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Online Feature: “Leaving Pyongyang” by Bora Lee Reed

This is what I remember:


A man was at the river, ferrying people across.

“Pali wah! Pali! Hurry!”

The line of people snaked alongside the bank, matching itself against the curve of the river. Those near the front jostled for the best spot. Those behind hunched over against the cold, bundles and bags hanging off of them like ungainly appendages. Ropes of black smoke rose up from Pyongyang’s low-slung skyline and billowed across the winter sky, obscuring the foothills.

A woman stood with two of her children and watched the boat man push away from shore. The boat sat low in the water, the dozen people in it packed together, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. Even from this distance, she could see it was a wreck of a thing, nothing more than one of the leaky little scraps that trolled up and down the river, setting traps and dredging for clams.

The woman was called Pak Soon-ok. She and her children had pushed their way here, clawed through the panicked crowd as if feeling the breath of the devil himself on their necks. But now they were at the river and she didn’t know what to do.

All around her, people milled about, stamping their feet against the cold. They had poured out of Pyongyang, a rushing stream of bowed heads, clutching hands. They had moved as one, had become a kind of river themselves, swarming, splitting, rejoining. When they met the waters of Taedong-gang, they pooled to the east and the west, looking for a way across.

“What is his price, I wonder?” her son asked, pointing to the man in the boat. Her son was called Yi Hyun-jin and for every part of him that was scared, another part thrilled with what was happening. All the exciting moments up until this point seemed to have passed him by. But not this time. He was naive that way. He thought what was coming was a grand adventure and, even more naively, he believed he was ready for it. He was fourteen.

“Whatever the price,” his mother said, “it’s more than we have.”

Ice crusted the edge of the river’s wide water. A large piece creaked and snapped, then drifted downstream. The cold wind brought its own kind of burning, though any feeling in their faces and hands had already blurred into numbness.

“How will father and Hyun-suk oppa know where we’ve gone?” her daughter asked. Euna was twelve years old and had a knack for voicing the things that Soon-ok was thinking but wouldn’t say.

Her husband and eldest son had departed six weeks ago for a visit to her husband’s home village. They had departed on foot, carrying an extra change of clothes and the food she had packed for them. They had ambled out the front gate with the warm autumn sun on their faces. Now it was winter.

“When the fighting has passed through, they’ll know what to do,” Soon-ok said, though she knew no such thing. “We’ll meet back at home. I’m sure they are also thinking this way.”

Euna coughed and burrowed her head against her mother’s shoulder. Soon-ok adjusted Euna’s scarf and turned to do the same for Hyun-jin. He pulled away impatiently, jumping up and down and clapping his hands against the cold.

“Here are our options,” he said. “We could wait in that line,” he jerked his head toward the crowd waiting for the boat. “Or we could look for another boat. Or we could try upriver for a place that might be frozen enough to walk across.” He surveyed the scene, hands on his hips. “Can we risk that? I don’t know. We could spend half the day walking for nothing. And then, of course, it’s in the wrong direction…”

The shore teemed with people and carts and mules and cows. And still more people crested over the bank of the river and down to its shores. Soon-ok watched an old woman in a too-big overcoat picking her way down the rocky slope or was that an old man? They had color, they had form, but they smeared indistinguishable as they wandered, left and right, wondering what to do, asking the same question—how do we get to the other side?

She heard the sound of shuffling steps, the scraping of wooden wheels against stone, grunting and lowing, a child crying. But under it all, there was a strange, prevailing quiet of ten thousand people, each locked in a private terror. Large flakes of feathery ash floated down. The river mirrored the sky, icy and gray. It was cold. It was really cold.

The man in the boat returned to shore. The line of people waiting for him thickened and pulsed. They were scared, panicking. But not the boat man. He used a heavy oar to expertly manhandle his unwieldy customers. He balanced on the boat, half-standing, half-squatting, choosing the lucky ones to climb aboard while the rest shouted their complaints.

