Most Best Happy Korean Bright Star


Sun Juong hated English class. She truly could not think of a bigger waste of time than learning the repulsive words that barbed the tongue like brambles.  Through, though, cough, rough.  All the same suffixes. All different pronunciations.

What a dopey language.

Sun Juong much preferred her own Northwestern dialect of P’yŏng’an.  The words rang out like tiny little hammers clacking out your message… clear and uncomplicated. Trying to speak English, she felt, was like trying to pick up uncooked rice with a fork.  

Both were useless tools of the imperialists.

But in Grade 8, it was required. Because “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle”, they were told. And if Supreme Ruler had ordered it so, well, then, it must be good.  

Personally, Sun Juong just couldn’t see it.  

After an excruciating hour of linguistic torture, the bell finally rang, so Sun Juong grabbed her backpack and bolted for the school gym. She dashed up the steps and into the changing room, cramming her stuff into her locker before wriggling into her leotard.  

A ball dancer, Sun Juong had spent the last five years in training.  But this year was the most important: this was the year she was going to be picked to perform in The Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang. It was her chance to shine for Supreme Ruler. 

She knew it. She could feel it.

She had initially wanted to be a ribbon dancer. She’d seen them on the covert TV her parents hid in the back room; the one that picked up South Korean channels. It was during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when she saw her and was entranced: Russia’s Evgenia Kanaeva. In a beautiful, sparkling pink leotard with a matching ribbon, Evgenia wove magic; painting the very air around her with graceful, sculpted swirls. Her body was one with the fabric strip; it was as if it was an extension of her very soul. She poured herself into its river-y rhythm; sliding and twirling and spinning. Young Sun Juong was utterly spellbound as she watched Kanaeva leap to unimaginable heights…fling her arms wide…then alight the earth, soft as rice powder.  Body, soul and mind flew through the air and were free.

But in her country, ribbons were for boys only.

So Sun Juong contented herself with the ball. It was still considered rhythmic gymnastics, after all. And she was finding that she was quite adept at it. She loved making her leaps as high as they could be. And she could bend her head almost all the way to the back of her thigh with the ball nestled in the small of her back. Almost! And she would do it. She was determined. Especially with that nasty little Mi Kyong doing it ALL THE TIME. Mi Kyong had NO sense of doing things for the team. A little wisp of a girl, just 147 cm, and all she wanted to do was prance around showing off her stretching skills. Well, if that’s the way she wanted to play it, Sun Juong was ready. Well, almost, anyway.

Out on the yard, the teams got right to work. They drilled in twenty teams of ten each, so it was a large group to manage. But Coach Su Min handled it well. She had been selected for the last three games and so had two of her sisters. Her hard work and dedication to the sport had secured her a lifelong position as a trainer and mentor. Sun Juong hoped that one day she too would lead a group like this.  

That would show ol’ snooty Mi Kyong a thing or two.

Sun Juong reveled in her work out. She jumped and spun. She rolled the ball down her arm to the tippy tips of her fingers and then twisted her palm around it, cradling it like a newborn kitten. She tossed it high and caught it behind her back. Stretching, turning, pulling, pushing; she gave her body its liquid free reign.  

Tired but invigorated, she arrived at her family’s home. Her father, a quiet scientist, sat in his chair with the newspaper while mother bustled about in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. Grandmother Hyun Jung sat on the sofa, just below the government-provided portraits of Kim Ilsung and Kim Jong-il, watching the lone state-run channel on TV. Middle sister sat in the family room playing guitar, its sweet music filling the room and making Sun Joung glad to be home. The guitar was just a lark, of course.  Middle sister Kyung Soon was quiet and studious and therefore was being raised to be a scientist like her father. Her oldest sister, Soo Jin, was now 18 and would be reporting to the Army in the fall; another great source of pride for her parents. 

Sun Juong didn’t know her future yet and her parents weren’t keen on the idea of her being a coach because it didn’t really fit their intellectual station. But until she showed an academic aptitude for something, well…

Sun Juong’s father made no secret that he wasn’t happy about her just-above-average grades. 

And her mother would simply turn away every time the subject came up.

And it always came up.

Grandmother Hyun Jung usually launched the first salvo, and tonight was no different. Sun Juong began bolting down her Tteokguk, a rice cake soup, wishing for a bit of meat (although her workouts left her ravenous, she knew it was pointless to ask for it).

“What table manners!  You eat like a farmer’s wife!”  Grandmother spat. Sun Juong sighed and slowed down. “You’ll never find a husband shoveling food in like that! You snort like a pig at a trough!”  

