Dr. Atomic

The airport is deserted at two in the morning, Pyongyang time. A tractor stands on the apron behind an unroofed, unpainted cargo container. It hisses into life as he passes into the custody of the ground guards. The turboprop, which has brought him all the way from Karachi, spins down its engine. He looks back at the aircraft. The red bulb mounted above the wing has been his companion through six hours of uneven sleep. Now it blinks, and turns off. The phalanx moves him through the terminal, past rows of formica desks and tables. They square up on the main road, in silence.

The doctor is accustomed to his hosts’ reticence, to their military demeanor. He knows not to speak until spoken to. It doesn’t happen until he’s deposited in the back seat of an old Zil limousine that must date back to the Truman Administration. His translator’s is the first voice he hears on the ground in North Korea. Joon Sung-Lee looks hardly a day into her twenties. She sits beside him as rectilinear in her posture as an oil rig. With her plum brown eyes and rectangular haircut, she owns a postbox mouth which opens and closes, he notices, without implicating her stiff face.

He also notices the epaulettes on Joon’s blouse which must signify military rank. Everyone he meets, in North Korea, is an officer in one or the other war-making organization. His conclusion is that North Korea is an army camp, not a country, but even an army camp has the right to benefit from the technology he brings in his suitcase. In Pakistan, a girl as eerily beautiful as Joon would be a t.v. presenter, or some big shot’s mistress. It’s fortunate that the doctor gave up on courting women thirty years ago, although there’s still an ample measure of gallantry in his manner. But he’s not sure it will be noticed by his companion. Here, north of the 37th Parallel, Joon is the curved iron side of a scimitar.

They speak in English.

“You are in good condition, Doctor? They looked after you properly on the flight?”

“Oh, I’m extremely well,” he tells her. “I even managed to sleep on the plane, which is usually difficult for me. But I took a tablet, an Ambien, and managed a good few hours.” He looks out at the snow dusted roads of Pyongyang. Cement monoliths rise above the intersection. In their facades not a lit window is to be seen. The Zil has downtown to itself and ignores traffic signals. The doctor is taken by a soulful mood. “Perhaps it’s the side effect of having a good conscience. The sleep of the just, I believe that’s the right phrase. Since we’re going to be together a lot this weekend, perhaps you could call me just S.Q. Short for Saif Qader Khan, of course. I picked up the nickname during my years at the Technical Institute in Munich. The Germans, they’re real ones for nicknames.” He sees less than nothing flicker across her countenance. “Look, if you like, continue to call me doctor. Only please remember that my doctorate lies in the field of nuclear engineering. I’m not the person to consult about your aches and pains.”

The doctor has told the very same joke, if you can dignify it with the term, a hundred times in his life. Joon, like other North Koreans, doesn’t acknowledge his words with a smile. She dips her head, doesn’t pick up the conversation until they get to the hotel. The doctor doesn’t object. Joon is a serious person who is dedicated to serious business. Splitting the hydrogen atom, fusing two heliums, is a serious enterprise. Truth be told, his own lack of seriousness troubles the doctor. An easy temper is something expected of Pakistani men, of a certain class. The Khan men are generally lighthearted and even charming in a dilute solution. But no one’s so charming as to change Joon’s demeanor. The doctor knows that his clients clam up the moment he deviates from the expected script, Libyans, Iranians, and North Koreans alike.

Joon walks him up his room at the Fraternal North Korea Supreme Guest House. She walks ahead of him and he observes the revolver holstered in her belt. He imagines the cling of her underwear beneath her tight green pants. She unlocks the door and sends him into the hotel room in front of her.

“You should be comfortable here, Comrade. We have selected the best available room in the entire capital for your refreshment. Your bags should be up in a minute or so. Tomorrow, if it suits you, I will collect you bright and early. We want you to see the best and brightest that our socialist nation has to offer.” She smiles for the first time since they’ve met. She shakes his hand goodbye. “We are going to a soccer game.”


