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Mission Critical

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Reunification Day was Eun Sol’s least favorite day of the year. It all had such a dismal, suffocating atmosphere - the ritualized burning of the old North and South Korean flags; the hoisting of the United Republic flag; the politicians’ droning speeches; the oh-so-solemn tributes from celebrities. At least the food was great, if she ignored the Grave Historical Significance of the dishes and their layout. It was on its way to becoming the kind of holiday observed solely with feasts and day-drinking, but not nearly far enough. Eun Sol learned to just mouth along and discreetly roll her eyes, but she could never ignore the sneering subtext - “aren’t you pitiful Northerners so grateful for your liberation?” It was the only time she ever felt any spark of Northern identity, which made her hate it all the more.

It didn’t help that it was the one day Eun Sol couldn’t get out of being dragged into Pyongyang. She only knew the city as an immense civic metronome, keeping a relentless beat of anniversaries - Two hundred years since the War of the South China Sea began. One hundred ninety-four years since it concluded. One hundred fifty years since reunification... The city was decimated in the wars, and the architects of its reconstruction agonized over what tone to strike. Too triumphant, and it would mockingly paper over two hundred years of misery. Too solemn, and it would be just as much of a dreary monolith. The project dragged on for decades of deadlocked public forums and bloated contractors, limping across the finish line with the worst aspects of both. The memorials and street names were all stuffed to the gills with Serious Significance. The plazas and promenades were all very purposeful counterbalances to the grimness, unable to simply stand on their own.

The job was doomed from the start, of course. The United Republic had an impossible foundation, reconciling two nations with identities built on being Not Each Other. The only acceptable compromises were dirges of remembrance, offering no future other than more of the same ad nauseam. It still felt fundamentally unfair, though. From what Eun Sol had seen of Seoul and Busan, they kept on being more-or-less normal cities, sprinkled with dour monuments but not strangled by them.

Perhaps Eun Sol was projecting, but she felt that nobody liked going to Pyongyang, even for concerts or festivals. Entering city limits was always a soul-sapping obligation best kept as quick and painless as possible. The only decent parts of the city were the museums, and even that had heavy caveats. They were either scrupulously apolitical - talking around pivotal national traumas to an absurd degree - or just warehouses of more damn monuments. She developed her own rankings of them: Civic history was right out, but natural or technological history could be fun as long as you avoided anything from 1900 onward.

 


 

Eun Sol lived in the countryside, where the city’s aura was tolerably diminished. On a clear day she could see the skyline spread out like headstones on the horizon. She knew her parents had lived there as students, but they never elaborated on that time. No photos, no funny anecdotes, no old friends. As soon as they could afford it, they bought a house at the far end of the train line and never looked back. 

Their house was modeled on mid-22nd-century styles, when architects flailed wildly to shake off so many years of prefab totalitarianism. It didn’t copy their most bizarrely contrarian ideas, but the layout still confounded every single visitor. Several kilometers of overgrown fields lay between it and the nearest town. Perhaps that was too generous a term - it was a cramped bar, a pair of cheap restaurants, a convenience store, a municipal office, and an apartment block that was the only multi-story building in sight.

The nearest school was well within Pyongyang’s suburbs, three train transfers and a ten-minute walk away. After two months of enrollment, Eun Sol had been politely but firmly requested to leave and never return and not make the principal ask twice. After her parents hammered out the necessary bureaucracy, a new school routine developed: a rotating cast of tutors would come a few times a week from nearby towns, quickly learning to never commit the cardinal sin of boring Eun Sol.

This left plenty of unstructured time, which Eun Sol used to wander as she pleased. After exhaustive negotiation, she agreed to two rules from her parents: be back by dusk, and make sure she always had phone reception. She sincerely framed it as part of her education, and took notes in a journal labeled ‘Peripatetic Anthropology.’ In the surrounding fields, she saw farming techniques barely changed in centuries. The town borders followed bizarre zigzags, shaped by countless back-and-forth provincial slapfights. She drew map after map, full of real and imagined towns, beasts, and treasures.

She learned plenty of civic history, too. Once, at the edge of a meadow, she found a half-buried statue of some Kim or another. The head was gone, and it was covered in spray-painted slogans and curses. She ran home immediately. She didn’t tell anyone about it until three months later, when she gathered enough courage to return and confirm it wasn’t just a bad dream. 

The specter of national sorrow refused to be shut out. Her grandparents made a lot of jokes that she wasn’t quite sure were jokes. Whenever they got groceries, they talked about stocking up their bunker in the basement. Eun Sol never found it, but she did find immaculate framed portraits of the entire Kim dynasty. She asked her grandmother about them, who just chuckled and said, “Just in case we’re ever asked to prove our loyalty.” Eun Sol dropped the topic and never willfully raised it again.

 


 

When it came time for college, a prestigious Busan university gave Eun Sol a scholarship too good to refuse. She poked around at other schools, weighing the impossible choice of being stuck in Pyongyang’s orbit or always being The Northerner. It was a foregone conclusion, of course, and the final confirmation at least cut off the anxious dithering. She packed three sparse suitcases and set off on a train journey down the peninsula, insistently alone.

