The Despair of General Kim Han

Although there were many reasons to be gratified to be in the upper echelons of the North Korean Army, there were nevertheless reasons to wish to be elsewhere as well. General Han had a fatalistic streak in him. Like a deep fissure in an ice shelf, it was hidden, but existed because of the result of enormous pressures exerted over long periods. There was little likelihood of its being discovered, even by General Han himself, until one of those mighty and singular events revealed it.

Just in the way a massive ice shelf is shed from it’s long connection to the land to drift off into the ocean, so did this hidden flaw in General Han’s life burst open in high drama and with frightful consequence. The General had been known for many years as a man of exceptional intelligence and ferocious discipline. He had learned these qualities from his father who had himself been a military officer. His father’s more moderate achievements, however, had left him somewhat frustrated and he was driven by an intense ambition for his only son.

Beginning at the age of four, quite literally on his fourth birthday, his father told him that his military training was beginning. For the future general, this was very exciting news for it was accompanied by gifts of a tiny uniform and toy rifle. Not long after that birthday, some of the other requirements of his precocious military training, however, began to feel less like gifts than surprising and unwelcome burdens to the little boy. Arising, as now became the requirement, at 5 am every morning for strengthening exercises, military disciplines such as standing at attention even when disturbed by flies or mosquitoes, or other demands, all began to make the future general skeptical of his longings. His father, however, reminded him every day that he was destined for greatness, for leadership, and to be one of the heroes of their beloved country. He would be beloved if not worshiped by his countrymen. He once told his father that he didn’t want to be beloved of his countrymen which sent his father into a violent rage that brought about a severe beating with the crude broom made of twigs they used to sweep around the outside of their dwelling, following then by an hour standing at attention during which his father held forth on the enormous good fortune this boy had, which surpassed the fortunes of every other boy in North Korea, and the absolute necessity of accepting his fortune and fate without any further question. So powerful and intense was his father on this occasion, that the boy never again consciously doubted that his path, however fraught, was anything other than what his father taught him. Belief and conviction seized hold of him with a fierce grip like a powerful vine that grips a tree until the tree itself is scarcely visible beneath the visitor it slowly gives up its life for. All distinction, at least from a distance, between the tree holding up the vine and the vine itself disappeared and the two appeared indistinguishable.

Every morning as he arose, he would repeat to his father, “I will be great. I will be a great soldier. I will be a great leader.” This repetition seemed to tattoo a message into his mind making these ambitions of his father’s into his own; making his father’s wishes his wishes; making his father’s fire his own fire. His father often reminded him how soft and weak many of his comrades were compared to how strong and powerful he was becoming. By the time he turned ten years old he had begun to absorb the idea that the pain and duress of his life was something to take pride in. This began to create some tensions in his family because his mother, who was generally quite submissive to her husband, began to cautiously object to some of the training. His father, during a frigid winter week, required his son to sleep with him in a flimsy tent with only two blankets. To be sure, he too subjected himself to the same rigors, but his mother feared they might both freeze to death. It may have occurred to the boy that his mother might have missed him more than his dominating father. In any case, her objections were a bit like an oriole whistling during a thunderstorm, a tiny background note that instantly disappeared in the turmoil. A couple of years later, that same forlorn note was heard once again. On this occasion, his father had proscribed that they both would subsist for two weeks on exceedingly minimal rations consisting of bread, cheese, and some nuts, along with tea and a small bag of sugar. The amount of food, an extremely modest amount for two weeks, was set aside at the outset for their provision. The father required his son to assign portions for them both at the outset, and to divide these into daily rations for them each. He then corrected his son’s judgment for the boy had set aside carefully measured portions which were equal for each day. His father insisted that since they would be stronger at the outset, they would have less for the first week, including nothing at all on the first day, and somewhat more for the more stressful later stages. His mother, however, felt concerned his father’s intense treatment of their son might actually do harm, and secreted several chocolate bars along with additional nuts into his gear.