The room is small, clean, spartan. A washbasin springs from the wall at one side. The window, half closed by a blind, opens on the back of the hotel where he sees several tanks of industrial proportions anchored in the disused parking lot. The cylinders loom into the afternoon of the streetlamps. A pillbox stands at the rear entrance where he observes the flash of a lighter as two sentries share a cigarette. Obscurely, running through his mind, is the warning from a World War I movie … three on a match. While he waits for the luggage to be delivered, the doctor begins his exercises. It’s vital to keep up, at his age. First come the push-ups. Then he does yoga routines—breathing, bending, and mental discipline.

By the time they turn up with his suitcases, the doctor is almost done with the memory game he plays to maintain his powers of concentration, a game he learned from a onetime German colleague, one of the few men with whom he had a meaningful exchange during six years in the Federal Republic. He finishes first, and unpacks, stretches out his jacket and trousers. The clothes in his bags have been meticulously refolded, his documents refiled; as he expected, everything has been searched and presumably photographed and investigated. It’s almost a relief to know that his visit is running smoothly. Nobody in the proliferation business should expect privacy, or even want it. Indeed he would have been disappointed if the Koreans were any less thorough than his female minders in Tripoli.


A twelve gun salute introduces the First Eleven of the International Soccer Brigade of the Glorious Socialist Democratic Republic of North Korea. The players, in their red and gold uniforms, filter onto the pitch while the barrage continues in the stands. Army helicopters swing over the stadium, pivoting awkwardly around their tails. They carry long red banners which unfurl from the infantry bay.

Today Joon arrives in a softer uniform. She looks less like a tank commander, the doctor reflects with pleasure, and more like an airhostess in a red scarf, stiff red blouse, and woollen red stockings. She escorts him through the official’s gate at the stadium, brushes against him as they take their seats on a wooden bench above the bleachers. The lines still filing into the stadium are spookily well-behaved and quiet, quite unlike any large group of people on the subcontinent. Very few Korean children, it seems, have come out. As for the weather, it’s brisk and sterile, perhaps because they’re high above sea level. The cold air, from what he can judge in this stadium in the center of town, is unpolluted.

Half a lifetime ago the doctor visited the Eastern European cities—Warsaw, east Berlin, Prague after the Spring, Timisoara under the Ceaucescu regime. Those streets were choked by buses and fumes. North Korea’s environment is far purer. The doctor admires purity above all things. It’s what interests him about the atom, about yoga and calisthenics, about vegetarianism, about the life of the Prophet. So sure he’s not much of a religious man. He doesn’t fast during ramzaan, doesn’t go to mosque on Fridays. But if you do happen to be a religious man, the doctor believes and has often remarked, then it becomes you to be a fanatic. He’s an engineer, after all. If you do have convictions, it is incumbent on you to take them to the logical extreme. For this reason the doctor appreciates the evident fanaticism of the Koreans.

The national team is winning by two goals to nothing at half time. The visiting Cubans mount a ragged defence in the last quarter of the game, and then a counterattack which stalls with a failed shot at goal from the far lefthand corner. The Cuban forwards miss on the rebound. Their defenders flunk a long pass, and the Cuban goalie stirs into action only after the ball has landed squarely inside the net. The doctor loses interest. It’s obvious the Cubans, who took a game off Brazil in the Americas League, aren’t on top form in Pyongyang. It makes sense. You don’t want to try too hard when you’re visiting a dictatorship, or you might win a victory against the home team. Perhaps it’s a courtesy dictatorships extend to each other.

The doctor inspects his fellow onlookers, and formulates the idea that the height of a Korean man rarely exceeds 5 foot 5. They tend to have compact frames, big muscular arms and muscular heads. Many of the Korean women, in another country, even if it was Pakistan, would be viewed as distressingly thin. Here they look properly proportioned. In a matter of a day, the doctor tells himself, a visitor becomes accustomed to any permutation of the human shape … to a mortuary, an Auschwitz, a radiation ward, an army camp disguised as a nation state.