A loud wind poured over them and Hyun-jin shouted to be heard above its rushing. “We’ll freeze waiting to get to the front of that line,” he yelled. “Let’s try the railroad bridge. It’s not too far of a walk.”

They held hands and picked their way around the river’s bend, feeling the smooth coldness of the rocks against the soles of their shoes. They pressed through the crowd, the dank, fast breaths of strangers on their face, the muttering and cursing, eyes and mouths bursting with astonishment.

We waited as long as we could, she imagined herself telling her husband as Hyun-jin pulled them through the crowd. How many hours did I stand outside our gate, staring down the hill, listening for your footsteps? Though they set downtown on fire, I waited. Though they said they would come and snatch our boy away, still I waited. Believe me, she urged silently. I am blameless in this.

They rounded the corner and Soon-ok squinted to see the railroad bridge silhouetted against the sky. The sun was rising; morning light sheered over them.

“I don’t understand,” Euna said. “What’s wrong with it?”

The first half of the railroad bridge was as it should be, a straight dark line supporting evenly spaced girders. But the second half was like a wounded animal, splayed and twisted across the water.

“Bastards bombed it,” a man next to them said.

“We heard them,” Hyun-jin said. “Remember? Yesterday morning when the walls shook? We didn’t know what was happening.”

The fallen bridge was not empty. Far from it. Hundreds swarmed on, walking right to the edge where the bridge broke off, peering over to the dizzying black water. The bravest—or the most foolish—reached out to grab the twisted metal girders and began their slow climb across, finding handholds on the splintered metal. On the shore, women and children wailed, watching their men leave them.

“Is this hell?” Soon-ok wondered, remembering something the minister had said in his sermon weeks ago.

“I could try it,” Hyun-jin said, closing one eye and cocking his head to the side. Soon-ok’s mouth turned to ash. “I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It’s too high.”

“I didn’t say ‘we,’” Hyun-jin said. He took her hands and rubbed them in his. “I’ll go alone. I can do it.”

“What about us?” Euna exclaimed.

“Everyone knows they don’t care about the women and children. It’s the men they want for the fighting.” Hyun-jin still held onto his mother’s hands. “You said yourself that father and hyung would be home soon.” A gust of wind kicked up again and he let go to hold onto his cap. “This is no place for you,” he continued. “Go back and wait for them. I’ll come home when it’s safe.”

Soon-ok thought of their house, the tidy courtyard, the smell of the freshly thatched roof. She thought of the shed where she had stored up jars of kimchee for the winter. This winter.

Hyun-jin was right about one thing. She was unprepared. They had barely packed anything: a cooking pot, a small sack of rice, two blankets. At the last minute, she had grabbed the family Bible and handed Hyun-jin his brother’s best coat. With the new coat and his school cap, he had looked almost dapper, the excitement and the cold turning his cheeks pink. The only thing Euna carried was her favorite and only book. She stumbled along with it now, clutching her school satchel and the book in it like a shield against her chest. She used the back of her sleeve to wipe her nose. Soon-ok handed her a clean rag, but fixed her gaze on Hyun-jin.

“Do you think you could do this?”

“I know I could.” He spoke reasonably, but Soon-ok could hear the tremor in his voice.

In so many ways, Hyun-jin resembled his elder brother. They both had squared chins, lanky arms; even their gestures echoed each other. Strangers mistook them for twins. But Hyun-suk was quiet, watchful and slow to speak, while Hyun-jin usually reacted with temper of some sort, pleasant or ill. She often worried that he was out of balance. Too much fire, not enough water.

“No,” she said finally. “You can’t go alone.”

A familiar scowl came over Hyun-jin. He was so easily offended.

“I’m not a kid,” he said.

“You’re not a man, either.”

“You’d let hyung do it,” he said.

“Your brother wouldn’t ask me,” she said. “He would know better than to make me choose.”

