by Alzo David-West
The season was autumn. General Manager Chae Hyonggwon exited the front entrance of Mansu Paper Mill. His expression reflected a confident disposition. Newspaper, radio, and television had reported earlier in the day that the paper mill was over-fulfilling its yearly plan. He strode self-assuredly to his car in the factory parking lot.
Dense billows of smoke from the paper mill chimneys pumped into the vast mid-afternoon sky. He put his right hand in his dress-pant pocket and drew out his car keys. He opened the front door, stopped for a moment, gazed at the paper mill and at the work teams outside, and proceeded to enter the car.
“Comrade General Manager,” a voice called out. Chae turned around. Pil Kwangyong, the paper mill chemist, bowed and stared at his supervisor.
“What’s wrong?” the general manager asked.
Pil held out a notebook in his hands. Chae received it, turned over the cover, and discerned a handwritten list of paper additive formulas. The air was cold.
“We don’t need this, Comrade Chemist,” he said. “Our technical section chief gave us a report on our additive import supply from Bavaria and our projected outputs.” He closed the notebook.
“Comrade General Manager,” the man uttered, “may I see you after I conduct additive trials?”
“I appreciate your efforts, Comrade Chemist, but I must attend an off-site meeting now,” Chae stated. He patted the man on the shoulder.
The general manager got into his car, closed the door, started the ignition, and pulled out of the parking lot driveway. He looked at his rear-view mirror, and he saw the chemist retreat with a work team into the building. The paper mill disappeared amid surrounding trees, while the chimneys stood out like towers.
Autumn turned into winter and spring into summer. General Manager Chae was taking multiple telephone calls in his office at the paper mill. He marked his desk calendar, noting that the paper mill completed the first half of the new production plan.
Someone knocked on the office door. Chae looked up, saw the chemist Pil Kwangyong, and gestured for him to come in and take a seat. Pil entered and sat on a wooden chair with a thin cushion.
“What?!” the general manager shouted into a telephone. His face was leather-red. He picked up another receiver: “A workshop motor overload? You are the technical section chief. No extra parts? Unacceptable. Get the electricians and fix it now!” he ordered and slammed the telephones onto his desk. Documents scattered before him.
He picked up an inventory sheet and mumbled that the mid-June production plan was experiencing a bottleneck and that accounting shortages prevented purchase of a new motor. He picked up and read aloud an official letter from the Foreign Trade Ministry, which said Bavaria was limiting all bulk additive export orders to the DPRK because of United Nations trade sanctions. “Outrageous!” he expostulated.
Overexerted, Chae unplugged the ringing telephones and switched on a table fan on his desk. He stood up, and he poured himself a glass of pine needle tea from a pitcher on the ledge of his office window. He drank the tea and turned to the chemist.
“What do you want?” the general manager asked.
“I discovered a substitute additive,” Pil answered. The chemist got up and handed his notebook to the general manager.
“A substitute additive?” Chae took the notebook, sat down, and scrutinized the pages.
“I understand the chemical formulas,” he observed after a few minutes, “but the data from the experimental trials are defective. They do not account for corruption or impairment. If your laboratory can resolve the problem, the substitute additive will give our paper mill an alternative supply option. Still, where would we find the resources to mass produce sufficient quantities? We are already under enormous pressure from the county bureaus to meet the production quota for the second half of the year, and we are short of equipment, funds, and supplies. We will get around sanctions limitations on our bulk orders by ordering in volume, so the substitute additive you have discovered,” he emphasized, “is not a priority. Now, there is no need to be discouraged. Continue your work, and try to fix the problem with your experiments.”
Chae returned the notebook. Pil took the book and bowed. He turned around and walked toward the office door. The telephones rang again.
Mansu Paper Mill was able to fulfill the production plan. Another year and another plan commenced. United Nations trade sanctions intensified. Shock waves from a financial crisis emanated from the United States. The import price of additives increased.
Chae was consternated. “This is a very serious problem,” he said, looking over finance-and-production sheets. “At this rate, we won’t sustain operations in the next period.” He went to his secretary, Moon Pokyong, and asked her to forward a notice to management staff and section chiefs for an urgent meeting in two hours.
She prepared and dispatched the notice.
At 2:30 p.m., twenty-one officials boisterously convened in a common room on the third floor of the paper mill. Chae arrived, and the room fell silent.
He initiated the meeting with a fifteen-minute review of production quotas, supply shortages, and the import price increase, and he requested suggestions from the attendees.
Vice General Manager Han was the first to offer his point of view.
“Our upgraded additive stock reserves will run out in three months,” he said matter-of-factly. “There is no alternative but to continue imports. We will suffer losses from the threefold cost increase, but it is better than suspending operations.”
“We can reallocate all unproductive expenditures and reduce convenience funds to cover our losses,” Chief Accountant Ryu Yoona put forward. “What is the status of Comrade Pil Kwangyong’s laboratory research?” she inquired.
“He needs a stroke of good luck,” Technical Section Chief Pak remarked.
“We don’t know if his research will succeed,” Deputy Chief Engineer Ri confirmed. “Until we do, we must replenish the additive supply we need with a foreign order.”
“Comrades,” the general manager said after three hours, “I am not satisfied with this discussion. I motion that we resume our talks next week. We will explore all other options in the meantime. Comrade Technical Section Chief,” he turned to the man, “we should bring Comrade Pil Kwangyong to our next meeting to see what ideas he can share with our group. Comrades, our meeting is now adjourned.”