“I hope you’ve enjoyed the match, doctor.”

He waves his hands. “Please, my dear, S.Q.”

“S.Q., then. How do you like the victory of our illustrious team over our socialist Cuban brothers?”

“I like it very much indeed. Your team plays very well on the offence, from what I can tell. To be honest I’m not a football man. Even in Munich I never quite picked up the bug. Back at home I watch cricket, if I watch anything. But I can say for sure that your players are superb. They totally outgunned the Cubans.”

But Joon has another item on her lecture list. They’re always teaching the foreigners, these North Koreans …

“Doctor, do you see the difference between our socialist athletic contests, which are healthy, fraternal competitions without the negative influence of material incentives, and the utter corruption of the Western sport-industrial complex where multinationals, brands like Coca Cola and Marlboro, exploit the players to promote their own commercial interests?”

The doctor’s in a surpassingly good mood. He says, “Oh, Joon, I believe your team, and their Cuban visitors, have far more real incentive to perform up to scratch.”

She smiles, and it’s Hiroshima. Just yesterday it was unthinkable that Joon, behind her postbox smile, would be comfortable around him. Today she behaves like the daughter of a family friend. Like other Korean women Joon doesn’t wear make up although it seems almost as if her lips are pinked. She leans into him, out of the wind, when the audience erupts into a choir at the successful conclusion of the game. Two socialisms have been vindicated.

The doctor decides that half the charm of North Korea, at least for him, is the hope that things which are rigid will melt. There’s so much to melt on this end of the peninsula—the disciplined expressions of the hotel staff and their military manners, Joon’s harshly composed face in which, in mirage, he identifies moments of tenderness, and, of course, in two days time, the landscape around the test site forty miles west of the city at Kon Wilshen where western satellites and earthquake detectors cannot penetrate. The atom has been the true love of his life, he thinks, because it is the enemy of everything solid, everything permanent.


They are invited to dine with the triumphant team. Joon takes him by the hand into the changing room. They’re honored guests. The already scrubbed players are arranged in a reception line to receive them. Steam from the hot showers still hangs in the corridor. Water swirls freshly into the floor drains. The doctor shakes hands with a series of young, dark-haired men who all seem to have applied generous quantities of curious-smelling foot powder.

At dinner the doctor’s in a radiant mood. He toasts the players, praises the landscape and the orderly character of the society, works his hand into Joon’s. He’s always been affectionate towards the young. In Pakistan he has trained a cohort of young men, and one woman, in the intricacies of nuclear engineering. They are poised to go out into the world, circumstances permitting, and confer the benefit of atomic arms on nation after nation. That great benefit is national pride, cultural pride, the pride of legitimate self-assertion. It’s false to call his students nuclear mujahideen; they’re freedom fighters, for all religions and political systems. For too long the international system has been organized and dominated by a handful of governments. Atomic pride, dispensed liberally by the doctor, will bring that colonial epoch to a finish. In a sense, in one sense, he is…but he doesn’t allow himself to complete this thought.

Nothing he tells himself would be disagreeable to his hosts, in all probability, but obviously no one can speak openly about his purpose in visiting Korea. As a result the conversation is stilted in the team mess, which has been temporarily converted from a barracks. The players must have conventions to talk amongst themselves whereas, for a foreigner, they have no template. The doctor seems to be the only outlander anywhere in Pyongyang with the exception of those hapless Cubans. His cover, sketched by Joon, is that of a visiting expert in the field of sports medicine. Through Joon the players ask him about Pakistan. Inevitably he finds himself explaining cricket to them—overs, wickets, one day matches, the tradition of the Ashes. It’s as close to comedy as his time in North Korea permits. The Libyans, with their boiling kettle temperaments and their ostentatious hospitality, not to mention Qadaffi’s cadre of female ninjas, were far more entertaining hosts.

