four months of labouring, they found some luck and entered the servants’ quarters of some home. But they couldn’t last there, either, and eventually got kicked out. Pongnyŏ worked hard at the house, but her husband’s laziness could not be helped. Pongnyŏ glared her husband down every day, but his habits could not be mended.

‘Clear those rice sacks.’

‘I’m a bit sleepy. Why don’t you do it?’

‘Why don’t I do it?’

‘You spent twenty years stuffing your face with rice. You can’t manage that?’

‘Aigu, just kill me why don’t you.’

‘Why, you little bitch!’

Fights like this were constant between the two and eventually got them both kicked out of the house.

Where to go now? They had no choice but to take residence outside the Ch’ilsŏng Gate – a ghetto. Generally the people there were all beggars. Aside from that there was also looting, whoring amongst themselves, and all kinds of other frightening and dirty sins. Pongnyŏ joined them. But who on earth would support the begging of an eighteen-year-old girl who is at the prime of her life?

‘What’s a young thing like you begging for?’ Whenever she heard this, she would come up with an excuse that her husband was dying, but the P’yŏngyang people, who were tired of this kind of remark, could not show her any sympathy. The couple was one of the poorest even in the slums. But there were some who made good money. They would bring back five ri, one wŏn and eighty chŏn in cash. In some cases, there were even folks who went out to make money at night and returned with four hundred wŏn or so and start a cigarette business nearby. Pongnyŏ was eighteen years old. She had a pretty face, too. If she emulated what she’d seen other girls in the neighbourhood do and visited a well-off man’s house, she could make fifty or sixty chŏn, but her sŏnbi upbringing would 

not allow her to do this. So the couple led a poor life, and they often went hungry.


The pine groves of Kija’s Tomb became infested with moth larvae. The P’yŏngyang ministry decided to hire local women from the ghetto (as if handing out a favour) to catch the pests. All of the women from the ghetto enlisted, but only about fifty of them were chosen. Pongnyŏ was one of them. Pongnyŏ put her heart into her work. She would climb up the ladder to reach the pine trees, catch the larvae with tongs and insecticide, and repeat the process. Her bucket would fill up in no time. The day’s wage of thirty-two chŏn made it into her hands. But after five or six days of working, she noticed some strange activity.

About ten or so young women didn’t work but sat around laughing and fooling around on the ground. Not only that, but their wages were eight chŏn more than the actual workers. There was just one supervisor, and he not only allowed them to carry on, but would occasionally join in on the fun.

It was lunch hour one day at work. Pongnyŏ climbed down to eat her lunch before getting back up on the ladder to work when the supervisor called to her, ‘Pongne! Hey, Pongne!’

‘What is it?’ Pongnyŏ set down her insecticide and tongs and headed over to him.

‘Come here for a minute.’

She went over to him without a word.

‘Hey, um. Let’s go back there for a second.’

‘For what?’

‘Well, just go …’

Buy Sweet Potato by Kim Tongin

Anthony Bird