1. The Mysterious Book THE MYSTERIOUS BOOK
One Sunday afternoon towards the end of September 1991, a heavyset forty-seven-year-old man with thick glasses and unruly dark hair took his seat on an Ilyushin jet painted in the handsome red and white livery of the North Korean state airline, Choson Minhang.
The man’s name was David Kapsberger, and he was about to fly to North Korea as part of a twenty-strong delegation of radical academics and trade unionists.
As a haze of dirty smoke obscured the skyline of Beijing visible through his window, Kapsberger removed his spectacles and dabbed his face with the warm towel offered by one of the eerily composed female flight attendants. The long hours of travel from his home in London had left Kapsberger feeling worn out. His clothes had suffered too. His lightweight summer suit was crumpled and bore stains from a coffee he’d spilled on himself in the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Across the aisle of the plane, luxuriating in the novelty of an entirely empty row, sat his son, fourteen-year-old Fidel Olatunji-Kapsberger. Fidel had been forced to accompany his father on the trip, which he was fully expecting to find pointless and dull. For the first forty minutes of the two-hour flight, he buried himself in a book, but as the plane crossed into the airspace of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Fidel glanced out of the window and found himself bewitched. The mountainous landscape that broke through the clouds beneath him seemed somehow prehistoric and mysterious, like a version of the imaginary world in the fantasy novel that he was reading.
After a sudden descent and an abrupt landing that left the tour party shaken, the passengers made their way down the boarding ramp and towards the boxy Soviet-style terminal.
From the roof of this building an enormous floodlit portrait of the country’s Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, smiled lovingly out across the concrete airstrip, which still radiated warmth after a day of autumn sunshine.
Dusk was falling on the low wooded hills that surrounded the airport. The stillness was strangely oppressive. An unsettling silence enveloped the visitors as they shuffled into the arrivals hall, which was austere and cavernous, and smelled faintly of detergent.
The elder Kapsberger was an American citizen who had emigrated in the sixties to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. He’d begun a new life in England as a graduate student in the political science department at the London School of Economics. Now he was a full professor and the world’s leading English-speaking expert on Juche thought, Kim Il-sung’s unique philosophy of Marxist self-reliance. However, the professor’s expertise was wholly theoretical; this was his first visit to North Korea. And, like all foreign visitors entering the country for the first time, he felt a thrilling combination of fear and curiosity as he handed over his US passport for inspection.
The fluorescent lighting inside the glass booth was tinged an unearthly shade of orange. It made the immigration officer look like a waxwork in a vitrine. Only his eyes moved, as he lowered and raised them repeatedly in order to compare the photograph in the passport with the reality of the rumpled man in front of him. Behind his impassive face, he was calculating whether Kapsberger was what the government euphemistically called “an impure element.” The professor’s unruly hair, dirty suit, and US citizenship tipped the scales in favor of further investigation.
As the officer waved Kapsberger through, he pressed a concealed button under his desk to ensure that the customs men would search the professor’s luggage with extraordinary care.
The customs men were looking for anything that might confirm the immigration officer’s hunch: including, but not limited to, drugs, precious metals, fissile or radioactive material, pornography, Bibles, subversive literature, weapons or bladed articles, and financial instruments of a value above ten thousand dollars. Needless to say, the professor had none of these things. Finally satisfied, the inspectors left him to repack his ransacked suitcase and join the tour group, to the relief of Fidel, who had been waiting anxiously, having been waved through customs with his own bag unsearched.
Over the subsequent week and a half, the delegation was shown around model farms, a granite quarry, a sewing-machine factory, a youth center containing many preternaturally talented child performers, the Pyongyang Children’s Foodstuffs Factory, and Kim Il-sung University.
Although they were all broadly sympathetic towards the tiny nation’s eccentric experiment with socialism, none of the visitors was comfortable with the ubiquitous propaganda that claimed virtually divine status for the Great Leader. At the same time, they understood that airing these doubts or betraying any hint of mockery would only make life difficult for their North Korean hosts, all of whom wore tiny gold badges over their hearts bearing the Great Leader’s image.
The visitors attended the Mass Games in Kim Il-sung Stadium, climbed the Tower of the Juche Idea from whose viewing platform Pyongyang resembled a diorama of gray matchboxes, spent two days at a beach resort in the seaside town of Wonsan, and were treated to a series of long drunken meals by their hosts. Apart from an argument one evening with the minders when a representative from the National Union of Mineworkers finally ventured a criticism about the cult of personality that surrounded the Great Leader, the tour was uneventful.
However, in an act of forgetfulness that was to have enormous repercussions, Fidel left one of his belongings in the room at the Songdowon Hotel in Wonsan that he had shared with his father.
This was a hardback copy of the Dungeon Masters Guide, the core rule book for a popular role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons that was one of Fidel’s passions. The cover depicted a giant red troll abducting an almost naked blond woman. This image would certainly have resulted in the book’s confiscation on arrival in Pyongyang, had the customs officials not been preoccupied with the moral degeneracy implied by David Kapsberger’s grubby suit and shaggy hair.
A maid, Kim Bok-mi, who found the rule book under the bed when she was preparing the hotel room for a visiting Soviet astrophysicist, was alarmed by the cover. She assumed it to be some form of American propaganda and handed it in to the hotel manager, with many words of apology.
For several days the hotel manager, a man in his late forties called Jon Chol-ju, kept the book in the bottom drawer of his desk. From time to time he would take it out and leaf through its pages while smoking the strong mentholated foreign cigarettes that were one of the perks of his job. Mr. Jon was an educated man who spoke a number of languages, including English, but the book must have been a puzzle to him. It wasn’t a genre he recognized. Some of the illustrations were clearly decadent, but they weren’t explicit enough to be usefully pornographic. Eventually he consigned it to his lost property collection.
In fairness, the book and the activity it described baffled many of its readers, even outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It contained the rules for a complex game of make-believe set in a world of medieval technology, monsters, and magical powers.
When Jon Chol-ju died of a heart attack a short time later after a drinking binge, the new hotel manager, in an act of largesse, allowed the staff to choose one memento each from among the objects in the late manager’s lost property cupboard.
The choices were made in order of seniority. The hotel employees quickly cleared the cupboard of anything edible, wearable, or of obvious value. One of the kitchen staff, a junior chef named Cho So-dok who had recently joined the hotel after ten years of military service, was the last to pick. He was left with two possibilities: a pennant from the 1980 Moscow Olympics or the mysterious book.
It took him a while to make up his mind.
His eyes kept stealing enviously towards the half-empty bottle of Japanese perfume in the hand of the chambermaid who had chosen before him.
On the walk home, he began to have misgivings about his choice. Flipping through the book’s incomprehensible pages, he chided himself for not having taken the pennant. When he got back to the apartment he shared with his wife and young son, he dumped the book in a closet containing bedding and more or less forgot about it.
This is how it turned out that, sometime during the summer of 1995, Cho So-dok’s eleven-year-old son, Cho Jun-su, stumbled across the book while he was fetching a mattress for a visiting relative.
It was a moment that Cho Jun-su would replay in his imagination for the rest of his life. In years to come, he would joke that it was like a celestial object falling from the sky to be discovered by some bewildered nomad and made the centerpiece of a new religion.
First, a heavy thunk drew his eye to the sight of the book on the floor. As he picked it up, he was immediately arrested by the extraordinary scene depicted on its cover. An enormous horned red giant was holding a naked woman in one hand and a massive sword in the other. The woman fought vainly to break free, but her tiny sword was useless against her supernatural foe. In the foreground of the picture with their backs to the viewer, a knight and a sorcerer, dwarfed by the red giant, also struggled to overpower him. The odds seemed overwhelmingly stacked against them. The knight had already lost his balance and was staggering. But even as defeat seemed almost certain, there was an unearthly light gathering in the sorcerer’s raised left hand. It was a magic spell. In that terrible moment of jeopardy, it promised at least a small hope of victory.
Opening the book, Jun-su stared uncomprehendingly at the name of Fidel Olatunji-Kapsberger inscribed on the flyleaf in both an elaborate cursive script and Elvish runes. He touched the smooth pages with an awestruck hand. Only volumes of The Life of Kim Il-sung were printed on such fine white paper. Over the subsequent weeks he would puzzle in secret over the cover, calculating and recalculating the adventurers’ chances of victory. He would lose himself in the book’s illustrations: scenes of combat, alluring heaps of treasure, scaly dragons, lovingly rendered weapons, the cozy bonhomie of taverns. And he would stare hopelessly at the incomprehensible print on its pages for a clue to its meaning. Despite not understanding a word of it, he felt mysteriously blessed by the book’s arrival.