She abruptly turned and headed back downriver. Euna jogged up and took her hand. Soon-ok did not look, but she could feel Hyun-jin following behind her, quiet and unhappy.


Soon-ok’s husband had every confidence that the fighting was over. This was his way, always sure of what should be done today regardless of what had been done the day before. This time, he seemed to be right. The South Korean troops and their UN friends had turned downtown Pyongyang into a city within the city. By day and by night, supply trucks rumbled in. Meters of barbed wire fencing made a maze of the city center. Heavy-booted soldiers marched through the streets, giants in the land. Their show of strength was as decisive as her husband’s confidence. It made him exceedingly happy, as he had not fared well with the Communists.

But in the space of one night, the city had been abandoned. It did not seem possible that all could be dismantled and disappear in the course of a few hours. But that is what happened. The soldiers took what they could and set fire to the rest. China had entered the war. They were moving south. The news passed mouth-to-mouth, house-to-house, crackling through the air like static electricity. It had chilled Soon-ok in way that had nothing to do with the weather. She had feared for their lives, for Hyun-jin especially. And so they had run.

Now, on the banks of Taedong River, with the railroad bridge gone and people lurching this way and that, Soon-ok wondered if she had done the right thing. The sun was high in the sky. They were thoroughly chilled and still had not found a way across. Hyun-jin had said no more about going alone, but she knew the idea had not left his mind.

A woman passed them, her hair tied in a yellow scarf, a baby wrapped on her back. She walked with her head down and with such quick, purposeful steps that Soon-ok wanted to follow her.

“Watch it there,” Hyun-jin shouted as she pushed past. Soon-ok watch her go, resisting the urge to ask, “What are we to do?” The woman folded into the shifting crowd. For a few moments, Soon-ok could see the bright yellow dot of her scarf bob through the crowd. A moment later, it was gone.

“What do we do now?” asked Euna. Hyun-jin pursed his lips, his eyes challenging his mother as much as he dared.

“Let me think,” Soon-ok said. Her head hurt, like tiny rocks were piled up against her eyes. A heavy shoulder pushed into her back as an oily-haired man rushed by without apology. A bent woman followed after him, dragging two screaming children.

The boat man came back to this side and started on the next group. In a few minutes, the boat was full again, ready to push away. A squat man with muscular arms charged after them, wading into the icy water with hunched determination. The boat man’s oar sliced through the air and hit him in the chest. Then a quick hit to the head. The man’s head jerked back. He tottered backwards until he lost his balance and sat down, up to his waist in cold water; no one helped him up.

“What a terrible man,” Euna said. The smell of the burning city was in their eyes and throats. She coughed and sneezed into her rag.

“Serves him right for being so greedy,” Hyun-jin said.

“I was talking about the boat man,” Euna said.

Soon-ok saw the map that cold and exhaustion had written across her children’s faces. Her strongest instinct was to feed and warm them. What were they doing out here, dying bit by bit? Let her return to the kitchen. Rouse the jars and pots. Stoke the fire in the ondol heater and let her children rest against the warmed floor. Let the gate be shut and let every cozy thing be in its place.

They jumped out of the way of an ox and cart that passed so close they could feel the heat thrumming off the animal. It snorted steam from its nostrils as it strained forward. An old man sat atop the cart piled high with boxes and furniture that bulged out from beneath a web of thick hemp rope. He looked neither to the left nor to the right, but sat proudly, his white beard quivering slightly beneath his bamboo hat.

“Fool! Crazy idiot!” someone yelled as the man and ox split their way through the crowd.

“Uncle! You can’t cross here. It’s too deep!”

“He wouldn’t dare!”

“Let him try, I’d like to see it!”

With a hard blow from his switch, the man drove the animal to the river. The ox took a few steps and balked, lowing loudly, scrambling back. But the momentum of the heavy cart pushed the poor animal into the water. The ox sank down on its front legs and lowed pitifully. The old man sat up a little taller and looked around triumphant as if the worst was over.

