This story is by Austin Whitlock and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Let her go.” As the soldier and his companion looked back to see who had dared speak to them so disrespectfully, they were almost blinded by sunlight gleaming from the metallic skin of the woman they now faced. The feeble woman in the soldier’s grasp had denied his advance on her, so he was planning to teach her a lesson. Galvanized Girl had no intention of allowing this to happen. She swiftly (for a woman made of metal) swept the soldier’s friend aside and into a wall with an outward swing of her left forearm. The wall cracked with the force of his impact. The soldier had dropped the girl and pulled his gun to fire a round which ricocheted off of Galvanized Girl and into the ground. She sneered at the man who just tried to kill her and… BANG!
Jeup Hye-jin’s writing abruptly stopped with the sound of gunfire from the television set. This sound had haunted her since she saw her first public execution in the streets of her hometown, Hyesan, when she was only six years old. She wasn’t sure what the old man had done, but she looked on in horror as his body lay crumpled on the ground where he stood only moments ago. In a matter of seconds, two fresh bullet holes were created in his wrinkled flesh from which his blood seemed to pour out endlessly. The only crime this man had committed was being a North Korean brave enough to speak his mind – an everyday privilege for those lucky enough to reside in a westernized country.
Yet another display of North Korean military power was on the screen. Soldiers that looked identical with the same gaited march escorted vehicles that proudly transported large missiles flanked by tanks whose metal shell and destructive power inspired the powers of the character she was writing about moments ago. These displays were supposed to be impressive, but they were not for Hye-jin, her parents, or anyone that saw through the cult of personality. The country worked hard to instill that in everyone: the group must be valued over the individual and each North Korean’s highest purpose in life was to serve the country and promote the excellence of the nation. To understand the utter hypocrisy of this display of nationalism, one need not look further than the TV – sealed at all potential access points so it may not be opened. Doing such is a high crime The Ministry of Public Security can check and arrest all members of a household for.
Despite the display of military power and technological advances on screen, the TV only had four channels, all of which had content that was essentially produced by the government itself. She could change to one of the other channels, but it would be pointless. The radio was also sealed and offered few options. Who knew what modern surveillance technology could be hidden inside these items? Anyone that did was executed or in “labor camps,” the nation’s way of saying “prisons.” Those people may have found listening devices her family feared were in there. Her father once whispered to her, “Do not say such things. The radio can hear you. Write it instead.” Fortunately, Hye-jin preferred to spend her time writing.
The limitations of the TV programming may lead people to believe otherwise, but the Korean language is one of the most verbose in the world with over 1,000,000 words. Words that make it possible to create stories that could be more elaborate and unique than other languages allowed. Clearly thirteen year old Hye-jin did not know all of these words, but she certainly knew many and enjoyed linking them together like pieces of a puzzle that created the spectacular images of her mind. With her vocabulary, the possibilities of her creations were endless, but unfortunately the things she wrote in her house would never be read by anyone other than herself or her parents. Her work was either burned or hidden in a secret place by her mother that Hye-jin didn’t know the location of so she could not reveal it through a panicked glance during a raid. However, she found some solace in the fact that even though these words may never be bound into a formal book they may remain untouched and everlasting in some secret cavity of their abode.
Hye-jin presumed she knew more words than her friends at school, not only because she had a deep love of words and learned as many as possible, but her parents had taught her strings of words that could get people killed if they were overheard. It was a burden when she would put on her government provided school uniform each day and have to remember that she could not buy into the teacher’s spoon-fed propaganda. She would sit in class and obediently perform her studies and recite the praises of their nation and its leaders while feeling like she was betraying herself and her family.
One only knows what they have been taught or what they observe/learn themselves. Someone who is born blind does not have dreams that involve technicolor images of what it would be like to see as they can never observe visuals for themselves and thus live their lives in the dark. However, even without their sense of sight, the blind may be more enlightened than many of her friends. She wished secretly that many of them had been taught by their parents about the true injustices being perpetrated by their country and its leadership. She especially wished this were true of her best friend, Chang-woo, although Hye-jin could not risk finding out if they truly had shared knowledge and ideals. She would soon never see him again anyways. He looked embarrassed and confused when she told him “I love you” on the last day of the school year. If he knew he would never see her again, he would have said it back.
Hye-jin’s parents had been in the other room using hushed voices for what seemed like an emotional debate. As they emerged from the room and sat beside her she knew what they would say. They had prepared her for this day by teaching her Chinese in secret and trained her to become someone she was not to fool anyone that may question her identity. She was leaving the country – tonight. Her 14th birthday was approaching, and her parents feared that she would be involuntarily drafted for the kippumjo, a group of women and girls that are forced into a carnal form of slavery for North Korean leadership to exploit. Hye-jin’s mother, Jina, had explained “I will die before I see you hauled away into that torture.” Hye-jin listened closely, but in deep grief as her parents detailed her escape plan before forcing her to get some rest for her late night journey.
The kippumjo was far from her mind later that evening as she and her parents slipped silently through the streets on a well-planned route avoiding lookouts to reach an area of the Yalu River that was fairly shallow, slow in current, and wooded on each side. On one side, North Korea, and on the other, China. As they waited in the cover of the Korean trees, they saw a light flash on the opposite side three times, the indication that Hye-jin’s new guardian was in place and it was clear to cross. Hye-jin had said “annyeong” to her father earlier, but after seeing the light, her mother grabbed her and squeezed her tighter than she ever had before. Hye-jin heard her mother’s stifled sob in her shoulder. Jina could not bring herself to use words, and any she could muster would be inadequate. How do you give a lifetime of maternal advice in a matter of seconds? They exchanged a nod goodbye as tears rolled down their faces and Jina choked out “salanghae” (what Chang-woo should have said). Hye-jin returned the sentiment before walking to the river’s edge.
As she entered the water, all she could think about was how strong her mother was, and how strong she needed to be – just as strong as her character, Galvanized Girl. She began to wonder if Galvanized Girl would rust from tears. If heartbreak could be Galvanized Girl’s greatest weakness since after all only her skin was impermeable. It took every ounce of Hye-jin’s control not to turn back and return to her mother’s embrace. She knew her parents wanted her to have a future filled with endless opportunity and were so desperate to give her that they were willing to break their own hearts by losing the thing they loved the most, her. As the flow of tears merged with the flow of the river, she began to float even with the increased sinking feeling in her chest, and as she took her first strokes to freedom across the border, she pondered how her story would end.