The book’s closest equivalents in Jun-su’s world were the graphic novels printed by the state publishing house. These could be found on a handcart that was usually parked outside Wonsan Station, arranged in a spectrum of desirability from the tattiest to the most pristine.
The comic books’ hand-drawn frames told dramatic stories of space exploration, the strife between feudal monarchs, man-made climatic disasters, and beehives menaced by hostile wasps. They had exciting titles like General Mighty Wing, The Crystal Key, and The Blizzard in the Jungle. And yet, whatever its outward form, each of these stories was essentially the same, a variation on a theme that every citizen knew only too well. The drifting spaceship, beleaguered kingdom, beehive, and jungle research station were all recognizably North Korea, a small country threatened by outside forces and facing a severe economic crisis after the breakup of its biggest ally, the Soviet Union. Just like the North Korean people, the cosmonauts, leaderless knights, scientists, or worker bees were compelled to fall back on their own courage and resourcefulness. Somehow, in every case, the recipe for achieving success against the odds turned out to be identical: self-sacrifice, teamwork, and obedience. The message of each story was to adhere to the ideal of Juche, the philosophy of self-reliance that had been discovered by the brilliant leader, the savior of the nation, Kim Il-sung, whose death a year earlier had been followed by two weeks of national mourning.
In case the parables weren’t clear enough, there were mottos written into the margins of the comic books: “Be sure to build a strong fence when there are jackals outside”; “One’s honor is harder to keep than it is to earn”; “An old enemy is still an enemy.”
The political messages might have been ham-fisted, but the stories were engaging and the illustrations lively. The owner of the cart did good business, lending the comic books for a few chon per half hour to be read on the spot by customers of all ages.
People were eager for diversion of any kind. The nineties were years of famine in North Korea. It was a period of collective suffering that would come to be known as the Arduous March.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea had faced enormous hardship. Things had got worse after Kim Il-sung died and his son, Kim Jong-il, began leading the country. Torrential rains in June 1995 destroyed the rice crop. The system through which most citizens received their food rations collapsed. Coupons were handed out as usual for rice, cooking oil, meat, and the occasional gray slab of frozen pollock, but when citizens turned up to exchange the vouchers for food at the state-run distribution centers, they were told the shelves were empty. No explanation was given. Government propaganda urged people to conserve food by eating only twice a day—but even that, for many, became impossible.
At school, Jun-su’s classmates began to starve. The first signs of it were listlessness and inattention during lessons. A few pupils fell asleep at their desks and were chided by the teachers. Malnutrition lightened the hair of the poorer students and swelled their feet and ankles. People with glassy eyes moved slowly through the streets of Wonsan. Starving workers dismantled the machinery in their factories and tried to exchange it for something to eat. Rice, the staple crop, had disappeared entirely. Outside the city, groups of foragers searched for edible roots and weeds. Children dropped out of school to help their parents scavenge. Scant meals of ground corn porridge were bulked out with traditional famine foods: bentonite clay, poplar buds, acorns, sawdust, elm bark, and thistles. But while these might fool the stomach for a while, they couldn’t supply enough calories for survival. Corpses began to appear in the streets and in the entryways of apartment buildings. Some families starved to death together in their homes; singletons gravitated to the railway station to die. There were so many bodies that they had to be stored in piles and collected by truck for disposal in unmarked graves. Rumors abounded of women and children being sold into servitude across the Chinese border, and even of cannibalism.
Jun-su understood that he was lucky. He wasn’t part of the country’s elite, who were insulated from the suffering. But his parents, Cho So-dok and Kang Han-na, were resourceful. His mother had taken advantage of a government scheme that encouraged citizens to raise pigs. Han-na had to give a few pigs in each litter to the government, but was allowed to keep or sell the remainder. When the time came to butcher the animals, the neighbors formed a queue around the block to buy meat, head, trotters, brain, fat, organs, and congealing blood.
Jun-su’s father was also in a privileged position. As a source of vital foreign currency, the hotel where he worked not only remained open, but was guaranteed a supply of food. So-dok would have been risking his life to take anything from the hotel kitchen, but because he was fed at work, there was more food to go round for Jun-su and his mother. Most days Jun-su ate two dispiritingly bland meals of soup, maize porridge, and the occasional fish. He was often hungry, but he didn’t starve, unlike many of those around him. At night, the distant cries of hungry children broke the still air like a chorus of frogs.
The teachers suffered too. During a math class one day, Kang Yeong-nam, a dapper man in his fifties with a reputation as a disciplinarian, sat down suddenly in the middle of the room and turned pale. He gazed stupidly around him until the lesson ended and the baffled pupils filed out of class. Later, Jun-su saw Teacher Kang being helped to the sanatorium.
That evening, seated under the precious single bulb that had been a personal gift from the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, Jun-su asked his mother if he could bring some extra food to school for Kang Yeong-nam. “Teacher Kang is hungry,” he said.
Jun-su’s mother exchanged a glance with his father and told Jun-su to finish his food. Talk of hunger made her uncomfortable. It implied criticism of the government. Citizens were careful to speak of pain instead of hunger. The official causes of death on medical certificates attributed fatalities to food poisoning rather than starvation. The state-run media referred obliquely to a “food ration downturn.”
Han-na asked So-dok to switch on the radio. The announcer was reporting on the visit of the Dear Leader to a new ostrich farm outside Pyongyang. The Dear Leader had spent several hours touring the site and giving its managers some on-the-spot guidance. The announcer explained that it was an unprecedented and visionary application of the Juche philosophy: a single ostrich egg was the equivalent of twenty-four hen’s eggs and could easily feed eight people.
A few minutes later, a truck with a loudspeaker passed the apartment building and instructed its inhabitants to turn off their lights.
Daily life was strictly timetabled. A bell woke the inhabitants of Jun-su’s building every morning at five. The noise of its clapper was echoed by a variety of rings and clanks sounding out across the city. Jun-su and his classmates mustered at the assembly point at 7:45 a.m. and were walked to school by their teacher. School lasted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There was school on Saturday mornings too, followed by political instruction and the Daily Life Unity Critique, where the pupils were encouraged to point out each other’s shortcomings in order that they might all become better citizens.
Everyone’s life was organized around the same significant events. Each April 15, the country celebrated the Day of the Sun that marked the birth of the Great Leader in 1912. Every September 9 was the Founding of the Republic Day. Each autumn, at the festival of Chuseok, Jun-su’s family held a feast of thanksgiving before the ashes of their ancestors. And then, a few weeks later, the government would deliver a big ration of cabbages for each family to preserve for the winter. Every October was tree-planting month. The twenty-seventh of December was Constitution Day. And on February 16, the nation celebrated the Day of the Shining Star, the birthday of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.
It never occurred to Jun-su that life could be any different or better than what it was. He was proud to be a member of the virtuous Korean people. He felt lucky not to be a citizen of South Korea, where the people were much hungrier and their ancient culture was held in contempt by the brutal Yankee occupiers. He mourned the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who had worked so hard and cared so deeply for his people; he loved his parents, and felt that he loved the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, slightly more. In all respects, he considered himself a loyal and lucky citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
On the walls of Jun-su’s living room, as in every household, hung two portraits: one of the Great Leader and one of the Dear Leader. Han-na dusted them every day with a special white cloth.
The only real free time Jun-su had was on Sundays. Often, when Jun-su’s father wasn’t working, he took his son fishing from one of the curving concrete breakwaters that lined Wonsan Harbor. Many families fished there, sending their children to gather shellfish and crabs from the shallows, either to eat or to use as bait. Casting with a rod from the shore, it was possible at various times of the year to catch mackerel, whiting, and bream. One memorable August morning, Jun-su’s father cast off with pellets of boiled maize, caught two fat bream, and let Jun-su cast again. Jun-su immediately felt the line go tense and the rod buck in his hand. In all, they caught half a dozen fish before they set off home.
As an adult, despite the terrible things he lived through, Jun-su would retain the air of confidence and self-sufficiency that is characteristic of well-loved only children. It makes it easy to picture him, aged eleven, walking beside his father on one of their excursions to the waterfront. Jun-su is carrying the segments of the rod in a bundle over his shoulder, as though he’s a soldier marching with a rifle. He’s chatting happily about his life at school, sports, military aircraft—one of his passions—and asking Cho So-dok questions about his work at the hotel, and his impressions of the various nationalities who visited it.
