Crossing the Tumen River

A Happy Ending

This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim must crawl on her belly through a swamp of icy mud. The mud is viscous and sucking, calling her to join the grave of those who came to this place before her. There are bones: a femur here, shards of what may be skull there. Human or animal, she can’t tell about the skull shards. She finds a tooth, its enamel yellowed like an old corn kernel, embedded in the muck that squelches between her raw fingers. It reminds her of the teeth on the man – a soldier – who shattered her father’s body and mind, leaving him a vegetable to wither slowly away, spine broken not far above the tailbone. 

The skull shards are all from animals, she decides. Like that man. Like her. 

She coats herself from head to toe with the mud, for camouflage, but it begins to snow and a dusting of white powder now covers this patch of earth, this graveyard for those fleeing, whose bodies the border guards buried in the mire and left. The white is broken only by her passing, so that she leaves behind a brown slug trail, leading any observer’s eye directly to her, here in the open, an easy target. If an eye should fall upon her – an eye whose body holds a gun – she will die. She will be scattered teeth and two femurs. A rib cage. If she’s lucky her flesh will be eaten by crows and part of her will one day be carried aloft on summer breezes into the blue. 

Behind her are the mountains of her homeland, covered with that same dusting of new snow, making them bluish-white in the clear air, as though the sky is as much a part of them as the earth itself. They rise part of the way to heaven, and perhaps the highest summits do reach that realm. Her brother had always said that he would climb one someday, when he had more energy. 

She and her brother had always spoken of the future, as though the present were an interim stage, long but temporary, like the evening shadow of a tree stretched across a meadow. After their father died in the night, already a skeleton, drooling on the mat in the corner, their mother took to speaking mostly in the past tense. You would think, listening to her, that the past had been a time of great contentment – and maybe it had been before Ye-lim existed. Either way, the present was insubstantial for all of them. A shadow. 

Ye-lim’s brother won’t speak of the future anymore. He was killed that morning as they fled: a bullet to the back of the head and he was gone. He’d held the last coils of razor wire up for her as she slithered beneath them, his hands wrapped in pieces of cut-up trousers. They were spotted from a distance. Shots were fired. She managed to get through, and when she looked back he was already falling into the nest of wire his hands had held seconds before. She’s seen two public executions in her life, and recognised the obliteration of his forehead as the exit wound. She rolled down the hill, protecting her head with her arms, hoping to become a blur, rolling so fast that the sight of a rifle couldn’t be trained on her, and when she was able to gain her feet she ran, because he’d told her before they made their run for it that morning – and in the nights leading up to it, during which they’d clipped a path through those rows of razor wire at the end of the valley – to make sure she got away no matter what, to live, and that he would do the same. No matter what. 


This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim must cross the Tumen River. China is on the other side: freedom and safety, if the stories are to be believed – stories so potent, so poisonous, that being caught spreading them means the disappearance of entire families. If you aren’t disappeared, you’re beaten within an inch of your life, like Father, and if you’re not beaten, you’re killed. Usually it’s by gunshot. They make the village watch. As an example. 

Ye-lim and her brother didn’t tell anyone when their mother died. She died weeping, and the last thing she said was that it was happy weeping, because she was on her way to see Father. In the night, during her fever, she’d met him at Arirang Pass in a dream, and he’d told her that they’d be together very soon. Her body grew cold after she expired, colder than it seemed it should be, as if it were turning to ice, but her brother told her it was just the same temperature as the air, which living things never feel as it really is. They buried her in the middle of the night, in the soil of their floor, after peeling back the thick rugs. They used a pickaxe to break up the dry, hard-packed dirt before switching to shovels. If the authorities found out she’d died, there was no telling what they might do to them; it was said parentless children ran a greater risk of fleeing for the border. 

