Her first indication of something awry was the towering statue of Kim Il Sung, known to his citizens as Great Leader. The centerpiece of a large plaza, the heroic statue was surrounded by imposing government buildings flying the flag of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Hana also wondered over the exceedingly wide streets with few other automobiles in sight. She leaned forward in the back seat of the car and asked Mr. Hwang why a statue of the North Korean dictator had been erected in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. A sneer crept over his face, but he made no reply. His stony silence was disquieting and puzzling. In all their prior conversations, Mr. Hwang had been courteous to a fault and eager to assuage her concerns. Now he seemed cold and indifferent to her unease.
Hana Yamato had met Hwang at a job fair in her hometown of Osaka, Japan, just over a month ago. The company for whom he worked was looking for native Japanese citizens willing to teach conversational Japanese to South Korean businessmen who hoped to sell products in Japan. The job paid well and the offer included a furnished apartment in whichever South Korean city she would be assigned. Hana would also receive a signing bonus before she even left Osaka. Her parents and older brother had voiced strong opposition to the offer and tried to persuade her that it wasn’t safe for a twenty-two-year-old single girl to go running off to another city, let alone another country.
But Hana was part of a new generation of Japanese women who weren’t keen on following their mothers into a traditional way of life completely dominated by domestic responsibilities. And Airi, a close friend since early childhood, agreed with Hana that the job offer was a great opportunity. If not now, when? Hana had a gift for languages and she should use it. Although Mandarin Chinese was her strong suit, she was conversant in Korean and would be speaking like a native once immersed. Hana and Hwang had spoken to each other in Korean, and he had remarked that she was the ideal candidate.
On a cool October morning just ten days after her interview, Hana joined Hwang at a small airport twenty miles south of Osaka. The airport, having only one runway, serviced small private planes exclusively. Hana wondered why Hwang had not simply booked passage on a regular commercial flight from Osaka to Seoul, but it was nice to be driven right up to the plane. In less than fifteen minutes from their arrival at the airport, they were airborne.
It also struck her as a little odd that she and Hwang were the only passengers on a plane that could seat ten. Where were the other instructors Mr. Hwang had hired? Was his corporation so wealthy that they could afford to transport one new employee at a time? But having an entire plane to herself made Hana feel pretty important. She said she wanted to take a window seat, and Hwang suggested the last row where it would be quieter in the propeller-driven craft.
Even taking into account the slower speed of a twin-engine prop compared to a jet, the flight took a little longer than Hana expected. But immediately on arrival, a car pulled up to the plane’s stairway, and the two of them were taken directly toward the center of the large city she had seen during their descent. Twenty-five minutes later, they entered the plaza containing one of the countless statues of Kim Il Sung which had been erected in every city, town, and village in North Korea.
* * *
Hwang guided her into a large office space on the third floor of one of the buildings on the plaza. His previous deferential manner toward her had vanished and was replaced with the no-nonsense demeanor of a bureaucrat. He demanded her passport, and Hana, becoming more alarmed every moment, complied. She was photographed and fingerprinted, and within several minutes received a small photo-visa, which she was to carry at all times. Her passport was not returned.
Next, Hwang led her to another section of the office and handed her over to a matron who looked as if she had never learned to smile. There were no introductions. Hwang simply nodded to the matron, turned, and left.
Hana, overwhelmed by her unfolding predicament and oblivious to the cold sweat moistening her palms, was taken to a small dressing room. She was given well-worn but freshly laundered clothes. The matron stayed with Hana, never taking her eyes off the young woman as she undressed and then donned the new garb, consisting of a greenish brown tunic and pants. A small brooch bearing the face of Kim Il Sung had already been pinned to the front of the tunic. She was then led into the women’s lavatory to remove her mascara, lipstick, and blush, this also completed under the older woman’s observation.
Minutes later, Hana and her escort emerged from the building. The day was bright, clear, and colder than Osaka had been even in the early morning hours. Hana had eaten a proper breakfast, but it was now nearly 2:00 p.m. She was hungry, cold, and frightened. They allowed her to keep her own coat, but it was barely adequate to prevent her from shivering. And for the first of many instances to follow, Hana berated herself for not listening to her parents and older brother. You stupid, stupid girl!