“What are the French like, Dad?” he asked as they walked slowly home, their record catch still twitching in the pair of plastic bags that his father was holding.
Cho So-dok was smoking a cigarette—he favored the Chollima brand, named after the famous mythological horse—with the satisfied air of a successful huntsman. “The French had a revolution of their own,” he said, “so although they’re capitalist pigs, they’re not the worst.”
The sound of a lorry grew louder as it approached them from behind. Cho So-dok glanced towards it and watched as it passed, on its way to a nearby collective farm. Rations in the countryside had been cut so low that many farmworkers were too weak to bring in the harvest unassisted. The bed of the truck was packed with soldiers, all standing because there was no room for them to sit down. The soldiers who were visible at the rear were wearing full-face gas masks to protect them from the exhaust fumes that billowed behind the vehicle. The masks gave them a sinister and skeletal appearance.
“Who are the worst?” asked Jun-su. He sensed his father was distracted so he asked it again. In truth, it wasn’t a sincere question: every school-age child in North Korea knew the answer. The worst were the Yankee imperialists who had waged war on North Korea, who had divided the North from the South, and who had been defeated by the courage of the North Korean people inspired by the Juche idea. Like children around the world, Jun-su just enjoyed hearing the same stories told over and over, and he was priming his father for this one.
Cho So-dok’s eyes followed the lorry as the noise of the engine faded into the distance. He pinched the cigarette and put it back into its red packet to smoke later. “Let’s not talk about all that shit,” he said.
His father’s words hit Jun-su with the force of a blow. So-dok was an undemonstrative man and this behavior was deeply out of character. It would never have occurred to Jun-su that his father might be angry for his own private reasons. Jun-su assumed that he had done something wrong. They walked along in silence for a little while. For a moment Jun-su thought he might burst into tears.
Beside the road, a long banner declared: WE WILL SAFEGUARD WITH OUR LIVES THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE WORKERS’ PARTY OF KOREA.
“I’m sorry, son,” said So-dok. “Last week they sent a truck to the hotel and took us out to the fields to help with the harvest. We spent three days bringing in potatoes. Your father’s not a young man anymore and when he’s tired, he gets short-tempered. It’s not your fault.”
A few hundred meters farther on, as they passed a red-brick complex of apartment buildings, So-dok nudged his son. “Hey, doesn’t your teacher Kang live in there?”
Jun-su stared in puzzlement at his father. He had no idea where his teacher lived. He’d never considered the possibility that any of his teachers had a life outside school. In fact, he found it hard to imagine any of them as fully human.
“In that one at the end,” his father said. He made a gesture to identify the building he meant. Then, as though the notion had just struck him, he scratched his head and added, “I tell you what: I bet he’d like one of these fish.” He looked at Jun-su. Nodding as though approving his own idea, he continued his train of thought: “In fact, you know what would be better than a fish? Let’s give him two.” So-dok crouched on his haunches and examined their catch. The silver fish-scales gleamed in his sunburned hands as he picked up the fish to inspect them. He chose two of the biggest bream and transferred them to a single plastic bag, which he exchanged for Jun-su’s rod. Jun-su felt the weight of the bag tug on his arm.
“Just go in and give it to him,” said So-dok. “And then hurry home.”
Jun-su was surprised. It was an odd thing to do. Not that his father wasn’t generous, but food was desperately short. He hesitated and looked at his father. His father nodded to confirm the instruction, then paused, as though struck by another thought.
“Hey,” said So-dok, hunkering down again and reaching into the pocket of his windcheater. “Take him this as well.” He held out the thin plastic bag containing the two or three hundred grams of cornmeal mush left over from the bait balls.
Jun-su took it and set off towards the complex of apartments. He felt excited as he approached the unfamiliar building. He imagined that he was a spy entrusted with an important mission for the Fatherland. Two children were hanging laundry on a line suspended between two spindly trees. One of them called out to ask him where he was going. Jun-su proudly ignored him.
In the foyer of the building—just as in Jun-su’s building—was a glassed-in booth where the chief of the building’s People’s Unit stood guard. In Jun-su’s building, this was nosy Kim Song-hwa, a slight yet formidable woman in her fifties with an impressive coiffure, who observed all the comings and goings of the residents and also gleaned information from a network of informants—mainly people who were too old and infirm to do anything but spy on their neighbors.
Here the chief of the People’s Unit was a man who was studying an old copy of the Rodong Sinmun through a pair of reading glasses held together with old tape. When Jun-su hailed him as “Comrade Superintendent,” he raised his watery eyes. Jun-su explained why he had come and the man waved him up to the third floor.
Jun-su climbed the echoing stairwell. The door of Teacher Kang’s apartment was open. Jun-su peered inside. He glimpsed a skinny shirtless figure lying at full stretch on a thin mattress. Jun-su coughed. There was no response. He tapped on the opened door and said: “Teacher, I’ve brought you something.” Still no reply. He slipped off his shoes and boldly entered the apartment.
The floor plan of Teacher Kang’s apartment was identical to Jun-su’s, but the whole place was messier, darker, and suffused with an unpleasant sickly-sweet aroma. Jun-su stood for a minute watching the rise and fall of Teacher Kang’s scrawny chest. Once his eyes had adjusted to the dim light, he looked around at his surroundings. There were shelves of books in glass-fronted bookcases, many of them volumes of the Great Leader’s writings. Jun-su moved towards them, vaguely hoping that among all these volumes there might be one of the comics he loved. But all he saw was row after row of boring-looking paperback books whose titles he couldn’t even understand.
There was a noise behind him and he turned his head. Teacher Kang had opened his eyes and said in a confused and croaky voice: “Plum blossom, is that you?” He sat up and reached beside him for a glass with some murky liquid inside. He swallowed it, belched lightly, and gazed in perplexity at Jun-su.
Jun-su was so nervous that he forgot to bow or apologize for the interruption. He just stuck out a hand with the bag in it and said: “My dad caught you some fish, sir.”
“You can tell your father I don’t need his fish,” said Teacher Kang grumpily, settling back down onto his mattress. “You keep your fish. Now go away, I need to rest.”
When Jun-su got home with the fish and did his best to explain to his parents what had happened, it caused a huge family argument. His mother called his father “a clumsy blockhead,” and his father skulked off, clearly chagrined. “I was trying to help the old fool. Is it my fault if he’s too stupid and proud?” he muttered.
Autumn settled over the coast, bringing strong winds from the East Sea. Jun-su stared hungrily at the orange persimmons among the bare branches of the trees at the collective farm where he and his classmates were sent to work on weekends, harvesting sorghum and fashioning its long stalks into brooms. Nowadays when they went fishing, his father brought an army canteen of hot water for them to sip and fend off the cold.
At the beginning of November, Jun-su woke up one weekday morning with a terrible soreness in his throat. He had no appetite, and in any case it was too painful for him to swallow. His mother stood him by the window in the weak autumn sunshine and peered into his mouth. His tonsils were swollen and marked with streaks of red and white. She told him he was too ill to go to school. Jun-su pleaded with his mother, but he didn’t have the energy to protest for long. He spent the day lying listlessly on his mattress. Now and again the distant sound of martial music disturbed the silence; it was broadcast from vehicles and preceded crackly amplified voices urging the citizens to new heights of productivity and vigilance.
The school sent the senior class representative, a boy named Seo Tae-il, to check on Jun-su that afternoon and report back. It was clear that Jun-su was not malingering; he was seriously ill. Keen not to spread infection among the other students, the headmaster approved his absence.
Days passed. Jun-su’s health did not improve. Eventually Han-na bribed a doctor to pay a home visit. He said that what Jun-su needed were antibiotics, but there weren’t any available. In fact, there were plenty of antibiotics: Chinese-made ones that had been shipped into the country as part of the international aid effort. The doctor was probably lying in the hope of another bribe; he must have been hungry too.
Jun-su began to display stranger and more worrying symptoms. A red and white rash appeared on his lower limbs. His left knee swelled and became unbearably hot; then as that pain diminished, the joints in his right leg worsened. He was feverish and tired, but couldn’t sleep. At night he lay awake listening to his heart pounding.
Even after Jun-su’s fever abated, he was too fragile to attend school. Seo Tae-il, the class representative, paid another visit. This time he was accompanied by a second boy. They brought a bouquet of Kimjongilia flowers and a card made by Jun-su’s classmates that was signed by all of them and said: We salute Cho Jun-su for the bravery and compassion he has learned from our Dear Leader.