Eomeoni, please…”  Sun Juong’s mother said softly. Eun Mi was a rare beauty who stood apart from most women in the community. Her eyes were a deep hazel color, her bowed mouth was lush and full, and her long hair had the faintest copper-y hue to it.  She spoke rarely and when she did, it was Koi tapping the surface of a deep pond; soft and round.

“Well, she might take a breath between bites,” huffed Grandmother. Sun Juong’s face burned with shame, and she kept her head low over her bowl.  

Father changed the subject.

Dae Jung was quite tall by Korean standards, nearly 156 cm. He was not a particularly handsome man, but was kind-hearted and treated his daughters well.  And he knew how important it was for them to keep their tenuous foothold in society; without high achievement in a respected field, a girl could not hope either for a good job or a good marriage. So he kept the pressure on.

“Oldest Daughter,” he said.  “Tell me about your training today.”  Soo Jin startled noticeably. 

“Oh,” she stammered. “Drills, mostly. And many push-ups.” Then she rushed to add, “I feel stronger and more ready every day!  I’m ready to fulfill Songun!”

Hmmm, Sun Juong wondered. Why the sudden plug for the country’s military-first policy? Her sister had always been enthusiastic about her ambitions, but this seemed over-the-top… even for her. Before she could give it another thought, her father turned to Middle Sister. Sun Juong fidgeted, knowing she’d be next.  

“Tell me about your studies today, Kyung Soon,” said her father, who was now smiling broadly. Middle Sister prattled on about how an atom having six principal quantum numbers can yield several emission lines, or some such. Sun Juong noiselessly placed her spoon beside her metal chopsticks and waited.

Her father turned to her. “And you, young one. What did you accomplish today?”   

She decided her best bet was to follow Soo Jin’s model of unbridled enthusiasm and fairly burst forth with an epic description of her games routine. She waved her arms and tilted her head this way and that to make for greater effect. Finally, she came to the end: “And,” she concluded breathlessly, “today I nearly did it! I nearly touched the top of my head to the back of my thigh!” Panting, she waited for her father’s shower of praise.

“I see,” he said softly. “Were any actual academics a part of your day today, Daughter?” 

She felt her face go hot again. “Yes, father. I attended all of my classes with focus and determination.” 

He paused for a moment. “Hmmph,” was his only reply. Sun Juong withered. 

She glanced up at her mother, whose hazel eyes reflected her daughter’s hurt.

“Not even good at school. Good luck in life,” Grandmother carped. And quite suddenly Sun Juong just… snapped. She was tired of this old woman picking on her! Tired of being constantly insulted! Tired of watching that old hag creak around the apartment reeking of Tiger Balm!

“Stop it!” she cried, banging her hand on the table and startling the entire family. “Stop it now! I…I… work hard! At everything! Every day I…” 

But her tirade was cut short by the piercing wail of an air raid siren. Wordlessly, the family rose. As they made their well-rehearsed, seven story descent into the building’s bomb shelter basement, Grandmother groused. “Stupid Americans…this is all their fault. They’re always attacking everything! They should keep their big, ugly noses out of other people’s countries!” These were her typical grumblings during such drills, so the family paid little attention.  

Back at her desk in English class the next day, Sun Juong sighed as she watched the clock tick toward practice time. All she had to do was her recitation dialog, and then it was off to the gym. Unfortunately, Mi Kyong was her conversation partner, that silly showoff. Today she sported some dorky, sparkly hair thing that shivered with her every move. Sun Juong wanted to just smack it off! Oh, hadn’t this girl ever heard about the virtues of modesty and humbleness? She covertly rolled her eyes.

Miss Park called their names and they stood to face each other.

“Greetings, good friend, how nice you look today!” Sun Juong began.

“Thank you, generous friend. You are also looking well,” replied Mi Kyong.

“Have you eaten today?” continued Sun Juong.

“Yes, I was eaten today.”  

A titter rippled through the classroom.  Mi Kyong’s face reddened.  

“Shall we go to a movie show?”  

“Sure, that has many fun!”  

More tittering. Sun Juong couldn’t believe it… Little Miss Perfect Mi Kyong was making mistakes!

“That’s enough, class,” said Miss Park. “Very well done, Sun Juong. Mi Kyong, you need to study harder tonight. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Miss Park,” came the nearly inaudible response. Hot tears streaming down her face, Mi Kyong scurried back to her desk. Sun Juong felt a dart of empathy for her, but it passed quickly. The bell jangled their release.