The car that had brought her to the office building on the plaza was still parked in front, and the matron escorted her down the steps to the street level. Hana was ordered into the back seat and the door was slammed. No instructions were given to the driver, nor was there any sign of Mr. Hwang. They weren’t concerned that she might try to escape.
The broad well-maintained boulevards gave way to progressively smaller and more primitive roads as they entered the countryside. Fortunately, the car’s heater worked adequately, and Hana was able to attend to her surroundings. Unlike the tall concrete apartment buildings in what she presumed had been Pyongyang, the rural landscape was dotted with clusters of small, white cookie-cutter homes topped with slate. Hana found these somewhat attractive, at least at a distance, but she also spotted mud-wall structures with thatched roofs.
With no other cars and few trucks on the road, they made steady progress toward wherever they were headed. Hana realized that their destination must be due north of Pyongyang as the afternoon sun consistently shone through the left side car windows. As the miles passed, she wondered how a young single woman from Osaka, Japan, could be of any possible interest to the North Korean government. Is this all a big mistake? Do they think I had access to classified military documents? The whole thing is absurd. She began wondering what would happen when they realized she was of no use to them.
* * *
“Good morning, comrades! Rise and fulfill the destiny which our Great Leader Kim Il Sung has prepared for you and our entire nation. His love for us is boundless, the future is bright, and our time has come. Soon our magnificent…” Hana stirred, then wondered where she was and why the radio was so loud. But the metallic voice she heard wasn’t coming from a radio. It emanated from an indoor loudspeaker, and the party’s message was being broadcast into every dwelling and workplace. Moments later, a middle-aged woman entered the room where Hana had slept, and everything came flooding back into her consciousness. I’m in North Korea. This is no dream!
“Miss Yamato, your breakfast is ready. Come and eat as soon as you’re dressed. This is a very important day. My uncle, Colonel Lee, is coming all the way to Anju just to talk to you.” Hana recognized the voice of Mrs. Park, who late the previous night had served kimchi and rice for her dinner. Although Hana disliked fermented cabbage, she had been grateful that she wouldn’t be going to bed hungry.
Breakfast consisted of one hardboiled egg, maize porridge, and tea. After beginning to eat, Hana asked Mrs. Park why her uncle was coming to speak with her. It took the older woman a few moments to respond, and Hana sensed that Mrs. Park was deciding how much could be explained in advance.
“Colonel Lee has had a long and successful career as a soldier, initially fighting the Japanese during their occupation of Korea before and during World War II, but also rising rapidly in the ranks during the Fatherland Liberation War.”
“You mean the Korean War in the early 1950s?” Hana asked.
“Yes, but you must call it by its proper name if you want to be treated well here, especially in front of my uncle. He was injured and disfigured during the war and is very sensitive about ideological correctness.”
“But why is he coming here today?”
“To instruct you in your obligations, of course.”
“My obligations? I’m not in the Japanese military or intelligence service. I have nothing to offer, and I don’t understand why I’m here.
“My uncle will provide all the specifics, but I can give you a general idea.” Hana nodded, and Mrs. Park continued, “They actually do want someone who can teach Japanese here. They also need a young person to instruct Koreans in modern Japanese customs and accepted ways of behaving in social situations.”
“But surely there are people here who can speak Japanese,” Hana replied.
“There are, but few will admit it. Japanese was the language of our occupiers from the early 1900s until the end of World War II. Many of the Koreans who spoke Japanese were regarded as collaborators, and after the war, many were dealt with as traitors. Besides, it’s been decades since they’ve had a chance to speak Japanese, so they would make poor instructors.”
“But why does your government now want its people to learn Japanese? And how many students can one person possibly teach?
“My uncle will explain, but I can tell you that there won’t be a huge number of students. Instruction will be limited to a small group of carefully selected young men and women.” After some reflection, Hana realized that her students would eventually be able to infiltrate Japan posing as South Koreans. Just as Mr. Hwang had.
But cooperating would constitute an act of treason against Japan, and she was proud of her country. In the decades since the end of WW II, Japan had become a peaceful democracy, nothing like the militaristic nation that had invaded and occupied Korea.
