ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Jinhyok and Jongsook", by Alzo David-West



They had walked several miles that morning in the countryside, and there had been many papers to file at the Ministry.

“What time is it?” she said.

“It’s 3:24.”

“You mean we were there for three hours?”

“It didn’t seem that long.”

“That’s because you were reading your book.”

He didn’t say anything.

“You’re always reading your book,” she repeated.

He brought out the scarf from her handbag, which he was carrying.

“It’s getting cold now. Put it on.”

“I heard them talking about me. … That’s why I wanted us to go.”

He was listening.

“Why must I do all the work?” she continued. “You are the head of the household. But you cannot work now because of your shoulders.”

She was thinking aloud as she often did, he thought.

“It’s so simple, but I feel so stupid like a child. That is what I heard them saying … that I am like a child … now that I must be the head of the household.”

“I can go to the clinic again if you want.”

“No, no,” she said. “They already said they cannot do anything. … But it makes things so difficult now. What are we going to do? … I really heard them talking.”

He stopped at the rail on the side of the road, and he looked at the water.

“Fish,” he said.

She put her hand on the rusty grey bar.

“One, two, three, four fish,” he counted. “Wait there’re more.” And he counted again. But she didn’t notice.

“I see the four fish.”

“There’re more,” he said, “three over here and four more there. See the little ones?”

They looked a while at the fish moving slowly in the water.

“It is like I have a power,” she began again. “I can hear them very clearly, but it is only the bad things.”

“I didn’t know I married a seer,” he said, looking at the fish.

“Jinhyok, what are we going to do?”

“Maybe we should go to Heilongjiang.”

“Is it what your father said?” she asked quickly. “I don’t think I can do it again.”

“We can stay with father while we are there.”

“But your father’s situation is not reliable anymore. How will he put us up?”

“Sister took everything, I know.”

“Wouldn’t the Agency be more watchful since your family left?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Who keeps track of it anymore, all these ‘missing’ people going back and forth all the time?”

“I can’t do it again. I can’t. We were pardoned because of the special circumstances. But it was a difficult two years there. It was very difficult when we were there.”

She held him. His forearms were on the rail.

“Are your shoulders hurting now?” she asked.

“Not too much … a mild burn … some aching,” he said.

They started to walk again. She took his hand, and he shook hers away as he usually did.



“It feels like we’ve been walking forever,” he uttered.

“It’s only been sixty minutes. The station is over there.” She pointed over the grass.

On the other side of the road, a young woman with three little children passed by them, in the direction of the Ministry. The baby on her back was sleeping. Its tiny feet were dangling.

“A young mother. So small. The children must have been very tiny when they came out,” he said.

She didn’t hear him again.

“Did you see the young mother,” she asked.

He nodded.

“Why did we wait?” she complained. “Our child could have been nine years old now. Why did you make us wait?”

“It wasn’t only me, Jongsook.”

“Ohhh … who wants an old mother now?” She began crying as they walked. “Who wants an old mother?”

He didn’t say anything, and he let her finish.

“We should go back to Heilongjiang,” he started again. “I think it will be better this time.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“There is a restaurant and a cleaning job. The work is hard, but they don’t ask any questions. We can save the money even though it is small.”

“I don’t know, Jinhyok. I don’t know. I cannot do it alone.”

“I will help,” he said.

“How? Unless you get surgery on your shoulders, you’re not fit for any kind of hard work.

“My left side is fine.” He raised her bag over his head and held the pain.

“It’s bad enough!” she exclaimed.

He smiled.

“No, your father can’t help us, and I never want to experience it again—ever.”

They walked into the station. A peddler woman was selling dried fish and raw chestnuts, and they bought some of the fish.

He was chewing the fish and noticed a poster.

“I think I have to use it, Jinhyok. Wait here. Wait here.”

“Just go,” he said, and she ran. His shoulders were burning.

When she came out, she didn’t see him, so she started shouting, calling out his name.

“I’m over here. Calm down.”

She turned around and saw him looking at the poster.

“It says he murdered a female propaganda worker thirty-seven years ago … torture and rape. We weren’t even born then. Who will find him after all this time?”

“That was the year of the party’s thirtieth anniversary,” she said.