Wherever her brother’s body is, it’s the same temperature as the air now, thinks Ye-lim. The water of the river is surely even colder, yet she must cross. This is what her brother wanted her to do. She looks behind her to make sure there are no border guards, and no one in general who might seek a reward for reporting an imminent escape. Instead of seeing people, her gaze falls on the mountains, the trees that blanket them leafless now, like thick dark whiskers, but which are vibrant green in the summer, and ablaze with oranges, reds and yellows in the autumn. The mountains are home, but if they could speak they would tell her to go; they are older than time, and their crowns bear witness to heaven. 

She splashes into the Tumen, black water pulling at her frail body. She is thin as a blade of grass, without insulation, muscle all burned up by her heart, her lungs, her brain. She’s eaten a handful of rice in two days, and chewed on dead straw in a field. She’s starving to death, but if she can make it there might be food, and people who will part with it for her. 

The river is fifty metres across here. It comes up to her thighs. Her head grows light and she worries she might faint. If she faints, it’s over: her body will be found on the river bank, and it won’t matter then which country it’s in. With the lightness in her head comes an unexpected surge of sharpened vision, and the mountains of China pop out at her. They aren’t so different from the ones behind. They reach for heaven. They are an expression of the earth’s longing for the sky, to meld with the world where birds soar. 

The riverbed goes out from under her. She paddles furiously, now swims. The heat is whisked from her body like wind blowing out the flame of a kerosene lamp. She thrusts her limbs against the swirling water. I’m stronger than you, she thinks, and as her feet brush against pebbles again, gaining purchase, carrying her on beyond the halfway point of the river, she chokes the words out against the water’s babble: I’m stronger than you. 


This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim must learn that China does not mean freedom and safety. When she wanders into town, hypothermic, hair frozen against her scalp, she’s taken by an old woman with sad, sympathetic eyes to a man who only calls himself Lee. Ye-lim sees Lee push some crumpled notes into the old woman’s hand, and she nods and leaves his room without casting another look at the girl on the floor, bathed in the amber light of an electric heat lamp, shivering uncontrollably. Even through her exhaustion, and the agonising cold in her feet, so complete that she feels they may never thaw in the centre, she notes that the old woman looks ashamed as she hobbles quickly out the door. 

Lee feeds her for days. Hot soup. Rice. Crackers. Bits of pork and sweet potato. He brings her warm clothes. He tells her in Korean that he can protect her, that she needs him, because if the police were to discover her she’d be sent back to North Korea, and he’d be fined, even imprisoned, for harbouring an illegal economic migrant. Lee’s taking a big risk for her, he says, and she doesn’t even have any money to pay him with, does she? 

But that’s OK, says Lee, because she can compensate him in a different way, if she’d like to avoid discovery in this gossipy town, where no one is quite so nice and hospitable as him. 

If Ye-lim is sent back to North Korea, she’ll be executed. If not executed, she’ll go to one of the camps that people are disappeared to. She’s heard stories since she was only small, that the camps can be worse than death itself. 

When her health has improved a little, Lee exacts his payment. That’s the first time Ye-lim is raped. She shrieks at a burst of pain when he pushes himself into her, and he slaps a pudgy hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. The skin of his fingers is winter-dry, the palm coarse. There is an oily feeling where he’s entered her, and the smell of blood is in the frosty air, but Lee doesn’t stop, his face frightening in its excitement, in its wrinkled grimaces of what might be pleasure, and in the warning it flashes not to oppose what has begun. When he’s finished he grunts and rolls off her, and points to the washroom with the shower. Inside, there’s a button to press on a plastic box that makes the water warm. 

Clean yourself up, he tells her, frowning at the dark red spot on the blanket. 

One morning Ye-lim awakens to voices. There is a man at the front door in a uniform that looks a bit like a North Korean soldier’s, but different. By his swagger and tone as he speaks to Lee, it’s clear he’s an authority figure, and she guesses that he is police. As Lee speaks, he steps back to open up the officer’s view into the room, and the latter peers at Ye-lim with stony and inscrutable eyes. Fear settles on her like frost on a windowpane: there’s no telling what this man is capable of. To her relief, he looks back at Lee, nods, and leaves without another word. Lee closes the door but doesn’t speak to Ye-lim for the rest of the day, except to grunt at her to eat when he brings her a plate of rice and vegetable soup. 

