Kim Kyung-sook stood on the shore of the frozen, ancient river and pondered the fate that brought her to this most desolate and dangerous location. Wrapped in layers of threadbare rayon and vinylon clothing, she peered across the river and hoped that she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for more than a day-and-a-half, she had waited since yesterday afternoon to make sure there would be no soldiers patrolling this part of the river, which also meant that she could not light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, the woman had covered herself up as best she could with an old blanket she had found. Perhaps, another person who had come here for the same reason had used the same blanket.
She felt the small bundle under her layer of clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. The man who had given her the bundle told her where to make contact with the Chinese traders who relied on desperate people such as Kyung-sook who would risk everything for the money they would receive in return for the contents: bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth. She knew the risks if she was caught: she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die soon after. Deeply in debt and not knowing the fate of her husband, who had been sent to one of the work camps for stealing a bowl of rice, she did it out of necessity. The risk was definitely worth it if she wanted her family to make it through another severe winter faced with fuel and food shortages.
Getting the drug was easy. There was a man in the village that made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at one of the state-run labs, but when the country fell on hard times and many chemists found themselves out of work, they turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but this man was the most reliable. He lost his wife last winter. He didn’t care what happened to himself anymore. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale, but these kitchen labs and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China were impossible to stop.
Like many of people in her village, she had tried the drug she would soon hand off to the Chinese trader. Villagers, who had used the drug, described how in small quantities it could suppress one’s appetite. At first, she wanted nothing to do with the evil drug. However, she soon changed her mind. When food was scarce, she gave her eleven and twelve-year-old sons some of the drug. She knew it was wrong, but their cries at night for something to eat were too much for her to endure. The drug also had other medicinal benefits. She had sometimes taken small amounts for headaches. There were some people in her village who took it as a cure for depression. Everyone who tried it more than once said that once you did use it, it was very hard to stop.
The woman was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take the risks. Not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman whose son was arrested for smuggling the drug into China. One of the guards then turned around and told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.
However, there was another reason why she risked her life and the lives of her children. The woman heard other villagers talking about how if you sold enough of the drug you could afford passage into China and from there south to Laos or Thailand and freedom.
There were rumors that the government wanted to produce the drug again. That’s what happened the last time when the government needed money. If the government started producing the drug again, she might never be able to help her family escape to freedom.
It never crossed her mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was a young woman, she had been mesmerized by her county’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, the son visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy of Juche or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way that she did. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.
Kyung-sook put a wrinkled, worn hand on her forehead and scanned the rocky shore and the frozen expanse in front of her. It had sounded so easy, four weeks earlier, when the man who had given her the drugs told her what to do. Suddenly she saw a dark figure moving across the frozen river from the opposite shore. She squinted hard hoping to recognize the figure as best she could. The figure got about halfway across the river—that was the signal for Kyung-sook to walk out on the frozen river and walk toward the middle to meet the man.
She kept a close watch on the shore just in case any patrols would suddenly appear, but even if they did, there would be nothing that she could do. Once she had stepped onto the frozen river, there was no turning back. She stepped gingerly on the snow-covered frozen river. The wind howled across the jaundiced sky. Her legs ached with each labored step. A thin layer of ice beneath the snow cracked under her weight. Her breathing was short and irregular as she continued carefully across the frozen expanse before her.
When she got within ten yards of the figure, who turned out to be a middle-aged man dressed in a bulky dark brown overcoat, he gestured towards her to show the bundle. No words needed to be spoken. The transaction was simple. Kyung-sook nodded, retrieved the bundle from inside her coat, and held it up for the man to see. The man nodded and motioned for her to come forward. She slowly approached the trader and handed him the bundle. The trader carefully looked inside and inspected the product to make sure the woman had not duped him. He had done business with other people from her village; he knew the quality of the product and the price that it would fetch.
Satisfied with the product the woman had brought he shoved the bundle inside his jacket and retrieved a small packet of bills. Just as the trader did by inspecting the product, the woman looked into the packet and counted the bills. When she was satisfied, she nodded, turned, and started back toward the shore. They would meet again in a month.
Kyung-sook caught her breath once she reached the shore. She turned around and saw that the trader had already disappeared behind a hill on the other side of the river. Her stomach ached from no food; she wished she had kept a little of the drug for herself to ward off the pangs of hunger. However, soon she would have something to eat; soon her whole family would have something to eat. There was a chicken in the butcher’s shop that she would buy. Her children would once again know the taste of rice instead of barley. She would stretch this money as much as she could until she could make another trip. Soon, there would be no cries of hunger from her children.
For the first time since she embarked on this journey, she felt a great burden lifted from her soul.
