“They call it Rapture,” Myung-sook says without looking me in the eyes. “As in utmost joy, an ecstatic feeling. Also, as in being carried away.”
I nod. It’s a familiar feeling. The utmost joy of being a part of the heroic nation struggling against enemies external and internal, marching together towards the glorious future. The ecstasy of feeling the Eternal Leaders’ love and ceaseless concern for the common people. Being carried away by a touch of sunshine against my face.
“Appa, it is an American religious term. It means those people have gone to heaven.”
I nod again, simultaneously proud of her erudition and disturbed by her obvious knowledge of these things, these American words. Religion is poison. There shouldn’t be any reason why a young pure girl, a model student with a gift for language, should have exposure to such notions. But the times are changing, and the young can no longer be kept innocent from the corruption of the outside world.
It’s the Year of Juche 108 , and the reports of unexplained disappearances from all over the world have been in the news for a few months now. At first, it was nothing but gossip between women at the vegetable stand—easily dismissed, the usual traitorous rumors echoing some intercepted chatter from a forbidden radio channel. Then, Pyongyang Sinmun ran a brief mention of the phenomenon, mocking the panic that overtook the Western society. There had already been thousands all over the world, hundreds in the South alone. By the time the official announcement was broadcast on state television, there had been talk of cases within our borders. Then the Brilliant Comrade addressed the nation. He said the capitalists and imperialists were finally paying the price for all their abuses against nature and humanity over the centuries. Naturally, of those we were innocent. We were exempt. We had nothing to worry about. But should our enemies use it as a trick against us, we would retaliate with all the might of our nuclear defenses.
I look at the dark city outside our window. The black outline of high-rises is like a mountain range against the sky. Electricity shortages require rationing power. Across the black expanse I see a flash of light—another disappearance. This is how it happens, apparently: a flash of light and the human being is gone, nothing but a charred pile of clothes. What a waste, such unpatriotic squandering of resources.
“What is the first Juche maxim?” I ask my daughter the way I ask my students in the classroom. I know she knows the answer, which makes her silence unbearable. I answer myself, “Man is independent and autonomous, self-determining like our nation. Man is the master of the universe. Science has proved that there is no God, no heaven. We have no need for such beliefs.”
“Do you think one has to believe something for it to exist?” She lifts her large, glistening eyes at me. It strikes me how much she looks like her mother. For a moment I wish her mother could see her now, all grown up, so healthy and beautiful. But a daughter’s beauty is only more reason for a father’s heartache. Were Myung-sook a homely girl with no talents… These jobs abroad are prestigious. Only the worthiest are chosen. It’s a rare privilege to earn a high category salary, to bring foreign currency back to the Motherland.
It is also an opportunity some take to defect. To betray the Motherland for the temptation of material things. What a waste. I chase away the ugly thought.
The gold and red enamel badge on my suit’s lapel is a reminder, as if I ever needed one, about how lucky we are to live in Pyongyang, our glorious capital. Haven’t we been privileged enough? My teaching position entitles us to an extra rice ration every month, we even get imported Chinese sweets in our holiday rations. The building we live in has excellent plumbing, so we hardly even need to use the well. We have a radio and are on a waiting list for a TV-set. Like the beloved song goes, “We Have No One to Envy.” But the more people have, the greedier and more envious they become.
“Religious belief is nothing but a superstition imposed on the exploited by the exploiters. If those disappearances are not related to CIA kidnappings, they must undoubtedly be a natural phenomenon,” I say. “And if so, I’m sure the Supreme Commander is doing everything possible to defend us. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
Seeking comfort of confirmation, I rest my eyes on my bookshelf. On it, in the place of honor, “On the Juche Idea” by the Beloved Leader: a 1982 first edition, the greatest treasure from my days at the Teachers’ University. I met Myung-sook’s mother at the University.
“I’m not afraid of going to heaven,” she tells me.
“We already live in heaven. How can people believe in such nonsense as afterlife? It doesn’t exist.”