In the evening the officer comes back, hardly recognisable. He no longer has his uniform on, and looks smaller, skinnier, his face pinched and rat-like. Lee turns to Ye-lim, the frowning lines of his expression elongated by the bare low-wattage bulb above, and tells her to be good and do what she’s told. Then he leaves through the same door the officer just entered. That night is the second time Ye-lim is raped, and through it all, and afterward, she feels not only less than human, but less than an animal. She is mere animated matter, muck from the swamp she crawled through gathered into the form of a girl. She is filled up with filth, composed of it. Her eyes are holes. She wonders if her memories from before the mud, of her escape and all the years of her life preceding it, are even real. 

Afterward, as she holds herself on the floor of the shower, too tired and sickened even to weep, she thinks of her brother holding up the razor wire. It was all real. She is real. He was real. If her brother were here now he’d kill Lee and the officer for what they’ve done, or else die trying. But he’s not: he’s already dead, his skull obliterated by a bullet. Her stomach heaves at the recollection, and she vomits bile and bits of rice onto her own legs, then directs the stream of hot water over it, watching the yellowish matter circle the drain and disappear into its hair-choked black maw. She finds her feet, steam rising from her dripping body in this air that never warms. 

Her brother had told her to live, no matter what – and if their fates had been reversed, if it were she who had been shot instead, he would have done the same. That was their agreement. 

The front door is opened in the next room. Ye-lim hears the clumping sound of Lee stamping the snow off his boots. 

I’m stronger than you, thinks Ye-lim, directing her thoughts toward him, mouthing the words with trembling lips. And then, no longer concerned with whether he hears her, she says it out loud: I’m stronger than you. 


This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim must beg Lee to help her leave the border town. She wants to get to South Korea. She believes in her heart that it’s where she’s meant to go. She’s seen the pamphlets and other documents that are said to have come from giant balloons floated to the North from the South. She’s seen the pictures of shining cities and skyscrapers, the gluttonous abundance of food, the photos of fleshy smiling faces, aglow with good health; she’s read the South Korean constitution and understood much of it. To be caught in possession of these materials is, of course, a crime in the North. If not burned outright by cover of night, after they’ve been read, such documents are hidden away in the most secret crannies of homes, even buried or tucked deep into the hollows of trees, kept as sacred treasures in the underground religion of Hope. 

As Ye-lim begs, Lee slaps her across the face so hard that it loosens one of her teeth – a weak one that was starting to rot. After that he ignores her for the rest of the evening, but the next morning he comes to her and says that he’s thought about her request, and yes, it’s time for her to go. He will take her to the bus station and put her on a bus to the city, where he’s arranged for a refugee care team to take her in. 

That night, and again just before dawn, Lee uses her flesh to exact his final payments, in the same manner as before. He takes her to the station early, without breakfast, and puts her on the first bus out, pushing a small bag of rice crackers into her hand. Unlike the other passengers, she has no belongings with her, nothing. It will be a long ride, Lee tells her, and then the bus is pulling out of the station, onto the cracked pavement of a two-way road, and she is gone from him. 

She can’t read Chinese characters, and the text on the back of the seat in front of her is indecipherable. She can speak to no one. She tries to make herself small in the seat, curling up to be out of sight of the driver’s suspicious eyes in the rear-view mirror, and watches the landscape of forests and dormant rice paddies speed past the window. Brown mountains observe the bus from a distance, the heads of the highest adorned with platinum clouds that seem frozen in place. Go on, they whisper to her, their voices soft in her head. They know nothing of the religion of Hope, but they have gazed into their own heavens, and bid her reach her own. 