Jun-su read the card twice and felt his eyes prickle with tears. Seeing the names of his classmates carefully printed inside the card made him feel very sorry for himself. He had been a confident, popular boy at school. The long empty days were wearing him down and he missed his friends. Seeing his tears, Jun-su’s mother took pity on him and arranged with Teacher Kang for her son to pay a visit to his classmates.
On the day chosen for the visit, Jun-su and his mother walked to the school building after lunch. As they entered the premises, Jun-su felt a precocious nostalgia for the familiar surroundings. There was the Kimilsungism Study Hall for which special overshoes were required; there was the painted square in the playground where the children assembled for air raid drills; there was the spot where he had raced with his friend Ri Sok-chung and slipped and sprained his wrist. He was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of his mother’s voice. She was shouting at him.
“Stop messing about!” she yelled. Jun-su looked at her in horror. And then his whole body gave an involuntary spasm, as though he were responding to a sensation of extreme cold. It was an uncontrollable shudder that started at his feet and jerked his back and shoulders like the cracking of a whip.
At that moment, Teacher Kang opened the door of the classroom, bowed to Jun-su’s mother, and motioned them in.
Teacher Kang led Jun-su to the blackboard and asked the class to welcome their comrade.
A chorus of voices yelled a greeting.
Jun-su bowed happily in reply and began a speech of thanks for the card and flowers they had sent him.
That’s when the laughter started.
At first it was just one boy tittering behind his hand; soon his fit of giggles spread to his neighbors, grew louder, and swelled into an uncontrollable wave that seemed to engulf Jun-su. He stopped his speech and looked at his giggling classmates in bafflement. He couldn’t understand the reason for the laughter.
But it was clear to the class that Jun-su was clowning. His performance was entirely out of character, which only made it funnier still. Jun-su was rolling his head, flapping his arms, and making hilarious spastic movements with his jelly legs.
At the side of the classroom, Jun-su’s mother stood in pained silence, her eyes gleaming with tears, her features frozen in a mask of shame.
“Stop this at once,” said Teacher Kang sternly. “The next boy to make a sound will be beaten.”
Silence fell on the classroom. But try as he might, Jun-su found he couldn’t keep still. His rolling and twitching continued.
“The boy is ill,” said Teacher Kang. He indicated to Han-na that she should take him home.
Jun-su and his mother walked home in silence.
Back at the apartment, Jun-su felt overcome with tiredness. He slipped off his school uniform and lay down to sleep. When he woke, it was dusk and the trucks with loudspeakers were urging citizens to conserve fuel and electricity in the name of Juche. It crossed his mind that the whole experience at school might have been a humiliating dream.
He heard the front door open. It was his mother. She sat on the end of his mattress and felt his forehead. Her cool hands smoothed his face and hair. “I bought you something,” she said, and she laid a comic book beside him and—equally wondrous—a tiny bottle of fizzy melon juice.
It was unfathomable good fortune not just to be able to read the comic book but actually to possess it. It was called The Amazing Tincture and it concerned the discovery of a medicine that brought human beings earthly happiness. Unfortunately, the scientists who discovered it were immediately kidnapped by mercenaries working for the US government. They were forced to endure immense privation before they were finally able to escape and bring the good news of their discovery to the grateful inhabitants of earth.
Jun-su read the book so many times that within twenty-four hours he knew every frame of it by heart.
“You need another book,” his mother said. Since the visit to the school, she had doted on him for reasons that he knew were painful ones, but he still didn’t want it to stop.
“I’ve got a book,” said Jun-su, getting up. He moved jerkily across to the bedding cupboard and slid the mysterious book out of its hiding place.
His mother gazed at its extraordinary cover. “Where did you get this?” she asked sharply. “Did Teacher Kang give this to you?”
“No,” said Jun-su, puzzled that she would associate the staid teacher with such an unusual object. “Dad found it. Can you read it to me?”
Han-na turned the book over in her hands and began leafing through its impenetrable pages. As she did so, she felt Jun-su’s eyes resting on her. She looked up at his expectant face, made younger and more vulnerable by its heartbreaking twitch. Opening at a random page, she placed her finger on the text. “?‘Once there was a boy called Jun-su,’?” she began.
“Where does it say that?” said Jun-su.
“Do you want me to read it or not?”
Jun-su was silent.
His mother continued: “?‘He was popular, obedient, loyal, happy, and kind and lived a long life.’?”
“That’s not a real story,” said Jun-su. “Read a proper one.”
Han-na turned the pages of the book. “What about this one: ‘The Young Lovers’?”
Jun-su made a nauseated face. “Yeuch.”
Han-na turned another page. “?‘The Brave Airman’?”
Han-na read it aloud. It was the tale of a young pilot called Kim Jo-on who was flying sorties over the mountains in his Tupolev Tu-28 fighter when the plane was hit by gunfire, forcing him to bail out. Lieutenant Kim trekked through the mountains, endured incredible hardship, ate rats, and made shoes out of birch bark, before finally arriving home to a hero’s welcome.
“That is the best story I’ve ever heard,” said Jun-su sleepily.
About a week after Jun-su’s disastrous trip to the school, Teacher Kang came round to see him.
There was no mention of Jun-su’s visit with the fish or of the events that had occurred in the classroom.
“Show me your tongue,” said Teacher Kang, seating himself on the floor beside Jun-su’s mattress.
After a brief pause, Jun-su stuck his tongue out.
Teacher Kang moved closer, squinted at it, and grunted. “Give me your arm,” he said.
Jun-su did as he was told.
Teacher Kang grasped Jun-su’s skinny wrist with his left hand and placed three fingers along his forearm. Then he did the same with Jun-su’s other hand.
“What are you doing, Teacher Kang?” said Jun-su.
“Lie still,” snapped Teacher Kang. “I studied medicine with Kim Bong-han. He was so smart the Great Leader put him on a stamp. If you work hard and do as your teacher says, they may put you on a stamp one day.”
Teacher Kang asked Han-na to take off Jun-su’s shirt. He appraised Jun-su’s torso by eye as though he were measuring him for new clothes, and then he stuck a needle into Jun-su’s upper arm. Jun-su immediately burst into noisy sobs. His mother shushed him and he began to sniffle instead. To his horror, beside Teacher Kang lay a small case that was full of more silver needles.
The truth was that after the initial prick, there was no pain. And a few moments later, Jun-su felt his eyelids droop and a wave of relaxation flood his entire body. “Good,” murmured Teacher Kang.
Jun-su drifted off into a state of exquisite calm and all his twitching stopped.
Later that evening, Jun-su’s mother sat beside him. “Teacher Kang says you’re suffering from rheumatic fever,” she said. “That’s the reason for the twitching.”
“Is Teacher Kang a doctor?” asked Jun-su.
“Kang Yeong-nam has done many things. He’s had a complicated life. But he knows a lot and he says he can help make you better. He says it’s important to do something…” Han-na trailed off.
“Something with those needles?”
Han-na said nothing. She had turned her face away and was wiping her eyes. Jun-su felt himself drifting off to sleep again. “Mum?”
The outline of his mother paused at the door to the kitchen.
“Who’s plum blossom?”
“You’re my plum blossom,” his mother said. “Now go to sleep. You need to rest.”
Teacher Kang began making regular visits to the house. On each visit he applied his needles to Jun-su, who lay on the mattress in pajamas.
At first, Jun-su’s mother stood at the doorway watching the sessions, but after a while, she left them alone.
On one of these visits a strange thing happened.
As the wave of relaxation calmed the twitching in Jun-su’s body, he felt his eyes close as usual. His breathing slowed and he slipped into the threshold state of consciousness where the boundary between his skin and the universe seemed to dissolve. Dark waves of purple, orange, and red moved across the inside of his eyelids.
Suddenly he became aware that something was plucking at the cotton sash of his pajamas.
He opened his eyes. “What are you doing, Teacher Kang?” he said.
“I’m trying to make you more comfortable,” said Teacher Kang. The teacher’s voice sounded thick and wobbly, as though an object was stuck in his throat. He coughed to clear it.
Jun-su sat up on his elbows and stared at the teacher’s shifty face.
“I just wanted to look at your pepper,” said Teacher Kang.
Jun-su gazed at him with incredulity. It was the weirdest thing he’d ever heard.
