The traveller, p.1
The Traveller, p.1Duncan James
Published by Duncan James
Copyright 2015 Duncan James
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Based on a Duncan James short story
“A Bridge of Letters”
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Their Own Game
and other short stories
Dr. Choi Shin did not believe, as he was constantly told, that the Americas were scheming to invade and humiliate his homeland, or that South Korea was a servant of its American master. Neither did he believe that North Korea was a great country who’s brave and brilliant leaders were the envy of the world.
But he was the first to admit that he had not, so far, had a bad life, especially when compared with many others in his country. He knew how harsh life could be. Indeed, it was barbaric beyond belief for many, so he had heard.
He knew about the prisons for political enemies of the People’s Republic of North Korea.
His brother was in one.
And he knew about the hard-labour camps, with their many hundreds of thousands of inmates who had really done nothing wrong by normal, civilised standards, but who were nevertheless being made to suffer horrendously. But he also understood that this was not a normal, civilised country in which he lived. He not only realised the fact, in spite of the constant brain-washing propaganda, but was also prepared to admit it, although not in public. If he did that, he too would become one of the many faceless and desperate inmates of the gulags.
So he kept his views to himself, knowing all the time that he was not alone either in his beliefs or in his fear of sharing them.
He knew the truth of the old saying that for evil to exist, good men must do nothing.
He did nothing.
Instead, he worked hard and prostrated himself at the feet of his Glorious Leader, Kim Jung-un as he was expected to do.
Which was how, in such a despotic country, he did well. He had worked hard, stuck to the rules, and kept his views to himself.
He now found himself in a position of comparative privilege, living in a small Government apartment, with enough income to allow him access to a few essentials which were not provided for him, and even some spare for the odd luxury now and then.
But he was not free. He had no access to any news media other than the official outpourings, which only contained propaganda dressed up as news about the State itself and its leader. It was a punishable offence to even try to access any foreign news, or entertainment for that matter. He was certainly not free to express his own views. The State machinery insisted that he should not have any views of his own, and he did not have any right to express anything other than the official version of events. He was not free to speak.
So he said nothing, as well as doing nothing, against the State.
In spite of all, though, he had managed to learn enough to understand that there was a world outside his own, and that it was very different. And, he almost dared to believe, better.
Although he was not yet one of them, there were people in the country who had travelled, or who had met foreign visitors. So word spread about how other people lived, and the conditions in which they lived. The more he learnt, the more Shin wanted to learn. He wanted to travel to find out for himself.
Through his diligence and allegiance to the leadership, he had managed to improve his position in society. He had done well at school, progressed to University, successfully completed his studies, and was now employed on important scientific work.
He was one of the country’s top nuclear physicists.
Mixing as he now did with some of the elite of the world’s most secretive nation, he was still denied the basic freedoms of speech and movement. Even those who he regarded as friends could never be totally trusted. The Government spied on its own people, and informers were infiltrated into every aspect of society. In some cases, one could not even trust one’s own family. Anyone could be bribed or blackmailed into spying and informing, to curry favour from the leadership even at local level.
It was partly for that reason that, unlike his brother, he had never married. He rarely saw his brother anymore in any case, since he had been unwise enough not to cheer sufficiently loudly when a member of the local hierarchy visited, and had thus been condemned to seventeen years of corrective training, with his wife, in one of the many prisons near the capital.
However, Dr. Choi Shin had been able, because of his position, to persuade the authorities to let him look after his nephew, who would otherwise have been forced to join them during his parents’ incarceration. Choi and his nephew had always got on well together, and he both trusted and liked the boy.
By then, his nephew Choi Yong was just beginning his studies at university. Yong had decided to follow his uncle’s example, and study nuclear physics and computer science. But even at that age, Yong was suspicious that all was not as it seemed in North Korea, and that there could be a better life elsewhere. He and his uncle discussed this often, when they were sure they could not be overheard.
It was about this time that Uncle Shin was selected to make a rare visit overseas. The visit was sponsored by the United Nations as part of its efforts to return North Korea to what they called ‘normalisation’ and eventual reunification with the South after their disastrous war. It was a rare chance to see life outside the stifling confines of his own country, and he felt privileged and honoured to have been selected.
Shin was to be accompanied by two other scientists and a government official who would be responsible for all the arrangements. He would be with them at all times. He was their minder.