“Perhaps, if enough people believe in something, they make it exist.” Her voice is small, an almost playful voice of a stubborn child, but instead of finding it endearing, I suddenly feel relieved her mother hasn’t lived to see this this grown daughter, this stranger.
I have not raised a traitor, I tell myself. But had I raised one, it would be up to me to stop her. If a daughter slips, the father will share in the fall.
It’s a bitter realization, but if I’m honest with myself—as a Party member should be—I have to admit I am not surprised. Myung-sook has always had a restlessness about her, a disquiet behind her bright face. In kindergarten, she always memorized songs and poems above her age. When other children were chanting “Ruby cherries, oh so ripe; we have picked them from the branch; who should we give it to first? to our father, Kim Jong-Il,” she was reciting the Kim Chul’s Mother. When her delicate little voice, amplified by the microphone, sang out the famous last line “Mother, Mother, without you I cannot live!”—there was not a dry eye in the assembly hall. Of course, the beautiful poem celebrates the Korean Workers’ Party which is our Mother who gives us all. I clearly remember my pride being tinted with shame, as if I’d been polishing the frame of the Eternal Leaders’ portraits and missed a mold stain. This was the first time I had a creeping suspicion that my daughter’s heartfelt collectivism has a more individualistic lining. Through the years, as I watched her grow and excel at her studies, this feeling has been ever present, small and bothersome, like a hangnail that won’t heal.
I doubt she even remembers her mother, though. Myung-sook wasn’t but two years old when her mother died in the final year of the Arduous March. We still lived in Chusan-dong at the time, long before the amusement park construction began; back then it was fallow land; nothing grew in those fields but grass. We cooked and ate the roots. Those years were as if nature conspired with the global imperialists to destroy us, but we were pure, strong in our convictions. Life is different now. Myung-sook’s mother would have probably recovered from her pneumonia had she been eating as well as we eat today: rice every day, pollock or even pork on Sunday. We do have so much to be grateful for to our Party and the Brilliant Commander himself for this prosperity. What do I have to offer in return but complete loyalty? I never question it. Once you start questioning, you start doubting, and once you doubt, you undo your whole world.
She leaves the room and returns with a stack of papers.
“My application has been approved. All it needs is your signature, Appa.”
I want to believe that the reason behind Myung-sook’s eagerness to take this job is her desire to serve the country. How can she be anything but a patriot, this little girl who has always been chosen to carry the flag during the school processions, this little girl who recited the poems with such feeling. But this little girl is a twenty year old woman who knows the many meanings of the foreign word “rapture” that they don’t teach at the university. Where does one learn these things unless they listen to the prohibited radio broadcasts and read prohibited literature? True, nobody is arrested for reading the Bible anymore, but one has to make a concerted effort to do so. It speaks to intent.
“You don’t have to go all the way abroad to prove your usefulness,” I try again. “Your linguistic talents could be used at home, I’m sure. My colleague’s nephew is a foreign visitors tour guide. Now, that’s a core class cadre, I dare say, more so than a restaurant waitress . . .”
“Appa, I want to go.”
I hear the words and yet I don’t understand.
“This is my chance,” she adds. And then she smiles. Not a contrite smile of a daughter anguished as she’s forced to leave her father, no, her smile is defiant.
When Myung-sook is serious or sad, she looks so much like her mother. But when she smiles, everybody says she becomes the image of me, up to the little gap between her front teeth. I love when she smiles. But now, this—my—smile on her face pierces my heart, because at this moment I know with a blood-chilling clarity that she is not coming back.
To have her smile shine on others when her own father has to go without is a truly criminal waste. It’s treacherous. I cannot let that happen.
“It is late,” I tell her. “Roll out the beds. We’ll finish this conversation tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, after teaching the last class I will make the phone call. I’ll have the whole day to find the right words to say to the district Party Committee secretary. I will confess my blame, my sinful doubting.
Out its infinite love, our Mother the Party encourages the principle of collective responsibility. We would lose our core class status, of course, but unmarried women and the elderly are exempt from hard labor. I don’t imagine life in the re-education camp will be harder than what we’ve already lived through. We’ll bear the punishment, together. It won’t be more than we can bear. It never is.