“Enough,” someone yelled as hands rushed to help. But he would have none of it. He turned his switch to the crowd, furiously beating them away. No one tried to interfere after that. Let the old man drown if he wanted to. What a waste. Still, they could not look away. Even Soon-ok who in a different circumstance might have tried to cover Euna’s eyes, could only stand watching, hands at her side, mouth drawn in a thin line.

The wooden switch flashed. The ox struggled up, water pouring off its back. It leaned forward, stumbled, then found its footing. The cart creaked. The switch cut through the air time and again. The sound of it slicing across the animal’s back made even the most impassive among them cringe. The ox was lathered with sweat and the old man was sweating, too, the heat pulsing off their bodies.

“Stop him,” Euna said, leaning forward against her mother’s restraining hand.

People shouted warnings and curses, but the old man, his ox and cart groaned forward together. The water rose to the belly, then the shoulder, then the neck of the ox. It had stopped lowing now. It swam for its life through the frigid water, its eyes huge and wildly rolling. The cart swayed and then, remarkably, it straightened. The old man sat aloft his seat, the mad king surveying his kingdom.

“That’s right,” a voice called from the shore. “That’s the way.”

The inevitable started with a slow lean to the right. At first, it seemed like a wobble that could be corrected. But then the cart, piled high with tables and tools and pots, toppled over. It fell slowly, almost deliberately, twisting and sinking, then splintering apart. Suddenly there was no farmer, ox or cart, but a stew of broken beams, chairs, unbound streams of yellow and red silk. Man and beast looked at each other, unexpectedly equals, suddenly friends.

Soon-ok was pierced by a wild hope that the old farmer might yet find his way across, perhaps on the back of his animal. But the ox was lashed to the cart. The people watching from shore knew the outcome, had known it from the beginning, but they watched anyway. The river swept the man, the animal and all his worldly possessions, downstream. They watched them go. The ox lowed and thrashed pitifully until it was finally pulled under. The man looked like he might be pulled under as well, but he floated along the top. They could see his white hair, hat now gone. He was holding onto a piece of wood and looking about, as if surprised to find himself in such a place.

“He killed his animal for spite,” Euna said. She wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “I hope he drowns.”

“He will,” her brother said. “Or if he’s lucky, he’ll freeze before that.”

The crowd had watched in silence, but now stirred to life again, waking from a collective dream.

“You were right, Hyun-jin,” Soon-ok said. “This is no place for us. For any of us. Let’s go back home.”

“The Communists are coming back to Pyongyang,” Hyun-jin said. “Father hates them.”

“If we stay out here much longer, it won’t matter. We’ll freeze.”

“They’re burning the city.”

“Our house is still all right.”

“The war is coming to Pyongyang.”

“The war is already here,” she exclaimed. “Look around. If we are going to die, why not die at home?” At Euna’s wild look she tried to speak more calmly. “Just because everyone has drunk the same potion, it doesn’t mean we also have to. Let’s use our common sense.” Now that she had decided, the calm that came over her was almost like food in her stomach. “Let’s go home,” she said. “Who knows, perhaps your father and elder brother have beaten us there. If so, there will undoubtedly be gifts and treats from your grandparents. Yut and dried persimmon. How long as it been since you had a taste of dried persimmon, Hyun-jin?”

But Hyun-jin was not listening to her.

They heard the plane before they saw it. A deep, vibrating hum. The crowd on the shore looked up as one person, old and young, man and woman.

“Americans,” a man near them said.

“B-29,” Hyun-jin added. He considered himself an expert on soldiers in general and Americans in particular. The crowd measured the distance to the target with a dispassion wrought from months of watching planes fly overhead, bombing the munitions depot, the train station, the metals factory. Maybe this one was on its way to cut off the Chinese and bring them all home again. The plane approached, baring its underbelly. The crowd watched, suspended. Hyun-jin raised his hand in a half-salute. Someone sneezed.

