The Hermit Kingdom

By Milton Chan All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Humor


It was the first time Song Yoojin saw something from the outside world enter the Hermit Kingdom. Yoojin was only twelve years old when she noticed that many people had traveled a few miles from the North Korean city of Kaesong to the Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) to witness Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung ship one thousand and one cattle into the country from South Korea. They called the cattle “unification cows” after the diplomatic South-North summit took place to ease tension between both countries. Yoojin’s father Song Haneul was allowed to take the day off work to take his twelve year old daughter Yoojin to the DMZ to catch a rare glimpse of diplomacy.

Haneul was a frugally dressed middle aged man making a modest living working as a factory worker for the Kaesong industrial park, which serves as the only South Korean run industry operating within North Korean territory. He believed there was a God even though he was not supposed to worship anyone but the Supreme Leader of North Korea. Haneul’s faith was a product of his superstition rather than scripture since Bibles were strictly forbidden. Haneul was a loving family man of two children and a bitter wife who loved her country more than her own family.

“Things are going to get better for us,” Haneul remarked while loosening his grip on Yoojin’s left hand in order to squat down and meet eye to eye with her.

“I’m hungry,” Yoojin responded as she gazed at the mouthwatering sight of the “unification cows.”

Haneul chuckled and patted Yoojin on the head.

“Let’s get going then,” Haneul said.

It was a supremely optimistic aura that encapsulated the audience. A legion of animals safely crossing a zone so few humans dared to even get near. The audience began to slowly withdraw from the plane field as the cattle marched into the horizon. The occasion proved to be enjoyable for all participants and the tribulations of their lives were momentarily forgotten.

Haneul and Yoojin walked with the dispersed crowd towards the trucks that provided their transportation. Shadows calmly encompassed the open plane field as the sun began to set. The crowds cooled off as their steps transitioned out of the sunlit planes into shaded grass.

“What would you like to eat?” Haneul asked Yoojin.

Yoojin did not think much about it and kept looking straight ahead of her at the trucks that were getting closer and closer with each step taken.

“Steak,” she replied.

Haneul smiled and gently gripped Yoojin’s right hand. Red meat was a difficult commodity to purchase for most residents in Kaesong, but Haneul decided to play along.

“Help dad hunt for some cattle when we get on the truck,” Haneul said.

Haneul picked Yoojin up with both arms and loaded her onto the back of the truck, and then proceeded to enter the truck himself. The trucks had no tents or covers to block the view of the passengers. People loaded onto the truck until maximum capacity was reached. The truck driver started the engine and headed towards the direction of Kaesong. The visibility of awaiting truck passengers faded as the truck moved away from the plane field, and the sight of cattle began to re-emerge as the truck caught up to the “unification cows.”

Haneul guided Yoojin’s hands into the shape of a toy gun and aimed towards the “unification cows” in the far distance. The sound of truck engines and groaning cattle muted the childish noises Haneul and Yoojin were making, but some of the other truck passengers could not help but grin sanguinely at such a display of amusement.

“Rice and Kimchi,” Yoojin suggested jovially.

It was what most families routinely ate for supper. Anything else was usually a special occasion or rationed from the government on national holidays. Yoojin’s craving for red meat had died away as the cattle vanished from her sight.

“Rice, Kimchi, and steak,” Haneul responded optimistically.

Kaesong was only a few miles from the Demilitarized Zone, therefore the ride was not long, but it proved to be scenic for all the passengers. The smell of factory smoke returned as the countryside vanished. The trucks rolled into the Kaesong industrial park and came to a halt. Yoojin’s brother Song Hoon came to greet Haneul and Yoojin as they unloaded.

“How was it dad?” Hoon asked Haneul.

“Nothing surprising.” Haneul grunted and continued recounting his experience. “Do you know how disappointing it is to see a thousand cows safely crossing the DMZ? What if I wanted to cross the DMZ? They’d probably shoot my nuts off. This government has become an apex predator by preying on its own citizens.”