“Not to touch it,” explained Teacher Kang calmly. He paused for a moment as though weighing a thought. “Unless you want me to.” He let this suggestion hang in the air for a moment. “There are circumstances where stimulation of the pepper can help increase vital energy,” he said. Although the teacher’s face was composed, there was something wild and excited in his eyes.
Jun-su glared fiercely at the old man. “Stop it, Teacher Kang,” he hissed. “Or I’ll call my mother.”
Teacher Kang looked at the formidable expression on Jun-su’s face. Without a word, he began removing the needles and putting them back in the case.
After the business with the pajama cord, Jun-su wondered whether he’d see Teacher Kang again. He rather suspected not. But then, a few days later, the old man turned up as usual with his case of needles as though nothing had happened.
All the same, Jun-su was aware that their relationship had altered. He and Teacher Kang had a secret and this secret had given him power over the old man. Now he was emboldened to be more direct with him.
This time while they were waiting for the needles to do their healing work, Jun-su didn’t close his eyes. “Have you read The Amazing Tincture?” he asked.
“A picture book?” said Teacher Kang, as he took Jun-su’s pulses.
“Yes,” said Jun-su. He showed Teacher Kang the treasured comic book, which he kept beside him.
Teacher Kang flipped through its pages.
“Read it to me,” demanded Jun-su, experimenting with a new peremptory tone.
Teacher Kang raised his head from the book and gave Jun-su a careful sideways glance. For a moment, it seemed to Jun-su that he’d gone too far and was about to get a telling off. Then the old man began to read aloud.
Jun-su found himself drifting into the relaxed state that the needles always brought on. Teacher Kang’s voice sounded like a wasp buzzing inside a glass. Jun-su became so sleepy that he could no longer concentrate. The buzzing stopped and he grew suddenly alert in case the old man had designs on his pepper.
“The trouble with this story,” said Teacher Kang thoughtfully, laying the book aside, “is that we know exactly what is going to happen. Whereas in real life, everything is uncertain.”
“I’ve got a better story,” said Jun-su. “It’s called ‘The Brave Airman.’?”
“I know what happens in that one without even reading it,” said Teacher Kang. “Does he crash his plane and survive terrible hardship? Is his bravery held up to the people as an example of socialist heroism?”
“There’s more to it than that,” said Jun-su. “He eats rats and makes shoes out of birch bark.” Trying not to disturb the needles in his chest, Jun-su slid his hand under the mattress to retrieve the mysterious book. He passed it to Teacher Kang. “It’s in here,” he said.
Teacher Kang looked at the book. His face betrayed no hint of surprise at its extraordinary cover. He flipped through the pages and his eyes moved slowly over the text. For a while he seemed to become lost in its sentences. “Where did you get this?” he asked finally.
Jun-su repeated his father’s explanation of how the book had come into his possession, from the moment of its discovery by the chambermaid, Kim Bok-mi.
“Do you mind if I borrow it?” asked Teacher Kang.
“Just remember to bring it back,” said Jun-su. “It’s mine.”
Teacher Kang kept the book for about a week. He told Jun-su he was reading it with the aid of a dictionary, and updated him about his progress, but refused to give any details until he’d finished.
When Teacher Kang returned the book, it was wrapped in a cover of the cheapest plain brown paper, so rough to the touch that it was useless for drawing.
“I covered it for you,” explained Teacher Kang. “You’d have to be crazy to walk around with this picture showing. The demon is red. That could get you a visit from the Ministry of State Security. It looks like an attack on socialism.”
The secret police of the Ministry of State Security—the bowibu—were notoriously tireless in their efforts to protect socialism from internal and external threats. Loyal citizens had nothing to fear from them, of course. But there was always a nagging fear that one might, through panic or foolishness, inadvertently commit an act of treachery. For example, there had recently been the case of a woman who had rescued her children from a burning house, but disloyally abandoned the portraits of the Dear and Great Leaders to the flames. Not everyone had the courage and presence of mind of the heroic schoolgirl martyr Han Hyong-gyong who had managed to tread water while holding two plastic-wrapped portraits above a rising flood until she finally succumbed to exhaustion and drowned.
The possibility that the book was reactionary propaganda worried Jun-su. “Is it an attack on socialism?” he asked.
Teacher Kang explained that it wasn’t. “And even if it was, surely socialism is powerful enough to survive the attacks of a few reactionary dogs?” His eyes gleamed with a sly mischief. “Didn’t the Great Leader himself say: ‘If a man does not read the books he wants to because he has been prohibited from doing so, how can he undertake a great cause?’?”
“So what is it?” asked Jun-su.
“It’s hard to explain in simple words,” said the teacher. “It gives the rules for a game of make-believe. All the players choose a different character. You can decide to be a fighter, or a wizard, and you control them during adventures.”
“What kind of adventures?”
“There’s another player who creates the adventures. This person is in charge of everything and creates a world for the characters to play in.”
“Like the Dear Leader?”
Teacher Kang thought for a while. “I suppose so. Except you can be anyone you want in this game. As you play it, you defeat enemies, find treasure, and make friends. You can die, but if you do heroic deeds you can improve your fortune and win honor.”
“Like songbun,” said Jun-su, whose mother had initiated him early into the secrets of his country’s caste system.
Teacher Kang was taken aback. “What do you know about songbun?” he asked.
“My mother told me it determines a person’s destiny.” Jun-su was proud to have learned that he was the grandson of a man who had fought against the Japanese and was therefore of the best, most loyal revolutionary pedigree, rather than a member of the wavering or hostile classes.
Teacher Kang folded his arms and seemed to consider this answer in silence.
“What is the name of this game?” asked Jun-su.
“I call it the House of Possibility,” said the old man.
On Teacher Kang’s next visit, he brought an exercise book and several sets of the split twigs, flat on one side and rounded on the other, that are used for playing the game of yut. He explained that the House of Possibility was usually played with dice, but that he had adapted the rules so they could play with yut sticks instead.
“I will be the game’s leader,” he said. “You make your character.”
By throwing the yut sticks, Jun-su created numbers that corresponded to certain qualities that he wrote down in pencil on a sheet of scratchy brown paper. His character was very intelligent, but neither strong nor agile. However, he was wise and quite attractive to other people.
“The best thing is for him to be a magic-user or sorcerer,” said Teacher Kang. “He can learn spells and do conjuring. But first you have to decide whether he is good or evil.”
The old man looked him straight in the eye. Jun-su remembered the teacher’s furtive fumbling and his whiny voice saying: “I just wanted to look at your pepper.”
“Good, obviously,” said Jun-su.
“There are different kinds of good,” said Teacher Kang. “There is the good that follows orders and rules, and there is the good that sometimes breaks rules in order to be kind.”
Jun-su suddenly worried that he was being tricked. Was Teacher Kang laying a trap for him? Would his answer be held up as a mistake at the Daily Life Unity Critique? Would he be punished, as other wrongdoers were, by having to mop the hallways or being made to clean the disgusting toilets?
“You don’t have to be good,” said Teacher Kang. “It’s not real life.” And then he added, in a casual voice: “In the House of Possibility, you can even choose to be bad.”
Something about the suggestion put Jun-su in a state of high alert. It was a terrifying and yet fascinating idea. “Are there different kinds of bad?” he asked.
“Indeed,” said the teacher quietly. “There are many varieties of bad. There is the bad that takes pleasure in pure badness, the bad that pledges obedience to corrupt authority, the bad of the vicious, the bad of the cowardly, the heroic bad of those boys and teachers who—”
“No!” said Jun-su, interrupting the old man. Now he knew it was a test. “I want to be loyal and good.”
From now on, after each session with the needles, Jun-su and Teacher Kang played the House of Possibility.
Jun-su’s character was a sorcerer called Bong Chon-ju. Teacher Kang began the game by telling a story about a village that had been overrun with skeletons and whose inhabitants, desperate for help, had turned to the magician.
Bong Chon-ju met them in a tavern, but the villagers were too afraid to return to the village with him, and when he got there it was already nighttime.
Teacher Kang described the thatched huts in the moonlight, the eerie outline of a scarecrow, and the wind rustling through the trees.
It was a frightening scene and Jun-su was tempted to send Bong Chon-ju back to the safety of the tavern. Instead, he told Teacher Kang that Bong Chon-ju would tie up his horse, draw his sword, and explore the area.
Teacher Kang showed him a map of the village where he’d drawn the huts, the well, the barns, and the surrounding paddy fields.