As it did, Miss Park asked Sun Juong to stay behind. Stay behind? Waves of panic began to wash through her. How could she be in trouble? Didn’t she do the recitation perfectly? Why wasn’t that snippy Mi Kyong being asked to stay after all her goof-ups? Oh, if her father caught wind of this…

Swallowing hard, Sun Juong approached Miss Park’s desk. She was busy stacking books on a shelf behind her but turned to face her student. “Sun Juong,” she began in a friendly enough tone. Maybe this wouldn’t be a disaster after all? Sun Juong put on her most enthusiastic smile and Miss Park returned it.

“I just wanted to let you know that I was very proud of you today. You did a marvelous job on your recitation.” Sun Juong felt light-headed… as if her very heart would soar out of the school’s transom window! She bowed respectfully. 

“Thank you, Miss,” she replied in what she hoped was a Most Humble tone. 

Miss Park continued stacking. “I think you have a real aptitude for the language,” she went on. 

An aptitude! Sun Juong couldn’t believe her ears! 

“And I think if you apply yourself, you could be at the head of this class.” 

Sun Juong fairly swooned. How proud her father would be! What joy she would bring to her mother! And wouldn’t that just show her crabby old grandmother! 

Miss Park placed her hand on the cover of one of the few remaining books she’d been shelving as her tone turned to warning. “You’ll have to take on extra work, of course.” Sun Juong nodded enthusiastically. 

“Yes, Miss Park. I am most honored to take on extra studies.” Miss Park lifted the book and Sun Juong could just make out its title: Of Mice and Men.

Ready to show her eagerness, she asked her teacher about it. 

“American trash,” Miss Park sniffed as she slid it into its slot on the shelf with a definitive thunk. “I keep these for my advanced students.” 

“Oh, Miss!  Please let me try! I know I can do it…can you please let me take it home and try?”

Miss Park suddenly appeared thoughtful. “Well, I suppose I could start you with some poetry. But if it becomes too difficult, you must tell me. I don’t want you falling behind on your regular coursework.” 

With a flurry of promises tumbling out, Sun Juong reached for what her teacher held out to her: a book with Byron scrolling down its spine. As she danced out the classroom door, a small, knowing smile crept across her teacher’s lips.

Sun Joung floated through her ball routines that afternoon. She couldn’t believe her luck had changed at last! She nearly ran home, spurred on by the extra weight of the new book bouncing in her backpack. She could barely suppress her smile! She trotted around the last corner of the dilapidated building that housed her family’s apartment and stopped short. There, just past the dumpster, she saw it: the arm of Oldest Sister’s jacket. She knew that jacket because she coveted it and Oldest Sister never let her borrow it. But what was she doing here? Sun Juong padded over carefully for a look.

She could scarcely believe her eyes. There was Soo Jin…in the arms of a boy! A total stranger! Displays of affection, of course, were strictly forbidden between unmarrieds and anyone caught breaking the law could be sent to prison. Sun Juong’s audible gasp alerted the young lovers to her presence. 

She turned and ran as her sister called after her, “Sun Juong!  Sun Juong…wait!” But she ran and ran, letting her feet slap the pavement so hard that the sting of hitting cement shot right through the soles of her paper-thin school shoes.  

That night, Soo Jin tiptoed into the room her sister shared with Grandmother, whose impossibly loud snoring covered up the girls’ whispering. “Sister,” Soo Jin hissed. “Sister, let me speak to you!” Sun Juong pulled her quilt tightly over her head. “Sister, please!” Soo Jin, who had always been the iron-willed one of the bunch, sounded close to tears. This was so unusual that it prompted Sun Juong to pull the quilt down (but only a little; to show that she still did NOT approve of her sister’s shenanigans.) 

“Little Sister, I need your help. You have to promise not to tell!” Soo Jin implored. 

“Why shouldn’t I?!” snapped Sun Juong. “Have you lost your mind?  Do you know what could happen to you?”

Soo Jin sighed, crouching beside her sister’s cot. “I know this is hard for you to understand because you are so young…” 

“I’m not that young!” Sun Juong shot back. Soo Jin was thoughtful for a moment.

“Yes. You are right. You’re old enough for what I’m about to tell you.”  Sun Juong could just make out her sister’s face in the darkness. 

She looked different somehow; more… grown up. Soo Jin bit her lip before starting. “Chung Hee and I…well, we’re very much in love.”  