Unfortunately for them all, his father required an inspection of his gear prior to their departure and the stash was discovered tucked into his heavy boots beneath several pair of socks. His father flew into a fury with the surprised boy who professed to his father he had no knowledge of these treats. His mother, hearing the great commotion, ran into the room and confessed she was responsible which only turned his father’s rage towards his mother who wept piteously about the trials her son had to endure. Her tears did not soften his father, but rather seemed to intensify his feelings and caused him to berate her for a sickening softness and inability to appreciate the gifts her son was receiving. Since the boy hated the conflicts that arose from time to time between his parents, and since any defense of his mother would only cause the disgust his father felt to turn towards him, he joined his father in berating his mother for failing to understand what they were doing. Defeated, she begged them both to forgive her and left them. The boy’s heart was heavy, but he angrily dismissed his sentimentality for a tougher posture.

While the outing had been exceedingly arduous, the future general managed to soon forget the rigors of cold and hunger and to adopt his father’s fierce pride in the toughness required to endure their difficulties. It helped him considerably that he could bear witness that his father had born the same suffering he had. His father’s harsh convictions that this sort of toughness made them into better men became something he thoroughly believed in.

At the age of 13, promising young men were offered the enormous advantage of attending military schools where they would be groomed for a military career should they show sufficient promise. This young man had known from a very early age that this was precisely the goal of his father’s training. His father had been equally insistent that his academic achievements were also never slighted and on many occasions his father would sit up watching him apply himself to his studies until midnight, or even later, until he was satisfied his son had mastered the material. Even the slightest complaint of fatigue or disinterest brought forward intense condemnation from his father, so exhausting to endure that his son virtually lost the capacity to even know he could feel any objection. Submission to his father’s authority was essentially complete.

So, while the world this boy grew up in was already very competitive, and was also one in which deep intimacies like intense boyhood friendships were rare, he was, even in this world, an outlier. When he arrived at the North Korea Military Academy, he anticipated no excitement about meeting other boys, only the pleasure of surpassing them in every aspect of their training. He had seen his father’s usually cable-straight mouth curl slightly upwards in a tiny expression of pride when he was accepted to the school. The nearly indiscernible gesture had shot excitement through him like an orgasm of satisfaction. That gesture would be the carrot sustaining his efforts at the School.

The results of his long training were instantly evident to students and instructors. For one thing, he continued to arise for physical training well before the 6 AM normal time for the other students to be grumpily rousted from their beds. By then, he had both run several miles and done other physical training much as he had at home even though every student would do more training at six. He simply added the training proscribed by the school to his own routine. The astonished instructors debated whether to allow such an idiosyncratic departure from the iron discipline normal at the school, and all agreed this was something they had never before encountered. Because they thought it would show other students what real commitment looked like, they decided not to intervene. From that moment forward, the young man was marked for success and treated by the instructors and other students alike with something like awe, as though he were a slightly different and somewhat remarkable new breed. As it happened, the boy, now receiving the more generous ration of food that was allotted for these promising young men, grew rapidly while he was there, and by the time he was sixteen, he stood just over six feet. He was therefore unusually tall for a Korean boy from the north. His fitness was, of course, so far beyond the norms of the school that the fitness instructors made him a student instructor to run exercises for his peers. For the first time, he assumed the relationship to his peers that would remain with him for the rest of his life. He had no real friendships for every relationship was strictly utilitarian. His role was that of a leader. He had no concern, nor any interest in being liked, and the opinions of his peers were no more than a wind in the trees to him. Dominance and dominance alone preoccupied him.

One momentous event occurred during his final year at the School took place near the end of his time there. This was an event of a sort bound to occur for most young people of this age, and is one that usually changes the experience of living thereafter, but for this young man, the impact was enormous.