* * *
When Colonel Lee turned from Mrs. Park to face Hana, she was confronted by the most frightful man she had ever encountered. She flinched and instantly regretted it. Yes, the man was hideous, but recoiling from him was unwise no matter how involuntary.
The Colonel was short, rawboned, and feral. The end of his nose had been sheared off, making his nostrils appear ghoulishly enlarged. A drooping right eyelid lent a grim asymmetry to his countenance.
Hana had caught the subtle wave of resignation which had come over him when she recoiled. However impressive his military uniform, Colonel Lee was not invulnerable.
The two of them sat at the small dinner table while Mrs. Park poured tea. When the Colonel addressed her, Hana consciously directed her gaze to his normal appearing left eye.
After first inquiring into her satisfaction with the accommodations provided so far, Colonel Lee informed Hana that she was a guest of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and was being given a unique opportunity of great importance: specifically, a chance to atone for the merciless oppression which the Japanese had inflicted upon his country, an oppression that had culminated in a schism between the northern and southern halves of the Korean peninsula. Seeing a look of confusion on her face, he said, “Surely, Miss Yamato, you must know something of the Japanese occupation here in which your people nearly succeeded in eradicating our entire culture. Had your country not been defeated in the Second World War, we might still be subservient vassals of your emperor, completely cut off from our heritage. My own sister was taken to Burma and forced to serve as a comfort woman to Japanese soldiers there.” He took a sip of tea and then continued, “Do you know what a comfort woman was?”
Hana had heard of the comfort women, but she cringed when Colonel Lee told her that they had been forced to accommodate up to thirty Japanese soldiers per day.
“The past cannot not be changed, but you, Miss Yamato, will become a healing force for a brighter future. I hope you have an inner sense of justice, and that redressing the wrongs your countrymen committed here will be a source of great satisfaction. We need your help in our struggle to reunite Korea and to bring to all of Southeast Asia the peace and prosperity that only socialism can bestow. Do the right thing now and your eventual return to Japan will be the least of many rewards.”
The Colonel then began to describe the details of her responsibilities during her stay, starting with the number of students who would be assigned to her. Three sections, each consisting of ten to fifteen individuals, were to be instructed six days per week, with all classes lasting two hours. The first class of the day would not begin until 9 a.m., allowing her time to partake in morning group exercises, attend supervised study sessions on the writings and current pronouncements of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and prepare the day’s instructional material for her classes. Like most individuals in North Korea, Hana would get Sunday off. And unlike the vast majority of the women, she would have little in the way of domestic responsibilities as these would fall to Mrs. Park. Quite unexpected was the two-hour rest period from 2 to 4 p.m., observed throughout the country.
Colonel Lee also informed Hana that funds had been set aside to purchase additional books and whatever teaching aids she requested, as the success of the instructional program was of great importance to his superiors in Pyongyang. To this end, she was to submit a weekly report on the students’ progress.
Hana was tempted to ask the colonel how long her period of service to the State would last, but she held back, sensing that it was premature to raise that issue. She also sensed that someone higher up the chain of command might decide when she could be repatriated.
By the time their meeting ended, it was clear that resistance on her part would not be tolerated, and she resigned herself, at least initially, to following the colonel’s instructions. It also occurred to her that he was under pressure from his own higher-ups. Whether she liked it or not, the two of them were going to succeed or fail together.
* * *
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Miss Yamato. I will be instructing you in the Japanese language and focusing heavily on correct pronunciation.” A few of the students, mostly male, were unable to suppress a snicker, and Hana reddened. I must have already mispronounced something, she realized but got a grip on herself and continued. “You have all received some instruction in Japanese, and we’ll build on that. Fortunately, there are grammatical similarities between Korean and Japanese. As you know, both languages place the main verb at the end of the sentence, and there are also similarities in the use of participles. But today, I want to begin by having some of you read aloud from the textbook. So please go to the passage at the top of page nine in your textbooks. Now may I have a volunteer?”