The bus ride lasts for many hours, and evening is approaching when it enters a city far larger than any Ye-lim has ever seen. At the terminal where she’s told by the driver to get off the bus, there is no one to meet her. She waits patiently near the place where she disembarked, hands folded in front of her, wondering if Lee’s contacts will recognise the thin Korean girl in the oversized jacket and pants. The sky gets darker and electric lights buzz to life. Still no one comes, and Ye-lim understands she’s been lied to. She sleeps in a locked toilet stall that night, huddled in the corner, in a washroom that has no door. It’s too cold for her to fall asleep, so she hovers in a place between unconsciousness and lucidity, rubbing her arms and legs and blowing on her fingers. 

She survives for a few days by drinking out of the cleanest looking puddles she can find. When the puddles are frozen, she breaks off chunks of ice and places them in a discarded tin she found, then slowly melts them in the exhalations of a hot air vent next to a building made of glass. 

Except for half a dumpling she found dropped on the sidewalk, she doesn’t eat for those three days. The tooth loosened by Lee falls out as she fiddles at it with her starving tongue. The top of it, above the root, is a shrivelled yellow corn kernel, like the one that squelched between her fingers in the grave-mud. She wonders if the rest of her teeth are still white, or if she’s becoming rotted through and through. 

On a bleak mid-morning, as she searches desperately for food, shivering violently in a well-swept, affluent-looking square, a young Chinese man passing by her stops and calls out, Annyeong. Though it’s only a greeting in Korean, he gives it the upper inflection of a question. Ye-lim turns to him, says annyeong back, and at the young man’s handsome and gentle smile she feels tears prick her eyes. 

From the South or the North? he asks slowly, in choppy, accented Korean, studying her emaciated frame and bedraggled outerwear. 

The North, she answers, and becomes instantly terrified that this man’s demeanour is all a fraud, that’s he’s an undercover authority of some sort, tracking down defectors from the DPRK. But the man’s smile doesn’t change, and he seems to sense her panic. 

Come with me, he tells her. 

She is led down many streets, which grow increasingly uneven and winding, dingier, where dogs with sad eyes roam aimlessly about, sniffing at tangled piles of refuse. 

It’s far, says the man, walking in front with his back to her. So we can be away from the government’s eyes. 

Ye-lim guesses that means away from officers, like the man who came to Lee’s house in the border town. 

They come to a dark flight of stairs, leading down, in a narrow alley where high walls mire them in artificial dusk. At the bottom is a clean basement room with space heaters that thaw the air. There Ye-lim meets several others, one of whom is an ethnic Korean woman, middle-aged, from the DPRK; she was brought to China by her mother, she tells Ye-lim, when she was no more than six, but maintained a conversational ability in Korean all her life. She explains how she was granted refugee status as a child, but that times have changed, and the authorities will deport Ye-lim back to North Korea if she is caught. 

Ye-lim tells her she wants to go to South Korea, at which the Korean woman draws air through her teeth with a hiss. 

We know how to get you there, says a man seated nearby, glancing at his phone screen when it makes a sound. You have to go through Laos into Thailand. From Thailand you can be deported to South Korea. 

Ye-lim tells them she has nothing. Her brother had been carrying the money for both of them when he’d been shot: a fistful of paper notes folded into the front pocket of his trousers. 

It grows very quiet in the room. Eyes become distant, or fall to the floor. 

You will have to sell something, says the young man who brought her here, not looking at her, his face robbed of its handsomeness by a disquieting solemnity. 

What is it? Ye-lim begins to ask – but the answer is already dawning on her. She sees it in the Korean woman’s haunted gaze. There are decades of suffering floating inside it, like clouds of sediment in dirty water, only truly visible in this moment. 

I’m sorry, the woman tells her. The journey is expensive, and you have nothing else. 


This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim will be prostituted for a month. The secret aid organisation, with its subterranean base of operations, makes the arrangements. Any of them, they tell Ye-lim, will be arrested on the spot for complicity in helping North Korean defectors, should they be caught. 