Most young men begin to dream in some clumsy way of sexual experience, and although he had done so, it was in such a gauzy indistinct way that he had almost no idea of what he was dreaming about. The young wife of one of the instructors, however, being perhaps four or five years his senior, had a much clearer idea. Her husband, a man who had been imposed on her when she was scarcely seventeen turned out to be a “pompous turnip of a man,” as she had once described him to a girlfriend. He disgusted her, particularly after his horribly clumsy early attempts to establish physical intimacy, which she likened to being tossed upside down into a trash can and poked with a broom handle. Her aversion was sufficiently evident that he kept an increasing distance from her. She suspected he had found a more willing companion and hoped he had. With this, she found herself interested occasionally in other young men who occasionally seemed available to her.

The future general had been assigned to a crew to landscape around the quarters of the staff. When the unhappy wife noticed the handsome Kim, and noticed his remarkable body especially, she invited him inside her home for a glass of tea. He refused at first, but she was insistent and, feeling some responsibility to respect someone married to an officer and somewhat older, he yielded. Once he was inside she set to work with great clarity of purpose and considerable expertise. She wore small, tight shorts and a tee shirt with nothing else so her charming features were quite evident. She told him it was important that he drink in such warm weather. She told him her husband was away at a conference in Pyongyang and that she was relieved because he was difficult to live with and she preferred being alone to his company. She told him that because his shirt was soaked through from his sweat, that he must take it off before sitting down. She told him that because of the intense heat, she was going to cool him off by putting a cool towel around his shoulders while he sat. While doing so, she asked him if he would mind her feeling the wonderful muscles of his chest. Since she asked this last question while she was doing precisely that, and because this was a sort of experience utterly new to the young man, he was unable to speak. Never had discipline so slackened in the young man. She told him that she imagined that his entire body must surely be as lovely and wonderful as those parts she was now familiar with. She told him she knew he would be free until the dinner hour and was unsupervised on these assignments to work about the camp. She told him she wanted to bath him and brought him into the bath where she drew a tub of cool water and she told him to be still while she removed his shorts. And so he was introduced into an aspect of the world his father’s training had not prepared him for. He was astonished, and he fell in love without any idea of what force was carrying him into this new world.

Fortunately for this couple, neither of whom would fully appreciate the dangers they had injected into their lives, and the terrible consequences a discovery might impose on them, their liaison would only last the two months until he graduated from the School. Following his graduation, he would then move to the highly prestigious Central Military Academy in Pyongyang. She was sufficiently skilled in matters of secrecy that she was able to insure their rendezvous’ were known to no one else. In her enthusiasm, she found herself an instructor to a remarkable pupil who absorbed her lessons almost before she could prepare them. They left with some promises to sustain their thrilling encounters, but it is doubtful either could believe they actually could. The young man, however, knew this sort of excitement would be somehow a part of his life forever afterwards. The fissure below the surface had split slightly.

II

His life, of course, continued on its path towards remarkable accomplishment and remarkable rewards. He saw his birth family rarely and felt only faint frissons of pleasure on those occasions when he perceived the small curl of pleasure and pride alter his father’s otherwise rigid features. The military superiors who had begun to follow his career allowed him to select the branch of the service to which he wished to devote his skills. This was a singular honor afforded to few young officers, but his promise was so noteworthy that his wishes were solicited. He had chosen the artillery service since the anticipated conflicts that might arise during his service would likely depend most heavily on artillery engagements and he wished to be in the middle of the most intense and meaningful action. Moreover, technical advancements in artillery were making it use ever more sophisticated and promising.