No one raised a hand or opened the text. An embarrassing silence ensued, and Hana felt a warm flush creep up the front of her chest and lower neck. Finally, one of the students, a rather handsome man who appeared to be in his mid- to late-twenties, said, “I’ll read, Miss Yamato.”
Hearing this, Hana’s grip on her textbook relaxed a little. “Kindly tell me your name and then begin.”
His name was Choi, and when he had finished the first three paragraphs with few mistakes, Hana thanked him and asked for the next reader. Fortunately, a young woman volunteered, and Hana was further relieved. Other students also followed Choi’s lead.
Fifteen minutes before the class ended, Hana told them they had done quite well and that they would all become fluent in Japanese. “I’ve also been asked to expose you to Japanese customs and traditions,” she told them. “So I’m going to share with you a snack I prepared which I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called momiji, and it’s especially popular in autumn in my hometown of Osaka.” The snack consisted of maple leaves which had been dried, dipped in sweetened tempura batter, and fried. Hana walked the aisles of the classroom carrying the maple leaves in a bowl which Mrs. Park had provided. Each student dutifully took one. She knew they weren’t allowed to eat in the classroom, so she let them leave a few minutes early.
Hana had almost twenty minutes before the students in the second section would arrive, and she took some time to evaluate how things had gone thus far. She had gotten off to an embarrassing and uncertain start, but Choi had come to her rescue. Maybe he would be willing to help her with whatever she had mispronounced, assuming that was the cause of the students’ laughter. Hopefully, future classes would go more smoothly. Having them read aloud from the text gave her a good sense of how well they could pronounce Japanese words, and she decided to continue with this as a means of evaluation.
After looking over the roster for the second class, Hana still had a few minutes to take a break and get some fresh air and sunlight. She grabbed her coat and headed outside. It was cool and windy, so she moved out of the shadow cast by the school building to soak up the warmth of the sun. Numerous small, light brown objects lying in the street caught her eye, and Hana approached for a closer look. They were her tempura maple leaves.
* * *
“I was a little worried that something like that might happen,” Mrs. Park said.
“They didn’t even taste the momiji before throwing them away,” Hana replied. “And they must have known I would find them lying in the street if they just tossed them there.”
“Your students didn’t taste the momiji because of the stories they’ve heard about World War II. People were so desperately hungry that they resorted to eating grass and leaves. Food was in short supply as a result of the Japanese occupation, and here you are, a Japanese woman, offering them leaves to eat,” Mrs. Park replied.
Hearing this, Hana was horrified by what she had done. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I hesitated to say anything because you were doing exactly what my uncle told you to do, teach them your customs. You were willing to share a cherished tradition, and I hoped the students would give the momiji a try. I’m truly sorry, Hana. It won’t happen again. And the colonel need not know anything about this.”
Hana saw that Mrs. Park was extremely contrite, and coming alongside her, she wrapped her arm across the older woman’s back and shoulder. “It’s okay, Mrs. Park. You’ve been more than kind. Who else can I count on? You’ve been wonderful.”
Later that evening, the two of them walked to a nearby community center to attend the showing of the first chapter of a film series entitled Unsung Heroes. They had been strongly encouraged to go, but Hana, never having seen a North Korean film, was genuinely curious. The impetus for producing Unsung Heroes had come from Kim Jong Il, the minister of propaganda and oldest son of Kim Il Sung. The main character of the movie was a patriotic North Korean agent who entered Seoul during the Fatherland Liberation War to gather information about American military forces. Hana fully expected the South Koreans to be portrayed as collaborators and puppets of the American imperialists, but she was amazed to see Caucasian actors playing the roles of American army officers.
Later, as they walked home, Hana asked Park how the production crew had managed to obtain Caucasian actors. “Those men were real-life defectors from the American army who abandoned their posts to come north during the war,” Mrs. Park answered. “Do you remember the American officer called Arthur?” Hana nodded. “Well, his real name is Joseph Dresnok. My uncle told me that he met Dresnok this past April at the celebration of our Great Leader’s birthday. The Colonel says that Dresnok is still fondly referred to as Arthur and is treated like a celebrity. Of course, the Americans must consider him a traitor.”