“Then why doesn’t he ask Father for your hand like a respectable young man?” said Sun Juong, a little too loudly.  

Grandmother snorked in her sleep, turned, then resumed her thunderous snoring.  

The girls released their collective breath. Then Soo Jin said, “Because we are not staying here. We’re going to…leave.”  

Leave? Where could they go that was better than Pyongyang? The other towns were way worse off than theirs. 

“Don’t be stupid, Sister. Where would you go?” Soo Jin paused for a long moment, then said simply, “South.” 

“How far?” Little Sister asked. “Nampo?  Kangwan?” Sun Juong could now see that her sister was trembling in the moonlight.  

“Seoul,” she whispered.   

Sun Juong was dumbstruck. Why? Why would Oldest Sister want to leave her home and family knowing full well she could never return? She was about to enter the military… why would she give up such a wonderful career that was sure to give her a good station in life? And who was this rebel boy who had cast such a spell on her?

Sun Juong laid awake long after Soo Jin had elicited promises of secrecy and tip-toed back to her own room. Why Seoul? Didn’t the Americans occupy it? Surely Soo Jin knew this; it’s what they’d been taught their whole lives. Every North Korean knew the story of how war started in 1950 when the Americans, who were occupying South Korea, attacked the innocent North and tried to take it over, too. President Kim Il -Sung was the hero who battled them back across the border and protected his country with such bravery. Who would want to live in a country ruled by those demons? She would simply have to talk her out of this whole ridiculous notion. Yes, that was it. She’d just make her sister see sense.  

This idea comforted her, but sleep would still not come. Her head still burning with the news of her sister’s intended defection, she tumbled fitfully under her quilt. Exhausted, she kept hearing what sounded like English words buzzing around her ears like hungry mosquitos. Dozy sleep tangled them so that they faded in and out and she couldn’t tell where her thoughts ended and her dreams began.  

It was then that she heard soft weeping. Her mother’s. On cloud feet, she slipped out of her room and followed the sounds that seemed to be coming from the family room. She peeked around the corner and saw her parents sitting on the couch, watching TV.  

Only it was not the state-run channel. And she noticed that old quilts had been hung in front of the windows. Her parents were watching an illegal South Korean channel! They rarely did this; it was utterly forbidden. And even when they did sneak it out, it was usually only for big sporting events like the Olympics. Her whole world instantly flipped inside out. She stood rooted to the spot, riveted by her mother’s quiet sobs. And then slowly, she became drawn in to what they were watching. It was in English, but the words were simple enough for her to make out. A young girl stood in a cemetery, and Sun Juong understood that the grave before her was her own. The girl’s words jabbed a knife of grief into her throat:

“Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee.   And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up, eh?   Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

Reeling, Sun Juong escaped to her room and fell onto her cot, sinking at last into the dark fog of dreamless sleep.

At lunch the next day, she sat on her own. She was in no state to hear the other girls’ mindless chatter and she was certainly in no mood to deal with Mi Kyong’s nonsense. You’d have thought that girl would’ve come down a peg after embarrassing herself during the recitation, but she was as stuck-up as ever. Today she wore a glittering purple headband, which looked completely laughable with her red, white and blue school uniform.

Sighing, she opened her backpack and as she did, the Byron book slid out. Oh NO! With all of her sister’s drama, she’d forgotten to study it! Quickly, she began scanning the pages, but the words just swam before her. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and decided to memorize whatever lines she saw next:

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

The words curled like smoke around her thoughts. She felt elevated and lovely; warm and heady. She read the whole poem through again and again, committing it easily to memory. When Miss Park called on her for recitation, the words soared and swooped and glided from her tongue like ocean waves. When she finished, she saw that Miss Park had tears in her eyes.

Which is when the classroom door crashed open… BANG!

The inspectors came in. Their sudden entrance startled the students, but they were used to these surprise spot checks. While inspections were common in other areas of life, this classroom was reviewed more often because of its subject. Anything Western was always carefully monitored.  

Now back in her seat, Sun Juong thought of Oldest Sister. Were they here because of her? She tried not to look guilty as she sat ramrod straight in her seat with her hands folded over her grammar notebook. Three dour soldiers began strolling around the room; snorting at the English sayings and primary-colored Latin letters tacked to the walls. Sun Juong noticed that Miss Park was standing stock still in front of the bookcase. The soldiers gathered around and began questioning her. She smiled emphatically and laughed loudly at their inane comments. Suddenly, Sun Juong had a flash of inspiration. On the outside of her grammar notebook, she scrawled the words MOST BEST HAPPY KOREAN BRIGHT STAR in huge block letters.  

