“If you could go back in time and kill anyone, who would it be?”
The idea is the same, even if you’re a country.
“They say it can open a door to the past,” China said as North Korea dangled the red and gold talisman from the silk thread between his fingers.
“Have you ever tried to go back?”
“Do you really think I want to re-live any part of my life?”
“But,” North Korea said, voice sharper suddenly, “if you change the past you can change the future.”
“Korea, I’m sure–positive, in fact–that no matter what we did to alter history, we’d still end up in a miserable present.”
North Korea hung the amulet back on the wall adorned with all sorts of knick-knacks China had collected over the centuries, from chipped teacups to strange sculptures to wrinkled and worn treaties he’d begrudgingly signed.
“That sounds like defeatist garbage.”
“Well, what would you do if you could go back, hm? What is your grand plan to change the course of history?”
When North Korea left his house that morning he wasn’t expecting to step into the Forbidden City, but that’s what happened.
His world had vanished behind him, and in front of him was a golden throne set on a raised platform. He walked up the steps and as his eyes soaked in the wood and ornamentation, memories flooded back to him–memories that weren’t his but were both at the same time. He remembered he and China taking turns fanning each other on a sweaty summer day, both complaining the whole time. He remembered sitting on the throne and pretending to be China, mocking him in a funny voice until laughter spilled out. He remembered shuffling through the papers on the desk one day and finding a half-written and very undignified piece of “creative fiction.”
None of those memories, however, could help North Korea pinpoint which year he’d walked back into. A certain scent might help, though. Faint but still sweet, its floral undertones and slight edge bitterly familiar, it lingered in the air like a tense silence. Ironic, North Korea thought, that China called this place the Palace of Heavenly Purity, yet China himself was so far from either of those things.
North Korea yelped and his heart nearly shot out of his body. When he turned, he saw China squinting at him from one of the doorways, dressed in the kind of outfit that Westerns turned into Halloween costumes.
“Joseon?” asked China’s again, facial muscles relaxing. “What are you wearing? What happened to your hair?” He paused. “Where are your breasts?”
“Don’t ever talk about my breasts again, you feckless swine,” North Korea blurted out before he had the time to think of anything else. China just lifted his chin and made a hmph noise before wandering off.
“You sound unwell.” The echoes helped carry his voice to North Korea’s ears. “Didn’t hurt yourself trying to climb the Accumulated Elegance, did you? I warned you about that.”
Perfect; The Mountain of Accumulated Elegance sat in the Imperial Garden, and if that was the last place China saw Joseon, maybe that’s where she would still be.
The garden was a beautiful landscape of luscious green trees and sprinklings of red, yellow, and pink flowers. North Korea saw her across the yard, bending down smell the fresh peonies. He froze, unable to find the right words to say, unable to speak them even if he had. And he remained petrified, even when their eyes met and she threw up her fists.
“You should know,” she said in a low, firm voice, striking something of a pose that suggested she might lunge at any moment, “that I don’t take kindly to intruders. But if you convince me that your intentions are good, I may spare you.”
North Korea scrambled for what to say–taking almost too long, as Joseon had stepped forward with her right foot and violently punched the air in a show of intimidation.
“I’m you–” He started to say, but caught himself. “Your . . . son.” There it was–the simplest, safest lie he could come up with. “And I came here from the future. I’m on a mission–”
“Son?” Joseon gasped. “A son?!” She dropped the martial arts stance and moved in to examine him up and down. Something in her eyes changes, maybe the realization that his features were strangely familiar, that so much of him was reminiscient the person she saw in the mirror. “Haaaa, you’re very convincing, but . . .” Then suddenly her jaw dropped. “Wait . . . If I’m your mother, then–who’s the father? Oh, no . . . Please don’t tell me it’s . . . Is it? Is it China? Kill me!”
“So very funny, Joseon,” a soft voice chided from somewhere close by. “No need to put on a charade.”
Both Koreas snapped their heads in the direction of the voice to find China sitting on a bench with a scroll and paintbrush in his hands. Joseon scoffed at him.
“It was hardly a charade. Have you met my son?”
“I thought he was you.” That made Joseon beam.
“Of course you did. We’re both very beautiful and very Korean.”
“Hm. Now, what was that about the future, boy?” China went back to inking lazy streaks on the paper.
“I traveled back in time to prevent something terrible from happening.” He’d make sure to thank future-China for letting him “borrow” the talisman.
“That’s so ominous,” Joseon whined. “I hate it.”
“More specifically,” North Korea continued, “I’m here to kill someone.”
“Ahhh, my son is a murderer!”
Amused, China smiled. “And who have you come back to assassinate?”
“Someone so depraved and so evil that if we don’t kill her now, she will be our undoing.” He paused, long and dramatically, to make sure they were hooked on the suspense. Their wide eyes and creeping unease told him yes. “Japan.”
There was a beat of silence so heavy you could feel it.
“You are out of your mind,” China said finally. “Listen to the boy, Joseon. He’s not right.”
Joseon titled her head to the side, her brow furrowing. “Japan? The same Japan that tried to fight us all that time ago but failed miserably and hasn’t left the house in two hundred years? That Japan?”