“Who will find him after all this time?”

She had wandered off and came back.

“Jinhyok, the stationmasters are out. We’ll have to wait.”


“The sign says there is a delay. Do you have your ticket and pass? Make sure you didn’t drop them. Are they in your shirt pocket?”

He didn’t look, but said he had them, and he sat against the wall.

“What are you doing?”

His eyes turned up.

“It’s not fair. You have your book, but I don’t have anything. Why are you always reading your book and not paying any attention to me?”

“Jongsook, how will we pass the time?”



She insisted that they go outside and walk around the station. A tiny truck carrying men and women soldiers drove by. One of the men was standing and eating stick ice cream.

“Did you see—”

“Shhh!” she hissed. “They can hear you.”

He looked at her and suggested that they both go back into the station.

“No. It’s too cold in there.”

“But it’s cold out here, too,” he replied.

“Not as cold as inside.”

She saw a footpath and wanted to go there, so he followed her.

“Walk faster,” she moaned. “It takes too long to walk slowly, and it tires me out.”

He was quiet. She began to think aloud again, but he wasn’t paying attention.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded.

“How’re your shoulders?”

“They’re okay.”

“Are they aching now?”

“A little.”

They walked up a small incline, and she started talking again. He had fallen behind by a few steps since he was slower. She looked back.

“Oh? What’s going on?”

He was walking and reading the book.

“Hey, look where you’re going,” she said. “You can get crushed if you don’t look where you’re going.”

But there were no vehicles around.

“Jinhyok … can’t you just … we’re almost there. What’s going on? How long is it going to take?”

He was standing now, staring into the pages. She waited and let him finish, and he caught up with her.

“You always tell me to watch where I am going, but just look at yourself.”

They arrived at the footpath, and she said it looked like something from a children’s story. He thought about the man from the poster, but didn’t say anything.

The sky was getting dark blue, and the birds in the trees were becoming noisy.

“What time is it,” she asked.

“It’s 5:19,” he said.

Just then, they caught the sound of the train coming down the track, and they ran back to the station. The peddler woman with the fish and chestnuts was no longer there.

They were short of breath when they approached the booth and showed the young and old stationmasters the tickets and passes. She was glad he did not drop them after all.

The train car was shaking. There were nine other people inside, sitting far apart.

“Do you think they were father and son?” she asked, looking out the window.

“I don’t know,” he replied with his head back.

“I think maybe they were father and son,” she continued. “It’s a good job for a father and son to have together. Don’t you think, Jinhyok?”

He didn’t say anything, and she saw he had fallen asleep.

Some people in the car were talking.

She saw another couple sitting at the other end of the car. They were much younger. The girl looked seventeen, and she was sick. The boy told her to throw up on the floor.

When the girl and boy got off at the next station, she wondered who would clean the mess. Had they not thought who would have to clean it up?

She got up and put her scarf over the vomit.



He was at the quarry with the men, crushing rocks with a mallet.

320 to 340 tons, that was their quota for the speed campaign even though they were short of fuel for the heavy machinery.

And they were expected to meet the same quota everyday for nine months.

His face and clothes were dusty, and he was sweating, his muscles shivering from the repeated blows, which reverberated and radiated through his arms and shoulders.

The men carried the rocks on their backs to the trucks since they only had one loader, alternating other tasks among themselves between the months for efficiency.

Only the finest quality rocks, rocks for the statues of the deceased father General, went the order and slogans.

Mountains of rocks they had broken down, piled high, and loaded.

He was assigned to the machine feeders and screen separators when his shoulders had begun to give out under the circular strain of crushing, pulling, lifting, and carrying.

He was assigned to plant the fuse detonators to blast the walls of rocks. There was an explosion with an air blast and a tremor. He swayed for a moment and sat down.

He took off his cap, and sweat was moving down the sides of his face, dripping from his chin.

The sweat stains on the ground resembled black ribbons.

He thought about the statues and the buzzing moans that would follow, with the lamentations.

The loudspeakers were calling out:




He took off his shoes and began peeling the overgrown toenails with his thumb and forefinger.

“Stop, stop it,” Jongsook said, sitting next to him with a popular maternity magazine.

He continued.

She made a snarling sound.