The lights tremble now and again as the electricity fluctuates in the barracks, but, like a bicyclist righting himself, they go on again. Dishes of meat and noodles go around the table, followed by small bowls of kimchee, mashed potatoes, diced eel and radish, anchovies, spinach in some kind of red oil. In an expansive mood the doctor tries everything, pronounces on everything, and likes everything he samples. He watches Joon out of the corner of his eye. She enjoys herself too. Finally, someone produces a bottle of liquor from a togbag underneath the table. People go quiet. The alcohol is contained in a jam jar covered by a disc of red paper. One of the players brandishes it beneath the doctor’s nose. He laughs.

Joon translates. “He asks, can he offer you some of this refreshment, S.Q.?”

The doctor is careful to be as amused as the players. “What is it I am being given, may I enquire?”

“It’s yuju. Korean horse-milk wine. It’s very concentrated, and it’s made only in people’s backyards in the countryside. I must inform you that the players will be extremely disappointed if you don’t try a glass. These men are risking execution.”

“That makes me doubly sorry to be forced to decline,” he says. “It’s not that I am opposed to them drinking. Please, tell them to drink and be merry. It’s just that my doctor, my medical doctor, has forbidden me to partake on health grounds. Otherwise, he tells me, there isn’t more than a year left in this sorry organism of mine.” He places his hand on his chest as if he’s taking an oath. “My pecker…my heart, you understand. Would you translate that for me, and tell them to go ahead, for my sake?”

“I’m sorry to hear that, doctor.”

Joon explains to the team. He’s pleased that they take his instructions sincerely. The jug of yuju circulates from hand to hand. The shots, executed as precisely as the barrage over the stadium, bring stinging red circles to the otherwise chalky complexion of the drinkers. Joon herself drinks only for show although, like the doctor, she is affected by the atmosphere of revelry. The players throw a ball from one side of the long room to the other. They swear, they bring a blush to Joon’s cheeks, they tells jokes in Korean. Crockery is broken. One of the men slips underneath the table and goes to sleep with his head on a pair of boots. A window is shattered so that the cold night suddenly surgers into the badly lit room.

They need music. The manager, a Mr. Kim, goes out to his car, doubled over laughing. He returns with a record-player and a selection of albums. Soon the place is filled with popular Korean songs as well as Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops. Joon declines to dance with one of the forwards, but she nods her head and moves her shoulders.

Through the broken window Kim notices a canvas truck parking on the opposite side of the street. It’s mounted with a loudspeaker. They suspect it’s a police patrol. The room undergoes a phase transformation. In seconds the record-player is hidden in a locker. What remains of the liquor has been poured into a drain. Joon sweeps the broken glass from the window into a scoop. Nobody emerges from the truck but the party breaks up anyway. One player washes his hair under a cold water tap. The others go home to their unheated houses, their party-selected spouses, their canned United Nations food rations, and their exultant memories of the day’s game.

The end of festivities disappoints the doctor. He’s been the presiding deity of the party. Joon, who knows a little about his background, has started to call him “Dr. Atomic” under her breath. Somehow the manager, Kim, overhears her. The players are delighted by his new moniker. As they trickle out they embrace Dr. Atomic. Under the influence of yuju, they’re unexpectedly emotional. So is the doctor. It’s not unusual for him. He has an open nature, is easily affected. As a child he wept copiously before each school morning, and again when the patrolling ayah deposited him in his mother’s arms in the afternoon.

The Zil returns them to the hotel downtown. Sitting in the back with Joon, the doctor imagines that they are a couple gliding through the streets on their way to some romantic destination. When Joon walks him up to his hotel room, past the brooding security men, the doctor sits on the bed and begins to cry. What’s the reason? Is it joy? Is he overwhelmed by the prospect of the weekend? Is it a delayed result of jetlag? He can’t explain to her from behind his curtain of tears. Joon embraces him. He stops crying for a moment, as if to catch his breath, then the crying comes back with renewed intensity. Her thin body burns on his skin. Her cheap deodorant bewilders him.

