EXCERPT: “For the Love of Juche” by Adam Johnson
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Citizens! In your housing blocks and factory floors, gather round this loudspeaker and congratulate one another, for high praises are in order on the occasion of the publication of the Dear Leader’s latest artistic treatise, The Proper uses of Opera. This is a sequel to Kim Jong Il’s earlier book On the Art of the Cinema, which is required reading for serious actors worldwide. To mark the occasion, the Minster of Collective Child Rearing announced the composition of two new children’s songs — “Hide Deeply” and “Jump the Rope.” All week, expired ration cards may be used to gain admittance to matinee opera performances!
Now, an important word from our Minister of Defense: Certainly the loudspeaker in each and every apartment in North Korea provides news, announcements and cultural programming, but it must be reminded that it was by Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s decree in 1973 that an air-raid warning system be installed across this nation, and a properly functioning early warning network is of the supreme importance. The Inuit people are a tribe of isolated savages that live near the North Pole. Their boots are called mukluk. Ask your neighbor later today, what is a mukluk? If he does not know, perhaps there is a malfunction with his loudspeaker, or perhaps it has for some reason become accidentally disconnected. By reporting this, you could be saving his life the next time the Americans surprise attack our great nation.
Citizens, the moment you have been waiting all week for: the seventh installment of this year’s Best North Korean Story! Last year’s tale of sorrow at the hands of South Korean missionaries was a one hundred percent success. This year’s story is even more grand — it is a true story of love and sorrow, of faith and endurance, and of the Dear Leader’s unending dedication to even the lowliest citizen of this great nation. Sadly, there is tragedy. Yet there is redemption, too! And Taekwan Do!
When last we saw the beauty Sun Moon, she had closed herself off. Our poor actress was handling her loss worse than expected. Why won’t she turn to the inspirational tracts of the Dear Leader? Kim Jong Il is someone who understands what you’re going through. Losing his brother when he was seven, his mother after that and then a baby sister a year later, not to mention a couple stepmothers — yes, the Dear Leader is someone who speaks the language of loss.
Still, Sun Moon did understand the role of reverence in a good citizen’s life, so she packed a picnic lunch to take to the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, just a short walk from their house on Mt. Taesong. Once there, her family spread a cloth on the ground, where they could relax at their meal, knowing Taepodong-II missiles stood at the ready, while high above North Korea’s BrightStar-2 satellite defended them from space.
The meal, of course, was bulgogi, and Sun Moon had prepared all manner of banchan to accompany the feast, including some gui, jjim, hoe, jeon and namul. They thanked the Dear Leader for their bounty and dug in!
As he ate, Commander Ga inquired of her parents. “Do they live here in the capitol?”
“They retired to Wonsan,” she said. “I never hear from them.”
The children were fast at their chopsticks.
“Wonsan’s a very active place,” he told her. “There’s golf and karaoke. I’m sure they’re quite busy.”
“You’ve been there?”
“No, but I’ve seen it from the sea. The sand is lovely there. The waves are large and clear and blue.”
“You’ve seen people on the beach, old people?”
“Certainly,” Commander Ga said. “Surf casting. Reading in the sand. Making watercolor seascapes. Ah, Wonsan, I can smell your offshore breeze from here! Talk about a Workers Paradise! No other nation has an entire city, right on the beach, as a dedicated retirement community.”
After lunch, they spilled the leftover food into the grass for the cute little birds to eat. Then Commander Ga decided the children needed some education. He took them to the top of the hill, and while Sun Moon looked on with pride, Commander Ga indicated the most important martyr in the cemetery, Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. The busts of all the martyrs were larger-than-life bronzes whose burnished hues seemed to bring their subjects to life. Ga explained at length Kim Jong Suk’s anti-Japanese heroics and how she was kindly known for carrying the heavy packs of older revolutionary guerrillas. The children wept that she died so young.