“I found some skin and hard things,” she complained.

“It must have been from a long time ago.”

“I don’t know. I clean every week, Jinhyok.”

He resumed.

“Ji-Jinhyok, stop it. It’s disgusting. You touch everything. You weren’t like this in the beginning. You’ve completely become an old man … all these habits.”

He started again.

“Go wash your hands, Jinhyok.”

He looked at her.

“I can get a disease. Why do you make yourself like an exception … everywhere. Stop, stop it. Jinhyok, please don’t do that. Go wash your hand. Jinhyok, can you just stop it! Just go somewhere else to do it.”

He stood up, and she started to laugh.

“With age, there is a risk of giving birth to a tiny baby,” she read from the magazine.

“What is that smell?” he asked.




She sounded out like the loudspeaker.

He began shaking, as if striking the rocks with the mallet, and his shoulders were aching badly again.

“We will need to reevaluate you after six months,” the doctor’s voice said.



“Wake up, Jinhyok. Wake up. We’re here.”

He opened his eyes, not sure what exactly was happening. No one else was in the train car.

They arrived at their stop at 9:38 and walked on the road for half an hour to their grey apartment building with the vinyl-sheeted window frames.

“What happened to your scarf?” he noticed.

“I lost it on the train.”

When they got inside, they washed their hands and rinsed their mouths with the bucket water and blew the black dust from their noses. After that, they drank the boiled water from the jar sitting on the table.

She told him to wash first since he was faster at it, and he offered to make the soup.

They boiled more water, with the canister stove, and mixed a little in the bucket so that it could be warm.

When she finished washing and drying herself, she came to the table with the soup and the dried pieces of fish they had left over from the afternoon. But she didn’t like the soup.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“It tastes like water!” she shouted.

He was quiet.

“It tastes terrible! Why don’t you listen to me? Half a cup of water! It’s lost all its thickness!”

“Jongsook, I’m sorry.”

She became calm, and they finished the soup.

“You’re becoming like me,” he said. “We mirror each other.”

She looked down.

“Come. We should go to bed. I’ll read to you.”

“No, I have to prepare for tomorrow. There’re so many things to do. I will go to the abandoned mine our neighbor claimed and ask if she needs a helper for her business. And you must go to the blood transfusion centers to sell more of your blood again. And we must complete the additional papers for the Ministry. Ohhh … I am so exhausted!” she cried.

She got up, washed the dishes, and went to clean the shoes sitting in front of the apartment door.

He sat at the table, listening to her moving around.

“What’s going on here, Jinhyok?” It was the heel guards he had made from a torn piece of tire.

“They’re for my shoes,” he replied.

“You tried. But they’re not even smooth.”

“I’m not finished yet.”

She laughed gently.

After a while, they rinsed and rubbed their teeth with a cloth and went to lie down on the unrolled mattress.

He read again and tried to avoid putting pressure on his shoulders, but it was difficult.

“What, what?” she turned around.

“I didn’t say anything.”

The candle flame was waving, and an hour passed.

“I finished it,” he said.

“What did you read this time?” she asked, still up, tired.

“It was about a young man … who came home to be married, but he was imprisoned for a political crime he was falsely accused of. After many years, he escaped his captivity and claimed a great fortune. … He returned to society an esteemed and powerful gentleman and gradually, over many more years, took a thorough and devastating revenge on his cruel enemies. He ruined and destroyed them absolutely, but they had taken away his youth, his love, and his happiness forever. … It is a foreign story.”

She was asleep, and when she twitched, he knew for sure. He lay awake for the next two hours, thinking about Heilongjiang, and held her thigh.

Alzo David-West is an Associate Editor of the North Korean Review,
He writes literary fiction about North Korea (past and present). He has published in the areas of aesthetics, language, literature, philosophy, politics, and social psychology. His short stories about North Korea include "The Pen" (Cha, 2011), "Dalenka" (Transnational Literature, 2012), and "Mountains of Blood" (Transnational Literature, 2013).
His story "Warmth, Distance, Letters, Changes" appeared in Offcourse #55.
Write to him at: Alzo David-West
Aichi Prefectural University
Aichi 480-1198 Japan

Return to Offcourse Index.