By the remarkably young age of 41, he had made the rank of Lt. General. This was a stunning achievement in a country where the old were generally held in highest esteem, and where the old preferred not to retire to the comfort of country homes or other pursuits that beckoned to officers in the west. For older generals, there was no more comfortable life than the one they enjoyed in the military service. Along the way, Kim Han had married a woman he knew only a little and cared for even less. She was the granddaughter of a retired and very well regarded general from the quartermaster’s service who was also close to the ruling family. Connections of this sort were of immense importance to men interested in advancement. When the Dear Leader was aware you were a man of promise, your promise increased enormously. Upon the death of Kim Jong–Il and the ascension to power of his son Kim Jong-Un, our general’s career took a significant turn upwards. Although he found the Dear Leader nearly detestable because he was fat, undisciplined and vain, Kim Han was not a fool. In the North Korean Army, only a fool would allow themselves to take note of the emperor’s nakedness. So with the same discipline with which he approached every other aspect of his life, he resolved to flatter the new leader, even before he had risen to supreme power. They had been introduced because the young future leader wished to be friendly with the younger upcoming stars of the military and this had led to an introduction. The leader had taken an immediate and altogether strange liking to this future star of the military. He was, on the one hand, nearly worshipful, coming on various occasions to watch while Kim Han worked out and then following him into the locker room and even the shower which had made him feel more like an animal observed in a zoo than a companion. This may have been due in part to what felt like a nearly erotic interest in his body, although he never permitted himself to think such a thought explicitly. Homosexual love was utterly unthinkable in North Korea, but nevertheless, the dear leader’s explicit excitement about his body had something in common with the woman who had introduced him to the sexual world. It seemed as though looking at his body excited the man. But the Dear Leader, not yet then a person of supreme power, also seemed to wish he might absorb some of the qualities Kim Han possessed simply by proximity. The physical and mental discipline were qualities he seemed to envy without having the slightest capacity to possess them. He was, in fact, arrogant, lazy and addicted to pornography amongst other qualities, so much so that few people in positions of power expected him to play much of a role in the country’s future. Kim, however, was judicious and careful never to give a hint of offense. He tolerated the pretense of friendship on the Dear Leader’s terms. In this, he proved to be exceptionally fortunate, for when the Dear Leader’s father died unexpectedly, no one had anticipated the intense ruthless purge of senior people in the government, which was avoided by the Lt. General.

Whatever the peculiarities of the Dear Leader, his interest in anyone was the surest pathway to benefits that were otherwise exceedingly rare and therefore exceedingly precious in that barren country. Kim Han survived and advanced. Once someone experienced access to comfortable housing with sufficient heat during the frigid winters, or ate reasonably good food in a regular way, and felt little anxiety about whether food would even be available again, or even enjoyed the pleasure of a tasty foreign beer; once some of these pleasures were introduced, they exerted a powerful force. No one having experienced the privileges of being close to the sole source of power and comfort that flowed exclusively from the ruling family would want to give it up and return to the anxieties of an ordinary citizen. General Han was no exception. So he adapted as best as he could to the nearly worshipful and discomfiting admiration of Kim Jong-Un. When the peculiar young man assumed the power left to him by his father, the perks of being in his orbit grew even more rewarding. A new element, however, did enter for the first time. It turned out that the young Dear Leader had a temper. This had been evident enough when he was younger, but once he became the most powerful man in the country, all restraints on his expressions of pique seemed to vanish. The general had thus had the horrifying experience of seeing him execute a member of his staff he thought had stolen from the household. Executions were not themselves altogether rare, but in this case, there was no real effort to confirm the man was actually responsible, and even more dreadful, the Dear Leader had shot him himself only thirty minutes or so after having accused him. And even worse, he had killed him by shooting him in the stomach so the poor man died slowly and in agony while the Dear Leader stood over him shouting at him. Even to the general, who believed he had come to terms with the ubiquity of death found this scene deeply unnerving.