They stay there, one sitting, one standing, until Joon bends down, unties his laces, and removes his shoes. The gesture moves him. Working up, she rapidly undresses him. Once he’s naked he allows her to seat him between the sheets. Joon pulls off her own top and lies down beside him. They make no further approach to each other. They sleep back to back in the enormous hotel bed. Her frame, hardly touching his own, is half his width. The doctor wakes up during the night. His attention wanders through the window where clean dry stars, in a firmanent rinsed as clear as a child’s eye, stare down on Pyongyang. He turns around so that his face is buried in Joon’s back. The dry starlight echoes at the back of his vision and into his dreams.


Next morning it is as if nothing has happened between them, which is best because there’s plenty of work to be done. In preparation the doctor submerges himself in a bath for a quarter of an hour. He soaps his hair while he’s in there, trims his eyebrows with scissors, releases a dollop of Vicks ointment into the hot water. By the time he changes, Joon is back in a new outfit. He’s disappointed to find that she’s retreated from the femininity of the previous afternoon, with a Mao-style cap, a severe khaki shirt, and dungarees. Nonetheless she reminds the doctor of Audrey Hepburn, his favorite Hollywood star. She kisses him on the cheek, and retreats to a safe distance.

“We must be ready for a big day, doctor. We have a very long itinerary. Look, I can show you.” She unfurls a printout and runs through the items with a pen. “First, we travel to Skandiriya Plant. Now the location, of course, is a number one state secret. The imperialists across the border would love to have that information, in order to control Korea. We cannot afford to take any risks. Therefore, for this part of the journey, we will have to blindfold you. Assuming everything goes well, we have scheduled the most exciting opportunity of your visit, your appointment with our Glorious Leader. He knows the particulars of your mission. He’s heard a good deal about your accomplishments, and he has expressed a particular interest in meeting you.”

The doctor beams. “I am also looking forward to it…extremely. Joon, I have read many interesting things about the Glorious Leader. You know, many years ago, when I was still young, I had the privilege of listening to his father speak, in Kuala Lumpur. The impression he left was one of immense power, and insight. What an inspiration! You may not believe it, to look at me, but, as a youngster, I was pretty senior in the International Socialist Friendship League.” He wants to touch her face. He’s nostalgic for his long ago student holiday in Malaysia, nostalgic for his once-upon-a-time possibilities, nostalgic for a young man’s heart. “But that was those days.”

The morning brings the half-forgotten joys of work. He takes pleasure in being able to do his job and to bring his knowledge to bear on the infinite details of running a modern reactor. At home, nowadays, the doctor has little to do, less to contribute, since his proteges have taken up positions.

Plus, the logistics of the Pakistan nuclear program have gone beyond the purview of any single man, no matter how talented or experienced. At Biwalhapur, the young engineers who did their dissertations under him now keep the breeder reactor in ship shape. They manufacture plutonium under watchful batteries of anti-aircraft missiles, ready to round on intruding Indian aeroplanes. At Kohanip, the generation of physicists whose careers he mentored seal ounces of the potent plutonium into cheese-shaped steel casks.

The work goes on day and night. Whether he, as a single person, lives or dies is immaterial—the production of atomic rockets continues. What did Kruschev say? We’re making rockets like sausage. National pride knows no limits. In Pakistan, just as much as Hindu India, the missiles are worshipped as gods in street festivals. He, the humble engineer, is worshipped in Pakistan as a creator of gods. One and a quarter billion souls, a quarter of the earth’s population, have been endowed with dignity by him and his Indian counterparts. Their task is accomplished. His task, at home, is accomplished.