That morning, the Kwangmyŏngsŏng Satellite had been launched. It was a hugely proud moment for her country and its Supreme Leader, even though it was later reported that the satellite “did not reach its intended orbit.”  (There were rumors that it had crashed just after takeoff, but no one knew for sure.) Since Kwangmyŏngsŏng translated roughly to “bright star”, she felt sure this would be an ideal way to show her national pride.  

The men began to circle the desks, checking the students’ work. Sun Juong held her breath as a thick-necked, mouth-breathing soldier approached. She turned her notebook toward him and smiled broadly. He stood for a long moment, then grunted out an approving puff of garlic breath before giving her a slight smile and a curt nod. She heard the squeak of his thick-soled leather shoes as he moved on to the next student. She nearly collapsed with relief.

Spring began to move into summer. Mercifully, it seemed that Oldest Sister had abandoned her flight plans. Games practice was moving along at a brisk pace and Sun Juong was regularly reading the steady stream of works that Miss Park gave her. She found herself devouring them: Steinbeck and Twain and Hemmingway. Byron and Shelley and Keats. She became famished for the freedom in their words; she marveled at how this language, once like broken glass in her mouth, now seemed to flow like an agile river; spinning around stones, leaping over branches, cradling sleepy fish. Restriction fell away when she read… and she reveled in the places the stories took her. The sticky, stifling heat of the afternoon hung over English class, sapping the students. Even Miss Park had to vigorously fan herself to keep from going faint. Finally, she gave up and released her steaming charges. Frowsy and sweating, Sun Juong dragged herself to her teacher’s desk to collect her next book. Practice had already been cancelled because of the extreme temperature and a good read in a cool spot sounded sublime.  

But there weren’t any more. Like a locust, Sun Juong had consumed the entire collection. Miss Park could hardly bear the look of disappointment on her favorite student’s face, so she quickly cast about to make sure the room was empty before speaking. Softer than a magnolia petal she whispered, “There is one more…”  Sun Juong waited. “But you cannot let anyone see you with it…ever.” Her eyes bore into Sun Juong’s, and the girl understood that being caught with it could mean a labor camp… or worse. It made her want it all the more. Wrapped in a silk scarf, the teacher quietly slid the book to her. Sun Juong thrust it into her pack and slipped out the door.

She made a beeline for her special spot. It was an abandoned bus shelter that was somewhat shaded by a scrubby tree. After checking to make sure she was truly alone, she pulled her contraband from its silken shroud. Strange, thought Sun Juong. There was no title, only the numbers 1984. She began to read.  

She read and read. She could not stop. She read until her eyes hurt and her neck was stiff and her back was sore. She read until the light was no more. She read until there was no more to read.

She headed home. But the world had completely changed. Suddenly, the dilapidated buildings were inexcusable. The dark street lights made her angry.  The lack of food was actually somebody’s fault. “War is peace.  Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” What hideous lies she’d been told all her life! The words ruminated unceasingly. She tore home, the tears streaming down her face. She burst through the front door and ignored her family’s questions as she ran to her room. She fell face down on her cot, crying inconsolably.  

Later, she lay in a shaft of moonlight, sniffling. She heard the door creak open and she knew by the shuffle that Grandmother was approaching her. She turned over and pulled her knees to her chest, feigning sleep; but as she did so she knocked her backpack off the cot. The contents tumbled out and in a panic, Sun Juong dove for the forbidden book.  

But Grandmother was surprisingly agile for such an ancient creature. She snatched up Miss Park’s latest loaner and Sun Juong went rigid… surely it would mean nothing to the old woman? 

She could barely read Chosŏnmal, let alone English. Sun Juong was too terrified to speak. Grandmother looked at its cover, then at her granddaughter for a very long time. At last, she spoke: “It’s time.”

Sun Juong was utterly petrified. Obviously the old cow was going to tell her parents. And she would surely be expelled from school.  

Grandmother went to her own cot, lifted the thin mattress and withdrew a small lacquered box. 

