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  • Jia:A Novel of North Korea
  • Hyejin Kim (bio)

False Identity

Early the next morning, I tied the made-in-China lace up shoes I had bought in the street market and set off for the Pyongyang train station. I was well layered in a thin white shirt and stockings, which I always wore for performances, two ivory sweaters, and thick brown pants. I wrapped my head in a dark-blue scarf and put on my oldest, worn-out coat. I tried to wear as much as possible, to keep my backpack light.

The streets were empty, and wind whistled through the alleys around my apartment. I got on my bicycle and rushed toward Ch'anggwang Street with my scarf pulled tight; I was afraid of being seen by anyone I knew. Crossing Taedong Bridge, Kaya Hotel and Pyongyang Station came into sight all at once. On any other day, I would have turned my bike to the right and headed for the hotel. But this wasn't any other day.

My head down, I made an abrupt left turn as the station grew larger, expanding beyond my field of vision. The Great Leader was smiling at me from the picture above the entrance, and my eyes [End Page 95] stayed fixed on him; the larger his face grew, the more convinced I became that he was not actually looking at me, but rather up and into the far distance. That comforted me.

The station was already crowded with anxious travelers pacing the terminal. A conductor said there would not be a train to Hamhŭng or Onsŏng that day due to an engine problem; some would-be travelers turned back while others decided to wait out the delay in the station. I was afraid that Sŭnggyu would catch me after discovering my escape, and I needed to get out of Pyongyang. Grabbing the conductor's arm tightly, I asked him if there was no other way to get to Onsŏng. If I hadn't held him I felt he would have flown away without giving me an answer.

"You can catch a car ride on the street-just ask the driver to take you on board."

"Where can I catch those cars?"

"Go to any big street, you'll see the trucks. Try to the west, crossing the Pot'ong River."

I made my way to Sŏsŏng Street. Pedaling furiously, I headed northwest and passed over Sŏsŏng Bridge. The layers of clothing stuck to my body and I felt heavier and heavier. On the other side of the Pot'ong River, several groups of people were gathered along Pulkun Street, on the side that would take them toward Pot'onggang Station. Each group had five or six people, all waiting to catch cars, and all carrying big bags. Some had mirrors, rice, and salt bags; others even had televisions.

Leaving the bicycle on the grass next to the road, I joined the closest group. Whenever cars passed, we waved our hands, but were ignored. Finally, one man took money from his jacket and waved it around. Soon enough, a military car stopped with a screech and a soldier asked us where we wanted to go. The car was going to Kowŏn, in the far east. I knew there was a station there with trains to Onsŏng, so I got in without hesitating, along with seven others. After checking our travel permits, the soldiers took 300 won from each of us, no matter where we were going. That was about three [End Page 96] months' salary for a factory laborer. Some people on the street were left behind because they wanted to go in other directions or didn't have enough money.

The car was extremely cold, and after taking a seat, everyone took a big, crumpled plastic bag out of their packs and wrapped it around themselves. Clearly, they knew what to expect. I could hear my own teeth chattering from the cold.

The man who had waved the money looked at me sideways and gave me a grin that exposed his dark-yellow gums. "You didn't bring a...