“Where do you go first?” asked Teacher Kang.
Teacher Kang threw a handful of yut sticks onto the table and did some calculations in his head. “You approach the hut,” he said in the low, serious voice he used for explaining the hardest math problems. “But before you get to it, the door swings open with a bang and out jumps a terrifying skeleton waving a sword. What do you do?”
Jun-su was shaken by the description. Teacher Kang had deliberately yelled out bang when the door opened in such a way as to startle him. Jun-su looked at the list of spells on his character sheet. There were only three because Bong Chon-ju was not yet a powerful wizard. “I cast the spell ‘Magic Arrow,’?” said Jun-su.
Teacher Kang nodded and threw the yut sticks. “The yellow arrow flies from your fingertips, striking the skeleton in the middle of his grinning skull. He explodes and clatters to the floor in a pile of dry bones.”
Jun-su breathed an audible sigh of relief.
It took two evenings for Bong Chon-ju to clear the village of the skeletons. In the final hut, he discovered a trapdoor that led down to a warren of underground tunnels. Clearly, they needed to be explored.
That night, Teacher Kang stayed for dinner and Jun-su’s mother served some of her home-raised pork.
To his parents’ puzzlement, Jun-su and Teacher Kang chatted animatedly about a village full of skeletons and underground tunnels.
After he’d left, Jun-su’s mother said: “You’re getting close to Teacher Kang.”
Jun-su agreed that he was.
“Has he—” Jun-su’s mother began a sentence, then seemed to think better of it. She glanced at her husband and began again, speaking almost in a whisper. “Has Yeong-nam ever tried to touch you?” she asked.
Jun-su was taken aback. It was also odd for his mother to refer to Teacher Kang in such an informal way. “He puts needles in me,” he said, as though he didn’t quite understand the question.
“Apart from when he puts the needles in you, has he ever touched you?”
Jun-su noticed his parents exchanging another glance. He knew the answer was yes.
“The thing is, he’s not a normal fellow,” said Jun-su’s father, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor polishing his work shoes for the next day. In between polishes, he’d hold them up to the bulb to assess the shine. “Too much time studying books has given him crazy ideas. It’s made him—” So-dok hesitated. Han-na had caught his eye with a warning look. “Your mother just wants to know that he hasn’t done anything he shouldn’t have. We wouldn’t blame you if he had.”
Jun-su knew that if he told his parents a word of what had happened, that would spell the end of the game.
“No,” he said. “He never did.”
The underground tunnels turned out to be the hiding place for the priests of a sinister cult who had conjured the skeletons to life from the graves around the village. At one point, Bong Chon-ju was surprised by so many opponents that Jun-su panicked and couldn’t decide what to do first. Should he attack the lead skeleton or prepare a spell? Try to escape or stay and fight?
“What is taking you so long?” asked Teacher Kang.
“I’m trying to think what’s best,” said Jun-su. Sententiously, he added: “The Great Leader says the best course of action is clear to the man who is practical.”
Teacher Kang gave a sly smile as he poured the yut sticks from one cupped hand to another. “Really,” he said, “is this any time to be practical?”
It took almost two weeks of regular sessions to defeat the cult and for Bong Chon-ju to return in glory to the tavern and tell the villagers that they could go back to their homes.
Out of gratitude, they gave Bong Chon-ju not only the one hundred gold pieces they’d promised as payment, but a magic shirt that protected him from fire and a spell book with two new spells in it: “Speak with Animals” and “Detect Treasure.”
Jun-su was giddy with excitement as he walked the old man to the door. He asked if one day he could be the game leader and throw the yut sticks. Teacher Kang said he could, and he promised to lend him a dictionary so he could try to read the book himself.
“In any case,” said Teacher Kang, “the needles have done their work. You’ll be well enough to return to school in January.”
Jun-su detected a note of regret in the teacher’s voice.
By New Year, Jun-su’s shaking had all but stopped. He was sometimes breathless when he climbed stairs, but he’d put on weight and looked well. By contrast, he was shocked to see how thin his classmates had become in his absence. There were many empty spaces in the classroom that belonged to boys who had been taken out of school. Now and again, Jun-su would hear his mother say she had seen some of them begging for food around the markets.
On his first day back, at midmorning, all the students were given a protein supplement sent by their comrades in China that they mixed with water and drank. It tasted like sawdust, but the teachers insisted they finish every drop. Jun-su’s friend Sok-chung informed him that this was now a daily occurrence.
A few days after Jun-su got back to school, Teacher Kang called him to stay behind after a math lesson. Teacher Kang was marking a test. He worked his way through the pile of exercise books without looking at Jun-su.
“Do you feel better?” said Teacher Kang, keeping his gaze fixed on the column of sums in front of him.
“Yes, Teacher Kang,” said Jun-su.
“Good. I want you to work hard. You’ve missed a lot of lessons.”
Jun-su agreed that he had and promised that he would do his best.
Teacher Kang closed the book he was marking and added it to the pile, which he squared up on the desk in front of him, then cleared his throat. Now he looked Jun-su in the eye. He let his gaze rest on the boy for an uncomfortably long time. Finally he spoke. “The House of Possibility is not something that everyone can understand,” he said quietly.
Jun-su felt obliged to lower his eyes.
“A wise adventurer knows when to be silent,” added Teacher Kang.
“Yes, Teacher Kang,” said Jun-su.
The teacher dismissed him with a nod.
Jun-su and Teacher Kang resumed their old relationship, the relationship of pupil and teacher, which in Korean culture is marked with respect and great formality. But even though, outwardly, Jun-su had returned to normal life, he knew that his long absence and protracted isolation had altered him.
He found himself at one remove from his surroundings. At moments during his busy days he would fall into a reverie in which the world summoned by the words of Teacher Kang and the click of the yut sticks seemed more real than the world in front of his eyes: the red-kerchiefed students, the pedestrians in the streets of Wonsan, the smell of polish in the hallway of his apartment block.
As he stood in line in the playground before class, Jun-su thought about the sorcerer Bong Chon-ju. He imagined him mixing potions or studying magic in a tower somewhere, far from Wonsan. Jun-su wondered about his life. When he wasn’t adventuring, what sorts of things did he do? Did he eat corn porridge for breakfast? Did he attend weekly self-criticism sessions of the Magicians’ Union? Were there portraits of the Dear and Great Leaders in the room where he studied magic? And sometimes, when Jun-su raised his hand in class to answer a question, he even pretended that he was Bong Chon-ju himself, gathering a ball of light with his fingers to cast a spell over his classmates.
In the middle of February, the school celebrated the Dear Leader’s birthday. Every child was given an egg to mark the occasion. Jun-su carried his home carefully in the palm of his hand.
Winter eased its grip on Wonsan. The silence of the ice-locked city gave way to the noisy dripping of thaw and slush. The weather grew warmer. In April, Jun-su and his entire class were sent to the countryside to plant rice. The journey took twelve hours and required a change of trains and a long walk from the station at the other end. The students brought with them not only a change of clothes but a supply of food for the length of the two-week stay.
The work was hard. The children had to transplant rice seedlings from the nursery to the paddy field by hand. It meant bending double for most of the day, and the tiny plants had to be handled delicately.
As he fixed the pale-green seedlings in the mud, Jun-su would let his thoughts wander to the game he had played with Teacher Kang. Instead of his parents’ apartment, the clatter of the yut sticks, and the smell of food wafting from the kitchen, he recalled it as if he were Bong Chon-ju himself, pressed against the sides of the underground tunnels and holding his breath so he wouldn’t be noticed by the cult’s defenders. His nostrils were full of the smell of damp earth and the oily smoke of the torches that lit the darkness. He could hear the distant, gruff voices of the guards and the sound of his heart, beating in his chest.
Something bright was shining in his eyes. A face he didn’t recognize was leaning over him. Jun-su felt wetness under his head. He was lying down in the paddy field. Two of his classmates helped him sit up.
Around him there was a babble of concerned voices. Jun-su was confused. He couldn’t understand anything they were saying.
A moment later, he was sitting on a low cot in a hut while the collective farm’s medical officer pressed a stethoscope to his chest.
“Your classmates said you were ill last autumn for a long time,” said the medical officer. She was wearing a white coat adorned with one of the newest and most desirable badges: a joint portrait of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader.
“I had rhythmatic fever,” said Jun-su.
“Rhythmatic, you say?” On the wall behind the medical officer was a picture of a human body with all its skin taken off. Labels pointed out the names of the different muscles. “Or might it have been rheumatic fever?”