By the time they arrived at their cottage, Hana was sick with worry and indecision. What if one day, her brother, a family friend, or her parents were to pick up a newspaper and read about a young woman from Osaka who had defected to North Korea? A woman who had become an esteemed citizen of the Communist State, assisting the regime in ways which could only be harmful to Japan.
* * *
Hana was slightly alarmed when she was summoned to the office of the school principal. Her first thought was that she must have said something indiscreet and a student had reported her. But this was not the case. On the contrary, she was congratulated on her diligent service and told that she had earned the privilege of visiting Pyongyang. With an escort of course. Much relieved and equally concerned not to appear ungrateful, Hana said that seeing Pyongyang was something she had been looking forward to. In truth, she was interested in seeing the capital and asked if Mrs. Park would be her escort. The principal replied, “No, I’ve asked one of your students. I believe you’re already acquainted with Mr. Choi.”
Hana and Choi were soon issued one-day passes to visit North Korea’s largest city. They were encouraged to take in the recently completed Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum which paid homage to the soldiers who had defended the country in the early 1950s during the conflict with the South.
Although Mrs. Park had dutifully prepared a picnic lunch for the young couple, Hana thought she appeared uneasy when Choi arrived. Over the months in which they had shared the cottage assigned to them by the State, the two women had come to trust and care for each other, much like members of a family. Hana, a stranger in a strange land, readily understood her own need for this welcomed attachment but could only speculate as to why her older friend also seemed to embrace it. Other than mentioning that she was a widow, Mrs. Park had revealed little about her personal life, and Hana thought it odd that her confidante rarely left their immediate surroundings to visit anyone, even on Sundays.
Driving south from their small riverside town of Anju on a road that had deteriorated during a typical harsh North Korean winter, Choi hunched forward in his seat and gripped the steering wheel firmly with both hands. The potholes were treacherous, and he dare not bring the car back damaged. Hana tried to make polite small talk, but realized from Choi’s one word responses that he didn’t want to be distracted while navigating the uneven terrain.
They arrived in Pyongyang well before noon and decided to visit the new war museum first. Located adjacent to the Potong River, the museum was the immense edifice Hana had expected, but surprisingly, it also appealed to her aesthetic sense. The main structure partially encircled an arrangement of fountains, and complex statuary depicting groups of soldiers bearing the flag of the Fatherland graced both sides of the design. Considerable land had been allocated to the museum, making it easier to appreciate the overall conception. There were no structures nearby that might obscure or distract from the impression of strength and permanence its designers had intended to convey.
Inside were numerous artifacts from the war, including an intact Sherman tank, other tracked American vehicles, the remnants of a downed American fighter plane, and numerous artifacts of the imperialist machinations of the United States. Most telling for Hana was an exhibit describing how in 1949 the incompetent and corrupt regime that ruled South Korea was facing imminent economic collapse. Only a war could sufficiently distract its enslaved people from overthrowing their oppressive government, and thus the combined military forces of South Korea and America initiated the three-year conflict.
Not willing to negotiate unlit country roads at night, they returned to Anju in the late afternoon while sunlight prevailed. But Hana had enjoyed herself. The revisionist history aside, the capital was intriguing, and Choi had been excellent company. It was unthinkable that a young woman from Osaka would ever get to experience the Land of the Morning Calm; and when Choi asked her if they might do something like this again, Hana readily smiled and nodded. If she was going to be stuck here for months or longer, it would be much more tolerable with a good friend. Besides, a charming, handsome escort would make the stories she would tell Airi and her other friends all the more fascinating once she returned to Osaka. Maybe she would even write a book.
Mrs. Park wanted to hear about the trip to the capital as she prepared their evening meal, and Hana was eager to share everything. But when the topic moved to her budding infatuation with Choi, Mrs. Park interrupted.
“Hana, I have to tell you something about him. He’s not who you think he is.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s an agent of the State.”
“Well, aren’t all of my students? Isn’t that why they tricked me into getting on a plane and coming here? To prepare agents who could infiltrate Japan, posing as South Koreans?”
“Yes, but Choi has been assigned an added responsibility.”
“And what is that?”
“To tie you down,” Mrs. Park replied.