They station Ye-lim for sixteen hours a day in a nondescript apartment with several Chinese girls. Each room has a bed with sheets that are changed twice a week. There are dark plastic bags over the windows and the dusty curtains are drawn tight as well, so the only light in the rooms comes from dim lamps with red and orange shades. Specific features are not clear in the apartment, and as a rule none of the girls speak with the clients, so at any hour the place is filled only with the mumbles of men as they undress, their grunts, the quivering of mattresses, and low, passionless gasps. It is a place of anonymity. Here the girls are simply bodies, complicit, undesirable save for their sexual function. No one comes there to ask questions and no one, Ye-lim is assured, will identify her origins. 

She is fed three times a day, hardly tasting the food, but no longer feeling hunger so great that it aches. For a while the sensation of being satiated is alien to her. She has felt physical fullness in her stomach, but never satisfied in this way, her belly warm inside, as if it’s filled with soft, smouldering coals that radiate warmth through her limbs. 

The empty socket in her jaw begins to throb. When the side of her face swells, and the throbs reach a crescendo of agonising hammer blows that prevent her from sleeping, someone from the Organisation brings her pills, and after some days the swelling goes down and the pain fades. The men who came to have their way with her never noticed the swelling, nor sensed her hurt. For them her face was a shadow realm, swaying silent beyond the reach of their attention, like tree branches in the night. 

She doesn’t know how much clients are charged at the nebulous apartment, but after four weeks she is brought back to the basement operations room of the Organisation, where they inform her that she’s made enough for the journey, including the costs of a fellow traveller as far as Laos. The Korean woman, who goes by the Chinese name Ming, will be the one to accompany her on the long journey. 

They travel only by bus, gradually working their way south, keeping to themselves as much as possible. Ming asks Ye-lim why she stares out the window for hours at a time, when there’s nothing to see but mountains, but Ye-lim only shrugs. She tries to sleep, but when she does her mind becomes disoriented, believing she’s back in the city, about to wake up for another shift of mute men thrusting themselves into her, lubricated with cold gel from a plastic tube. 

Several days into the journey she is struck by a mysterious bout of nausea, accompanied by vomiting. The first time she vomits is on the bus, onto the floor, and the driver yells something at her when he sees it at a rest stop. She and Ming clean it up with toilet paper. Ye-lim thinks it might be food poisoning, but the sickness persists and Ming suspects otherwise; Ming buys a stick for her to urinate on and Ye-lim learns that she’s pregnant. 

All the men at the apartment had to use protection, Ming says. Did one of them not? 

Ye-lim doesn’t think so. She knows in the pit of her stomach that it was one of her rapists in the border town, either Lee or the officer. They filled her up with filth. 

You’ll need an abortion, says Ming, but there’s no way we can afford it now. You only made enough money to get to Thailand. 

I don’t need an abortion, Ye-lim tells her. 

You’re in no position to have a child, argues Ming. 

I can do it. I won’t kill what’s inside me. 

Ye-lim has had enough of death, both outside and within. The life inside her, she tells herself, if it persists in growing, will be beautiful and good. It will not be its father. 

They cross into Laos together, in the back of a moving van driven by local members of the wider Organisation. They have agreements worked out with certain border guards, some of which require portions of the cash that Ming has carried for she and Ye-lim, in order for those agreements to be honoured. 

The cargo area they are seated in is stiflingly hot. When the doors of the truck are opened, stinging Ye-lim’s eyes with brilliant tropical sunlight, she is in Laos. Greenery abounds outside, and a dark-skinned man in jeans and a torn T-shirt bearing indecipherable words in English lettering ushers her and Ming out. 

This is where we part, says Ming, and presses four banknotes into Ye-lim’s hand. This is Thai money. Into your pocket now, hurry. Everything for Laos is taken care of. You go with these men now. I have to go back the way we came. 

