The nature of politics (and friendship)

“It gets harder,” she told him, and he believed her. But he didn’t understand. You can’t really grasp the depth of pain until you’ve actually felt it. North Korea felt it in 1951, and only again in 1991.

Sitting together on a veranda overlooking Moscow, they had few words to exchange.

She told him, “Things are changing. I can’t help you anymore.”

He hated her for it.

Politics was brutal and unforgiving. It was methodical and calculated and the only feelings you should ever allow yourself to have are greed and patience. Relationships changed like the weather; with just a few words, fifty years of companionship began to crumble. Sitting there with a clenched jaw, North Korea ran scenarios through his mind, started to think of what the loss of Soviet aid would mean. His fists tightened.

Over the next decade, he realized how right Russia was. It was at the darkest points, the points where hope sunk to the bottom of the bottles he used in fruitless efforts to forget that everything wasn’t okay, that North Korea felt most alone. He remembered her touch—platonic and warm. He remembered telling her things he’d never told anyone. He remembered phone calls where they went on for hours about politics, war, common enemies, science, and art (she promised to teach him constructivism, though he swore he’d never actually use a foreign style in his country).

And in remembering that, there was self-pity and the sucking ache of grief.

Is there something wrong with me? No, it’s just politics.

Am I really that unimportant to you? It’s just politics.

Do you realize how much this hurts? It’s just politics.

When you get close to a person, you never expect it to end. But it’s inevitable. Sometimes it burns away slowly, and other times it crashes and you wonder what the hell went wrong. Sometimes you talk to a person and realize nothing’s there. The warmth, the tenderness, the compassion—gone. Russia’s warning hadn’t prepared North Korea for his country’s struggles, and it hadn’t prepared him for desolation either.

Friendships came and went like that. People love you until they can’t anymore. North Korea learned this well, and sadness was soon replaced by anger. Anger at how he’d been betrayed by the women who told him to call her “mother.” He came to loathe how she got to walk away from the mess she created while he suffered alone. The sound of her voice echoing through conference rooms, her name in memos and news, and the little creeping memories of her that came to him when he heard certain tunes or walked by certain posters—it all made him seethe.

But years of self-inflicted emotional torture later and he’d grown numb to the pain associated with his former friend. The good thing about wounds is that eventually they’ll bleed out.


North Korea and China stood together on a balcony overlooking Beijing. North Korea relished the smoke of a cigarette that wasn’t his as China looked over the brightly lit city with an impersonal gaze. This wasn’t 1990. This was 2015, but the situation was hauntingly familiar.

“You shouldn’t take it personally,” China told him.

“I know. It’s just politics.”

A/N: This story was a little personal for me, and therefore kind of self-indulgent. Convenient how grief can fuel creativity. I guess if there’s a silver lining at all, it would be that. 

In the 90s, Russia cut aid to North Korea. The effect this had on the DPRK’s  economy likely contributed to the famine disaster. North Korea had a lot of low points around this time; apart from the famine,  Kim Il-sung died and it was a massive blow.

This September, China’s president kind of snubbed a North Korean official and journalists have been able to spin the story to imply that China did so in favor of making nice with South Korea. While there’s debate over China’s true intentions and whether the situation had any practical impact on Sino-NK relations, it’s not illogical for North Korea in this story to be afraid. Ghosts of the past mess with you like no other.

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