The Last Exiles – Ann Shin

A sheaf of photos slipped from a folder, fluttering over the stairs of the Rodong newspaper headquarters. Suja whirled around, her feet tap-tapping as she chased the scattering black-and-white glossies. She scooped up the photos and stuffed them back into the folder, her fingers trembling, adrenaline coursing through her body, for it was late and she was going to miss tonight’s print run. She turned to run toward the lobby, the wan winter sun winking out as it slipped behind the building. She pushed through the doors, slowing her steps just enough to tap her name badge as she passed the security officer. It was the fellow with the pockmarked face sitting by the X-ray booth with his arms crossed, hat pulled low over his eyes. He grunted and let her pass; they both knew the X-ray didn’t work. Reshuffling the photos in their folder, Suja pushed through the door to the newsroom and came up short, catching her breath. The chief editor, Mr. Moon, was up at the flats, red-faced and spluttering, yelling at the editors who stood around him, desultory, penitent; cigarette smoke coiled over their heads in a cloud of discontent. The junior researchers and writers—anonymous underlings—were hunched at their desks focused on their computer screens, all busy looking busy. Suja’s father had his back against the flats, a waxed column of text stuck to his finger as he nervously eyed the clock that hung between the portraits of the Dear Leader and the Heavenly Leader. There was a blank space on the front-page flats where the text had been lifted out. Someone must have made a significant mistake for that article to have been pulled last minute. The news editor, Mr.


Lim, and photo editor, Mr. Roh, argued with Mr. Moon, who shouted over them, saying that the story, whatever it was, needed to go on the front page. Suja sidled over to Mr. Roh’s desk and dropped her folder of photos. She glanced at her father, who raised his brows and mouthed, ‘What are you doing here?’ She pointed to her folder of photos and crossed her arms, glancing pointedly at the unfinished flats. A series of emotions played across her father’s face as he regarded his child who had fought him to take on this position as the newspaper’s only intern during the school year. There was such a thing as being too clever. Leaving the editors to squabble among themselves, Mr. Kim walked over to Roh’s desk and stuck the waxed column on the surface of the desk and dropped into Roh’s chair. ‘What happened?’ Suja asked. ‘Late-breaking story.’ ‘What’s the story?’ Suja asked, a lock of her hair falling into her eyes. She tucked it behind her ear absentmindedly. Apba was a tactical thinker and hated last-minute changes to layout.

She had been coming to his office since she was four years old and had spent many an afternoon hanging about the flats as he waxed the backs of photos and text blocks, positioned them on the flats and pressed them down, just so. He wanted the word lengths for all articles ahead of time so he could assemble text blocks in his mind before he even started dealing with type. He taught Suja to think of photographs as moments on a page. The photo was only part of the greater whole of the newspaper, just as every journalist was an anonymous segment of the greater body of the Korean Central News Agency. So Suja’s earliest understanding of photography was related to the negative space that photographs were meant to occupy—they were a small part of a greater message, filling in a gap of meaning in a story already constructed. ‘Huh,’ her father sighed. ‘The Cornmeal Culprit escaped from prison, that boy, Jin Lee Park.’ Suja felt the blood drain from her head, and she leaned against the desk to steady herself. ‘What?’ she whispered. ‘The bastard escaped from Yodok prison camp. How the hell he did that…’ Apba shook his head. ‘After the shame he brought to his family, that saekee runs from prison, saving his own skin, sending his family to damnation.’ Yodok prison camp was one of the most secure facilities in the northernmost region of Hamgyong, an arid province known for its anthracite mines, and where the worst of the criminals and political outcasts were sent. No one ever came back from Yodok. ‘He escaped…’ she repeated softly, her face pale, eyes dialed to someplace far away.

‘Did you know him?’ her father asked. She snapped to attention. ‘No.’ His gaze sharpened and he watched her closely. ‘He was from your university.’ ‘I don’t know everyone at the university, Apba,’ she retorted, pulling herself together. Mr. Kim pressed his fingers into the text column lying on the desk, making an impression in the wax. ‘How did the saekee even get into your school, a bastard like him? A real gangpae criminal gets a scholarship to Kim Il-Sung U?! Bullshit. You know they’re doing a purification of the entire student roster.’ ‘Good,’ Suja managed to say in a thin voice, the blood thumping at her temples as she focused on one thing only: Jin Lee Park had escaped, he was free. Tears pricked her eyes and she blinked them back quickly as she tried to calm herself. Taking a deep breath, she started counting silently: one Heavenly Leader, two Heavenly Leader, three Heavenly Leader, four… ONE Jin Lee Park stood in the lobby of the Kim Il-Sung University lecture halls in a zip-up farmer’s coat and state-issued boots that were so old the toes were worn through. Other students sauntered past in brand-new jackets, freshly ironed pants, sporting the latest haircut—a brush cut with the hair swept to one side. Next to them, Jin was a country chonnom with a bright gaze and clean-faced farm look that tagged him as fresh meat for the city boys.

Country rat-eater, they called him. Dung-eater, gaesakee, they guffawed as they bumped into him in the halls, knocking his shoulder or landing an elbow in his ribs. But even in those ridiculous boots, Jin walked with a fluid and confident gait that spoke of athleticism and strength, and he could dish out as good as he got. He slung curses back at them, calling them Idiot baptong, son of a mother’s brother, son of a mother’s goat. They were strange country curses Suja hadn’t heard before, and their banter in the hallway had everyone laughing along with Jin. He was good at getting people on his side, especially as they began to realize he was one of the smartest in the class. When a class was stumped, the professors inevitably turned to him for the answer. It wasn’t simply that he had memorized the texts; he came up with surprising ways to see things and had razor-sharp acuity. He was premium rice, as they say. But Jin was intimidated by Suja and the other Pyongyang students. While he joked with them during class, he’d duck away later, feeling like an impostor blundering through their revered university halls. He headed out alone into the city streets and found himself gaping and spluttering at the splendor around him. Oh, Pyongyang, with its wide gray avenues and traffic conductors, whose white gloves flagged lonely cars that nosed along empty streets like private jets on empty runways; Pyongyang, where women in skirt suits all wore the same shade of crimson on their lips and the sidewalks bristled with marching pedestrians, whose stern faces and square haircuts blended into one another— these city hustlers, these citizens of the real world. Even the students who walked the halls of Kim IlSung University were of a different breed, with their worldliness, their foreign clothes, owning things that Jin never dreamed of having, such as knapsacks with the Kim Il-Sung crest, watches from Poland, jackets from Russia. Jin’s embarrassment ran so deep it wasn’t emotional, it was existential.

In his hometown of Kanggye, people had all the time in the world to sit on their unemployed haunches and gibe one another, for there was no more industry there. It had suffered under the blight of famine since the Dear Leader announced the Arduous March in 1994, when state food rations and electricity were cut. His father followed the directive to Suf er for the Greater Good, Eat One Meal Instead of Three and began policing his family like a commissariat officer. While other men started side hustles to earn money by foraging, trading and smuggling items from China, his father refused to stoop to ‘shady work,’ choosing instead to continue as a superintendent at the tooling factory even when all pay was cut, even when the power was cut. While his father ground himself down with penurious aims, Jin rebelled against that closefisted impulse and spun the energy outward, attacking everything with a fierce ambition. Most North Koreans believed one’s future was writ by family pedigree, which determined the door to your destiny, but Jin was determined to rise above his family’s lot. In his mind the Dear Leader was the true father figure to aspire to, and he worked to prove himself worthy, pushing stubs of pencil lead into newsprint as he studied into the wee hours every morning. When he won a scholarship to attend Kim Il-Sung University, Jin knew he had finally broken free. His fate was no longer tied to his father and the life of a stingy superintendent. The future didn’t have to be parsed out in rationed cupfuls, for Jin had surpassed his father’s social rank and would be able to extend the rewards of his new life to his whole family. Having broken through the sealed doors of Pyongyang, he had secured a seat for all of them at the grand table, and he was determined to make the most of it. Suja was the prettiest, highest-born girl Jin had ever met. She was quick-tongued and carefree, even careless as a high-born girl could be. With a pointed chin, delicate lips and a short bob that showed off her slender neck, she cut an unorthodox silhouette compared to the rest of the long-haired girls. When she and her friends sashayed arm in arm down the hall, all heads turned in their wake.

Jin didn’t know whether to be more impressed that she was the top-ranking student or that she was a female photographer. He had never heard of women photojournalists, for all the cameramen and newspaper staff he had ever met were men—that’s why they were called newspapermen. Suja’s iconoclasm and her ingenuity terrified him and enamored her to him. There would be nothing straightforward about getting to know this girl. She started to bait and tease Jin in class, joining in on the jokes, called him everything from baptong to country bumpkin, shit-shoveler. Arms crossed and shoulders squared, Jin took it up in sport and joked back, calling her Miss Twenty-First Century Busybody, Miss Britches (as in ‘too big’), and he upped the ante every day as he invented new names for her—Mrs. Chairman of the Know-It-All Department, subcommittee of the southern campus; Mr. Esteemed Cameraman, he once teased when she showed up with her camera. Everyone laughed, and Suja’s face flushed red as she sat at her desk. She tossed over her shoulder haughtily, ‘Go back to your sheep, country boy. City girls aren’t for you.’ Jin shrugged. ‘I could teach you a thing or two about nature.’ Several guys chuckled. ‘All that time with the farm animals, I bet you learned a lot,’ she retorted.

‘Like I said, I could teach you.’ The class broke into peals of laughter. Suja glared at her friends but didn’t deign to turn around and give Jin the satisfaction. But the banter between them had begun. When Suja joined the debate club, Jin joined it too, if only to be on the opposite team. They started walking to classes together with their books in hand, never touching, but also never far from each other either. They both joined the film club and started sitting together in the cafeteria, and as the year progressed, the phrase Suja and Jin was born, with Suja’s name coming first of course. Jin knew that despite Suja liking him, and his academic success notwithstanding, he was still technically a nobody. He was a lowborn country hick whose family had no value or standing, and it was implausible that a girl like Suja would spend any time with him. Suja was keenly aware of this too and intuited that her privilege could upset their delicate courtship. She downplayed her family connections, even trying to minimize her accomplishments. When she was offered a second-year internship at the Rodong newspaper, she didn’t tell Jin for two weeks, worried that it would be seen as yet another sign of her privilege and her family connections in Pyongyang society. She finally mentioned it to him one day as they left class together. They headed to the library as the late-afternoon sun slanted in through the hall, the way that winter afternoons take on the melancholy of evening. As they approached the library doors, Suja brought it up.

‘You know that photography internship I do at the newspaper?’ she said. ‘Yeah.’ ‘I might continue doing it into next year.’ ‘I thought the internship was just for a year?’ ‘They said I could—’ she paused ‘—that they could extend it.’ ‘Really?’ Jin exclaimed. ‘Yes,’ Suja said in a small voice, worried that he might be upset or disappointed. Her own father had been furious about the offer and had threatened to throw out her camera. Apba wanted her to focus on her coursework rather than continue to ‘gallivant’ around town to shoot photos at all hours. She wondered how Jin would feel about it. ‘They’re extending your internship for a year? That’s an honor, isn’t it?’ Jin stopped in his tracks. ‘No one ever gets a two-year internship.’ Suja gave a small shrug, her eyes trained on her feet. ‘Congratulations!’ Jin whooped. ‘They’re keeping you on for a second year! Why are you looking so down? You should be so happy!’ ‘You’re happy about it?’ ‘Of course. It’s a privilege.

I’m proud of you!’ ‘But…’ She hesitated, suddenly feeling shy about what she was going to say. ‘Some say I shouldn’t work as a journalist, that it’s not “becoming.”’ ‘Becoming?! Says who? Rodong would lose a star if they didn’t have you.’ ‘It’s not the newspaper,’ she said softly. Jin searched her face. ‘Your parents,’ he said finally, imagining how upper-class parents might react to the idea of their daughter working as a photographer. She nodded. ‘They don’t want me running around town taking photographs. They want me to be a teacher. You know, something “respectable.”’

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Updated: 10 June 2021 — 18:17

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