Hoon was seventeen years old at the time. He was a strong young kid who decided to work with his dad at the Kaesong Industrial Complex which served as the only South Korean run industry in North Korea. Hoon would have joined Yoojin and Haneul had it not been a work day for him. Hoon loved Haneul and Yoojin dearly.

“What girl wants to go with his dad to see cattle?” Hoon jabbed at Yoojin while softly pinching her right cheek.

“You should be at home playing with dolls and helping mom with,” Hoon stopped in the middle of his sentence as soon as he mentioned his mother. Hoon did not have a good relationship with his mother Choi Seol-Mi. Seol-Mi’s love for the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il grew greater than her love for her family. The more Seol-Mi aged, the more nationalistic she became, and an abusive nature grew exponentially with her age. Propaganda slowly eradicated Seol-Mi’s sense of family for unknown reasons. Maybe it was because Haneul and Hoon worked for the only South Korean run industry in the north, and this hurt her sense of pride for the north. No crystal ball could decipher Seol-mi’s irrational behavior.

“Nevermind,” Hoon remarked.

Hoon jogged to his personal locker and took out a violin protected in a black casing, then handed the encased violin to Haneul.

“I’ll walk Yoojin home. Stay on the assembly lines. You’re still too young to get hurt so stay safe,” Haneul said while simultaneously checking on the smuggled goods hidden within a custom made compartment beneath the floor of the violin case.

It was imperative that the goods were hidden well in order for the guards to not discover the contraband on their way out of the industrial complex. All North Korean’s were searched upon entering and leaving the complex. Yoojin was fortunate enough to own a violin donated from the Kaesong Student and Children’s Palace.

Hoon gave an acknowledging glance at Haneul and went on his way. Yojin and Haneul safely exited the industrial complex shortly after. Nobody ever searched Yoojin’s violin case thoroughly enough to find the smuggled goods. Who could be suspicious of a child? The guards would always open and close her violin case like they were opening and closing a lousy book. They never expected anything inside.

The Kaesong industrial complex contained a peculiar infrastructure. There were both South Korean and North Korean workers employed, but they rarely intermingled. South Korean workers and employees were sent home when tensions emerged only to return shortly after a resolution was reached between both nations. Local South Korean convenience stores were setup around the industrial complex, but the North Korean police made sure to prohibit North Korean citizens from using them. People migrated together in homogeneous groups and rarely interacted with outsiders.

The Song family lived about a mile and a half away from the Kaesong industrial complex. Yoojin and Haneul had walked about halfway to their home. Haneul always carried Yoojin’s violin case in his left hand and allowed his right hand to be unoccupied in case Yoojin needed a hand to hold during their walk. Yoojin didn’t speak much at the time, but she was energetic. She ran around like a dog with no leash and inspected her surroundings with an innocent curiosity. They were poor, but at least Kaesong provided them both a natural tranquility through its beautiful landscape.

“They are still playing!” Yoojin said while pointing at the Kaesong Student and Children’s Palace. The sound of music still emanated from within the corridors of the building.

“Don’t you think we should go home and eat first? We could come back after we have a meal,” Haneul said.

Yoojin ignored Haneul’s suggestion and rushed inside the palace. She dashed past a startled front desk administrator who could only manage to smile at seeing an all too familiar face enter the palace. They called it a palace, but it was really just an extracurricular center for children with relations to government officials or people in power. Yoojin’s family did not have enough government affiliation to be considered royal enough to enter the palace, but the administrator did make an exception for Yoojin after watching her wait outside on numerous occasions just to listen to the music being played from within the palace.

Haneul greeted the front desk administrator with a quick bow and an anxious smile while simultaneously trying to catch up to an eager Yoojin.

She smiled back tenderly at Haneul to ease any tensions of a possible interloping.

Haneul finally caught up to Yoojin at the concert hall entrance. He panted to catch his breath only to be briefly interrupted by a panic that almost drove him into a state of epilepsy. He checked to see if the goods hidden in Yoojin’s violin case were secure and discovered. Nothing was missing.