The following morning, the general manager drove into the paper mill parking lot. He got out of his car and walked into the building. He opened his office door. Sunlight was falling on his desk. He put some forms in order, sat down, and planned his agenda.
Afterward, he rang the chemistry laboratory, with instructions for Pil Kwangyong to deliver summaries of the additive trials over the next five days. Chae picked up and reread the letter from the Foreign Trade Ministry, and he reviewed a currency exchange list.
He sat back in his chair for a moment and listened to the processing sounds of the paper mill, the voices of work-team leaders, and his secretary in the room next door, stamping invoices for county paper orders. The general manager made an outgoing telephone call.
A small hopping spider got into the office through a crevice in the window frame and skittered up the stile.
Chae entered the common room and sat down. “Our meeting is now in session,” he started without review. “Who will be the first to offer suggestions regarding our supply and production difficulties?”
“As I said last week,” Vice General Manager Han began, “our upgraded additive stock reserves are running out, and we must make an import order without delay.”
“Vice General Manager,” Chae said, “did you explore other options?”
“No,” he answered. “We have no options in this quarter of the yearly plan.”
“How do you know there are no options if you didn’t explore anything?” Chae returned.
The vice general manager pursed his lips. “We know the chemistry laboratory is behind in additive trials,” he said, “and we do not have adequate resources.”
“Maybe,” Technical Section Chief Pak considered, “we can organize a research support team to expedite additive trials.”
“We have no time and no money,” the vice general manager blurted.
Chief Accountant Ryu Yoona adjusted her posture.
“Vice General Manager,” Chae spoke up, “are you up to date on all details of laboratory research over the past week?”
“No,” the vice general manager answered. “Chemistry is not my area of expertise.”
Chae twisted his mouth and looked around the room. Pil Kwangyong was sitting in the back since the paper mill officials outranked him.
“If we organize a research support team,” Deputy Chief Engineer Ri noted, “we could probably develop our own additive supply, but that outcome is not guaranteed. We are using new technologies now, and presently, the upgraded additive our paper mill needs is only available in Central Europe. I propose a concession: let us do additional research, and let us make the import order.”
Chae listened and looked at Pil.
“Comrade Chemist,” he said. The twenty-one managers and chiefs turned in their seats. “What is your assessment of our production situation, and what is the anticipated completion date of your laboratory research?”
The chemist stood up, his notebook at his side.
“I am sorry, Comrade General Manager,” he started. “The additive research trials need more time. I anticipate four to six months until completion. If our additive stock reserves will deplete in three months, I will voluntary relinquish my laboratory research fund to help our paper mill make the necessary import order.”
He sat down. All the heads in the room turned back to the general manager. Machine sounds murmured through the walls.
General Manager Chae had to make a decision. He lifted himself from his chair and circulated his eyes around the common room. The men and the few women waited for him to speak. He appeared to be turning over ideas in his head.
“Comrades,” he said, “thank you for your suggestions. We are the first and the only paper mill in our county to adopt an additive supply from abroad. Because of our over-fulfillment of the production plan two years ago, we established newsworthy status, and that has compelled us to maintain our reputation. Our conversion to more efficient technologies, which require additive imports, has enabled our achievement and widespread respect. Yet the international situation has been unfavorable and is disrupting our domestic operations. Today, our group is more or less agreed despite the unreasonable trade sanctions and the drastic price increases. Some of us say to import and accept losses; some of us say to import and redirect funds; and others of us say to import and do more additive research. The consensus is to import, and I understand the line of reasoning. If we import now, we will restock the upgraded additive supply and re-sustain operations for the next yearly plan. However, in all proposed cases,” he stressed, “we will incur significant financial losses this year, and our production ratios will be compromised. I conferred with our county administrative, management, and planning bureaus for assistance in view of our extraordinary situation. High-ranking party officials remind us of continued burdens on regional budgets, and they advise us to maintain our autonomous management system. Comrades,” Chae finally said, “I make the following decision: —”
The table fan was rotating in the general manager’s office. Secretary Moon Pokyong walked into the room.
“Comrade General Manager,” she said, holding a fax, “we completed the expedited additive trials we negotiated with cooperation and exchange contacts in Nigeria three months ago. Comrade Pil Kwangyong co-supervised the research support team with chemists at Rivers State University of Science and Technology. The substitute additive has been developed, and delivery from the chemical manufacturer in Port Harcourt is now en route by air freight. Our saved expenditures will permit us to complete the next yearly production plan on schedule.”
The general manager took the fax. He read it and nodded, and he asked the woman to inform management staff and section chiefs. She left. He got up from his chair and went out the office door.
Surveying around, he saw a worker in a hard hat pushing a trolley under a railed platform. Massive rolls of white paper receded in a line down the factory floor. Above, rows of round lights, like shining planets, dotted the ceiling of the paper mill. Below, the oscillating paper-making machinery moved in place like geometric creatures, exhaling fiber particles and droning vibration sounds. The general manager stopped in mid-stride, with arms akimbo, and watched a great roller turning.
Outside, from a distance, the paper mill sat against dark green hills. The grey structure was composed of squares and cylinders. Smoke rose from the chimneys, and the sky was a light shade of blue.
Editor’s Note on The Paper Mill:
The Paper Mill is not Alzo David-West’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are: