Literature from the 'Axis of Evil'
Translated from the Korean by Yu Young-Nan.
During the Japanese colonial rule over Korea (1910-45), many Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army and munitions factories in Japan, and a considerable number of them remained there after liberation. After the Korean War (1950-53), North Korea suffered from a lack of manpower and looked for ways to speed up the country's reconstruction. In 1958, some young Koreans in Japan sent a petition to the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, asking him to give them an opportunity to "return" home to escape severe social discrimination and economic hardship. At the time, 24.4 percent of Korean residents in Japan lived under the poverty line, while only 2 percent of Japanese fell in the same category. The first two ships carrying the returnees left Niigata in 1959, and until 1967, 88,000 people boarded ships for North Korea, including 6,000 Japanese.
"A Tale of Music" draws on this history to tell a disturbing parable about an artist's willing self-abnegation in the service of the Great Leader. It was published in Choson Munhak in February 2003. Kang Kwi-mi is a woman's name, but no further information is available about the author.
I don't know much about music, but today I'd like to write about it. My thoughts on music have to do with my two brothers. One of them plays the trumpet at a top-tier art troupe in the capital, and the other works at a granite quarry. My readers may think that I'm going to write about my brother who is a well-known trumpeter. But I'm going to write about my brother who digs rocks at a granite quarry, not my first brother who lives in the world of music.
What? About her brother who works in a quarry? What does she mean by recounting the story of a brother excavating rocks when she says she'll write about music? What do stones have anything to do with music? People will certainly say these things. It's not surprising, given that I had entertained the same thought myself.
I will have to go back far to a time when my family lived in abject poverty in Japan.
My childhood was spent in a small house next to the Katsuragawa railway bridge in Kyoto, Japan. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can picture my old house, which seemed to shrink each day under the weight of poverty. I hear the sounds of the flowing river, the trains' turning wheels, and the whistles that used to fill my heart with sorrow for no apparent reason.
My father pulled a scavenger's wagon and my mother worked at a sardine factory where she sprinkled sugar, vinegar, and sesame seeds on the fish to be dried. She was fired even from that job because she was Korean, so afterward she worked at an Arashiyama textile shop, where she spread out dyed cloth along the riverbank to dry.
Our life was arduous beyond description. My parents wanted to send us to a Korean school but couldn't afford our train fares; they had no choice but to send us to nearby Japanese schools.
I still remember an incident that occurred when my younger brother was in the third grade of primary school. While playing with my rag of a doll, I overheard a conversation in the other room:
"Mother, you still don't have enough money for my lunch?" It was my second brother. (Japanese schools required the students to pay lunch money in addition to monthly tuition. Only then could they get bread, milk, and soup.)
"Wait a few more days. I packed you a lunch every day instead, didn't I?"
"You mean unpack cooked barley and radish pickles in front of the Japanese kids?"
"Then you haven't eaten lunch this whole time?"
"Answer me," my mother said anxiously.
"At lunchtime, I went out to a corner in the school yard, and when lunchtime was over..."
Only after a long time did my brother croak in the tiniest voice:
"I'd go to the row of faucets, drink some water, and return to my classroom. When other kids asked me, I said I didn't feel like eating bread, so I went to the cafeteria..." He couldn't finish because his voice cracked.
Normally, he was a boy of few words. What misery drove him to confess this to his mother?
"My child..." Mother seemed to be crying.
Oh, my poor brother! Tears rolled down my face. Pressing the old rag of a doll to my face, I wept silently. I was seven years old at the time.
Other things probably happened when I was that age, but this memory alone remains vivid to this day. That's how poor our family was.
It was truly surprising that musical talent sprouted from my poor household. People often say that musical talent is inherited. The parents of Beethoven and Mozart were musicians, while Chopin, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky had music-lovers, though not musicians, as their parents. My family didn't have the slightest tie to music. More precisely, we couldn't have.
We didn't even have an old-fashioned beginner's recorder to play at home. My eldest brother, for some reason, became the first trumpeter in the wind band of Rakunan Junior High School, and became known as a musical genius. This school's band was known far and wide, not only in Kyoto, but all over Japan. My eldest brother was unquestionably the best trumpet player in this band.
My second brother, who was in the sixth grade in Kishoin Primary School, began to develop an interest in the trumpet. My eldest brother would practice the trumpet on a rock near the waterfall not far from our house, and my second brother would hold his music sheets, acting as a music stand.
The curvy trumpet was shiny gold. The movement of my brother's lips and the pressure with his fingers produced the musical scale—do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do—and created the harmony of fluid melody. At such moments, my second brother would tremble with excitement. His eyes followed every move his brother made, observing how to play the instrument. He wasn't able to hold the trumpet in his hand, though, because my eldest brother wouldn't let him touch it.
One day, while my eldest brother was at work at an iron works, my second brother couldn't stand it any longer, so he searched everywhere for the trumpet his brother had hidden and took it out. He played as he had learned with his eyes. Unexpectedly, he could make pleasant sounds. From then on, he would play for an hour or so and put the instrument back before his brother came home.
I went up to the top of the bank and stood as lookout, being a sentry for him. My brother could play pretty well thanks to these stolen practices. They didn't last long, though. One day, about a month into his practice, he was caught by his brother. While I was looking the other way on my watch duty, my eldest brother suddenly materialized before me. The loud trumpet sound was still coming out of our house. My brother scowled fiercely as he raced toward home.
My heart sank, and I ran after him. As soon as he entered the house, he snatched the trumpet away from his brother and shouted, "What are you doing?"
My second brother was at a loss for words at such an unexpected turn of events.
My first brother's voice rose higher and higher. "Do you know what this trumpet means? You must know we haven't fully paid for it yet. Because of our debt, Father, Mother, and I are hammering away to make tools at the factory. Do you think this is a toy?"
An unexpectedly clear voice came out of my other brother's mouth, though I thought he'd be breaking down in tears. "I was not playing with it! Brother, I would like to learn how to play the trumpet, too!"
There was silence for some time.
Finally, my eldest brother spoke in a low voice. "What's the use of learning how to play the trumpet? Look at me. People talked about what a great trumpeter I was, but no company wanted to hire me because I'm a Korean and the iron works was the only place I could find work. My fingers are ruined there. I even tried to jump from the railway bridge. I hope you won't . . ."
All this was true. My eldest brother hurt his hand at the iron works, so he couldn't freely move his fingers. He couldn't play the trumpet with that hand of his. Despondent, he attempted to jump from the bridge and was deterred by a Korean compatriot who happened to pass by.
What could my other brother say, knowing full well what had happened?
Afterward, my eldest brother banned his brother from playing the trumpet and hid it where no one else could find it. My second brother's trumpet fever didn't abate, however. If anything, it burned more passionately.
The incident I'm going to describe happened after music class. All the students left the music room, but my brother stood there all by himself. A trumpet was shining in the cabinet. Without realizing it, his hand stretched out toward the instrument. His heart pounded. The music teacher's ferocious face hovered before his eyes. The hand extended to the trumpet shrank back. But the temptation was too strong. His hand darted to the instrument, and then dropped several times.
Finally, he took out the trumpet. As soon as he held it in his hand, he put the instrument's mouth to his lips, like a thirsty person grabbing at a bottle of water and pressing it to his mouth. Boom ...As the sound rose, his heart no longer pounded, engrossed in the sound the instrument was making. He had no idea how much time passed.
"What are you doing?" Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and my brother turned around. He stood frozen. He saw the headmaster and his homeroom teacher standing there.
"You dirty Korean! Who gave you permission to pick up this instrument any way you pleased?" The headmaster snatched the trumpet away from my brother's hand.
During the next class, the homeroom teacher called the Korean student who had touched the trumpet without permission to come to the blackboard and meted out the punishment of holding two water-filled buckets with outstretched arms. As time passed, my brother's arms seemed to break with the sense of humiliation, not just the weight of the water.
This incident, however, did not dampen my brother's obsession. Rather, his desire to learn how to play the instrument burned more vigorously, fueled by his resentment for mistreatment of Koreans.
Soon after, my brother graduated from primary school and entered Rakunan Junior High School.
As I have mentioned earlier, this junior high prided itself on having a famous concert band. When the students in the band donned white Navy-like band uniforms and marched out, the envious eyes of the student body followed every move they made. So much so that it was no easy matter to join the band.
On the first day of school, the school authorities allowed musically talented students to try out to find new talent among the incoming students. The parents made such a fuss around their children that it was hard to tell which one was going through the tryouts. Anyway, it was a great honor to make the band.
"Sir, my child has received private lessons since he was eight years old."
"I'm the Chief of so-and-so Police, sir. And this is my son."
"Sir, this is my business card. If there's anything my architecture firm can do for you, please feel free to come and see me."
One boy, standing alone in the corner, was silently watching the parents' power play. This boy was my second brother.
When the atmosphere of flatter and fuss calmed down a bit, he approached the teacher. "Please let me play in the band, sir."
The teacher, who was worn out by the parents' clamor, simply stared at the brazen boy, who had come to him without a sponsor.
He finally asked, "You don't have parents?"
"I do, but they couldn't come because they are at work."
The student did not grow diffident at all. "Teacher, what's the place of parents in a tryout? I would like to make it on my own account."
The teacher studied him before he asked, "What instrument can you play?"
"The trumpet... Let me play it, please."
Even a cursory look told the teacher that the boy was poverty-stricken. Thinking, "Well, what can you do, anyway?" he offered the trumpet.
When the teacher heard my brother's music, his eyes grew as wide as saucers. He asked him to play one more time and granted him admission to the band. My brother was the only student who made it without his parents' business cards, with no one's sponsorship, and with no one's introduction.
I'm sure that my brother didn't play the trumpet all that well. The music teacher, known as a music enthusiast, probably recognized the potential in my brother.
The next day, when my brother rushed to the band office as soon as his classes were over, he received a cornet, not a trumpet. The cornet is shorter than the trumpet. Since it was hard to play and wasn't a lead instrument, no one was eager to take it on.
Holding the cornet, my brother pleaded with the teacher. "Sir, I would like to play the trumpet."
The teacher lost his temper. "How dare you question me? All trumpet positions are filled already."
The trumpet is the backbone in a concert band. A powerless student couldn't dream of playing it. After that, the sound of the cornet rang out from the rooftop of the school building every day after school. It was like my brother's cry, "I will show you all how good I am, even though I'm just playing the cornet."
Some ten days later, when my brother, all by himself, was practicing a minute-long continuous sound, the music teacher made an unexpected appearance. He had come up, attracted by my brother's playing.
"Were you the one who was just playing the cornet?"
"Is there anyone else in the band who plays the cornet?"
"That's amazing. Your technique is strikingly similar to Bok (Pak), a graduate who played the first trumpet... He was a musical genius. None like him has appeared since." The teacher muttered in
a lamenting tone without realizing it.
"My brother was that first trumpeter."
"Is that so? I can't believe it!"
The teacher went down to the musical storage behind the stage and brought out a glittering trumpet. He placed it in my brother's hand. "Play for me." After he listened to the music, he said, "Now I finally have a true number-one trumpeter."
My brother's joy about playing the trumpet was beyond words. Suddenly, he remembered how he had to hold two water buckets up in the air in primary school, along with the faces of the headmaster and his homeroom teacher. He felt as if he had gotten his revenge.
From that time on, the trumpet was always with my brother except when he ate and when he was in class. When we went to bed, I held my doll in my arms and my brother the trumpet in his.
Every day, the night air of the quiet Katsuragawa riverside was broken with the trumpet sound until Orion's Belt made its way lower in the sky. The passengers of the Kodama, a bullet train that passed there every night, could have heard my brother's trumpet mixed with the whistle from the train.
My parents, who were struggling just to make ends meet, didn't pay much attention to my second brother. And my first brother looked at his younger brother, who was following in his footsteps, with eyes of pity. I was the only one who hoped for my brother's success.
I was a primary school student then. Lying on the dirt floor of my room looking up at the night sky, I would pray, "Please let me have a pretty doll," whenever I spotted a shooting star. After my brother started playing the trumpet, however, I would pray, "Please make my brother a big success!"
On Sundays, I volunteered to act as my brother's music stand while he practiced in front of the waterfall. Two months later, he secured the first trumpeter's position in the band. Of course, he did justice to his role. The jealous Japanese students, notably a boy named Shinda, secretly took away a piston or springs from my brother's instrument, drilled a hole in the connecting conduit, or removed a cork, but my brother's position as the first trumpeter was secure. My brother's musical talent was beyond comparison and no one else could do it better.
In July 1961, four months after my brother took up the trumpet, a competition for individuals and groups took place for concert bands nationwide.
The families of the participating students must have made a lot of commotion in the morning, packing delicious lunches and snacks and ironing band uniforms. In my family, the morning hours passed as usual. Actually, no one knew about the contest. My second brother was so taciturn that my neighbors often wondered whether he was a mute, so he left the house without saying a word about the competition.
Toward the evening, the neighborhood children told me, "Your second brother blew a horn and got first place. They say he's received a prize, too."
Only then did I remember that my brother had stashed his band uniform in his bag. My heart soared with joy. I ran home as fast as I could. While running, I remembered the shooting stars. One of them had heard my prayers...
Entering the house, huffing and puffing, I saw my brother sitting in the room.
"Brother...the horn...you got first place?"
In response to my breathless question, my brother, who rarely smiled, grinned, saying, "Yeah."
Overjoyed, I jumped up and down in the room. "My brother got first place!"
Smiling again, he began to take out the prizes from his bag. First came a commendation certificate, then a musical box, and then a doll. My eyes grew wide with wonder.
My brother pressed the doll to me and said, "Now you can throw away that old doll of yours."
I pinched my leg, wondering whether I was dreaming. It was no wonder because the doll I had played with was a doll in name only. My father found it in the trash when I was six; now it was so faded that it was impossible to tell her original colors and she had no eyes, nose, or mouth. That was why I had prayed to the shooting stars to let me have a new doll. I didn't throw away the old doll of mine, though. I couldn't bring myself to play with the new doll, so I put it up at the top of the wardrobe and admired it from afar, while continuing to play with the old one.
That evening, laughter was heard from my house for the first time in a long while, as we admired the commendation certificate and prizes my brother had brought home.
My father, who had always kept his head bowed and didn't speak much, held his head high as he said, "So, you're the best horn player in Japan. I'm so proud of you! I'm so happy that you defeated all the Japanese kids."
My mother concurred in a broken voice, "Why didn't you tell me in the morning that you were going out to a competition? I could have at least fried an egg... Did you eat lunch all by yourself again? You should eat well to have strength in your stomach to blow the horn well..."
Only my eldest brother was quiet. He kept opening and shutting the musical box. The box held the tune, "The Maiden's Prayer," and sent a snippet of a melody that seemed to convey a girl's heartfelt wish when it was opened and then halted when it was closed, and then the sad music continued from where it had stopped.
Thinking back, his behavior must have come from his regret about his younger brother, who would end up becoming just like him.
The next morning, there was a pounding on our door. Unexpectedly, it was our district's president of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. A tall man with big eyes, nose, and mouth, he wildly waved the newspaper clutched in his hand as he said, "Look at this. The second child of this family has caused quite a ruckus." He guffawed. To my father and mother, whose eyes were wide open with question, he showed the picture of my second brother printed in the morning edition of Kyoto Shimbun. He then read aloud: " 'Musical Genius—Boy Trumpeter. In the national concert music contest held in Kyoto Hall July 7, Bok Seigen (Pak Song-won), seventh grader of Rakunan Junior High School, came in first without dispute...The thirteen-year-old boy started learning how to play the trumpet only four months ago. The judges were astonished by his refined performance. A pride of Kyoto, his future looks promising.' "
Stopping here, he asked my mother for a glass of water and gulped it down. "The water's so refreshing. How's that? Is he only the pride of Kyoto? He's the pride of our Korea, isn't he? You have such gifted children. But then, because of that talent, your eldest almost became a ghost under the railway bridge. If I hadn't found him then, the boy would be dead by now. It would be wonderful if you take these gifted boys of yours to our fatherland and bring them up there! I think it would do your family good if you return to our fatherland with the boys." His booming voice shook our entire house, almost lifting up the roof. After pressing the paper into my father's hand, he returned to his office.
After he left, our room seemed to be swirling with fresh air, and Father was deep in thought the entire day, looking intently at the newspaper.
We learned about it later, but my brother had almost not made it to the contest. Several days before the competition, there was a serious discussion at school about who, of eighty students in the band, would be sent. All the students in the band were asked to play their instruments in front of the principal and music teachers. No one came close to my brother's trumpet performance. His name was mentioned among the principal and the music teachers. After the principal said, "He's a dirty Korean, isn't he?" no one dared speak his name, however. There was silence before the music teacher in charge of the band said, "But the famous wrestler Rikidozan is Korean too." Once again, my brother's name was on everybody's lips. "Bok is Korean, but he's a student of a Japanese school, not a Korean school, so the honor will belong to Rakunan, don't you think?"
That was how my brother could enter the solo competition. We heard that a big commotion had taken place during the competition. The seats in Kyoto Hall were overflowing with dozens of bands and over three hundred soloists from all over Japan. The group competition came first. My brother's band shone above all other competitors and won the first prize. The solo contest followed. The sounds of soloists on the saxophone, the horn, the flute, and the clarinet flowed from the stage one by one, and finally the trumpet solos began.
My brother played the Italian folk song, "O Sole Mio." When his performance was over, the audience was silent for a moment, but it soon broke out into applause. He had been as good as the newspaper article described. After he won first place, the teachers, overjoyed, hugged one another and circled round and round, and the principal, grinning from ear to ear, forgetting that he had hesitated because of my brother's ethnicity, thumped my brother on the back.
Years later, watching a foreign singer belting out "O Sole Mio" on TV in Pyongyang during the April Spring Friendship Art Festival, my second brother said, "That Italian folk song likens a lover to the sun, but when I was playing it in the solo competition, I played it with a completely different feeling. I yearned that there would be the ‘sun' that would brightly shine on our poor family... Maybe my trumpet sounded all the more heartfelt."
After the competition, its outcome was reported in Mainichi Shimbun as well, heightening the reputation of the Rakunan Junior High School and my brother. When Rikidozan, the pro-wrestling world champion, came to Kyoto for a match, the Rakunan Junior High band was invited by the Kyoto City Hall to march all over downtown to play welcoming music. That day, my brother left home with more enthusiasm than ever, saying, "I'm going out to play for Rikidozan." Since he was Korean as well, when the wrestler appeared, my brother got to see him in person and played his instrument with every ounce of energy he had until his head spun. For some reason, however, he was in despair when he returned home that night.
"Brother, did you see Rikidozan?" I asked.
He answered in a dispirited tone, "I thought he was Korean, but he was just another Japanese." He didn't want to elaborate.
Probably getting a glimpse of Rikidozan surrounded by a welcoming crowd, he must have thought: he is Rikidozan the Japanese, not Korean, and it's the same with me, the one who's playing the welcoming music. From the next day on, he began to change little by little. His enthusiasm for the trumpet seemed to be flagging. His nightly practices at the riverbank took place less often and he stopped going out to the waterfall, so I no longer had a chance to act as his music stand.
That autumn, my father decided to take his family to our home country.
At the news, the first person to rush over to my family was the music teacher. He said to my parents, "Please entrust your son to me before you leave. Your son is a rare musical talent. I've recently come into an inheritance of a considerable sum. I will take responsibility for sending your son to Tokyo Musashino Music College. Wouldn't it be great to cultivate an Asian as a world-class trumpeter?"
He must have thought that my parents would be impressed by the name Tokyo Musashino Music College, but my father's unexpected reply rendered him speechless. "Even if he becomes the number-one trumpeter in the world, he will be known as Japanese. Will he ever be known as Korean?"
The music teacher could not come up with an answer. Still, he followed us all the way to Niigata, where our homecoming ship would be launched, unable to discard his hopes. On the day of boarding the ship, the Japanese Red Cross officials asked everyone, including children, "Do you really want to go to North Korea? If you change your mind now, you can stay in Japan." They especially asked my second brother several times. This was because of the music teacher's "behind-the-scenes operation."
My brother's answer was one and the same. "I'm going home."
He had little notion of his fatherland at the time because he had gone to Japanese schools all along, but I think that his awareness of being Korean, sprouted in his heart during his not-too-long life overseas, pushed away the music teacher's tenacious temptation.
The Niigata pier was teeming with people who had come to see the passengers off. Among the throng of people stood the music teacher. To my brother boarding the ship, he said, "I really wanted to raise you as a world-class trumpeter. I admit that I hoped to be known as a famous soloist's coach. You made me think about music and one's nation. Make sure to be successful in your home country. You have special talent." I stood there, holding my brother's hand. I was afraid that my brother would be whisked away.
At last, the ship left Niigata port. The land of Japan receded in the distance. The music teacher standing on the pier looked smaller and smaller until he became a mere speck. Eventually even the speck disappeared. Soon, the land of Japan was out of sight.
Our life in the fatherland passed peacefully. My first brother went to music college. After several surgeries, he almost completely regained the functions of his injured hand, allowing him to play the trumpet without any impediment. Over the repeated operations, my parents often said, "Receiving such difficult surgeries for free...No one could dream of it in any other place than our own fatherland."
My second brother, as a middle school student, went out every evening to the Potong River to play the trumpet. At the time we lived in a five-story apartment building on the riverfront. He hoped to go on to a music college. No one doubted that his dream would come true.
Even in the touch-and-go situation in the aftermath of the incident of the American imperialists' spy ship, the Pueblo, my family's stability was not broken. Our Socialist fatherland did not budge at all in the face of the American imperialists' threats, no matter what they were.
In 1969, my second brother graduated from high school and was recommended to go to a music college. Soon, an admission letter arrived. It was a happy occasion.
That evening, however, my house was weighed down by unusual silence. Such a heavy atmosphere was rare in the evening since our arrival in our fatherland. All our family members had gathered. My eldest brother, a trumpeter in a first-rate theater group after his graduation from music college, was holding his brother's admission letter.
He said, "You always wanted to go to music college. What is this sudden talk about joining the People's Army? Don't you see this admission letter right here?"
My taciturn second brother didn't say anything.
After moments of silence, my first brother said, "The indignity you suffered in Japan because of the trumpet stays with me like a knot in my heart. I hoped for you to become a renowned musician to show the world that you made it against all odds. Now the path is wide open, so why are you saying no?"
Of course, I put in my two cents' worth. "Look, brother. You have an admission letter, so why are you doing this to yourself? Don't you think you should show that music teacher who tried to persuade you until the last minute, following us to the ship, hoping to take you away?"
Despite our attempts, the object of our conversation kept silent for a long time. Finally, he blurted out, "I will not change my mind. Everyone in my class filed a petition to be allowed to join the People's Army. We had already agreed to do it at the time of the Pueblo incident."
As if endorsing my brother's assertion, the television started reporting on how an EC-121, a large-scale American military reconnaissance plane, had entered our airspace and how our side had shot it down. Immediately, all of us fell silent and watched the news. Even after the report was over, no one spoke.
Finally, my father said, "Son, I think you've made the right decision. What's the use of music if we have no country? You're right. My family should have at least one People's Army soldier, because we have enjoyed only benefits after our return home."
My mother, sitting next to him, concurred, "I agree that you should join the army. Our country comes first."
Indeed the generation that experienced the loss of country thought differently. So, my second brother, fully supported by his parents, joined the People's Army together with his classmates.
While in the army, he rarely wrote letters to us. Even occasional ones were short, merely saying that we shouldn't worry about him because he was in good health and fulfilling his duties well. Thinking of my brother, who was of so few words even in letters, I would mutter to myself, "Oh, how terse you are! But it's amazing that such a curt person could play the trumpet so well." Still, I polished his trumpet until it gleamed, hoping that he would play it again after his discharge. I had no doubt that he would express the life of a soldier through his trumpet when he returned.
One day in May 1972, my brother's long-awaited letter arrived. All his letters are still kept in my parents' home.
"...Some time ago, as a member of the military band, I participated in a parade held in the Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate our great leader's sixtieth birthday. Looking up to the fatherly leader, who was standing there like the sun, I played the trumpet at the forefront of the ranks in the square. Only then did I finally meet the sun, which I sought so tearfully on the stage of a foreign country. I think I've learned how to play the trumpet for this very day, despite all kinds of humiliations since my childhood. I played my heart out from the beginning of the parade to the end. Father and Mother, I will sing about the great sun all my life. A person who sings about the sun! Please don't be disappointed that I left the city without coming to see you, though you live so nearby. I am a soldier in uniform. My outpost the ‘3,000-li March' awaits me..."
After receiving the letter, I polished his trumpet with even more care. I couldn't forget his words that he would sing about the sun.
At last, my brother was discharged. As he entered back into our home, we saw that he was no longer the boy with a red collar who had joined the army.
"Oh, look at you! I almost couldn't recognize you. I think all the girls will swoon over you!" So happy, I laughed and babbled like a child.
Father and Mother were very proud of him as well. At the time, my eldest brother was not at home because he was performing overseas.
While we talked about all the things that had happened in the intervening years, I blurted out, "Brother, you will take up the trumpet again, right?"
I took out the trumpet, so shiny from my constant polishing, and handed it to him. Though I didn't elaborate, my underlying thought was, "You said you'd sing about the great sun, didn't you?"
My brother, however, stroked it for a long time and put it down without bringing it to his lips.
He said to my parents, "I have decided to enter the stone production sector."
To my consternated parents, he handed an assignment letter he had already received.
"Brother, what's going on? How did you get assigned to the stone sector? This is too much!" Furious, I shouted.
But my brother smiled. "I volunteered for it."
I was aghast; I couldn't understand him no matter how I tried.
Regardless of my indignancy, he became a member of the stone production section of a certain general bureau. While working there, he went to a mining college and became an engineer. Thus, my expectation that my brother would become a talented musician came to nothing.
Why did my brother, who had said he wanted to sing about the sun, abandon music and become a stonemason? For the life of me I couldn't understand.
My brother got married, and I was married soon after. Though I was busy with my life at my in-laws' house, I couldn't stop thinking about my second brother and his trumpet, all the more so because I worked in the art sector. Whenever I saw a musician, I couldn't dispel the regret and emptiness I felt about my brother's talent that had been buried under heaps of stone.
My taciturn brother had become even more silent, as if he himself had turned into stone.
On special holidays, I would visit my parents with my journalist husband and children. My first brother and my husband enjoyed a convivial time, talking about the elegant musical world and a journalist's life revolving around people. But as soon as my second brother arrived, the atmosphere would turn awkward with his talk of the mine and stones.
Watching such a brother of mine, I would think: How come it's so hard for him to answer simple questions in a normal situation, but he turns so voluble when it comes to stones? Is he really my brother who started playing music despite every adversity and proved to be a musical boy genius? But what good did it do to ignore his talent?
By now, he was a middle-aged man going on fifty, so the musically gifted child was just a sad memory. When we got together, I was glad to see him but soon felt the same regret. Even these get-togethers, however, came to an end after a while. With the start of the "arduous march" in the mid-1990s, even the shadow of my brother was impossible to catch at home. He was entrenched in his mine and rarely came home.
Some time later, my brother's eldest son was about to join the People's Army. I went to the Pyongyang train station to see him off. Looking at him, wearing a red collar, I remembered my brother more than thirty years ago, when he left for an outpost with the exact same kind of collar.
Thinking about how the years had flown by, I suddenly missed my brother, whom I hadn't seen for a long time. But at the station, there was only his wife.
"Sister, what about my brother?"
"I think he will come soon because I called him at the mine."
My nephew was alternating his eyes between the clock in the station and people around him. I did the same. My brother didn't show up that day, though.
After seeing off my nephew, who left disappointed, I couldn't help blaming my brother. I couldn't fall asleep that night, picturing my nephew's disappointed face as he left without seeing his father. My brother, though of few words, had been thoughtful and affectionate since his childhood. Where did that brother of mine go, the one who had been happier than I when he gave me the doll he had received as a prize? Had he turned into stone himself?
Soon after, I discovered a surprising bit of news in the Rodong Sinmun. The government awarded citations to those who had achieved great feats in building monuments, and my brother's name was on the list of recipients. Pak Song-won. It was clearly my brother. According to the newspaper, my brother was awarded a citation from the respected and beloved general Kim Jong Il.
My astonishment was beyond description. My brother received the highest award! I rushed over to my brother's house right away. I wanted to congratulate him and hear what he had to say.
"Sister! It's been a long time. Come in," my brother's wife welcomed me.
"My brother's at home, right? He must have attended the award ceremony yesterday. I learned it from the paper."
"Is he ever at home? He left for his granite mine last night. His own home is no better than an inn now," she said as if nothing was out of the ordinary and managed to laugh. "Even if you get to see your brother, he won't say much, anyway. Sit down and relax. I will bring something out for you." She headed for the kitchen before I had a chance to stop her.
Left alone in the room, I looked around and approached my brother's desk. Piled on the desk were books on stone production and processing. I looked at them for a while. What attractions did stone hold for my brother, a one-time music buff, to steer him to such a different path?
I noticed a thick, faded notebook, its cover worn. Written on it were the words, "Creative Notes," which caught me by surprise. Then my brother hadn't given up music altogether? I opened it, and a yellowed newspaper clipping fell out. "Musical Genius—Boy Trumpeter." The unforgettable article published in Kyoto Shimbun so long ago!
I stared at the article for a long time. So my brother hadn't forgotten about those days and still harbored some lingering feelings about music then. What made him opt for a life in a quarry instead of the one with the trumpet? Recorded in the notebook were my brother's impressions about his soldier days. Underneath were musical notations of short melodies, expressing how emotionally overcome he was. I turned one page after another.
XX day XX month in 1973 at Iap Township, Chungsan County. We heard a story that brought tears to our eyes. One day after the war, the sun was setting before a house. The chairman of the township Party was standing there all alone, having lost all his family members because of the American bastards. The fatherly leader couldn't bring himself to leave him there all alone. He entered the house again and spent the night with him. That night, the sun emanated from that gloomy house.
Several musical notations were drawn below. They were scratched out, redrawn, and then crossed out again. After two or three pages of such attempts, he wrote:
It doesn't work. Until now, I've thought that music is the most powerful thing, an emotional language that can express everything. But it's not the case. There's no melody that can express this great, passionate love. Like no artist can draw the sun... Even if I create the most solemn melody, it is no better than a letter written by a reed on crumbling sand.
A poem followed:
You fragile reed, you crumbling sand,
You fugitive waves, I trust you no more!
The lines from one of Heinrich Heine's poems. How did it come to be written there? I thought I could fathom the course his heart had taken.
On the next page, he talked about "3,000-li March," about the path of the great leader's love, which he saw everywhere he went in the country.
Our march today was arduous. It was a long march into the deepest part of the mountain. Had anyone else walked this path before? We felt as if we were on an untrodden path. We walked like that. When we came upon a hamlet in such deep mountains, it seemed almost mysterious. This hamlet consisted of three houses, the kind that appears in an old tale. A tiny hamlet in no-man's-land, far from the human world. Entering it, we were shocked one more time. A clean wood marker stood, on which letters were engraved: This is where the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung visited on such-and-such day in October 1949. Ah, did the fatherly leader come all this way, to this deep mountain? While he was so busy with founding the Party, the country, and the army! I have heard so much about the fatherly leader's love, but the shock today was truly great. Ah, Fatherly Leader!
This was followed by numerous notations -- drawn, crossed out, redrawn. Below them was another entry.
The great sun, the story of great love! I cannot come up with a suitable trumpet melody. The world of the trumpet, the world of music that I've loved so much. But it is too weak to sing about the mercy of the great sun. It is helpless. Is there any musical melody that can convey that great love to the people in the world at all?
Stopping here, I fell into deep thought. I realized that I was watching my brother at a crossroads in his life. Something overwhelming, which I neither had known nor tried to understand, made my heart pound. I turned the page.
The revolutionary battle site in the northern part of this country, where one can feel the breath of Mt. Paektu, the sacred mountain of the revolution. Our marching ranks stood under the grand monument of Samjiyon, rising high into the sky. The grand monument depicts, in relief, some anti-Japanese guerrillas, who were following the great leader clad in an anti-Japanese guerrilla uniform, smudged and torn with gun smoke and the showers of fire during the bloody battles against the Japanese... This is a grand monument erected by the great General Kim Jong Il to commemorate the respected and beloved leader's revolutionary achievements for 10,000 generations to come. I stood in front of it for a long time. The more I looked at it, the louder a solemn, unusual melody seemed to ring out. I touched the granite base and put my ears to it. At that moment I heard majestic music. An ode sung by the stone about the heaven-sent great man... The wind blowing from Mt. Paektu was swirling around the granite. I put my ear to the granite again. I clearly heard the solemn music again. It was the majestic song lauding the great man and the leader's eternal life, infused in the stone by the great General Kim Jong Il. This is music. This is the pious music I yearned to hear so much, imbued in the world of stone by the great General Kim Jong Il. I will live in the world of this music. In the world of music created by the great general to be handed down forever!
Next came Heinrich Heine's poem "Declaration," part of which I had read earlier.
And with a mighty hand, from Norway's forests
I wrench the tallest ﬁr tree
And dip it deep
Into Etna's burning maw, and with this
Fiery-tipped pen of giants
I write on the darkling dome of heaven,
"Agnes I love you!"
Every night since then they burn
Up there, the eternal words of flame
And all the children of men to come
Will rejoice to read the heavenly words.
I seemed to be able to hear the overwhelming melody that echoed in my brother's heart, which I hadn't even known. Letting out an exclamation, I gripped the notebook with both hands and pressed it to my chest. I knew so little about my brother. He had never abandoned music. My brother, who had wished to sing about the sun forever in the parade site, where the fatherly leader was present, was still playing that music. My brother lived in music, bestowed by the great general on the world of stone. He lived in the dignified world of music, played by the monuments for the cause of the leader's eternal life being erected all over our fatherland.
I looked out. Through the window I could see the soaring Juche Idea Tower and the Monument to Party Founding. The granite stones that form the giant bodies and bases. The solemn music played by the stones seemed to reach out to us. The music of eternity.
Ancient people called stone one of the ten longevity symbols. The Incas and Mayans in the distant past created stone cultures with edifices, mammoth monuments, and pyramids, and they remain until now. But they are no more than fossilized relics.
No era, no nation could imbue majestic music in stone. But the stones in our country play solemn music. The legendary song of great and lofty love for the people! This song will go down in history forever as long as the earth exists.
The song rings out from Kumsusan Memorial Palace, that supreme sacred place of Juche, the Juche Idea Tower, the Arch of Triumph, the Monument to Party Founding, and historical monuments all over the country, doesn't it? The Monument to Three Charters for National Reuniﬁcation at the entrance of Tongil Street, the gateway to Pyongyang, sings the song of reunification for 70 million fellow countrymen.
My brother was the very person who played the music.
He was a true musician!
I would like to end my story by explaining my brother couldn't make it to see off his son when he joined the People's Army. Having heard that his son was leaving, my brother headed for Pyongyang in a truck loaded with raw granite rocks to be used for the fence of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. The truck climbed over a hill from the mine and reached a wide road when it stopped. My brother looked down and saw a woman with a baby strapped to her back, a few old people, and children standing in the middle of the road hoping to catch a ride.
"Please give us a ride to Kangso," the woman said. "I'm on my way back home from my parents' but as you see, I have a baby."
It was hard to refuse the woman when the sun was setting over the western hill and the sky, orange with an evening glow, was darkening. Interpreting the driver's silence as permission, she approached the car. "Mr. Driver, thank you very much." But she stopped short, with her eyes on the window, which held a sign "construction for Kumsusan Memorial Palace." The woman slowly lowered her body and knelt before the truck and made a low bow. Then the old folks and children knelt and bowed toward the car. When the flustered driver was getting out of the car, the woman said, "Please keep going...Please forgive me...for stopping a car heading for Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the fatherly leader rests."
The baby on her back woke up and started crying. The woman seemed to be oblivious because she didn't stand up until the car was out of sight. The old folks and children also kept their heads bowed toward the truck. After a while, my brother put his hand on the arm of the driver.
"Please stop the car."
Caught by surprise, the driver didn't answer.
"I will return to the mine."
"What?" The driver was puzzled. "You're not going to see off your son who's joining the army?"
My brother didn't explain.
That day, he got off the truck and returned to the mine. A woman who shed tears of atonement for delaying the truck heading for Kumsusan Memorial Palace, just for a few minutes, and the old folks, and children...They must have heard with their hearts the immortal majestic music ringing out from the stones loaded in the truck, the music imbued by the great general.
From Literature from the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations. A Words Without Borders anthology. Copyright 2006 by Words Without Borders. Published September 2006 by the New Press. All rights reserved.