How I Became a North Korean

BOOK: How I Became a North Korean
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Also by Krys Lee

Drifting House

VIKING

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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New York, New York 10014

penguin.com

Copyright © 2016 by Krystn Lee

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

ISBN 9780670025688

ISBN 9780735221307 (international edition)

ISBN 9780399563935 (e-book)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

To those who have crossed

The question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing.

—Cormac McCarthy,
All the Pretty Horses

Part I
Crossing
1
Yongju

H
ome still begins as an image for me. The Pyongyang subway line dug down as deeply as a bunker. The elderly drunk and dancing by the Pothong River to the brass
kwaengwari
's tinsel music. The electric fences circling hundreds of labor camps farther north that we pretended didn't exist. These images are my home, my prison sentence. But memory is a slippery mirror, a surface that splinters into fragments when I touch it. It moves the way that the poems I used to write changed with each attempt at completion; it haunts me. I find myself looking for clues to the past, repeatedly returning to that mansion floating in light, to our country that the rest of the world calls North Korea.

I'm haunted by what my
eomeoni
told me. On that last night, she said, no one wanted to be present in the mansion with kilometers of bomb shelter tunnels underneath it. She and my
abeoji
wore the same smiles as everyone else, the same fur coats and Rolex watches engraved with the name of the Dear Leader, the
Great General, the man with dozens of honorific titles. They wore the same Kim family badges over their hearts and, in this way, demonstrated their loyalty to our leaders.

We, the children, were absent. But our parents entered the spacious hall set up for a banquet, saying to one another, “I hear your son will attend Kim Chaek University—you must be so proud of him!” or “I saw your daughter play the cello—what a beauty she is!”

We were safe topics. They knew one another from the same schools, the same committees. Their sons, like me, were exempt from the ten years of required military service and grew up in Pyongyang's top institutions, and their daughters, like my little
dongsaeng,
were expected to someday marry their equals. Our
eomeoni
in silk dresses and hair coiled into buns sat at one side of a long mahogany table, our
abeoji
in black suits on the other. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves, but everyone was afraid. It could have been any party except for those badges and our Dear Leader at the foot of the table, observing them all.

This was my family's Pyongyang in 2009. We didn't know anyone who was exiled to grim mining towns or ground tree bark into their stews in order to fill their stomachs. We shared nothing in common but citizenship with the schoolkids living in the provinces forced to do work in opium fields, or the communities of men roving the country looking for work to seek money that became food. As for me, I lived the life that my
abeoji
's and
eomeoni
's status allowed me; I read and spoke passable English, Russian, and a little Chinese, and expected to attend graduate
school overseas. I was twenty-one and assumed my journey would be easy.

In that hall my
eomeoni
and
abeoji
must have seemed untouchable as they glided under a chandelier as heavy as a tank. It hurts to conjure up the image of my
eomeoni,
her face the innocent shape of an egg, her hazel eyes gazing ahead frankly, though she trusted no one. She, a well-known actress, weaved toward my
abeoji
's lover with fluid movements, a walk she had constructed through hundreds of hours of practice. After greeting those she passed, she sat across from a woman with false eyelashes, and, in a tone she reserved for children, said, “You got home rather late last Friday evening, didn't you?”

In this way, she reminded the woman that there was only one wife and that the wife had generously permitted the husband a tryst with his lover. My
eomeoni
's fierce pride disguised her wounds like a cloak.

My
abeoji
was a man confident that his decisions were right. He wasn't too alarmed, and smiled jauntily as he sat beside my
eomeoni.
He ran the government trading bureau, a powerful position mysterious even to his family; there were always graver issues for him than women. But as his lover flushed and leaned like a sunflower toward her unknowing husband, my
abeoji
whispered to my
eomeoni,
“Was this necessary?”

She said, “Does it matter?”

She tilted her chin high, lifting her neckline to hide the subtle physical changes incurred over their marriage arranged by the Great General himself. My
abeoji
didn't notice, or care, about such details. But she cared about her unsmudged red lipstick, about
protecting her dignity. That last night she upheld her part perfectly until there was no part left to uphold.

To the wife of the number eleven rank in the party who was next to her, she said, “How was your
eomeoneem
's surgery?” then “How was the honey I sent over?” Surrounded by the group of forty guests, fenced in by their limited freedoms, my pragmatic
eomeoni
maintained her alliances. Minutes later she said to the number seven man in the party across from her, “The plans in your speech last week will serve our country so well.”

As the man blushed and pontificated on trade techniques, my
eomeoni
's chopsticks hovered over slivers of blowfish and tuna still quivering on the plate, part of the latest shipment from the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market flown in on a private jet. My
abeoji
anticipated the brandy that would be served later; it made him nostalgic for his work trips to Europe, a continent, he had told me, where the whole world was for sale. This was our life.

Before the ruins of the overflowing table and the movable fountain of Chivas Regal were cleared by a dozen attendants, my
eomeoni
's foot nudged my
abeoji
's, her eyes insisting on the glass in front of him. He raised his brandy to the Dear Leader's health as prompted and said, “To our Great General!”

Finally they dared to look at him.