“What does that mean? You know I can’t go anywhere on my own. They’re not going to send me back to Osaka until I accomplish my task here.”
Mrs. Park sighed and turned off the stove. “Hana, sit down.” Hana complied and Mrs. Park joined her. “Do you remember that incident on your first day in class when nobody wanted to volunteer to read from the textbook? And Choi finally volunteered?” Hana nodded. “Well the whole thing was set up that way. It was intended to make you take notice of Choi and to make you feel gratitude toward him for getting the rest of the class to cooperate.” Hana was speechless. “Then they arranged for you to be given a pass to visit Pyongyang, and it just so happened that Choi was to be your escort.” Mrs. Park paused, letting Hana take it in.
Finally, Hana spoke up. “You said tie me down. What does that mean?” Her heart was sinking.
“They want you, at some future point, to become Choi’s wife. In other words, to stay here for the rest of your life. To have a husband and children you would never choose to leave.”
“Why… why would they do that?” she asked, her eyes now wide, not wanting to believe a word of what she had been told.
“Think, Hana! They can’t let you go back to Japan and let everyone find out that you were abducted by a foreign country. It would create an international incident and tarnish the image they’re trying to project. And even if that weren’t an issue, they won’t let you leave because you’re too valuable an asset as a teacher. What they told you about going home when your assignment was completed was a pack of lies. Almost no one gets out of here alive.”
* * *
Other than Choi, Hana’s students remained distant and cool in their interactions with her. They were mostly polite, never displaying anything that might be construed as hostile, but the social isolation was becoming nearly intolerable for a gregarious young woman who prized relationships with others above all else. Mrs. Park told her that this too was not accidental. The more she longed for human contact, the more she would welcome time spent with Choi.
The principal continued to praise Hana for the progress her students were making, and he tried to arrange several more outings in Choi’s company. She almost gave in after being shown photographs of Mt. Paektu. A beautiful blue lake nestled in the crater at the peak of this quiescent volcano near the Chinese border. She and Choi could have up to three days off, even though this would entail the cancellation of a class on either a Friday or a Monday.
But Hana politely refused and continued to refuse. Following Mrs. Park’s suggestion, Hana told Choi that she had a male companion in Osaka to whom she wished to remain exclusively devoted. Of course, no one other than Mrs. Park could tell her that she would never return to Osaka.
For his part, Choi was visibly flustered by her continuing forbearance. He insisted that it was in their “best interest” that the attraction they had for each other be allowed to take its course. But Hana remained steadfast.
Then one day Choi did not show up for class. Nor did he come the next day or the day after. Hana asked another student if Choi was ill. The student replied that he didn’t know. Hana then asked if Choi would be coming back to class, and the student again replied that he didn’t know.
Hana didn’t tell Mrs. Park about it until Choi had been missing for over two weeks. Confused and more than a little concerned, she sought an explanation from the only person she could trust.
“He’s been removed,” Mrs. Park said.
“He failed to accomplish what he had been told to do.”
“You mean… with me?”
“Well, what have they done with him?”
“We have no way of knowing, and it would be foolish to ask. But whatever happened to Choi is not your fault. It’s the regime’s way of doing things. Succeed in a given task, and you get rewarded. Fail, and you get punished. There’s no middle ground here. Anything less than completely fulfilling an objective is considered a failure, no matter the circumstances working against you.”
“But Choi was no criminal! He was always good to me. In a different time and place, we might have become very close. Why does he have to be punished?”
“It’s for the effect it has on everyone else,” Mrs. Park said. “His disappearance makes the other students more terrified of not achieving their own assigned objectives, especially when they too don’t know what happened to him.”
Later, it occurred to Hana that this might apply to her as well. What would happen if her students didn’t become proficient fast enough? So far, Colonel Lee and his superiors had been dangling carrots in front of her. But they had given Choi the stick.
* * *
Hana, however, was resigned to a seemingly endless cycle of routine daily activities: exercise, study, teach, sleep. Sundays, essentially unscheduled, were little more than signposts indicating that another week had come to an end. At school, the principal made no further attempts to integrate her into society, but fortunately, her students continued to make satisfactory progress. Then a surprise. Mrs. Park told Hana to request a two-day pass so they could travel together to Kanggye, the village of her birth. The two of them would travel the 230 km north from Anju on the national railway. Mrs. Park had already obtained a travel pass for herself.