Whereas, in North Korea, he can be of service. The Koreans are still learning. There are kinks in their procedures. Joon and the doctor are brought to the swimming pool filled with heavy water that stands at the heart of the reactor. The doctor recognizes his own design. The Koreans got the schematics from Libya, but there’s no substitute for a designer’s wisdom. Not everything in the world can be translated onto paper. The staff send one of their number along with the doctor. He’s a gruff fellow who has one technical question after another that Khan fields, yet he seems angrier after each successful response. It’s a consuming exercise. There’s scarcely time to admire the tanks of fissile material which glint far beneath the water’s surface. He wants to show off in front of Joon but the opportunity to do so doesn’t arise.

They go up to the control room. Like identical chambers in Pakistan and Libya and Iran where the doctor has spent many hours of his life, the place resembles the cockpit of a DC 11, a resemblance that isn’t accidental. Clock-like gauges and dials populate the walls. The center of the room is taken up by a bank of machines. The doctor knows that it contains transistor arrays copied from a Siemens device. Levers connect to the pneumatic beds underneath their feet. A steam pressure valve below the main window is the doctor’s particular contribution. He’s proud of the thing to this day. The design is borrowed from the hatch of a World War 2 era British submarine. In an emergency, God forbid, opening the valve will entomb the reactor in a lead casket.

The doctor jokes about a meltdown. He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s suddenly as frivolous as a child. As before, his mirth falls on deaf ears. He and the engineer go back over the difficulties the Koreans have experienced. They tinker together, write on the schematics, run calculations on the old vacuum tube mainframe in the back of the control room.

By one o’clock the mechanism has been recalibrated and a new batch of plutonium emerges from the swimming pool. It’s encased in a steel and concrete ball. Only in the doctor’s imagination does the sphere gleam with dazzling blue light. He’s thinking of Kerenkov radiation, invisible to the naked eye. Ultraviolet Kerenkov radiation passes untouchably through steel and concrete, through endless lengths of water and space. He knows that Kerenkov particles pass ceaselessly through his skull, through Joon’s, and then out through the roof, through the Moon, and far out into the Milky Way. If some being broods at the core of the galaxy, he thinks, it’s more likely to notice these flashes of radiation than anything the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Jews have contributed to the species.


Perhaps because the afternoon went well the audience with the Supreme Leader comes to pass. But to arrive at court requires certain adjustments; he loses his translator. Joon leaves him in another, newer Zil limousine which draws up outside the reactor. She promises to meet him before his flight the next morning. He doesn’t believe her and remains discontented throughout the long drive.

He’s alone almost for the first time during a Korean day. The car has been furnished with a television set which shows the one government-run channel. There’s a complete bar he addresses only to pour himself a glass of tonic. The driver is separated from him by a smoked glass partition through which the doctor hears the occasional crackle of a radio set. They glide past an airbase through bales and bales of fog. The doctor thinks about Joon as long cement trenches on the outskirts of a town give way to smouldering wet power stations and acres of industrial plant, then to bare hillside, and finally to a series of fortified gates.

At each gate they stop and their credentials are checked. A guard rolls up at the driver’s window, scowls, read their papers, checks with the next position, scowls again, and waves them through. Nothing else moves on this road. The Glorious Leader, it seems, is better protected than the Glorious Atomic Weapons Program. They halt at the side entrance of the palace where, as the doctor is hurried into the door, snow drops out of a boiling black sky. Inside it’s warm and protected. A platoon of men in black uniforms march the doctor along a red-carpeted hall, then up and down staircases, and into a glass-panelled booth where he is frisked by a female soldier. An elevator drops him a hundred feet into the earth, a hundred feet of safety from an atomic blast.

The doctor finds himself suddenly alone in a gigantic living room far below the surface. Couches hulk around the walls. There are love seats loaded with cushions, and even a jacuzzi which is closed off by a thick plate glass lid. A huge flat screen television occupies one wall. Along the other walls are shelves, holding CDs and DVDs, alongside framed movie posters. The doctor recognizes Casablanca, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and Andrei Roublev, and Nostalgia. And there are more movie posters in Japanese and Chinese script. The Glorious Leader, he has been told, is a fan of the cinema. The doctor thinks of the contrasting realities and fantasies he’s seen in these busy last few years—the half reality of Pakistan, the made up realities of Libya and Korea, the silky realities of the Hollywood and Bollywood flicks he dislikes, and the ultimate, final, and unappeasable reality of the atom.