Unexpectedly, the stoic Ming embraces Ye-lim in a hug, and Ye-lim is momentarily confused, keeping her arms protectively against her sides. When Ming pulls back her eyes are watering with tears. 

Good luck to you, Ye-lim. We won’t meet again, and you must never tell anyone about us, or how you reached Thailand. Lie if you have to, make up a story, but do not speak about us. 

OK, says Ye-lim. 

Go. May you reach Korea and find your freedom. 

OK, says Ye-lim again, overwhelmed, and it is only later, as she sits in the dark compartment of another windowless van, creeping through the back roads of the humid Lao countryside, that she begins to cry. She nurses a bottle of drinking water, given to her as the men closed her up alone in the steel box. 

Much later the van stops, the engine continuing to idle, and gruff voices come to her, muted by the sides of the van, and speaking in the singsong tongue of this simmering land. There are a series of bangs along the wall at her back, and she clutches tight the water bottle, now nearly empty, watching shadows flicker across the crack of light between the double doors that stand between her and the blue sky, her and discovery, perhaps even between her and life itself. Then the van starts to move again and, though she doesn’t know it at the time, that is when they cross over the Mekong, into the Kingdom of Thailand. 

Once turned over to the authorities, Ye-lim is taken to Bangkok by military escort, where she is registered as a defector. She has no documents to identify her. On her first day in Bangkok there is no one available who can speak Korean, and she knows no other languages. She can communicate only through gestures and expressions. In humiliation, she must point at her crotch the first time she needs to use the toilet. 

When a Thai woman who is fluent in Korean is brought in, Ye-lim provides her name, age and birthday. She describes where she crossed into China, but refuses to detail how she arrived in Thailand, except to say that she received help. The interviewer appears to understand, as though she’s encountered this response before. She asks if there’s anything else Ye-lim wants to declare. Ye-lim nods, placing a hand unconsciously on her stomach, and tells the woman that she is pregnant. 

The Thais smile a lot, sometimes even at unpleasant things, it seems. She tries to smile back at them, but her face refuses to obey, and it twists at the core of her heart to force it, because the last time she can remember smiling was at home with her family, secure in their togetherness, days before the soldier with corn kernel teeth, having stamped on her wailing father’s back, kicked his head to extinguish the last flames of happiness that were guttering doggedly inside it. 

The soldier had heard that Ye-lim’s father was in possession of enemy propaganda, but afterward neither he nor his men ever found the pamphlets, sealed in plastic bags and carefully lodged in a pile of rocks at the edge of the potato field. After her father died, Ye-lim cut into the inner lining of his winter coat and slipped the pamphlets, one by one, through the slit. They buried him in it. 


She is placed in the female dormitory of a holding centre on the outskirts of Bangkok, where she awaits deportation to South Korea. South Korea will accept her as a citizen on the basis that she is a Korean person, regardless of which side of the demarcation line she is from. She learned this from the pamphlets that floated to them on giant balloons, those scriptures of the religion of Hope, which her father coveted and read to her by candlelight. 

No one seems to know how long she will have to stay at the centre. She shares a room with women and girls from many different places. A few are scarred by burns and slashes on parts of their body. Some wear veils over their hair and pray several times a day, touching their heads to the floor. Most of them speak some English, which they use as a common tongue, but Ye-lim cannot participate in conversation. In the absence of words, the others smile to show their kindness, and she at last forces herself to smile back, until the hands of the dead, reaching up from the past, ease their wrenching on that tender cord that runs through the centre of her soul. She realises, then, that those hands belong only to herself, and that her family, who did not make it this far, would have wanted her to be happy. Perhaps they still do, she thinks, watching over her from a place no one can detect. 

When Ye-lim goes outside she cannot see any mountains. This is a flat, gentle land, and the only bridges to the sky are the towers of the colossal city, etched into the sultry haze of the immediate horizon. 