The Dear Leader lifted a glass to himself, and only then did all the other glasses in the hall rise in succession. “To our Great General!” the bright, anxious mouths said.

Underneath his gray silk Mao suit, maybe the general suffered, too. I wonder if he touched a discolored mole that worried him, or touched his thinning hair teased into a tangle of height
when he was weighing his potential successors, checking if he was still intact. But he knew what to rely on when nothing else was left: extravagant rituals of the hand, goose-stepping parades of soldiers, a skyline of monuments. He sank into the chair that hugged his girth, and with one ragged rhythm of his arm held everyone's attention.

I want the scene to freeze here. I want to prevent the events that my
eomeoni
told me about on the night we left Pyongyang forever; I want my language of yearning to be more powerful than time, but all I can do is remember. Imagine. Believe the only story I have left of my
abeoji
.

In the hall so large that their voices echoed, the Dear Leader's hand rose toward the northernmost wall from him and the wall parted.

The attendants dragged back the red curtains and revealed a stage behind the wall. A glittering disco globe came down from the ceiling and the Joy Brigade began strutting in pink hot pants to a banned American pop song. Everything about the performance, in theory, was banned. The women were too close to the Dear Leader; many would have bleak futures. I would hear about a girl who disappeared to the camps after resisting the Dear Leader's advances; another, who had idealized a visiting Swiss diplomat and lived with her nostalgia; still another who married a stranger because the Dear Leader commanded the match.

The Dear Leader stood up, and everyone averted their eyes. He said sharply, “Why aren't you dancing?” His mood turned from the moment before.

The Dear Leader's words worked; they always worked. The
lights dimmed and strobe lights flashed, and my parents began dancing in the hall that could have been in Paris or Pyongyang.

I don't know how many crimes my
abeoji
committed, or what he did on his business trips setting up trading deals in China and beyond. I don't know who my
abeoji
's lovers were, or my
eomeoni
's real birth date. I don't know if they ever tasted wild blackberries. I don't know why my
abeoji
so hungered for power and money, if he was ever deeply lonely. Or why it has taken so many years for me to be able to speak about them. This I do know: Their affection was fierce; battle was the way they demonstrated their love for each other. They were also gentle to each other; they were kind. Still, maybe her hand finally sought him and landed lightly across the outer bone of his hip, quieting his agitation.

She said, “Calm yourself, my love. People are watching.”

He murmured, “We will always be together.” Always confident.

It was only nine, but soon enough it would be midnight. Shadows stretched as long as train tracks across the walls; the disco ball flickered in and out. They danced, sidestepping across the parquet. At least, those who hadn't disappeared last year. Names that no one spoke in public because they had been banished, imprisoned, or killed. Or maybe, just maybe, escaped. These people I had grown up with were individuals, and they were the same, for they wanted to summit from official party number twenty-four to sixteen; they wanted the Dear Leader's approval; they wanted to be safer. The dancing continued until those around my
eomeoni
began to drag along to the music. But she never allowed herself to drag.

My
eomeoni
only became more correct, resembling more with each hour the actress who looked as if she couldn't possibly have bowel movements like the rest of us. She watched the clock. Midnight. Not long before we were to flee our country. The more the Dear Leader observed them, the more skittish my parents became. Must flatter, must be safe, must not let my face betray, must enjoy myself. I don't want to see it, it's all I can see: my
eomeoni,
in the end, a weak woman, and my
abeoji,
weaker still. The regime that would go on.

Finally, the Dear Leader's hands clamped down on their shoulders, one on my
abeoji
's, one on hers. “My turn!” he said.

A dance, then what next? Other entanglements, the violation of a marriage? It had happened before. The Dear Leader had no right! My
abeoji
's narrow lips would have turned south. We learned to hide our thoughts behind well-trained faces, but he was unable to hide his even in front of our leader. Maybe that was the tipping point to the Dear Leader's mood. Our fickle leader, our Great General, he owned every right.

My
abeoji
stepped back, finally retreating. The Dear Leader was drunk, now angry, and made his decision. He reached as if brushing off lint from my
abeoji
's suit lapel, then motioned a bodyguard over and casually withdrew a revolver from the man's jacket pocket. He aimed it at my
abeoji
's heart.

All I can do is watch.

The bullet spun out from the barrel, its lead body spiraled and chipped through the breastbone, punctured the pericardial cavity, the diaphragm, then penetrated the left atrium of my
abeoji
's heart. His hands fluttered as if releasing a dove into the air, a delicate,
useless protest as the bullet carved a path through him. He fell forward, his muscles twitching. My
eomeoni'
s hands covered her eyes, and the other people fled to the far corners of the hall. The gun disappeared back into the bodyguard's suit.

The Dear Leader said, “No one steals from me!” He had made an example of my
abeoji
.

Dark liquid seeped from him, his scalp dampened against my
eomeoni
's hands that were now in his hair. “Won't someone help?” she cried as the great muscle of his heart leaked blood. Blood filled his white shirt, spread to the collar, stained her nails, and infused her hands with the smell of bitter wormwood. In that towering city of my childhood, a traitor, a husband, a father, was there, still there for her, beating, beating, then gone.

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