“That’s right,” said Jun-su. “Rheumatic fever. And a shaking illness.”
The medical officer nodded. She had a distant look in her eyes as she listened to the stethoscope and pressed its bell onto the front and back of his chest. The metal felt smooth and cool against his skin.
“Did you take medicine?” she asked. “Any antibiotics?”
Jun-su shook his head. “Teacher Kang used needles on me.” Jun-su experienced a pang as he said the name of his teacher. He felt lonely in the strange hut. He wished he were back at home with his mother, reading The Amazing Tincture for the hundredth time and watching the sunlight advance across the wall of the room. “What can you hear?” he asked.
The medical officer put away her stethoscope in a little case. Jun-su could see Chinese characters on it. “Do you know what kind of sound the heart makes?” she said.
“It goes boom-boom, like a drum,” said Jun-su.
“That’s right,” said the medical officer. “But sometimes, when I listen to your heart through the stethoscope, I hear a whooshing sound after the boom-boom.”
“Is that bad?” said Jun-su.
The medical officer went to the corner of the room and washed her hands with water from a jug. She dried them on a small towel and then came back and sat on the end of Jun-su’s cot. She pushed her hair away from her face and sighed. There was something dainty and birdlike in her movements. After a long while, she spoke.
“The illness you had can last a long time and sometimes it can damage the valves in your heart,” she said.
Jun-su’s face must have betrayed how ominous this all sounded to him.
She ruffled his hair. “Don’t worry. It just means you need to rest. You can’t work in the fields. We’ll have to find some other things for you to do. I studied in Wonsan and I have a friend at the hospital who can examine you properly when you go home.”
For the remainder of the stay in the countryside, Jun-su helped in the farm’s small noodle factory. Sometimes he collected eggs from the henhouses. These were distributed to the workers at the collective farm. The schoolchildren ate the food rations they’d brought with them from the city.
One mealtime, a classmate called Ryu Bong-li jeered at Jun-su because he no longer worked with the others in the paddy field. “Jun-su does little girls’ work,” said Bong-li.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Jun-su snapped back, “Bong-li is a moron. And his father wears women’s clothes and dances for sailors.”
Jun-su wasn’t sure what had suggested the insult. It had arisen spontaneously from some secret part of him. But it hit its target like a Magic Arrow spell. The other boys laughed uproariously. Bong-li flushed with shame. His eyes went glassy and he lowered his head to hide his tears.
No one mocked Jun-su again. Sometimes when he had finished his chores, he helped the medical officer in her hut. Her name was Park Ok-ja. Jun-su called her Dr. Park.
Dr. Park weighed all her patients and let Jun-su write down their weights in a big hardback book. She also showed him how to take their blood pressure. Regardless of the patient’s symptoms, the treatment was almost always the same: a screw of gray paper with some tablets in it. The doctor said they were made from willow bark and effective for many different things. She also had some dried milk powder in a big tin that she gave to nursing mothers.
Occasionally grateful patients made small presents of food to the doctor: some rice cakes, dried fruit—even once a small pot of honey from a pregnant woman who had been trying a long time to conceive. The doctor would make an effort to refuse the gifts, but without success. On quiet afternoons, she shared these with Jun-su. She also let him play with the medical equipment, such as it was. Jun-su liked pumping up the rubber sleeve for taking blood pressure on his biceps until his fingers went fat and numb.
At other times, Dr. Park would sit on the cot and Jun-su would tell her the stories from comic books. Often she seemed distracted or uninterested. But when he told her The Blizzard in the Jungle he made the central character a heroic female doctor, and he could tell she liked that one.
On the last day, as the children assembled to march off to the railway station for the twelve-hour journey home, Dr. Park came to say good-bye to Jun-su. She gave him a letter to take to her friend at Wonsan Hospital. In return, he gave her a small bunch of flowers that he had picked that morning and had clutched in his sweaty hand despite the teasing of his classmates. She took the flowers, kissed him on the cheek, and called him her younger brother.
It was midnight when they reached Wonsan. The students were told that, owing to their late arrival, they could come to school at midday.
Jun-su slept unusually deeply that night. He had a dream that he was back in the medical hut with Dr. Park.
She was pressing the stethoscope to his chest and listening. As she moved the bell of the stethoscope down his sternum, he could feel her warm breath tickling his skin. Dr. Park removed the earpieces and laid her hand on his stomach. “Would you like me to touch your pepper?” she asked.
Jun-su realized that the answer was yes, very much yes; but he was also worried that it was a trap.
Dr. Park seemed to read his mind. “I won’t tell the bowibu,” she whispered. “Also it will increase your vital energy.”
As Jun-su considered his reply, there was a banging on the door of the hut.
“Quickly,” said Dr. Park. “Someone’s coming. What’s your answer?”
Tormented by his desire and yet too timid to acknowledge it, Jun-su felt himself being pried out of the dream by the noise. He longed to go back and say yes, but now he found that he was at home in the flat in Wonsan, his dirty clothes in a heap at the foot of the mattress. It was midmorning. His father was at work. His mother had gone out.
The sound of the banging continued from the front door.
Jun-su opened it to find Kim Song-hwa, the superintendent of the building’s People’s Unit, chiding him from the threshold. Her thin mop of dyed black hair was teased up around her head like a lampshade. “What are you doing?” she snapped.
“Nothing,” said Jun-su, still feeling oddly guilty about his dream.
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Kim. “And you’re supposed to be at school.”
“Not this morning, Superintendent Kim. We got back late from the countryside.”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Kim, waving an official-looking piece of paper at him. “Special order. Hurry, or I’ll have to put your name in the book.”
The book she was referring to was the ledger in which she recorded all the shortcomings of the building’s residents. It meant there would be repercussions at the next Women’s Union self-criticism session and his mother would probably be reprimanded and made to paint something or sweep ash from the building’s boiler room. There was no point arguing.
“I’ll get dressed now, Superintendent Kim,” said Jun-su.
Naturally, there was no one at the assembly point and Jun-su didn’t hurry on his way. He strolled towards the school, knowing they weren’t expecting him until after lunch.
Lunch. His parents had left the apartment early and he hadn’t had time to have breakfast. Now he wouldn’t eat until evening. Just then, Jun-su’s nostrils were assailed by the aroma of frying food. It brought a flood of saliva into his mouth. At a cart whose misshapen wheels were propped against a couple of bricks, a vendor was frying maize flour into crispy balls. Heated from below by twigs and charcoal, the golden fat seethed in the fryer. Jun-su wondered how the man had come by so much precious oil.
A handful of pedestrians had stopped to watch, as though they might satisfy their hunger by consuming the food with their eyes.
Jun-su had no money, but he drew closer all the same. The man was working quickly, fishing out the finished balls and putting them in a cone of newspaper. Undoubtedly, he would have carefully removed any references to the Dear Leader, so as not to desecrate his name or image with hot fat.
The vendor looked a bit shifty. He kept glancing around; whether it was for customers or police, it was hard to say.
The Arduous March meant that the authorities turned a blind eye to men and women who had set up small businesses like this one, yet they weren’t officially permitted. People called them “grasshopper traders,” because they popped up out of nowhere and then disappeared as quickly as they’d come. It was difficult to know whether they were good or bad. On one hand, you could say they were feeding their fellow citizens and demonstrating their own version of Juche. On the other hand, any private enterprise was a small step towards re-creating the evils of capitalism and the exploitation of one class by another.
The vendor glanced at Jun-su and beckoned him forward with a nod of his head. Jun-su approached the cart and unthinkingly received the greasy paper cone that was placed in his hand.
“I don’t have any money,” protested Jun-su feebly.
“It’s your lucky day,” said the vendor.
Scarcely believing his good fortune, Jun-su put one of the snacks in his mouth: the crispy maize was splattered with spicy red gochujang sauce. At that moment, it seemed like the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten in his life.
Seeing Jun-su crunching the hot maize balls was too much for the wavering bystanders. First two and then three others stepped forward to hand over money for the snacks.
The vendor winked at Jun-su. It seemed as though the two of them had performed a trick that had unlocked the money of the other customers. Jun-su hung around briefly in case the vendor felt like giving him more, but it wasn’t to be.
He couldn’t wait to get to school to share the story of his good luck with his classmates. But as he rounded the final corner to approach the school, he was taken aback to see a huge crowd of people milling around the gates.