As months go by, the centre’s residents are taken away and replaced by new ones, but Ye-lim’s time to move on does not come. She is small, but her belly grows large, stretching the skin until it looks waxy, and she sees concern flash across the faces of the centre staff from time to time. She is taken to a hospital for an ultrasound and learns that the baby is a boy. 

The child starts to move in her womb, as though to affirm its existence – its will to come forth into the world – and Ye-lim begins to fear what will happen when it’s time. In her life she’s witnessed several deaths due to childbirth, of both women and babies. She’s seen cloth bundles that contain the blue corpses of stillbirths, especially from pregnancies that came to term in winter, or during the hungriest times, when flood or drought had destroyed the crops. She’s seen the results of an emergency caesarean section, performed by earnest but amateur hands, that became infected; the baby, arriving prematurely, did not survive the delivery, and its would-be mother died three weeks later, crying out in agony from her house, with rumours in the air that her midsection had swelled once again, and a foul fluid was leaking through the stitched-up flesh. 

One day the centre’s staff inform her that she’s been approved for transport to South Korea, and just in time. Your son can be born in Korea, they enthuse through a translator, and their smiles shine. She is given hugs as she departs, and boards an airplane for the first time in her life, which, upon its thunderous lift-off, is unnerving and exhilarating at the same time. Her seat is beside the window; as the world drops away below her and they pass into the kingdom of the clouds, she stares in awe, unblinking, until her eyes itch in the dry air. It’s the most beautiful sight she’s ever seen. The man sitting next to her frowns when he notices tears running down her face. 

In South Korea she has no time to rejoice, subjected to relentless interrogation by agents of the National Intelligence Service. They want to know if she has any connections to the North Korean regime, where she grew up, how and when she escaped, who was with her, who impregnated her, how she reached Thailand. Under threat of imprisonment, she answers all their questions, pleading with them, to their initial confusion, not to hurt Ming or the others in China. They barrage her with questions about developments within the DPRK that she has no clue about – discussing actions by the government that come as revelations to her, and shocking her sensibilities with their irreverence when mentioning the Supreme Leader. 

After a week of interrogation, she is moved to a resettlement centre, where she will learn to adjust to life in South Korea. Here she begins her training in the basics needed to navigate the modern world, whose complexity and freedoms she has yet to fully comprehend. She is learning about using bank accounts when her water breaks. 

She is rushed to a hospital, into a delivery room of radiant whiteness. Her contractions grow in strength. She loses track of time as the nurses try to talk her through the birthing process. Compared to the nurses, well-nourished all their lives in a land of plenty, she feels tiny, half-formed, ancient despite her youth. Her belly bulges before her. The baby is kicking. It needs to come out, to breath the air of this world, where Ye-lim will do anything to ensure that it never knows the deprivations she has. 

She begins to push when she is told to, though her body already knows what to do. 

Push, the nurses say. Breathe. 

The pain grows, becomes blinding in waves as the child is forced toward the world. There is no one to hold Ye-lim’s hand, so she grips the steel railing that runs along the side of the bed. 

Breathe, they tell her. Push. Breathe.  

She is burning, from her breasts to her thighs. Fire rips through her insides, incinerating without killing, torching her with each strained inhalation. She is breaking apart. 

Push. Breathe. Push. 

The doctor has gleaming scissors in his hand. She’s not large enough. The baby cannot get out. He cuts at her vagina. There is a smell of blood in the room. There is the stench of shit. The faces of the nurses and doctor become indistinct and all Ye-lim can see is her belly, in hyper-clarity: this home that created a human being, this home that is being left behind as she burns up with hellfire. 

They are leaning over her, telling her to stay calm. Telling her she must listen, because she’s panicking. Listen, they say. Listen! It’s going to be all right. 

Does that mean it’s all going wrong? She can’t see what they can. Is she losing the baby? Is her child dying right now, to be thrust into existence as another blue corpse? 

No, she whimpers. 

Breathe out! In again! 