They were to visit America, North Korea’s sworn enemy, to inspect some of the US nuclear research facilities, like those at the Lawrence Livermore University. It was hoped they would collect information which would be of value to Pyongyang’s own efforts. At the moment, they had to rely heavily on China for support, as they did in most areas of life.
On his return, Shin discussed his visit excitedly with Yong, an eager listener. What they had seen had been of great interest, although Shin was quite sure they had been briefed only at the lowest security level and had been shown nothing in anyway regarded as secret. But they had nevertheless learnt a great deal, and had also been gratified to know that much of their own research efforts were being mirrored in the States. Their minder was equally convinced that America was trying to catch up with the superior world-leading work being carried out in his own country, and had been at pains to ensure that nothing was passed on by the scientists in his delegation that could have been of any value to their American hosts.
Dr. Choi Shin had been as much interested in exploring the American lifestyle as their nuclear research. What little he had seen had convinced him that life was better there than at home, although the government official who was escorting them had forbidden them to watch television in their hotel room, or to buy newspapers, magazines, or videos – nothing, indeed, which could possible corrupt them in any way. In the end, none of that was necessary. They were all intelligent enough to use their eyes and draw their own conclusions about the American way of life.
“The American people enjoy amazing freedom,” he explained to Yong on his return. “They are free to say and do what they like within the law, and the laws are not that strict or the punishments so severe compared
“I always suspected that things were better outside this country,” said Yong, “and now you have seen it for yourself.”
“But I would not want to live there,” replied his Uncle, shaking his head. “Interesting though it was, I confess that I did not much enjoy my visit.”
“Why ever not?”
“I did not much like the people,” came the reply. “Those we met were very courteous and helpful and made us feel welcome, but others seemed noisy and brash and arrogant. I am sure not all of them are like that, but we met enough to give me that impression. And I found their life style totally confusing. Here, everything is planned for us; there, they have to make their own choices. In many ways, I tend to agree with some of the party propaganda we hear about the Americans.”
“You are comparing them with us, where we have no freedoms at all. I suppose you should expect them to be very different.”
“I suppose so,” his Uncle nodded. “But if ever you get the chance you must get away from here and see for yourself, to make up your own mind about where you would rather be.”
“I should certainly like to travel abroad, even to the South.”
“Life there is heavily influenced by the Americans,” said Uncle Shin.
“As life here is influenced by the Chinese,” responded Yong.
“But what about the technical side of your visit – the real reason you went?”
“That was very interesting in many ways, although I suspect that we were shown very little of real importance. However, we already know enough to be able to guess at some of the gaps, and I shall certainly write a very detailed report. I must start that soon, or there will be trouble,” he grinned.
“As a matter of interest,” he added, “they seemed keen to know if I would perhaps be prepared to stay in America or go back there to help them, especially in respect of my specialist field of uranium enrichment. Somehow, they had got to know that I was involved in efforts to improve the present method of using centrifuges.”
“And you weren’t tempted?” asked Yong.
“Of course I was,” he replied. “But apart from a freer lifestyle, the Americans had nothing to offer. And in any case, to defect would not only have been difficult, but would also have put you and the rest of our family at grave risk.”
Shin frowned and thought hard for a few moments.
“I think what is really necessary is for the West to know about the dangerous work I am involved in, so that they may perhaps be able to prevent the nuclear war which frankly I see as inevitable.”
“How would that help, if they knew what you were doing?”
“If they knew the details of what I am doing, they would be able to develop a means of countering it.”
“But there is no easy way of getting the research information to them. I am certainly not prepared to live in America to achieve that, and in any case I wouldn’t trust them enough to use the information for the common good. More than likely, they would simply bomb our research facilities, and that would be the end of everything. But enough of this wishful thinking!” he said, “I must now get on with my report!”
Dr. Choi Shin took considerable care over the drafting of his report, which was eventually agreed by his fellow scientists and, of course, the civil servant who had been with them every step of the way.
Shin made sure that it was a long report, even if short on detail. He also made sure that it showed, beyond doubt, that the American nuclear research and development programme was specifically designed to produce weapons of mass destruction to attack North Korea and their other enemies, whereas the programme being followed under the benign leadership of his own beloved country was purely for civilian and defensive purposes to protect its citizens again evil countries in the West like America. He also managed to show that much of the work being carried out in the United States was flawed to the point of being dangerous to its own workers and nearby citizens, and that their reckless pursuit of their criminal aims was in stark contrast to the care and diligence being exercised within his own development programme. The report concluded with a short diatribe highlighting the appalling life style of the American people, and how it contrasted with the happy and contented existence enjoyed by the people of North Korea under the brilliant leadership of Kim Jong-un.