“I’m afraid of giving away too many details,” North Korea had seen enough movies to know better, “but everything I’m saying is true. You,” and the words were directed at China, “can’t slink into comfortable complacency or let your weaknesses create openings for your enemies.”
“That’s ridiculous,” China hissed. “This is all ridiculous. I am the most powerful person on this side of the world, and some eccentric shut-in holed up on her own little island isn’t going to change that. It’s an insult that you would even suggest such a thing. An apology is in order.”
If North Korea’s brain were some kind of meter, the dial would have quickly shot up to the red danger zone. Alarms around be going off. Sirens would be blaring. HELL IS COMING! HELL IS COMING!
“I owe you nothing, you spineless snake.” The venom in his voice could kill a horse. Ten horses. Joseon paled the moment the words left his mouth. “You think you’re at the center of the universe, but you’re nothing more than a fraud with an inflated sense of self-importance.”
It felt so good, ripping into China like that while he still wore imperial robes. North Korea knew Joseon wouldn’t have said anything like this to him back then, back when China was a suzerain who demanded respect. Back when she was willing to bite her tongue because it was the right thing to do.
“You fabricated the idea that you were chosen by heaven to rule in order to justify your thirst for power and control.” As the onslaught continued, Joseon started to increasingly look like she was going to have a panic attack. She pulled on his arms, and when that didn’t work she got on her knees and bowed harder than she’d ever bowed before.
“You never had and never will have any right to rule over me, you gluttonous, insecure, pathetic man.” Joseon was rolling around on the ground, beginning him to shut his mouth. “Which war did you just lose, China? The First Opium War? The Second? You can enjoy your humiliation while I kill the monster you surrender Asia to.”
He stormed off. Behind him, Joseon was face down in the dirt, a drawn-out groan rattling in her throat. China, now misty-eyed and red in the cheeks, stared down as if he were catatonic.
“There’s a second?”
He held the sword tightly in his grip. His steps were determined, adamant, precise. With a steady hand, he pushed open the sliding door and sunlight flooded into the dark room. She was sitting at a low table on the floor, teacup by one hand and book under the other. Her squinting, blinking eyes met his. They traveled down to his sword. Then back to him.
She said, “Take your shoes off, please.”
He ran at her, throwing all the force he could muster into a powerful slash that would carve her chest open and leave her dying in a pool of her own blood, wracked with pain until she drew her last miserable breath.
Except nothing happened.
The weapon passed through her body like she was some kind of hologram.
“Wh-What?” North Korea snarled and plunged the blade into her chest again and again. But each time the result was the same.
“Are you doing it right?” Japan asked. “Try harder.”
“Is there are a way to do this wrong?”
“Here, let me try.”
Throwing the sword down in frustration, he stumbled back. “This didn’t happen. This was just a dream, do you understand? You’re hallucinating. And if anyone asks, my name is America.”
“Are you successful?”
Joseon’s eyebrows arched. “Are you rich?”
“Why would I lie to you?”
Joseon puffed out her cheeks and looked deeply into North Korea’s eyes. He didn’t blink. “Hmm…. your eyes are telling the truth.”
“So is my mouth.”
She smiled softly. “I really wish you could stay longer.” They both looked ahead at the ornate, white door. There was a bright light showing through along the bottom and edges.
“I really wish I could tell you everything.”
“Maybe it’s better that you don’t. I’ll just pretend this was a dream and we’ll laugh about it someday.” North Korea bit down on his tongue when he felt tears in the corner of his eyes. She noticed this and her face softened. “Say, why’s it letting you back? Didn’t you say you couldn’t finish your mission?”
“Because I learned a valuable lesson.”
“And what did you learn, my disrespectful, callous, sharp-tongued child?”
“When I couldn’t complete my mission, I realized that nobody can change what’s already happened. It’s just fantasy, tempting and cruel. In reality, the only power we have to change the past is to re-write it.” He looked back to her one last time before stepping through the door. “And I am very good at that.”
This was pretty self-indulgent because I wanted to hypothesize how an interaction between North Korea and its predecessor would go. North Korea and the Joseon Dynasty share a number of political and cultural similarities (isolationism, relationship with China, social stratification, etc.). You’re probably thinking, “Duh.” But North Korea is so much more like Joseon than South Korea that I find it quite striking. North Korea’s official title in Korean even keeps the name Choson in it. Anyway, I just thought this would be fun to write. (Sidenote: I call Korea “Joseon” in the story to distinguish her from North Korea. Using two characters with similar names in the same scenes is a writing sin, as you may know.)
Furied Agro: So I had no idea what to name this but Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary” came on and one particular line really stuck with me.
We are not just art for Michelangelo to carve
He can’t rewrite the agro of my furied heart
I’ll wait on mountain tops in Paris cold
Je ne veux pas mourir tout seule
I take the title of this story to mean “the thing that holds the attention of his fury.” AKA, Japan.
Mandate of Heaven: It’s kind of hypocritical that North Korea would slam China for using the Mandate of Heaven when North Korea itself uses a similar notion to justify the rule of the Kim family. Then again, North Korea is very good at tearing into other’s flaws while conveniently ignoring his own.
China’s Fault: I don’t personally think Japan’s rise was solely China’s fault (it’s way more complicated than that) but North Korea is a very angry person and does place a lot of the blame on China.