A great cloud of ash billows up behind her eyes, stinging her with volcanic acridity, shrouding some horrendous darkness that has tried to destroy her, grinding its fateful gears against her every day of her life. 

It has never been able to overcome her, that darkness. It has not won. 

I’m stronger than you, she tells it. She draws another breath and speaks the words again: I’m stronger than you. 

She pushes with every bit of strength she has. Stars spark to life against the ash cloud. She screams and hears it as one hears a scream from underwater. She breathes, pushes, ripping open the hidden seams of her flesh. 

I’m stronger than you, she cries. I watched my father die, I watched my mother die, I watched my brother die, I cut through the razor wire, I became an animal, I crawled on my belly through mud and bones, I crossed the Tumen, I was raped, I was filled up with filth, I starved, I became a whore, I became tree branches in the night, I crossed China, I was the ghost in a steel box – and you will not destroy me. 

The black rushes forth from the ash, eating the room, the yin of yin and yang, and she is the spot of brightness within it, ever pushing it back, fighting to maintain this new child’s place, if not her own, amidst the eternal duality of existence. She will invert this gross proportion of death to life, of despair to Hope. She will raise this child in the light of freedom. 

Ye-lim squeezes the railings, her face filling with blood as she strains. They can see the baby, the nurses tell her. You must push, keep pushing! And all present in the room think this frail North Korean girl, mumbling aloud about mud and rape and China, with her wet eyes fixed on some distant place beyond the ceiling, has gone completely mad. 

Push! Push! 

She pushes as hard as she can. There is sudden release. 

The sound of a baby’s wail pierces the thudding in her ears. 

The darkness recedes. 


This story has a happy ending, thinks Ye-lim, if one believes hope and happiness are intertwined. It’s happy if one believes that human beings are meant to forge a better existence for their children than the one they had. 

She names her son Seung-gi, after her brother. She doesn’t see either of her rapists in his face, and when those men appear in her dreams they never have any real features to speak of: they are like clouds of smoke, ever changing but never distinct. Seung-gi’s face is simply that of a child, with her eyes. 

She raises him with all the love she can. She tries not to spoil him. In time, she acquires a secondary school education and finds work, and makes enough money to take care of them both, living in a small city a few hours south of Seoul. She has no close friends. Her North Korean accent is hard to lose, and some are wary of her when they hear it, despite that her face is honest, and her smile, when it appears, is genuine. 

Seung-gi is a perceptive child. He knows there’s something different about his mother, and perhaps about himself as well. After he starts school, Ye-lim hears that other students may be telling him things about his mother’s origins. Word gets around. Parents gossip, sometimes in earshot of their children. 


One day Ye-lim hears of a mountain called Sobaeksan, located a short trip from her city, which has a well-maintained trail to the top of it. Apparently, the view from the top is wonderful. At seven years old, Seung-gi is old enough to hike it with her. On a hot Saturday in July, she hires a taxi to take them on a drive through the countryside to the start of the trail. The walk up is long, and Seung-gi complains of the heat, and that his legs are tired, and that he’s hungry and thirsty, and while Ye-lim scolds him for his whining, she is content, because he has such trivial things to complain about. 

As they climb beyond the trees, the land opens up all around them. At the summit Ye-lim turns and turns, gazing at the green panorama, the world resplendent under a soft blue sky. Mountains beyond mountains stretch to the horizon as far as the eye can see, and here, on this gentle crown, they stand above them all. Even Seung-gi falls silent for a time, taking in the view. 

The breeze caresses them, cooler at this altitude, carrying a summer smell rich with greenery and wildflowers. Swallows wheel and soar through the bright air, for a moment level with the two people standing atop the mountain. 

The boy studies his mother and is reminded of something that kids have teased him about at school. Mum? he asks. Where did we come from? 

Ye-lim laughs, unable to contain herself, and when she does, Seung-gi laughs too. From here, she tells him, squinting in the dazzling light. We came from here. 


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