Welcome, Reader Friends! Today we have another of David Telbat’s fiction adventures for you in a North Korea story. Enjoy!
by D.I. Telbat
North Korean Officer Kang Yop Chae squinted through his rifle scope at the fleeing prisoners. His finger touched the trigger, his sights square on the slender back of the lead runner, but Chae hesitated. He counted five escapees—two men, two women, and one child. They had few provisions and seemed to have little energy left for their long journey ahead.
“Do not shoot them, Papa.”
Chae lowered his modified Chinese SKS assault rifle and glanced back at his 8-year-old son, Yung, who was sitting on the frozen ground. The winter had been a hard one. Even though it was spring now, the mountain air was still crisp.
“Finish your potato.” Chae blew on his cold fingers and stared after the runners as they disappeared into a ravine. “Put your pack on, Yung. We will have to go after them.”
“They do not look like criminals, Papa. They just look poor.”
“It is a crime to leave the country, son.” Chae swung his rifle over his shoulder and nibbled on his own potato. He stepped carefully on loose rocks to scout a trail that descended the Central Korean mountainside. The pine forest was above them, and the Limson Valley below was rocky and desolate. “Besides, it is my job. We must not question the Great Father, Kim Jong-il. And we must be thankful he gives us what we do not deserve. Many have much less.”
“I do not deserve this potato?” Yung giggled and made a face. “I am tired of eating potatoes and rice. When will we have candy again?”
“Perhaps on the Great Father’s birthday celebration—if you are good.”
Suddenly, Yung rose to his feet, dropping his potato.
“Yung!” Chae scrambled for the food before it rolled away. “We must not waste the—”
“Papa! Look!” The boy pointed at the northern tree line. “See, I have good eyes!”
Pulling his riflescope up to his eye once again, Chae studied a second group of escapees.
“Who are they?” Yung tugged on Chae’s parka. “Can I see?”
“They are more runners.” Chae caressed his trigger. He could have shot all three of them easily when they were in the open. If Yung had not been with him, watching, asking questions, he would have pulled the trigger. “They are running to China, like the others.”
“Are you going to shoot them, Papa?”
Chae lowered his head and looked into his son’s frightened face.
“Since when did you become my conscience?”
“Mama used to say that you were the best soldier in the mountains north of Pyongyang.”
Yung’s eyes drifted to his boots. “I did not know you did this.”
Gazing down the valley, Chae saw that the escapees were headed northwest. Eventually, he would catch them. He would track them on bare rock through the night if he had to. Kneeling before his son, he took him by the shoulders.
“The Great Father tested one thousand marksmen when I was not much older than you are now. I was the best, Yung, and I was given this duty. It is an honor.”
“Yes, I know, Papa. I know the story.”
“It is not my place to discern right from wrong. It is my place to be thankful. In school, you learn how to be a loyal citizen, Yung. You must not speak kindly of disloyal citizens. I would not have brought you today if I knew how you felt, but all the schoolmasters were ordered into the City to tally ration cards.”
“Mama died, Papa.” Yung sniffed. “Do I have to be thankful that Mama died?”
Instinctively, Chae looked around to make sure no one was watching before he embraced his son. Expressing emotion in public was not allowed, but they were miles from civilization.
“I miss her too, son.” After a few moments, he held Yung at arm’s length again. “But I have a job to do. Must I take you all the way back to the truck before I continue?”
“No, Papa. I will go.” The boy cinched his pack tighter. “I am sorry, Papa. I will be stronger.”
“Good.” Chae picked up his own pack. “Now, we must hurry to Yalu River to get ahead of the criminals.”
Leading the way, Chae angled down the steep slope. Even at eight, Yung was a strong athlete, so Chae did not look back when he reached the valley floor and began to jog east. He heard Yung on his heels, his pack bouncing gently on his back.
“Why do they run from the prisons, Papa?” Yung drew abreast of his father. “After a while, can they not come home?”
Chae did not answer quickly. Not many citizens knew what Chae knew—unless they had
experienced the brutal gulags for themselves. But Chae had interrogated escapees himself. He could not easily explain to Yung how their beloved country imprisoned and condemned entire families to die for infractions like speaking about the West or of the Christian God. Or how the average sentence in a tortuous labor camp was twenty years, yet the life expectancy in that camp was only five years. For just an instant, Chae felt a hint of shame, but he quickly suppressed it—as he had been trained to do since birth.
“The Great Father’s laws are fully just, son. If a citizen is obedient, he does not need to worry about prison. Only disloyal citizens must fear prison.”
“Those who escape, they are safe in China?”
“Many think they will be, but the Chinese officials catch most and send them back here—if I do not catch them first. It is an embarrassment for the Great Father when China gives us back our own escaped prisoners. They are punished much more severely the second time.”
“Sometimes, yes.” Weary of the subject, Chae quickened his pace and pulled ahead. “No more talking. We must get into position.”
After leaving the Limsan Valley behind, father and son reached the Yalu River, which snaked north to south through the Kunp-ri District. Rocky ridges and glacier-crusted slopes choked the worn access road that at times precariously edged along the river.
Chae selected a stretch of river north of the Prison Workers’ Unit 4 Village where escapees often crossed. The water was swift but shallower there, and adults could wade across most of the way. Since Chae had regularly tracked escapees across the river, he often found them dead. Without a warm fire after crossing, these two parties would meet the same fate, though Chae still planned to ambush them just to make sure.
Yung helped his father pile rocks on a small rise to give them both some cover. They now faced south. As Chae lay on his belly scoping the slope facing them, Yung hunkered down next to his father. If the escapees came out of the trees where he expected, they would be in his sights with the sun in their eyes for nearly ten minutes before ever reaching the river.