Soldiers in khaki uniforms were pushing the crowd back and making them form an orderly queue. One of the soldiers spotted Jun-su. “Let the children in first!” he shouted.
Jun-su was ushered to the front and slipped into the school playground, which was packed with people.
He joined his classmates inside the square that marked the air raid assembly point and found himself next to Sok-chung. He couldn’t help feeling excited. Had the Yankees finally attacked? Was this the moment of destiny that the entire country had been preparing for?
“What’s going on?” he whispered to Sok-chung.
Sok-chung shook his head. “I’m not sure, but I think it’s a special visit.”
Jun-su suddenly knew exactly what was happening. He knew the reason for the crowds, the sense of excitement—and even, in a strange way, for his good fortune with the food vendor.
In a few minutes, the gates would open and a car would arrive bearing the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. The Dear Leader loved Wonsan. It was rumored that he had a home somewhere along the coast. He’d definitely visited the Songdowon Hotel with his father in 1972, because the moment was commemorated by a mural in the lobby.
Now he was about to turn up at Jun-su’s school and give some on-the-spot guidance. He would congratulate the students on their hard work in the countryside. He might even single out individuals for praise. Jun-su felt a pang of misgiving that he hadn’t spent more time laboring in the fields. He hoped the Dear Leader would understand that his health problems had made it impossible.
Just as Jun-su had predicted, the crowd parted, and two vehicles began to nose slowly through the mass of people.
It took an age for them to reach the space that had been cleared at the front of the playground. They had to move carefully so as not to crush anyone.
Jun-su could hear shouts from the soldiers and now a woman’s voice, yelling above the murmur of the crowd. She sounded hysterical. Some people’s love for the Dear Leader was so intense that it spilled out in passionate declarations like this. Except this didn’t sound quite right.
The woman was pounding on the door of one of the vehicles and screaming, “Bastard! Bastard!”
A soldier had to pull her back, but he didn’t arrest her.
Jun-su looked in puzzlement at Sok-chung.
“Tae-il’s mother,” said Sok-chung. Seo Tae-il was the class representative who had visited Jun-su when he had first fallen ill. Tae-il’s father was high up in the Workers’ Party and the boy had already been accepted into the Young Pioneers, the first in their class to receive this honor.
Now Jun-su started to notice other strange preparations for the visit. A layer of sand had been raked over the concrete in front of them. The two vehicles were green army jeeps, not the luxury cars that the Dear Leader would travel in.
Soldiers dismounted from one of the jeeps and pulled a heavy sack out of the other one. They dumped it on the sand in front of the crowd.
One of the soldiers kicked the sack and it stood up and turned into a person: a pair of legs in stained trousers, a filthy torso, hands manacled tightly behind its back, head and shoulders covered with a loose black hood.
It took a couple of uncertain steps, like someone who had been spun around a lot with his eyes closed.
A soldier with a rough voice read loudly from a piece of paper. “Kang Yeong-nam, the people’s court finds you guilty of spying. The sentence is death.”
As the old teacher tottered on his thin and unsteady legs, three soldiers stepped forward and discharged their weapons three times each with loud cracks. Three shots went into Yeong-nam’s head, three into his body, and three into the backs of his knees. He crumpled onto the sand. The silence seemed thicker after the gunshots. Blood puddled around the black sack.
The bittersweet, wet-iron smell of butchery rose up to Jun-su’s nose. He could feel the greasy maize balls in his stomach like stones. He thought of his teeth breaking through their crunchy shells and the sickly red chili paste. He felt sure he was going to vomit. He turned round and pushed his way through the silent crowd.
By the time he’d got outside, he no longer felt sick. But he wanted to cry, and he didn’t want anyone to see his tears.
Over the coming days, the teacher’s execution was all that anyone talked about. People remembered many wicked things that Kang Yeong-nam had done—no one now considered him worthy of the honorific Teacher. Sometimes, as people competed to reveal his crimes, Jun-su thought about sharing his own story of the teacher’s depravity. But something held him back—some guilt at not having spoken out, some questionable sense of loyalty, some residual affection for the old man.
The spurious tales of Kang Yeong-nam’s wickedness supplanted other, accurate recollections about his generosity and devotion to teaching.
It turned out that his disloyalty had finally been exposed thanks to the vigilance of Seo Tae-il, the class representative, who had been receiving extra math lessons from the old man. The story went that Seo Tae-il had discovered a secret radio in Kang Yeong-nam’s apartment that he used to communicate with foreign spies.
Seo Tae-il had revealed this to his father. Under questioning, the teacher had admitted to many other terrible crimes. The death sentence was undoubtedly just. Seo Tae-il received a special commendation from the party and his status in the school rose to previously inconceivable heights. There was even an article about him in the Rodong Sinmun.
Armed with the letter from Dr. Park, Jun-su was able to get an appointment at the hospital in Wonsan.
Dr. Park’s friend was the head of the pediatric department. He was a bony man in his forties called Dr. Ri who smoked the same Chollima brand of cigarettes as Jun-su’s dad. Han-na had brought him a gift of food. He accepted it wordlessly, but closed his eyes and nodded in a way that left no doubt about how welcome it was.
The checkup confirmed Dr. Park’s suspicions that Jun-su’s illness had damaged his heart. There was, however, little the hospital could do. As a precaution, the doctor advised that Jun-su should not participate in sports or any strenuous outdoor pursuits.
This was crushing for Jun-su. When his classmates were given days off to help in the collective farm, Jun-su did extra schoolwork. During gymnastics and soccer or volleyball practice, Jun-su swept the changing room and cleaned the showers. After his classmates finished showering, Jun-su mopped up the puddles on the floor with a bundle of rags on a pole. He hated the drudgery and he envied the carefree athleticism of the other boys, whose skinny bodies were now beginning to show the changes of puberty.
One afternoon at the end of volleyball practice, Jun-su found himself alone in the showers with Tae-il. Tae-il, despite not being particularly good at volleyball, was on the school team. Better still, as a reward for his vigilance in exposing Kang Yeong-nam, he had received a gift of almost unimaginable marvelousness: a red nylon tracksuit like the ones worn by the country’s Olympic athletes.
Tae-il zipped up the jacket with an air of self-importance while Jun-su waited with his tatty mop.
A thought struck Jun-su as he watched Tae-il flattening out his bangs in front of the mirror.
“Hey, Tae-il,” he said. “You know when the traitor Kang was teaching you math?”
Tae-il inclined his head casually to Jun-su. He was fond of retelling the story on which his legendary status depended. And in truth, both the danger he’d faced and his resourcefulness had increased in subsequent tellings.
Jun-su went on: “Did you two ever play the House of Possibility?”
Tae-il’s face suddenly altered. His features now wore an expression that Jun-su had never seen. He looked alert and fearful. His newly prominent Adam’s apple bobbed twice in his throat as he swallowed. He glanced around to check that they were alone.
Jun-su moved towards him. He was astonished by the shifty expression on Tae-il’s face: a look of guilt and discomfort.
He thought of Teacher Kang trying to touch his pepper and he knew instantly he’d done the same to Tae-il. “Teacher Kang touched you,” he said, uttering the words almost inadvertently, just as they had crossed his mind.
Tae-il’s face flushed and he began to shout; his rasping, broken voice sounded like a panicky quack. “Jun-su is a spy!” he yelled.
The years of political study, of math problems that involved multiplying numbers of American soldiers by numbers of missiles, of learning the history of the Korean Workers’ Party and the exemplary life stories of the Dear and Great Leaders meant that Jun-su knew immediately what Tae-il was doing. He wasn’t just reacting defensively with his counteraccusation. He was attempting to lay on Jun-su an irreversible and fatal curse. Any hesitation now would be calamitous.
Jun-su instantly drew his arm back and gave Tae-il’s face a ringing slap.
Tae-il was stunned into silence by the decisiveness of the movement. The handle of Jun-su’s mop clattered onto the floor.
“I know exactly what you did with Teacher Kang,” said Jun-su. “You chose to be evil and you let him touch your cock.”
Tae-il stared at him disbelievingly, clutching his face. His eyes burned with shame and hatred.
At that moment, the door of the changing room opened. Teacher Kim, their form mistress, called for the boys to hurry up. Jun-su knew she wouldn’t come into the boys’ room unless it was an emergency. He stood his ground, not taking his eyes off Tae-il.
“Coming, Teacher Kim!” quacked Tae-il, and he skulked out of the changing room, leaving Jun-su to pick up the mop.