She trundled back to Sun Juong’s bed and sat heavily beside her, sending up a pong of Tiger Balm. Sun Juong, now burning with curiosity, sat up for a closer look. Grandmother pulled letters and old black and white photos from the box. “A very long time ago, when I was a young girl only a bit older than you, I met a boy…” Her tone was completely foreign to Sun Juong; gentle and kind and nothing like the rusty hinge of a voice she’d heard her whole life. “An American. He was here in 1953, fighting the war. We fell in love and spent nights together when it was still legal for unwed couples to stroll the streets holding hands. He promised to marry me and take me back to the U.S. When the troops were called out, the border was shut down. He couldn’t get back in. A few letters made it through, but then they just… stopped.” Sun Juong was spellbound. Her grandmother’s eyes were red-rimmed and shone in the moonlight. Then she held out a picture: a jaunty, tall man with light hair and eyes, posing casually in a soldier’s uniform. A “ginger”, Grandmother called him.

A ginger.  

Sun Juong looked at her grandmother and in the thinnest whisper uttered, “The copper in mother’s hair?” Grandmother nodded. “You now see that not all around you is as it seems, or is as you’ve been told.” The last item she pulled from the box was a small, leather-bound book of poems. And then to Sun Juong’s amazement, her grandmother recited in near-perfect English:

And he is there, that sought

My young heart long ago!

But he has left me – though I thought He ne’er could leave me so.

Ah! lover’s vows – how frail are they!

And his – were made but yesterday.


Sun Juong walked the long school hall, her mind aching with confusion. Her poor head could no longer hold all these prickling thoughts; she had to let them go. She desperately wanted to get back to the way things were; back to normal, where everything was easily sorted and explained. Just before she reached her English class, she saw a knot of students squealing at a bulletin board. The Games! She’d completely forgotten that the announcements were today! She jockeyed for position, straining to read the names. And there it was, third from the top: Sun Juong Ahn. She’d made it! She’d be performing for Supreme Leader himself!

She ran the rest of the way to English class, eager to tell Miss Park her good news. She rushed through the door and stopped dead in her tracks.  

For a moment, she thought she was in the wrong classroom. A stern-faced older woman with graying hair was writing lessons on the board. The students were all the same, but Miss Park…

Miss Park was gone.  

After a dour look from the new teacher, Sun Juong made her way to her desk.  As she did, she stole a glance at the bookcase.  


Sun Juong made her way home, her heart leaden. Her precious teacher… had she been sent to a labor camp? She shuddered at the thought. Did they find out about the book? Would she be next? Nearing her apartment building, some sort of commotion jerked her back to the present. 

As she rounded the corner, she saw soldiers detaining a young couple.  

She froze.

Soldiers held Oldest Sister’s hands behind her back as she struggled in vain to free herself. Her boyfriend, Chung Hee, was being restrained by two soldiers and beaten by a third. He wrenched free and ran but as he did, one of the soldiers drew a gun and fired. He toppled just as Soo Jin broke free and ran to him.  

Sun Juong screamed for her to stop!  

CRACK!  Another gunshot hit its mark. Just a meter before where Sun Juong stood, her sister dropped to her knees, her mouth in a perfect “O” shape as a crimson circle grew on her chest. 

She fell forward to the crumbling pavement.

Sun Juong did not remember how she got home, or when she stopped screaming Soo Jin’s name. It might have been days or weeks that she lay keening on her cot. Occasionally, she would creep past the family room where her mother lay with her head in Grandmother’s lap as she stroked her daughter’s hair gently and endlessly, humming tunelessly. Ever so often, her mother’s hand would flutter to her chest like a small, pale dove as she whispered, “my heart…my heart…”

One morning, she woke to find Grandmother sitting on her cot. “You must go back today,” she said. “You must prepare for the Games.” How could this woman be so cold? How could she dance with a ball today… or any day? She wanted to die herself, she argued. What was the point of it all? But Grandmother took her hand and explained that she must. She must so that Soo Jin’s death would not be in vain. So that her mother could live again. So that she could bring the sun back into her own heart. And then she whispered in her granddaughter’s ear:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;                         

              If I can ease one life the aching,          

              Or cool one pain,                                 

   Or help one fainting robin

              Unto his nest again,                             

              I shall not live in vain.


The stadium was flooded with the deafening roar from participants and observers awash in patriotic zeal. From where she stood, she could just make out Supreme Leader. Little Mi Kyung stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?” Sun Juong paused a moment, then nodded.  She grasped Mi Kyung’s hand in her own. “Chin-gu!” they said together. 


Sun Juong breathed into her routine. She twirled and stretched, pushed and pulled. She rolled the ball down her arms and to the tippy-tips of her fingers before twisting her palm beneath the shining gold orb. Placing it behind her neck, she let it slip to the curve of her lower back, then arched perfectly until the top of her head touched the back of her thigh. Body, soul, and mind flew through the air and were free.

Michelle Massie