Soon-ok didn’t feel the blast. At first, she felt only surprise at finding herself on her back, covered in gravel. She heard a loud ringing. Her mouth filled with blood. She blinked to try to see again. Euna had fallen on top of her and clung to her now, her book digging into Soon-ok’s belly. The air roared. The river has erupted, she thought. The earth is swallowing us. She staggered up, clutching Euna and looking for Hyun-jin. Smoke stung her nose and eyes. Someone pushed her from behind and she fell to her knees. She tried again to rise, but Euna grabbed at her legs. Not quite knowing how, she stood and pulled Euna alongside, holding her close as panic swirled around them. Where was Hyun-jin?

A young man lurched past, his cheek torn from his face. They stumbled over a woman lying face down on the ground. Her baby sat next to her, unhurt. Soon-ok looked down and saw Euna with her mouth wide open; her daughter was screaming.

The crowd had blown apart like fallen leaves in a gust of autumn wind. People moved aimlessly, stunned, this way and that. Soon-ok covered her mouth and nose against the smoke and motioned for Euna to do the same.

“Hyun-jin!” Soon-ok screamed his name with all her might, but she couldn’t hear anything above the roaring. Overturned carts, braying and broken animals, and everywhere stunned people, collapsed, sitting, walking. There had been no plan, no meeting place. Ten thousand people wandered along the shore, each suddenly and terribly alone.

“Hyun-jin-ah!” Soon-ok’s throat screamed her throat raw.

The air vibrated again. This time, the crowd responded in a fluid instant, screaming and running for cover. People crouched down and covered their heads with their arms, like children in the dark. Soon-ok fell down with Euna beneath her. She swallowed the blood in her mouth and looked up, just in time to see the winter sun blocked out once more. She closed her eyes. Euna was rigid with fear. Soon-ok clutched her daughter’s head to her own chest.

“Hyun-jin-ah! Hyun-jin-ah!” Soon-ok stood up, choking out his name, though she could not hear her own voice. Something pulled at her from behind. She fought it off, afraid of falling. Something pulled again and Hyun-jin materialized before her, as terrifying as an apparition. Soon-ok dared not touch him, but air rushed into her aching lungs.

The shores of Taedong River had turned upside down. To Soon-ok, it looked like everything—the people, the cars, the animals, the snow and ice had been lifted up and hurtled down again. The air burned with the terrible, brittle smell. People were pulling themselves up, moving with slow, underwater movements that were speeding into panic. Dust and smoke blurred the air. Hyun-Jin was saying something, but she couldn’t hear past the roaring in her ears. He pointed to her face and she pulled the corner of her skirt up to her bleeding mouth. She looked up. The sky was enormous. She watched the boat man hurry back to shore. Churned ice and dirt, bodies and carts, everything was thrown up, thrown together, like the debris after a receding flood.

Hyun-jin was saying something to her, gesturing excitedly. The roaring in her ears had diminished to a ringing, but she still couldn’t make out his words. He pointed to the boat and the queue of people forming again. He pointed to the sky, then to the front of the line. As if Hyun-jin himself had given the signal, the plane came back.

“Now!” Hyun-jin pushed her forward. She and Euna sprinted to the water, to the boat that was already almost full with eager passengers. The boat man raised an oar to ward them off. Soon-ok lurched forward and pressed a few coins into his hands. Then she was in the boat with Euna and they were drawing away from the shore.


“I’ll cross right over with the next boat, Oma.” Hyun-jin mouthed the words. He stood waving, looking out at her, giving her his best reassuring look. She clutched Euna. The boat rocked and dipped in the water. She did not take her eyes off of Hyun-jin waving to her from the now-distant shore.


The old man in the boat smelled like fish. His scaly hands gripped the oars and his thin shoulders moved up and down as he rowed. He scanned the sky, then spit a lump of yellow phlegm into the river. Soon-ok readied herself to argue about money. For surely he would demand more to bring Hyun-jin across. But he said nothing.

