Volume 31, Number 3

The Imjin River

Elizabeth Starer

He was starving. Ryu Hyeon was so accustomed to the sensation of an empty stomach that he barely noticed anymore. For five years he served in the Korean People’s Army and never in those five years had his stomach been full. After the first several weeks of his service, Hyeon learned that the best way to manage his hunger was to eat his two-potato ration before his training each morning. Although this method left him hungry for the remainder of the day, it was preferable to risking one of the other soldiers stealing his potatoes as he occasionally saw happen to those who had saved their potatoes for the end of the day.

Once he finished high school, Hyeon was certain that he would serve in a special unit inside of the great city of Pyongyang. He had worked hard and did his best in order to get into the city of the elite, but that was not the path destiny led him down. Days before his graduation, his older brother, Jeong, was caught trying to escape across the Imjin River. Ryu Jeong was only three years into his service. On the few home-leaves when Hyeon had seen his brother, he was in a terrible, weakened state. Every night his brother was home, Hyeon was tortured by the sounds of Jeong’s crying late into the night when he believed everyone else to be asleep. Hyeon knew his brother was in a pitiful state, but he was still alive, unlike many others who died from hunger and overwork. He had never expected what his brother did next.

Ryu Jeong was stationed just three miles away from the Imjin River. Four days before Hyeon graduated, he tried to defect. Jeong never made it to the river. From the rumors Hyeon had heard, his brother was only two hundred feet from the river before he was shot in the leg by his superior officer. Once the officer reached Jeong, still crawling desperately to the river, he executed Jeong on the spot.

Even though he was close to his brother when they were children, Hyeon now only felt anger and shame at the thought of him. Hyeon was so close to having a better life as a part of a special unit in Pyongyang, but his brother had destroyed all chances of that life. By trying to defect, Ryu Jeong had put his parents, Hyeon, and Hyeon’s future children at risk of being imprisoned. The imminent threat of imprisonment hung over Ryu Hyeon’s head for weeks after his brother’s death. However, the worst action to be taken from Jeong’s treachery was Hyeon’s placement in a low-level unit far from Pyongyang. Hyeon was grateful to the higher-ranking military officials and the Great Kim Jong Un for allowing him to serve under the harshest of conditions rather than face the prison work camps.

Recently, what Ryu Hyeon had seen before as simply harsh began to worsen. The work and training the soldiers were doing became unbearable. He had overheard part of a conversation some of his superiors were having after the soldiers were being pushed harder and harder. From this conversation Hyeon learned the Great Kim Jong Un was publicly insulted by being called a “tiny rocket man,” and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was now preparing for a possible nuclear war.

Ryu Hyeon was angered that anyone would be so rude to their brave and loving leader. Yet his anger was overshadowed by an intense fear. Hyeon had never fully considered the possibility that he would have to fight in a war. Since the moment he had been born into the world, Hyeon lived under the threat of war. Everyone in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea felt the continuous tension of a war always on the verge of erupting. Throughout school and at home, even in games he played as a child, Hyeon was being prepared for a war. Still he, like many of the other soldiers, believed that he would serve out his ten years of duty in his homeland before marrying and getting a job. He never realized that he could die fighting a war in a foreign land.

Hyeon had dreams for his future. In his future, he dreamed of having an average-looking wife who would never cause him any problems with the government. Although he wanted a wife, he never wanted children; the risk was too large, and they would have to suffer the same hunger he did, even if they would have the experience of the greatness that was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The threat of war made Ryu Hyeon fear for his future; he could die before fulfilling his dreams or, worse yet, he could be required to have children to become soldiers for the war.

There were other soldiers, Ryu Hyeon noticed, that seemed to be having the same thoughts when the work increased. In the barracks, he heard many soldiers crying like his brother had so long ago and, occasionally, a soldier was dragged back for imprisonment after an attempt to cross the nearby river. Not every attempt to defect was imprisoned, as Hyeon knew well. In a test of his loyalty, Ryu Hyeon was stationed a mile away from the Imjin River. The military officers, who allowed him to serve and not be imprisoned, placed him a mile away from the river his brother had sought and died by. Ryu Hyeon knew instinctively that this was to test his devotion to Kim Jong Un and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as well as serve to be a constant reminder that he was under close scrutiny.

Late in the afternoon, the officer in charge of Hyeon’s supervisor called him to follow. The officer lead Ryu Hyeon to a location right alongside the Imjin River where he saw a gagged and crying man tied to a post. Over the rushing of the river, Ryu Hyeon heard the officer say that the man had tried to defect down the river to South Korea. The man was to be executed, and Ryu Hyeon was to be the one to pull the trigger. This was, once again, a test of his loyalty. Although he took the gun from the officer’s hand and pointed it at the man, Hyeon could not help but picture his brother’s face over the man’s. However, Ryu Hyeon could show no emotion or he would be deemed a traitor, he forced his face to remain still.

Ryu Hyeon heard the man’s muffled cries and the echo of his brother’s own late-night sobs mix with the sound of the river. Staring into those tear-filled eyes, Hyeon remembered what he had been trying so hard to forget. He remembered his brother’s smiling, wind-stung face while they flew their bamboo kites in the winter wind when he was five. He remembered watching out a window as Jeong ran up to their family’s apartment and grinned impishly at Hyeon before presenting him with a birch top for Hyeon’s tenth birthday. He remembered proudly cheering for Jeong at his high school graduation. He remembered the weak, sorrowful smile his brother gave him the final time Jeong returned to service after home-leave. After staring into his brother’s eyes for what had felt like an eternity, he pulled the trigger.

Hyeon felt the gun’s recoil throughout his whole body and watched as the man went limp once the bullet broke a hole in the man’s forehead. He looked at the man and no longer saw his brother but recognized the man as a soldier he had heard sobbing three bunks away the night before. No longer able to stand looking at the man, Ryu Hyeon stared out at the river. The officer clapped him on the back while two other men removed the body, but Hyeon didn’t move.

He felt too hollow to return to his work but knew there was no choice. No one in his country had a real choice to make; all choices were made for them. Standing by that river where his brother had died, Ryu Hyeon finally understood his brother. There was no freedom in this democracy, no greatness in the leader who people tried to escape and had whole families imprisoned. There was no escape from this life of sorrow and fear. Even if he escaped physically he would still be emotionally trapped here, forever. With no true way out, Hyeon saw the answer his brother had missed. Tears starting to leak from his eyes, he raised the gun once more and pulled the trigger.