“Thank God,” Haneul sighed as he closed the violin case and picked it up with his left hand.

Haneul looked up as though he were about to thank God personally, but was reminded of his reality when he only saw the ceiling. He looked back down at Yoojin who was watching the musical recital through the glass window of the hall entrance.

“Do you know what they are playing?” Haneul quizzed Yoojin.

“Music,” Yoojin replied.

“Do you know what kind of music?” Haneul asked.

“Music,” Yoojin answered.

Haneul and Yoojin stood side by side outside a classroom full of privileged children who were lucky enough to get their hands on instruments. The symphony of instruments came to a climatic end and the lone melody of a cellist’s sonata made way.

“Bach’s first suite,” Haneul silently whispered at Yoojin.

Haneul turned to observe Yoojin. She was calm, but Haneul could sense her desire to enter the concert hall.

The classical tunes coming from within the concert hall came to a halt providing Yoojin a short window of opportunity to barge through the double door entrance. The sudden intrusion caught the orchestra’s attention. Everyone turned to stare at the little stranger as she made an awkward entrance.

“I...” Yoojin muttered nervously.

Yoojin suddenly grew timid looking at a sea of eyes fixated on her. Her skin instantly iced into a pale white complexion and everyone looked at her as though they had seen a ghost for a split second.

“I’m sorry,” Yoojin apologized and made a swift turn to sprint towards the exit only to run head first into Haneul’s right hip. The orchestra giggled softly while Haneul made sure to grip Yoojin’s right shoulder to keep her from losing balance.

“Sorry about the disturbance,” Haneul smirked at the orchestra conductor.

“My daughter can be so absent minded,”

“It’s alright,” the conductor interrupted Haneul.

“What is your daughter’s name?” The conductor inquired.

The conductor stood at a mere five foot four inches with heels on. She was a short but charismatic figure in the midst of her midlife crisis.

“Her name is Yoojin,” Haneul said.

“Does Yoojin play an instrument? The conductor asked.

“I’m certain that she wishes to play the violin,” Haneul answered.

“And you expect me to teach her? Just how much time do you think I have to dispose? Our annual recital for the Supreme Leader is in less than two months!” The conductor jabbered enthusiastically.

It was strictly prohibited to use Chairman Kim Jong-il’s name. Everyone was to refer to him as “Dear Respected” or “Supreme Leader.”

The conductor reached for a mini controller on her music stand. The controller had only one button, and a click of that one button led to a large projector screen being dropped down with a giant picture of only one person on the screen.

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The children shouted.

Haneul and Yoojin looked up at the projector screen on the wall behind the orchestra. Haneul was not surprised to see a large picture of Kim Jong-il on the projector. He had grown sick of seeing the same picture of an overly jubilant smiling Kim Jong-il. Haneul and Yoojin could not help but chuckle at the comical display of nationalism he was witnessing.

“This is no laughing matter! Where is your sense of pride and dignity?” The conductor exclaimed at Haneul with an extended index finger. “What kind of bad example are you trying to set for these kids by laughing when you should be bowing your head with respect.”

“Sorry,” Haneul apologized while gently slapping yoojin on the back of her head to get her to stop giggling. “Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader,” Haneul said sarcastically.

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The children shouted.

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The conductor reiterated.

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The children repeated.

“Okay Enough!” Haneul exclaimed. “We get the point,” Haneul lowered his voice. “If you can’t make an exception for Yoojin, can she at least accompany your orchestra after the annual recital for our Dear Leader?”

“Absolutely not!” The conductor retorted.

“Well, then,” Haneul sighed. “Thank you for your time, we’ll be leaving now.”

“Haneul!” A gray hair middle aged male figure shouted at Haneul.

Haneul and Yoojin turned to see who was calling out to Haneul at the double door entrance.

“Mr. Jang.” Haneul bowed at Jang and pressed on the back of Yoojin’s head to force her into a bow also. “Fancy seeing you here. How did you find me here?” Haneul asked.