There were fourteen of them crammed in the boat, almost sitting on top of one another. A man crouched in front of her so his back pressed into her knees while her back pressed into the legs of the old woman behind her. Euna sat next to her, shivering. The ringing in her ears had eased. The noise from the shore receded surprisingly quickly and soon there was only the sound of their breathing and the quiet push of the oars against the water. Soon-ok craned her head to look for Hyun-jin. She thought she could make out the shape of his head, but they were so far now, she could no longer be sure. The boat bobbed low in the water. Dark currents moved silently past them. She dipped her hand in the river and pressed it against her mouth. Blood was smeared across the front of her blouse.

As they drew near the other shore, Soon-ok could see the row of willows growing along the water’s edge and, beyond them, people scurrying away. The bottom of the boat crunched as it slid onto the beach. Her fellow passengers, who had been eerily silent and still until this moment, leapt from their places and splashed up to the shore. They disappeared into the trees without looking back. Soon-ok and Euna stood up in the boat, steadying themselves, and looked back at the sending shore, just in time to see the plane make another pass, swooping and scattering the crowd.

The boat man took his time getting off the boat. He stood on the shore, hitching up his pants. He spit again, then succumbed to a fit of coughing. His face was weathered and sour-looking, thin with a chin of uneven stubble. He shook his head and started to walk away.

Soon-ok jumped out of the boat and caught up with him. She grabbed his sleeve.

“Uncle, what are you doing? My son is on the other side.”

“I’m done.” The boat man’s voice was as gravelly as stones beneath their feet. “Won’t stick around and be blown to bits. I wouldn’t either if I were you.”

“No, uncle. You can’t leave yet,” Soon-ok insisted. “You must go back.”

“What did you pay me?” To make his point, he tossed her few coins back in her face. “I owe you nothing.” He shook her off. “Get going yourself if you know what’s good for you.” He turned toward the trees.

“Uncle, uncle,” her pleading turned to yelling. “Please, he’s my son. Don’t leave us like this. Think of what you’re doing to us. Have you no shame?”

The old man moved away easily and without remorse. The bombing of the bridge had turned his little boat into quick money. He had allowed pity and the ever-growing feeling of weight in his money pouch to egg him on, to test fate, just one more time. But now the passengers were poorer and more desperate. They nearly capsized his boat each time he returned to shore. In an earlier time, he would have been surprised to see how easily he could ignore the disconsolate cries of a fellow human being. His better self would have admonished him. He reckoned himself something of a philosopher. So it would have surprised him, if he had a moment, to see himself now, brushing away the cries of a woman for her son as though they were nothing. But it was not so hard after all. The falling bombs and the rowing, the numbness in his feet, had deadened him.

He tripped and hit the gravel hard, pebbles jamming into his elbow.

“What the—” The fool of a woman had thrown herself against his leg. He felt the heat of her arms around his calf; her strength surprised him. He kicked, trying to throw her off. “Get off, you—crazy—”

She gripped tighter, turning her head up to him, pleading. “Please. Please,” she was screaming now. “My son.”

He smacked at the top of her head. He tried to scramble up and away, but fell over, hard. Sharp stones stung his palms. She’d wrapped her arms around both legs. They scuffled without words, grunting. For a moment, he believed himself free of her, but her grip only tightened.

He stopped moving, out of breath. As though matching his motions, she quieted, too, still holding onto him.

“Please,” she repeated, her face buried in his thigh. “I’ll do anything you ask.” Something in her tone made them both stop. His intense stare gave her pause. For the first time since she’d lunged at him, she was aware of her closeness to this strange man. He was not as old as he first appeared, just worn down and miserable and filthy. Her arms trembled and ached from the effort, but she dared not let go. She felt the bony thinness of his legs through his trousers, noticed his yellow teeth and smelled something rotten.