Hana was skeptical that the authorities would grant her a travel pass after she had rebuffed Choi, but within a week she was proven wrong. And as soon as the pass was issued, Hana and Mrs. Park started to get ready for the trip. They purchased rail tickets to Kanggye and packed clothes for the trip. Mrs. Park began preparing what Hana felt was a rather large amount of food for such a brief excursion.
On the evening before their departure, Hana was told to go to bed early. Since they weren’t going to board the train until midmorning the following day, this seemed like an unnecessary precaution. Nevertheless, Hana complied, confident that Mrs. Park knew much more about the vicissitudes of travel in a country where vacations and tourism were considered to be low priorities for all but the elite.
But after only a few hours of sleep, Mrs. Park woke her up. “Hana, get your things. We’re leaving right now.”
* * *
By the time the sun peeked above the horizon, the small dinghy they stole from the bank of the Taeryong River had taken them well along their southern course to the Yellow Sea, the early morning hours and the narrow clearance under the bridges providing the solitude they needed. Only one other small craft had been momentarily visible through the fog. Although they could have increased their speed down the river by using the dinghy’s oars, Mrs. Park told Hana to save her strength. She would need it soon enough.
The next leg of their journey, a northward sea passage hugging the western coast of North Korea, put raw bleeding blisters on their palms as they rowed hour after hour. By evening, they had consumed half of the water and a third of the food they had loaded into the dinghy. Both women were exhausted, but they had covered only a fraction of the distance to their destination, the Chinese city of Dandong. On hearing how much further they would have to travel, Hana was on the brink of tears.
“I can’t do this!” Hana said. “And no matter how tough you are, you can’t either. When we get up tomorrow, our arms are going to be so sore we won’t be able to lift them. And what are we so supposed to eat and drink when our supplies run out?”
“Hana, we’re done with rowing for the rest of the trip. We’re going ashore tonight, and tomorrow we’ll start walking. It will take almost a week to reach the border, but I have enough money to buy supplies and pay for some type of overnight shelter. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s doable. We are going to make it!”
* * *
Navigation through the second and considerably longer leg of their journey was accomplished in the same manner used for the sea passage. They again hugged the upper portion of the peninsula’s western coast along the Yellow Sea, this time on land. Many times during the arduous trek, Hana flogged herself for not having listened to her family. What I could have spared myself! she thought over and over. I almost deserve this for being so stupid. But true to her word, Mrs. Park provided. Most of the time, they had enough to eat, enough to drink, and in the evening, some form of roof over their heads.
Although they constantly looked over their shoulders, the most frightening part of the journey for both women had nothing to do with human pursuers. As they were making their way through the forests of Cholsan on day three, Mrs. Park abruptly halted at one end of a small clearing, moving her forearms away from her sides with her palms facing back. Hana froze in place and waited silently. Moments later, she heard the deep grunts and snorts of a large animal; then several others followed suit. Whatever type of beasts were approaching, Hana judged that a confrontation was imminent and would ensue at close quarters.
Suddenly, the first member of a pack of wild boar, a well-tusked male with over three times the bulk of either woman, entered the opposite side of the clearing. It was less than twenty meters away. Before it had a chance to lower its head and charge, Mrs. Park turned to Hana and screamed, “Run!”
The two women sprinted back along the trail for hundreds of meters before they were forced to slow, their lungs and throats on fire. They were gasping so hard that they wouldn’t have heard the boar had it given pursuit. But as the seconds became a minute, and then two minutes, it appeared that the beast had not given chase. Fortunately, Mrs. Park was able to find an alternate route west, closer to the shore. They would be more visible without the forest for cover but felt that the new route was their best bet.
And in the dead of night six days after leaving Anju, their supplies, money and stamina depleted, they crept across the border into Dandong, China.
* * *
Akio Tanaka, journalist for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, looked up from his notepad and asked, “Then what happened?”