His reverie is interrupted by a train of scantily dressed women who precede the Glorious Leader. They’re colorful, done up, transfigured by jewellery and perfumes like no other North Koreans. It’s as if they’re from a different world, a television universe. They hobble around him on high heels, peck him with faces buried deep beneath cosmetics, and return to their master. The Glorious Leader, who is also the Illustrious Leader and the Dear Leader, reminds the doctor of Elvis Presley. Kim the Second seems also to be wearing thick make up, an apricot-colored foundation. His proportions are strange too. From the great Mongolian ruff of his fur coat sprouts a gigantic head.

They speak through one of the women who acts as interpreter. Unlike Joon, this lady’s English is conveyed in a strong French accent, in fact a Parisian lycee accent. The woman holds hands with Kim while she translates, as if they’re new lovers. All the women seem to be connected to Kim in this way. It’s odd that at the very heart of the North Korean army-state is a cell bound together by love. But Khan is not the one to dwell on an irony. His work, his atomic pilgrimages, bring him face to face with too many such complications. Was Qadaffi so different with his battalion of lipstick ninjas?

The Leader exchanges words with his representative. “The Dear Leader wants to know, if your stay in the Socialist Democratic Republic of North Korea has been a comfortable one? If anything more could have been done to increase your pleasure?”

“Oh, it’s been very pleasurable. Put your mind at rest.”

“Good.” She turns to Kim and then back to the doctor. “We have tried to show you the best of everything of which Korean socialism is capable. True luxury and true joy, according to the Dear Leader, is only possible under the socialist system, because we fulfill real human needs, not invented ones as in the Imperalist West.” She pauses for a moment, waits on the Leader’s next sentence. “Dr. Khan, you have benefitted the labouring masses of Korea more than you can imagine. Our gratitude is unshakeable.”

“Oh, I do what I can. I only do what is in my power.”

The doctor is waved onto the sofa while the Leader and his party settle around him like a flock of starlings. Kim keeps his coat on. The man’s thick black hair, the doctor sees, is speckled with dandruff. More pleasantries are exchanged. Then the occasion moves beyond the doctor and the translation of the conversation ceases. A chocolate cake is sliced, and does the rounds on a silver pallet.

One of the women sets out a flask and a small bucket of ice. Drinks are poured. The doctor tries to decline but, literally, no one will hear of his refusal. The cold yellow brandy goes down his throat the wrong way. He concentrates on the Glorious Leader’s haphazard stream of what must be questions, remarks, elaborate jokes in Korean, and anecdotes. Kim’s words light up amongst the women as if they’re so many matches tossed in their midst. Some of the Leader’s companions seem to be playing a socialist version of Charades. Others put a Motown CD on. Several of the women dance with each other.

It appears that the Dear Leader has ordered the translator to settle in the doctor’s lap. He doesn’t protest. She slings herself into the curve of his arm so that he can just smell the tang of the brandy on her breath, perhaps on his own breath. He senses the swell of her breasts close to him. The doctor has no idea what to do with such a helping of woman. The woman talks in his ear.

“The Dear Leader wants to know if there is any act, any commodity, which our country can provide, to better demonstrate our gratitude? Any little favor? The sum of money that we negotiated beforehand has, the Leader assures you, already been deposited in your Geneva account. But is there some personal request, doctor?”

An idea occurs to him. “Since you mention it, I wouldn’t mind a chance to spend tomorrow with Joon before I go.” He sees her face darkening and he knows it’s hopeless. “You know, the young lady who served as my guide and interpreter around Pyongyang these past few days.”