A strange quiet hung between them.

“A good son is beyond value, they say,” he said.

“You can see I don’t have much, but you can have it all. But hurry. Just hurry.”

“What are you offering?”

“I’ll do anything you ask,” she repeated.

He considered her. Her appearance was nothing particular, just a thick-waisted woman past her prime. But her willingness sounded a note that surged through him. He was not so old or so poor, he thought. His thing hadn’t completely shriveled. He imagined taking her by the arm and dragging her into the woods and forcing her. Rather than her body, he thought of her expression, how she would grimace and grit her teeth and this aroused him.


He had forgotten about the girl. She was a puny thing in braids, hugging a school bag that was nearly as big as she.

“Stay away, Euna.” Soon-ok said, still clutching the old man’s legs.

“Listen to your mother,” the boat man said. “Before something bad happens to her. Or to you.” He tried to sit up and pull the woman off him. What a day, he thought. What a life. He was just about to shake the woman off for good when he saw the girl rush at him out of the corner of his eye. She swung her satchel and hit him in the back of the head. He hunched over, moaning. “What do you have in there,” he groaned. “Rocks?”

“I didn’t hit hard on purpose,” she said. “But I’m not afraid to.”

“I could snap your scrawny legs to pieces,” he muttered, but not very loudly. The mother was still clamped onto his legs and his head hurt.

“She’s just anxious to see her brother,” Soon-ok said. “Do the decent thing. Please. Don’t separate a mother from her son.”

“What a pair of bandits I’ve run into,” he said aloud, rubbing his head. “What a life.” And then he laughed. Soon-ok held on to his legs and Euna gripped her bag for another swing, each thinking that this was some kind of trick. That the boat man would feign laughter, then lash out at them or run away. But he didn’t run. He lay back, chortling, until they were sure he had lost his mind.

The boat man had been so close to casting them off completely, violently. In the end, he could not have explained even to himself why he agreed to go back for the boy. It was not her appeal to decency. He was already too far gone for that. But he was a creature of instinct. And his instinct told him that she would give him no peace until he had given in. If her boy died, she would find a way to have boat man dogged by his ghost. He knew women like her. Superstitious and simple, but as stringy stubborn as a piece of over-salted fish caught in your back teeth.

His instinct told him something else as well. Getting back into the boat, he cursed the crazy woman, muttering that they were lucky to have stumbled upon one as generous as he. But in the back of his mind, he remembered the look of clear-headed willingness fed by desperation. This intrigued him, this turning over of the self over to another. She wanted her son, reason enough. But what about hunger? Shelter? What other shapes would her later desperation take? He was a philosopher, but he was a businessman, too. Weeks and months would go by before he would put a name to what he had just seen. But what he had seen was important.

Soon-ok watched the boat man row back across the river. Across the river, Hyun-jin was waiting and wondering. This thought brought her to her knees.

“Oma?” Euna called to her, but Soon-ok didn’t have the strength to respond. She dug her knuckles into the gravel. Only when the boat man made his way back, his wooden vessel low in the water weighed down with human cargo, only when they were close enough for her to see the expression on Hyun-jin’s face—how fragile he seemed!—only then did she allow herself to slump over, all her strength gone. Such that when Hyun-jin came out of the boat, it was he who played the part of helper, feeling the burden as he shouldered his mother and stumbled away from the river.


This story appeared in Indiana Review 35.2, Summer 2014.

Anthony Correale (Fiction Editor): Bora Lee Reed’s harrowing fictional account of a pivotal moment in the Korean War possesses keen insights into the dehumanization inflicted on refugees. The characters in this chapter are grappling with physical displacement, but also with a kind of moral displacement as the exigencies of survival begin to blur their world. We are excited to read the novel that it opens!


Bora Lee Reed was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up Southern California. “Leaving Pyongyang” is an early chapter of her novel, The Letter Writer, which is inspired by her father’s experience as a war refugee during the Korean War.