His career nevertheless advanced. His marriage remained an association of almost no interest to him, although he had produced two children with the woman. For pleasure, his rank and stature provided more and more opportunities for intimacies in the shadows. While there were few real shadows in a country where every action by every citizen was watched and reported in some way or another, but those in high places were granted privacies unavailable to ordinary citizens. There was, of course, a price for this luxury because it was always likely that someone knew something and might use it for some nefarious purpose. As long as one was in good standing with the Dear Leader, however, it was difficult to come to any real harm. The general had therefore taken up a relationship with a lovely young woman who was the daughter of a minister. He had enjoyed her ardent attentions for nearly a year and considered her one of the great good fortunes of his life. Her enthusiasm for his company and her spirited delight in their physical escapades were a source of wonderful renewal to him. She was, unlike most women he had spent any time with in the past, an energetic conversationalist. She was interested in a delightful way in every aspect of his life and experience, and slowly he had begun to delight in discussing these generally private matters with her. He had never before felt as though there were someone in whom he could confide aloud. Talking with her allowed him to create and consider his own opinions on various matters. This was a somewhat novel and pleasing experience for a man of such obedient discipline. Since she always admired and saluted his wise thoughts, he felt pleased when he discussed even his doubts about various decisions being made in his country, or the influences of ministers he suspected of base motives. She was smart and always attentive and vigorously encouraging of his wise considerations. Her own husband who certainly had to know of their dalliance seemed entirely indifferent to it, probably because he had his own private arrangements to mollify him, and because he knew making any trouble with someone as well placed as General Han would only cause him trouble in return.

An unexpected event, however, disrupted this seemingly stable state of affairs. When she and her husband were invited to a state dinner, they had naturally been obliged to attend. Unlike most state dinners they had attended, this one was not a gathering of a thousand or so government people, but a far smaller event with perhaps forty promising young bureaucrats from the interior ministry. She dressed, of course, carefully in her best clothing and took great care with her hair and makeup. Looking too lovely however, proved a disastrous mistake, for the Dear Leader was immediately smitten when he saw her. In this strange world, interest from this man could only be received as though it were a blessing from a god. His wish that she would consent to have lunch with him, expressed without the slightest discomfort before her husband. Such an invitation could only be accepted with the warmest gratitude even though she and her husband both understood precisely the nature of the Dear Leader’s interest.

Returning to their home that evening, she wept bitterly and told her husband she thought she should throw herself off a cliff in the morning rather than become a “whore for that man.” But her husband, cold- blooded and pragmatic pointed out that she was already a whore, and that were she to commit suicide, she would ruin the lives of their children. He was much too sensible to suggest that it might matter to him, and he was right. She would not have cared for a moment were he to complain about the effect on him, but she was moved to think of her children without a mother and began to reconcile herself to her fate.

The chubby, childish, awkward, self-absorbed boy-man she met the following day, seemed to her a horrifyingly dangerous toddler. Toddlers’ tantrums would pass without harm, however, whereas the Dear Leader, if annoyed, could destroy anything he cared to. His sexual interests seemed to consist largely of being worshipped and revered. This was not entirely unfamiliar to her as she had discovered long ago that many men had these interests.

She apparently had been skilled enough in her play-acting that the Dear Leader began to have rendezvous’ with her on a nearly weekly basis. All of this had been tolerable enough to endure until he asked her with no preamble or warning, “Tell me everything you know about General Han, my dear.”

“Oh,” she stammered, “I don’t know anything about General Han.”

The boy-man changed instantly into something unrecognizable: “It is a very grave matter to lie to me! You risk more than you can imagine, you little rodent! Do you suppose I am unaware of your affections for the General? Do you accuse me of being a fool? He has been a liaison for two years in the DMZ talks! Rumors that he wishes to turn against us, to defect, have come to me! He confides in you! You know his mind! You have no time to consider tricks or subterfuges. You will tell me instantly everything you know of his treasonous plans. If you hesitate, you and your children and your husband will feel the terrible wrath of the state. Your children will live in our camps in the north without access to you again because your influence has been shown to be dangerous! Your husband will work on a farm from dawn to dusk. Your own fate is not decided, but you have no time to consider it in any event.”

“I am sorry your eminence! It is true that I know General Han. I did not wish to cause him trouble. I know of no plan to abandon our country. I believe him to be a patriot.”

“I am sorry you take this direction, my dear.” The little man’s demeanor now had the easy confidence of the cat whose mouse was cornered. “If you insist on trying to cover for him, you will pay dearly. Your children will also pay. Your parents will not be unaffected. Do you continue to dare to insist to me that he did not harbor intentions of escaping to the south, or worse?”

“No! No! I know of nothing about any plan at all! I do not! Please! It could be that he would not share such a thing with me!”