Then they walked a few meters to the next martyrs, Kim Chaek, An Kil, Kang Kon, Ryu Kyong Su, Jo Jong Chol and Choe Chun Guk, all patriots of the highest order who fought at the Great Leader’s side. Then Commander Ga pointed out the tomb of the hot-blooded O Jung Hup, commander of the famed Seventh Regiment. Next was the eternal sentinel Cha Kwang Su, who froze to death during a night watch at Lake Chon. The children rejoiced in their new understandings. And here was Pak Jun Do, who took his own life in a test of loyalty to our leaders. Don’t forget Back Hak Lim, who earned his nickname “Eagle-Owl” one imperialist at a time. Who hadn’t heard of Un Bo Song, who’d packed his ears with earth before charging a Japanese gun emplacement? More, the children called, more! Thus they walked the rows, taking note of Kong Young, Kin Chul Joo, Choe Kwang and O Paek Ryong, all too heroic for medals. Ahead was Choe Tong O, father of South Korean commander Choe Tok Sin, who defected to North Korea in order to pay his respects here. And here is Choe Tong O’s brother by marriage Ryu Tong Yol! Next was the bust of tunnelmaster Ryang Se Bong and the assassination triad of Jong Jun Thaek, Kang Yong Chang and “The Sportsman” Pak Yong Sun. Many Japanese orphans still feel the burn of Kim Jong Thae’s long patriotic shadow.
Sun Moon’s skin was flush, Commander Ga had so nakedly aroused her patriotism. The speech was the kind that brought milk to women’s breasts, left them engorged and life-giving, with white streams that spilt down their hanboks.
“Children,” she called. “Go play in the woods.”
Then she took the arm of Commander Ga and led him downhill to the Botanical Gardens. They passed the experimental farm, with its tall corn and bursting soybeans, the guards with their chrome kalishnikovs ever at the ready to defend the National Seed Bank against sudden imperial aggression.
She paused before what is perhaps our greatest national treasure, the twin greenhouses that exclusively cultivate kimjongilia and kimilsungia.
“Pick your hothouse,” she told him.
The buildings were translucent white. One glowed with the full fuchsia of kimjongilia. The breeding house of kimilsungia radiated an operatic overload of lavender orchid.
It was clear she couldn’t wait. “I choose Kim Il Sung,” Sun Moon said. “For he is the progenitor of our entire nation.”
Inside, the air was warm, humid. A mist hung. As this husband and wife strolled the rows arm in arm, the plants seemed to take notice — their swiveling blossoms followed in our lovers’ wake, as if to drink in the full flavor of Sun Moon’s honor and modesty. The couple paused, deep in the hothouse, taking a moment to recumbently enjoy the splendor of North Korea’s leadership. An army of hummingbirds hovered above them, expert pollinators of the state, the buzzing thrum of their wing beats penetrating the souls of our lovers, all the while dazzling them with the iridescent flash of their throats and the way their long flower-kissing tongues flicked in delight. Around Sun Moon, blossoms opened, the petals spreading wide to reveal hidden pollen pots. Commander Ga dripped with sweat, and in his honor, groping stamen emanated their scent in clouds of sweet spoor that coated our lovers’ bodies with the sticky seed of socialism. Sun Moon offered her Juche to him, and he gave her all he had of Songun policy. At-length, in-depth, their spirited exchange culminated in a mutual exclaim of party understanding.
Suddenly, all the plants in the hothouse shuddered and dropped their blossoms, leaving a blanket upon which Sun Moon could recline as a field of butterflies ticklishly alighted upon her innocent skin.
Finally, citizens, Sun Moon has shared her convictions with her husband!
Savor the glow, citizens, for in the next installment, we take a closer look at this “Commander Ga.” Though he is remarkable at satisfying the political needs of a woman, we will look closely at the ways in which he has defiled all seven tenets of North Korean Good Citizenship.
–Adam Johnson is the author of Emporium and Parasites Like Us. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, Harper’s, The Paris Review as well as Best American Short Stories and Best New American Voices. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he is also co-editor of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. This excerpt is from a novel-in-progress entitled The Orphan Master’s Son.
Photo courtesy of KCNA-Reuters.