Master Key

It’s so nice to see these kids having a good time. Knowing that they’re just normal kids.

We’re at Hangyeorae Boarding School, the place where North Korean teenage defectors go to catch up with the crazy South Korean education system.

I watched the high school boys play soccer one night in the rain. We were supposed to go take a tour of the community garden, but when 7:00 came some boys were rounding up their friends and trying to track down cleats and a ball and we knew that the garden thing couldn’t compete. So instead a few friends and I walked up the hill to watch them play. A typical high school boys’ impromptu soccer game of Shirts vs. Skins.

One of the first things you notice is the far team’s goalie, a boy known to us as Master Key—if there is a better nickname I am not aware. He had once claimed to have the master key to the entire school, so if we needed anything during our stay we should ask him. Once he claims he made the rain stop. Now he is the student body president. He was playing goalie that night, but “playing” in the sense that we “played” soccer in kindergarten, when the coach’s main goal was to make the kids stop picking dandelions and spinning in circles. He kept dancing and leaping wildly across the face of the goal, or doing pull-ups on the crossbar, or sitting down ten yards in front of the goal and watching the game leaning back propped up on his elbows. It was amazing the other team didn’t score.

It started to rain and they stayed out for a while but when it got to really raining they all ran in under the bleachers (Master Key, of course, was the one kid who never came in from the rain). It looked like they were going to call the game off but then all of a sudden, the student who always leads morning exercise ran back out onto the field and by some consensus they all rushed back out together into the pounding rain. Sliding on the field. They could barely play because the rain was so hard and the grass so slippery, and could barely see, and once one of them slid across the grass on his stomach they all had to do it.

* * * * *

Sometimes I ask North Koreans if they miss North Korea. Mostly they look at me as if I had asked them if they maybe miss being bullied in middle school, but, sometimes, a hint of nostalgia comes out. At least to my ears. Walking in the middle of the South Korean countryside at night, we look up and see but few stars, and they talk about how many stars there are in the North. The Milky Way. I imagine winter and snow and millions of stars.

I now have a peculiar winter-rustic picture of North Korea in my mind because most of the defectors here are from the northern edge of North Korea, where the winters blow down from Siberia and the snow piles five feet deep everywhere. They heat their houses with fires. The son will go out with the father in a horse-drawn wagon to cut down a tree and drag it back for firewood. This is actually representative of much of North Korea. When I was first told that, I didn’t really believe it. People still use horses? And wagons? Unlikely. But North Korea is an unlikely country, a crazy time capsule in most ways. Interestingly, because most of the trees have been cut down for lumber and dragged off by horses, the mountains are bald, which is part of the food shortage problem—soil erosion, landslides.

But at least the soccer here is better.

Master Key is a vibrant individual—he spent a whole evening in makeup because he was bored—but he can also be very serious, as when he invited us into the teacher’s office that same night to sit and chat over coffee. It was a little harder to focus on him than it might otherwise have been, since he was still wearing red lipstick and dark blue eyeliner, but we had a long, wide-ranging, serious talk, of which I unfortunately remember nothing.

Days later—once the makeup was gone and I could focus on what he was saying—he said that, although he is only twenty, he feels like he has already seen everything there is in life. All of the hard things, at least. He remembers his early childhood in North Korea as idyllic, while his parents were still both there, but by the age of five both parents were dead and gone away, and he lived essentially on his own for the next ten years, moving around between grandparents when they were available and orphanages when they were not. He has a much older brother who was in the military (ten-year mandatory military service in North Korea); when the older brother heard that young Master Key was homeless and parentless, he came home from the military and took care of him. And between those ten years without a home, and the journey here, and the whole matter of being in North Korea, he feels like he’s seen it all.

There was a lot that I didn’t understand about his story—did the older brother get out of military service, or did he just finish it? What exactly happened to his parents? And after all that, who paid for him to leave and come through China to South Korea? And what happened to his brother?

There are always more questions. But that’s all in the past. For now, he has it easy. He just has to play the game, and make sure Shirts don’t score. And because the actual scoring of goals is of strictly secondary importance among all the sliding and mud and rain, it’s a cinch.

Picture taken from:


One thought on “Master Key

  1. Jay,
    I suspect there are still many countries like N. Korea in terms of horses and trees for firewood. I read something about Afghanistan that sounded similar, including losing the trees for firewood, and having no trees to prevent erosion, provide shade, etc.
    Still really enjoying reading your blogs!!

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