The woman transmits his request to the Glorious Leader. Kim listens, nods, shakes his head, then glowers over at the doctor. After a minute he turns his interest back to the women of his entourage. It’s the last point of contact between the doctor and the guiding intelligence of this vast army. And it’s been squandered. The translator stands up. A glance at her features tells the doctor that she’s also translating the Leader’s sudden frost.

“We’re very sorry, doctor. What you’ve asked is strictly forbidden by Korean ideology. The doctrine of the Illustrious State forbids the use of a deceptive notion of individuality. We are all interchangeable in North Korea. Any relationship you have developed with Joon Sung-Lee, or may want to develop, you can continue with any of the women who are present tonight.”

But the doctor has his own pride to match Korean pride, and atomic pride. “In that case, my dear,” he tells her, “perhaps I will retire for the evening, if possible. I have a long flight ahead of me to Karachi.”


The doctor’s letters to Joon are never acknowledged, never returned, although he writes to her once a month for the next two years. He’s a rich man. The North Koreans have been more generous than the Libyans and the atomic mullahs of Tehran, perhaps because they recognize the ultimate value of his contribution to their cause.

There’s no further personal communication from his onetime hosts but they do send him a DVD of the first test explosion carried out on Korean soil. The doctor takes the disc over to his nephew’s house in Karachi to watch the footage. It’s beyond imagination. An enormous yellow blast front sweeps across the range of the camera. Flame and heat blossom into the sky. It’s a vision of the end of the world. The doctor still takes consolation in his life’s work, in dispensing pride to Pakistan and Libya, Iran and now North Korea. What other man has done so much? And with what poor material to work with! He comes back in his mind to the report on BBC News concerning the fate of the North Korean soccer team. After losing to Japan all the players and the manager have been brought up on charges of anti-socialist drunkenness, and executed. Sports are viewed in a serious light by the Illustrious State.

The doctor imagines twelve unmarked graves set, perhaps, behind an industrial site on the periphery of Pyongyang. He wonders if Joon’s makes a thirteenth. His attention returns to the television set, a fifty inch monstrosity he bought for his nephew on the strength of his new riches. Atomic pride has dissipated in an enormous cloud of gravel and dust that hangs over the plateau. The sun has turned dark and cold through the haze. On the frozen mountainside, where there are no longer any buildings or fences, pride has gouged a great black vault into the ground that, he calculates, must be nine miles in diameter.

More from Issue 5

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

It has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Alexander started the silent era of the West; Nokia will finish it.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Lit-bloggers are the avant-garde of 21st-century publicity.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

The work machine is also a porn machine; the porn machine is also a work machine. Work enters everything.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Our new technologies always open the possibilities to the best, and somehow open the floodgates to the worst.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

I experienced the despair of the creature who evidently cannot will himself to die.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

In this age of AIDS, funerals are the subject of black humor among blacks and the source of complaints among whites.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

They had to travel to see Kashmir; we lived here and did not need to travel. We waved at them; they waved back.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Dworkin wanted all of us to recognize and despise the sickos within ourselves.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

For the last six days, I have been measuring my chances for the Volvo like a meteorologist rating the likelihood of rain.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

You reach points in life at which you can no longer live like other people, though you don’t want to die.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

I killed a near-son today. Naturally I did not tell my lover about it.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

There was a gap, but it was not technological. The problem was “humint,” in intelligence-community parlance.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Bush’s foreign policy advisers do not want to break free of the established system. They wish to run the jail.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Care of others hampers self-development—at least, development of the kind employers require.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

Here we are half a decade into the 21st century and still no flying cars.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

This year’s Most Notable girl protagonists don’t grow up, they go crazy.

Issue 5 Decivilizing Process

We attempted to come up with an alternative title, but nothing pleased us as much or suited us as well.

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For good reason the reality of the country is not capturable in a cliché of the left or the right.

Issue 8 Recessional
A Broken Window
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Mandela was not an intellectual reader, reading for the sake of reading, but he found books useful. He found novels useful.