So Choi Shin had not only done nothing about the evil which he knew existed in his country, and said nothing because he was not free to speak, but he had now lied as well, all to save his own skin and preserve his position within the dictatorship. But he knew he had lied, and now knew the truth.
Life was better outside.
His report was, of course, warmly welcomed by the authorities as he had intended it should be and was widely quoted in the State media as proof, if any were needed, that North Korea was a shining example to the rest of the world.
He explained all this to his nephew, Yong, who understood, and became even more determined to get away from his homeland if ever the opportunity presented itself. Shin himself also longed for a different life with more freedom, but knew it was out of the question. He could not defect, and if he did make the attempt, where would he go? Certainly not to America, in spite of its many attractions.
But he was not to know that another overseas visit for him was being arranged.
In his report, Shin had given details of the research being carried out at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory into nuclear fusion. Of course, it was known that this potential new form of energy was being studied. Although no work was being carried out in North Korea, it had been reported that China was investigating the possibility of using nuclear fusion as a source of unlimited power.
The need for this in North Korea was perhaps greater than anywhere. There was a chronic shortage of power throughout the country, and even in the Pyongyang electricity was switched off completely at nine o’clock every night. In most parts of the country, where there was any electricity supply at all, it was only available for two hours in the morning and two in the evening, and even then there were frequent power failures.
The scientists he met in America had been more forthcoming about their fusion research, since it was in no way connected with nuclear weapons, so Shin’s report was also more detailed. In spite of their openness, however, it had seemed to him that the Americans were behind the game. It had often been mentioned to him that a good deal of excellent research was being carried out in this field in England, and that in many respects they had made better progress than in America. Indeed, he heard that a prominent British scientist in this field had been the target of a Russian assassination attempt to prevent further progress being made in a field which threatened the power that Russia could wield through its vast reserves of natural oil and gas. Although the scientist had recently died in Switzerland (read ‘Spy People’), the team he had left behind was continuing his pioneering and world leading research. On an almost daily basis, he learnt, they were able to use nuclear fusion to generate electricity. What so far eluded them was the ability to sustain such generation in a controllable fashion. It was no use if you could not switch it on and off at will.
Dr. Choi Shin was a research scientist who dealt with nuclear fission, not nuclear fusion. But he was held in high regard, and his report was enough for him to be selected to visit the United Kingdom to learn more about their work.
It was an exciting prospect, but as always with these things it took ages to arrange. Eventually, the United Nations, the British Council, the UK Government, the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the Politburo and the many other agencies involved approved his visit and issued the necessary visas, currency and tickets.
But his visit to England was altogether different, and proved to be a turning point in both his life and in that of his nephew Yong, although neither of them realised it at the time.
Dr. Choi Shin was immediately made to feel welcome and at home.
He and his colleagues were met at London’s Heathrow Airport at the foot of the aircraft steps, and escorted through the customs and immigration checks by an official from the Foreign Office, called Lee Cooper.
“I know you have been to America,” Cooper explained Shin, “and I know how difficult these procedures can be, especially coming from a country such as yours. So I hope I can make things a little easier for you after your long flight.”
Shin soon got the impression that he was being singled out for special treatment, perhaps because he had travelled abroad before and his colleagues had not. But how did they know he had been to America?
The official from the North Korean Embassy who had also gone to meet them was still waiting in the baggage reclaim area when the party left the terminal. After their papers and baggage had been quickly checked, they were escorted to a waiting car, which took them to Oxford. They were to stay there, explained Cooper in the car, as it was close to the Culham Laboratory where the nuclear fusion research was being carried out.
“I have booked rooms for you all in The Old Bank Hotel in the High Street. You each have your own room with en suite shower and so on, and I am sure you will be very comfortable.”
“We do not wish to have separate rooms,” protested their minder, who could immediately see that he would lose control of his party. “We would rather share, and be together.”
“I am afraid that is not possible,” said Cooper. “This is a very good Hotel, and you need have no fear about the bill. It will be Her Majesty’s Government’s pleasure to meet all your expenses.”
“What about security, then?” blustered Moon Pak, the Korean official.
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