As she started back up the road, the wind whipped across the fallow paddies. Frozen dust and chaff peppered and stung her ruddy face. She wrapped her tattered, threadbare scarf around her face in shielding the wind and dust as best she could. There was no time to rest now. It was imperative that she get off this road as soon as possible.
She traveled about a kilometer when she spotted a truck speeding toward her. She put her hand to her forehead, squinting her eyes for a better look. It was one of the patrols. In the back of the olive drab truck, which had a bright red star on the door, three soldiers clutching automatic weapons bounced up and down. Her heart started pounding. Had they seen her when she walked out on the frozen river? Although she was far away enough from the river as not to draw too much suspicion, to be out here alone on the road wasn’t good either. Surely they would stop and question her. She shifted the packet of money under her clothes and continued to walk up the road.
In the distance, she spotted smoke rising from a small farmhouse. That would be her story if asked. She would tell the soldiers that she was on her way to visit a family member who was ill.
When the truck finally reached her, two of the soldiers in the back jumped off and approached the woman. The other soldier in the back trained his weapon on her. There were two more soldiers inside the cab. The two soldiers who approached the woman were young. Their dark green uniforms hung limply on their thin frames. They appeared to be happy to have come across the woman; at the very least, they had something to do to take their mind off the bitter cold.
“Identity card, please,” the taller of the two soldiers demanded.
Kyung-sook dug for her card inside her layers of clothes and handed it to the soldier who furrowed his brow as he examined the details of the card. He looked at the Kyung-sook’s face and her photograph on the card, back and forth, three times until he was satisfied.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, handing back her identity card. “Don’t you know this is a restricted area?”
Kyung-sook shook her head and glanced toward the farmhouse in the distance.
“I’m visiting a friend,” she said, pointing to the farmhouse. “She’s very ill.”
“No one lives in that house,” the soldier said. “You’re lying.”
“Excuse me, Comrade Lee,” the other soldier said, stepping forward. “I know this woman.”
Kyung-sook slowly lifted her head and looked at the soldier who had just spoken. A smile formed on her lips when she recognized the soldier from her village. She knew his parents. They were good people. The taller soldier, impatient with the proceedings, crinkled his pudgy red nose.
“Search her!” the taller soldier ordered.
“I need to search you, Comrade Kim,” the soldier from her village said. His voice was warm and smooth as the sweet bean paste she once enjoyed as a child. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
The soldier shifted his weapon on his shoulder and reached inside Kyung-sook’s overcoat. His hands were cold but soft as he patted the layers of clothing she wore. His hands stopped short of the packet containing the money. Kyung-sook gritted her teeth and tried not to telegraph her fear.
The taller soldier looked on with an amused smile on his face as he watched his comrade search Kyung-sook. When it was obvious that she was harmless, he climbed into the back of the truck.
“Kapshida!” the taller soldier said. “Let’s go!”
“You need to get off this road,” the younger soldier said. “It’s too dangerous for someone like you.”
When the soldier removed his hands from inside Kyung-sook’s overcoat, he accidentally knocked free the packet of money which fell to the ground. Her eyes widened with fear as she stared at the packet and then at the soldier. Some of the bills were visible. The young soldier looked down at the money and kicked it with his dusty boot.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Kyung-sook stared at the packet again and then the soldier. Her eyes traveled to the back of the truck where the other two soldiers waited.
“You need to be more careful, Comrade Kim,” the soldier said, reaching down and grabbing the packet. “As I said, this road can be very dangerous.”
She closed her eyes and waited for the metallic click of a round chambered in one of the weapons and the report of the weapon that would take her life, but both never came. Instead, she heard the shrill laughter of the three soldiers waving her money in the air as the truck bounced down the road leaving in its wake a cloud of dust and black smoke. Kyung-sook’s eyes wept from the cold stinging her face as she watched the truck disappear behind a hill.
And for the second time that day, Kyung-sook pondered her fate as she turned and slowly headed home where not even the howling wind could drown out the cries of her children she already heard inside her head.
Jeffrey Miller has spent over two decades in Asia as a university lecturer and writer, including a six-year stint as a feature writer for The Korea Times, South Korea's oldest English-language newspaper. Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, he relocated to South Korea in 1990 where he nurtured a love for spicy Korean food, Buddhist temples, and East Asian History. He's currently a history and English lecturer at the SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea.
War Remains, a Korean War Novel is his first novel and based on articles he wrote about Korean War Commemorative events from 2000-2003 for The Korea Times. The award-winning book won two Military Writers Society of America 2011 Book Awards: Gold for Literary Fiction and Silver in the Korean War category.
He currently resides in Daejeon, South Korea with his wife and four children. If he's not working, writing, or reading, he's usually chasing little kids around his home.