“We turned ourselves over to the police. In Dandong, China. They put us in a jail cell. The next morning, we were separated, interrogated for nearly two hours, and then put back in the cell,” Hana said.
“You and Mrs. Park.”
“Correct. I asked her what the Chinese would do with us. All she would tell me was that I had a good chance of being sent home to Japan. Of course, I was worried what would happen to her. It wasn’t long before we found out. With China and North Korea closely allied, the authorities in Dandong apparently contacted their counterparts in Pyongyang. The next morning, Colonel Lee showed up with two soldiers.”
“Mrs. Park’s uncle.”
“Right. They took her away, and I never saw her again. We barely got to say goodbye.” Hana paused until Tanaka stopped writing in his notebook. “The day after that, I was put on a ship carrying freight to several Japanese ports, including Osaka. When the ship arrived here, I was handed over to people from our State Department.”
“And you were questioned.”
“Yes. At length. Then a medical exam. I finally got to see my parents and brother late that night. A few days later, I was questioned again by two officers from the Tokyo headquarters of the Public Security Intelligence Agency. They wanted to know every single detail from the time of my first contact with Mr. Hwang.”
“That must have taken a while,” Tanaka said.
“Almost two days.”
“Were they able to tell you anything about what happened to Mrs. Park?”
“No, and they weren’t very optimistic. The Japanese intelligence officers who questioned me thought that Mrs. Park would probably spend the rest of her life in a North Korean labor camp, assuming she was lucky enough to escape a firing squad. But when I reminded them that Colonel Lee was her uncle, they acknowledged that he might have been able to soften whatever sentence she was given.”
“And did you enquire about Choi?”
“I did. They said there was no way to get any information about him, so I let the matter drop. I still think about him.”
Tanaka wrote for a while, then looked up and said, “Miss Yamato, it must be painful to go over the events of this odyssey of yours, but I need to ask you something about Mrs. Park. Did she believe that your six-day journey from Anju would lead to freedom not just for you, but for her as well?” He saw the pained look cross Hana’s face and almost wished he could take the question back. But his readers would want to know. Had Mrs. Park known all along that she would never be allowed to go free? Had her sole intent been to return Hana Yamato to her home, regardless the consequences to herself?
Finally, Hana found her voice, and her answer was brief. “I don’t know. I simply don’t know. All that I can tell you is that I think about her every day.”
Tanaka sighed softly. “I understand,” he said. “This is a most amazing story, and regardless of her intentions, she was a most amazing woman.”
He closed his notebook and began to rise when a final question crossed his mind. “You’ve been back in Japan for over four years now, and this is the first time you’ve granted an interview to any journalist. Why have you been silent for so long? And why break your silence now?”
“When the Japanese intelligence officers finished questioning me, they understood how close I had become to Mrs. Park. They told me that if Colonel Lee were to have any success in helping his niece, it would be better if I remained silent. I could understand why, so I refused to be interviewed by anyone. But last week, an official in the state department called me and said that they had received a small package from the Chongryan. Do you know who they are?”
“Yes, they’re the closest thing the North Koreans have to an embassy here in Japan. Was the package for you?”
“Yes, let me show it to you.” Hana rose and went into her kitchen. She returned moments later carrying a small wooden box. She lifted the edge of the cloth which enveloped the box’s contents. Inside were several light brown tempura maple leaves, just like the ones she and Mrs. Park had made for her students.
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. When not writing, he enjoys designing and flying radio controlled airplanes. His writing has been accepted by Crimson Streets, Pseudopod, Mystery Weekly, Disturbed Digest, Flash Fiction Press, Scarlet Leaf Review, Heater, Agents and Spies (a Flametree anthology), Bards and Sages, Bewildering Stories, Bride of Chaos/9 Tales series, All World’s Wayfarer, and Litmag (University of Missouri).
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Land of the Morning Calm”:
Most of the stories we publish are about people from English-speaking countries simply because those are mostly what we receive, but we love to diversify our offerings. Joseph Cusumano’s chilling tale was perfect in that regard. He takes Hana Yamato and the reader into an unfriendly culture and situation that few of us would ever come in contact with—or want to—and he delivers an excellent and satisfying tale.