Jang Taek was a high ranking government official who served as the recipient of Haneul’s smuggled contraband hidden within Yoojin’s violin case.

“I waited outside your house at the time you told me to for over twenty minutes,” Jang said with a stoic expression on his face. “I had to ask your wife where you were and she told me that you might have been late because you liked to occasionally stop by the Kaesong Children’s Palace on your way home.”

“My deepest apologies Mr. Jang. We were on our way back home, but my daughter Yoojin can sometimes get so carried away by distractions. Today she wanted to visit the palace and ran inside. I couldn’t chase her to stop her because you know,” Haneul tapped and gestured at the violin case in his left hand to imply that the contraband inside the case prevented him from running.

“Do you have it? Jang asked with intimidating authority.

Jang always made Haneul a little nervous with his stoic nature and government affiliation.

“Of course.” Haneul said with slight crack in his voice.

Haneul gently placed the violin case on the floor, unlocked it, and quickly flipped the case open after the sound of a click. The conductor made her way over to Haneul to take an inquisitive look over his shoulder at the violin case as he was bent over. Haneul took the violin out and placed it on the floor. He proceeded to open the accessory compartment inside the back of the case behind where the scroll of the violin is supposed to rest. Haneul took out the rosin in the accessory compartment and pressed down on the floor of the compartment causing the entire floor of the violin compartment to protrude forty five degrees upward. A hidden compartment with about five kilograms of contraband wrapped up thoroughly in brown colored paper was revealed. Only Haneul and Mr. Jang knew what was wrapped up in the brown block shaped containers. Jang picked up one brown container to inspect the label. The label read “For the Dear Respected.”

“You’ve done the nation a great service,” Jang snickered. His stoic facial expression shifted into a jovial smile as he transferred the contraband into his briefcase.

“My pleasure Mr. Jang. Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader.”

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The children shouted.

“If I may ask without being too intrusive,” the conductor said as she gazed at Jang’s briefcase curiously. “What is inside those containers?”

“None of your business!” Jang shouted. His sudden change in demeanor startled both Yoojin and the conductor.

“Can we go now dad?” Yoojin asked Haneul. Jang’s bipolar nature frightened most people and always terrified children.

“I’m sorry,” Jang apologized. “You must have stopped by to listen to some music. I’ll let you go on your way now. Sorry about the holdup.”

“It’s alright,” Haneul replied. “Yoojin’s just eager to play the violin one day and I sure as hell can’t teach her.” Haneul pinched Yoojin on the cheek.

“I’m sure Mrs. Kim can teach Yoojin,” Jang said.

“Oh, so that’s your name,” Haneul smirked at the conductor. “Pleasure to meet you Mrs. Kim. I’m Haneul.” Haneul patted Yoojin’s shoulder. “And this is Yoojin.”

“I, I, ugh,” Kim stuttered with a sigh of disbelief. “I’d be delighted to teach Yoojin.” Kim reached out her hand to shake Haneul’s hand. “I’m Kim Eunseo, nice to meet you both.”

“Well, Yoojin’s getting hungry so we better head home now,” Haneul said.

The thought of food caused a great deal of stomach grumbling throughout the concert hall. Food was so scarce in Kaesong and nobody was exempt from the possibility of starvation.

“Good riddance!” Kim sarcastically remarked. “Well go on your way now. Goodbye and I hope to not see you both again too soon.”

“Goodbye teacher,” Yoojin said.

Kim gave a courteous bow and went back to attend to the orchestra children. She clicked the button on her mini controller and the portrait of Kim Jong-il slowly retracted back up to the ceiling.

“Long life and prosperity to our Supreme Leader!” The children began to repeatedly chant.

Haneul, Yoojin, and Jang made their way towards the double door exit. Kim turned to check if her visitors had left. She turned back to face the children who were still chanting when she was sure that everyone had left.

“All of you shut up!” Kim screamed.

The children immediately stopped chanting and prepared to continue their practice routine.

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