by James McGirk
The rocket had failed. Kim Jong-un snapped off his the monitor and turned to face his advisors. What could they possibly tell him? This was total failure. Five ashen men in uniform glittered in the gloom. They groveled and made excuses. Kim lifted a hand and batted the air as if to shoo a fly, and the men backed away slowly, heads bowed deeply in shame. He waited for them to leave and left the control room for his private chambers. The hallway smelled of sandalwood and cognac. Portraits lined the walls. That empty feeling that had welled up inside as he watched the explosion gradually filled with something more acrid and painful. Americans were sneering at his failure. Millions of skinny, eager peasants were depending on him and he had failed. His father and grandfather’s wide friendly faces peered down at him from the walls. Would he ever be as deft as his father at wriggling past the tentacles of the great powers? And if it came to it, would he be as a strong a warrior or as a grand marshal of industry as his grandfather? The thought of holding a Russian rifle and charging a line of American soldiers seemed too horrible to contemplate. He heard a rustle of fine fabric and footfalls approaching on the thick carpet.
“Brandy? Swiss chocolate? Pepsi Cola?” She was a sixteen-year-old drum majorette plucked from a parade by his father the year before. He shook his head and felt her enormous eyes slide off his face. It was so strange to be able to have anyone he could possibly want, even one of his brother’s wives if he so desired, even a foreigner, though the hard-faced Ukrainian blondes looked nothing like the sleek international students he remembered from high school. After three months in control, he was glutted and as bored with sex as anything else in his life. Besides there was so much else on his mind, he couldn’t focus: The six powers were pressing in, seizing assets, squelching vital inflows of capital, motor oil, and the luxurious necessities for living a civilized existence, and his near-neighbors in Burma, SLORC, their junta was loosening their grip and so far it hadn’t all gone to hell the way it had in Libya or Tunisia or Syria, or Cuba even; all over the world people were clamoring for self-determination, it was getting lonely, and he himself was lonely, his own brothers and sisters were frightened of him, and he couldn’t get much more out of them than sniveling and venomous little squibs of gossip about one another. The rocket would have been a fist streaking through the sky, eventually carrying a payload of instrumentation into outer space or delivering a deadly blow against distant foes.
Outside the window the sun had set and dots of sparkling starlight were beginning to pierce the murky dusk. Serene. A lone satellite, no doubt American, slid through the sky, the only un-twinkling star. He looked away from the window. It was all so tiresome. He barely had time to play basketball any more and certainly couldn’t be caught watching American matches. Of course his counterparts in Cuba and Myanmar had their hands forced, and thanks to the foresight of his father and grandfather that would never happen to the DPRK. There was enough material now for half dozen atomic bombs and a few old Soviet-trained machinists and engineers careful enough to build the components if it ever came down to it. There were times he really wanted to just give the order, hear the howitzers roar and the tanks grind and the boots tread and for a few glorious hours pound the bloated city of Seoul to gravel and its overfed citizens into pink mist, but the Americans would rally within hours and swamp their positions and level the entire country. Millions of North Koreans would flood over the borders and the nation would bleed into nothing. It was a thought that had an undeniable appeal. He had to admit that to himself, it was as if he were an elastic band being pulled in a dozen directions. If he could just let go.
But he would not. The reason why he was chosen was for his self-restraint. His brothers might have snapped and actually chosen to give the order and doom the country and everyone in it. But for all the accusations of insanity in the Western press, his father was a remarkably cool customer. Eventually something would have to give. The fallen rocket was bad omen; his enemies would sense weakness and press for deeper reform; demand that United Nations inspectors be let into the facilities or worse – launch an attack of their own. The band was pulled tighter.
Kim Jong-un came to the end of the hallway and opened the door onto the balcony. His muscles tensed up involuntarily as he waited for a sniper’s bullet in the cool night air. It never came. Pyongyang was dark and strange against the night sky. The stars were as intense as they were high up in the Swiss Alps. He was squashed between the millions of peasants starving in the paddies beyond the city and beyond that the vast armies of his enemies. But the sky was infinite. It occurred to him that the rocket was the only way to escape, that the DPRK could climb out of the gravity well and expand gloriously into space… he heard the drum majorette approaching behind him and he turned and asked if she would ever want to be an astronaut, and she took his hand, but her smile remained numb and her eyes were just as watery and terrified as before.