“You are not going to arrest them, Papa?”
“Only if they surrender. Those are my orders.”
“What if they get away?”
“They will not. They never do. Not with me here. It is best this way.”
“But, what if they run?”
“I expect that, but where will they run? They cannot run back up the slope fast enough. And if they reach the river, they will die anyway.”
“The water is too cold this time of year, but if they do get across and into the forest, they cannot risk lighting a fire. The patrols west of the river will catch them.”
“If it was me, I would cross at night.” Yung nodded at his strategy. “Then I would light a fire in a cave where the light could not be seen.”
“Those are not good thoughts, Yung. No son of mine will ever feel unwelcome in his own country.” Chae noticed movement on the mountain. “Quiet now. Here they come.”
Checking the windage, Chae used distant rocks to count off the yardage. In the autumn, he had used this same position. He had shot the lead runner before the party reached the river. As the others had fled breathlessly back up the mountain, Chae had picked them off with ease. He would do the same here.
“How old is that boy?” Yung whispered. “Can I see?”
“No, Yung! Quiet!”
Chae tried to focus on the lead escapee as they crossed the narrow flood plain, but his scope kept drifting back to the fourth escapee—a boy no older than Yung. The five were malnourished and wearing rags. Already, their pace was plagued by fatigue. They had a week’s worth of rugged terrain ahead before the Chinese border even came into sight.
“Do you have to, Papa?” Yung hid his face behind their rock barrier, refusing to watch. “Maybe you could let these pass…”
As if tempting death, the five runners stopped one hundred paces from the river and rallied together. The lead man seemed to be giving the others instructions as he passed out rice balls.
“These runners are not from around here,” Chae surmised aloud.” They should not be stopping there. There is a workers’ road across the river. Anyone could drive past and see them.”
Yung slowly lifted his head and peered at the condemned fugitives.
“Maybe they changed their minds. Maybe they will go back and you do not have to shoot them.”
“I think they are waiting for their friends.” Chae swung his scope toward the mountain.
“That other party should be in sight by now. Something is not right.”
“We are behind you,” a man’s weak voice announced.
Rolling over, Chae whipped the SKS up to aim at the slender man twenty paces away. He had come out of the trees above Chae rather than south of him.
“Get to your knees!”
“Please do not shoot. We stumbled upon you but we lack the energy to retreat.” The stranger was strangely calm. He gestured to the two with him, a frail woman, and a girl. All three fell to their knees, still panting from their trek. “Let us cross, we beg you. I see you have a son. This is my family. We have come from the Pyongchang-ri District. There is only death behind us. Please.”
“There is only death here! Go back!” For the first time in his life, Chae was not sure of himself. The dozens that he had tracked and killed or imprisoned were suddenly shameful memories rather than trophies for the Great Father. “Even if I let you pass—which I will not—you will never survive with what you have. What is in your bundle? Rice and a blanket for the three of you? Have you any idea what is ahead?”
“Papa…” Yung pointed to the south where the party of five had gathered. The group was being drawn to the commotion, curious to see what troubles their friends were having.
With Yung at his side, the tracker felt momentarily frightened. But Chae’s concern was more about the road on the other side of the river than it was about the slight chance that the escapees might attack him. If a Party official drove up the road and saw Chae’s hesitation to follow killing orders, he himself could be sent to the nearest gulag, along with his son.
“You are a soldier. A good one, I am sure,” the father praised Chae. “But you are also a father. Take me if you must, but please let my family go free.”
The party of five stopped a few paces away, suddenly realizing that their friends had been captured. Chae stepped back to cover them all with his rifle but Yung stayed where he was. In order to cover both parties, Chae had to sweep his rifle across his own son. Again, Chae checked the road. There were no vehicles yet. He needed time to think!
“Get back! Everyone in that ditch and out of sight!”
Both parties grouped together. Trembling, they obeyed. Chae joined them in the narrow, winding ditch left over from a past flood. He kept his rifle on them. Regardless of the chill in
the air, Chae was sweating.
“Even if you had enough provisions to reach the border,” Chae said, “you would become lost in the mountains before the end of one day.”
“What is it, Yung?”
“Mama said you used to patrol the western ranges. You know every ridge along the border.”
Chae wiped his brow. It was true. He did know all the trails. He also knew where the patrols crossed the passes, and where to safely cross the border into China.
The escapees pled for mercy with their eyes. Slowly, Chae lowered the rifle barrel to aim at the ground.
“I cannot guide you. My son, you see, needs me. And the Party needs me. I am the best marksman in the army. I have killed many of you.”
“Come with us,” a woman invited. She was so thin; even Yung was sure to outweigh her by several pounds. “Both of you could come with us.”
“There is nothing honorable left here, sir,” a man reasoned. “We need you more than the Great Father needs you now. We are your people.”
Chae looked at his son’s face. Yung nodded, urging his father to accept their offer.
“Let us go, Papa. Mama would want us to go.”
Looking to the southeast, Chae thought of his truck parked two mountain ranges away. Where they were going, there were few roads anyway. On his back he had two days worth of rations, and with the rifle, he could easily kill a deer for food along the way.
“My name is Kang Yop Chae. We will wait here and cross the river at nightfall.”
COMING UP: Join us for Part 7 of “If Christianity were Illegal” Series, in “Betrayer or Confessor when Christianity is Illegal.” And we have another special treat for you! Many of you have told us that Luigi Putelli is your favorite character in The COIL Series. Well, David interviewed Luigi! Really! So click the link to read that. 😉
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