“Well, do you not agree that he is a very ambitious man? Do you not agree that he aspires to greatness?”

“I suppose he aspires…He works so hard…”

“This then will be the very last chance I offer you. You cannot protect him. You can perhaps still protect your dear children.” At this point, he opened his computer, and opened a window that showed her photos of her own children playing in their own yard. She gasped in horror to think they could be spied on so easily, and her need to protect them somehow overwhelmed everything else inside her.

“I…I think…” A ball formed inside her stomach and she felt as though she were about to vomit. Perspiration drops sprouted on her forehead and chest and her breathing grew difficult. She imagined she was killing her lover in the next moment in order to save her own children. And then it was no longer imagination. She revealed she had known he had wished to leave their country. She knew nothing about what these plans might be. In fact, as she spoke, she now easily remembered her lover telling her that the Dear Leader was little more than an infant, a foolish insecure little boy with frightening powers. She remembered his torment at having to be subservient to someone he had so little respect for. She was suddenly then freed by her realization that the general had been a traitor, a man who did hate this man before her. She was not betraying him, but serving her country. She was, at least for the time, unable to remember that she, too, shared the same beliefs.

“I know he wanted to escape. That’s all I can say. That’s all I know.”

“Very good my dear. You have done your duty. You have confirmed my suspicions. You will remain in my residence tonight.”

Perhaps an hour later, she was brought under guard to the large official room where certain affairs of state were conducted. The General was there, now in an orange jumpsuit, shackled with chains attached to his wrists and ankles. He was bruised and dazed looking. His wife and children were present, as were his sister and her family, his parents who were in their late seventies probably and who looked confused and terribly frightened. A few colleagues also were there and a great many people she could not identify. The Leader stood on a raised platform by himself except for four guards on either side of the platform. He spoke with a nearly animal ferocity about his generous treatment and warmth he had extended to the general over many years. The general, however, had thought himself more important that the Dear Leader, whose every breath and every thought arose for the good of the state. Instead the general had coveted power for himself, and unable to get it, had hatched a treasonous plan to escape. Numerous people had testified to this. This harangue went on for over an hour. It culminated in the Dear Leader’s shrill verdict: the crime was especially severe since the state had given the general so much and placed so much trust in him. He would be executed tomorrow at dawn. In order to emphasize the particularly terrible nature of his offense, the execution would utilize one of the general’s largest artillery cannons.

And so, in this strange world, it came to pass precisely this way. The same audience as had been present for the harangue in the official residence had been taken in the pre-dawn, to an artillery range. As the buses drove down the rough road, they could see a man suspended by his arms by cords attached to poles so that he hung twenty feet in the air. As they drew closer, they could also see the enormous artillery piece pointed at him. They were discharged from the buses and stood perhaps sixty or seventy feet away each transfixed by their own horrors and private thoughts.

The general, hanging like a piñata, had always known death lurked near every life, now felt the nearness of his own. His shoulders were in agony from the pain of being suspended for several hours in the predawn and his mind was numbed from the sudden reversal in the fortunes of his life.

His gaze drifted across those who would soon witness his corporeal being exploded into vapor. The Dear Leader was speaking, but no one aside from the gunnery team seemed aware of him. The general’s gaze fell on his father and for a moment they seemed as close as two men could ever be in this world. In fact, he felt an intimacy with his father at that moment more deeply than in any previous moment of their lives. His father’s mouth briefly curled with his familiar smile as though to say, “I’m proud of you, my boy,” even as tears wet his cheeks. The general, both moved and confused by pain as well as his circumstance, in his last act in this life, called out suddenly and powerfully, “Long live our Dear Leader!”

Only seconds later the artillery gun fired obliterating every trace of the man. The Dear Leader hurried off to his limousine, but the rest of those assembled could not cause their limbs to move for some time, and the tide of silence slowly returned to the earth.

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W. Nicholson Browning

I’m a practicing psychiatrist with a recent interest in writing poetry and short fiction.