The first leg of the trip was fairly brisk, passing through familiar stretches of gray-green fields. The lack of any novel stimulus gave her plenty of time to ponder how to introduce herself. To so many people, Pyongyang carried the same charge as Carthage, Stalingrad, or Beijing. She could dodge the issue with “I’m from Taedong County,” which wouldn’t even need the ambiguous ‘up North,’ since everything is north of Busan. She had spent enough time with cousins in Dalian to pose as Chinese if necessary. But any Korean would see right through those tricks. Hanging out with international students seemed like the best option, since they wouldn’t recognize Northern accents or tics and hopefully wouldn’t give a damn about the whole shitshow anyway. After circling this mental drain for half an hour, she put her foot down: To hell with these pussyfooting mind games. I will give them the truth and they can take it or leave it.

As she reached this conclusion, the train began decelerating. The line stopped at a shabby little station on the edge of Unity Park, a national park that coincidentally bisected the country along the 38th parallel. Two other platforms held trains outdated at least twice over. A row of buses idled under a corrugated tin awning. Eun Sol only saw a handful of other travelers, each looking like they had long ago resigned themselves to being shoved around by far greater forces. Tattered signs promised a chartered jeep service, but between vague pictograms and many cycles of haphazard renovation, it was surprisingly hard to find. After a few clipped remarks from clocked-out attendants, Eun Sol finally found a small garage and paid a modest rental fee.

An immense wall of unruly greenery loomed over the station, threatening to engulf it if the gardeners slacked off for a day. Eun Sol drove the jeep up to it, and tossed a few more won to a park ranger to open up a steel gate choked in vines. The access road through the park was short and uneventful. She didn’t deviate from the very well-worn path, but the ancient fear of landmines still lurked in her mind. There were plenty of trailheads for meandering scenic routes, but she didn’t want to linger for a moment in the epicenter of national misery. Besides, her schedule was tight and missing her train would mean a four-hour wait.

Four kilometers later, a gate opened into another station, made of tinted glass and concrete. She parked the jeep on the top floor of a garage and ventured into the station proper. It was a little run-down, but with clear effort put into its upkeep. The vending machines were ten years old instead of thirty, and the clerks seemed to hate their lives slightly less. There were a few more travelers, briskly walking through the station in accordance with clear, up-to-date signage. A few franchised food stalls offered salty, warmed-over noodles. There were plenty of winding corridors to investigate, but her train was due in a few minutes and she already felt like enough of a Northern chonnom.

The second train felt as frictionless as an airplane, and Eun Sol was always a little surprised when she looked out the window and saw the world at ground level. It was an unremarkable world, barely distinguishable from fields and villages in the North, albeit with slightly higher PR scores. She stared intently, as if the culture shock was merely lying in wait. She resolved to table those thoughts until they became relevant, and tried her best to fall asleep with an audiobook.

She snapped awake when the intercom announced the imminent arrival in Busan. The skyline was still on the horizon, but the station was quickly coming into view. It was a magnificent palace of transit, interlaced with dozens of train lines and runway strips. Just as Eun Sol could resolve some details, the train darted into a concrete tunnel. Strips of halogen lights blurred by gradually less often until the train glided to a halt. She suddenly realized that everyone else had already gathered their luggage and lined up in the aisle. She grabbed her bags, joined the rear of the line, and disembarked.

The platform wasn’t too spectacular, but it had notably more chrome than Eun Sol was used to. The advertisements featured celebrities she had barely heard of, with no claims of value or efficiency. The crowd disapproved of her standing right in the middle of a crucial walkway, but flowed around her regardless. Once she picked up on the cue, she followed them to the elevators.

The doors opened upon the central hall. Eun Sol stopped and gasped at its cavernous majesty. Any fear of looking like a clueless tourist melted away. Skylights took up at least half the ceiling, slightly tinted to be easy on bleary-eyed travelers. Every architectural cue guided the eye to the arrivals board, which played a resonant note with every update. After listening for a minute, she grasped the logic: higher notes meant sooner times, and each vehicle had its own instrument. Trains were represented with piano notes, buses with cello, and planes with flute.

Even the advertising was perfectly in tune with the style. There were no overdesigned neon eyesores, just elegant pastel-to-neutral posters with calligraphic logos. As she stared, Eun Sol realized why they didn’t feel jarring - almost everyone here had that same magazine-perfect style. Even when they were exhausted, or disheveled, or at wit’s end with their family, they never broke that stride. It was all in the posture and bearing, free of an unsavory asterisk on their identity. She wondered what the Northerners of four hundred years ago would make of them. Would they feel contempt for their frivolity? Longing for their carefree grace? Jealousy of their freedom to be miserable in interesting ways?

The pontification ended when Eun Sol realized she had no idea where to find the regional train to school, and was quite hungry. The snacks she brought along had underwhelmed, and nothing had looked appetizing at either park station. She hauled her bags to a relatively cheap food stall, suddenly self-conscious of their military-surplus style. She shoved them under her chair and ordered a crab salad. A clerk assembled it out of reasonably fresh ingredients, rather than taking a plastic container from a fridge. The dish’s flavors were fairly well-balanced, a little drowned out by lemon but well worth the price.

Once Eun Sol returned her plate, she read the clerk’s name tag and thanked him personally. He looked grateful, but deeply confused by this deviation from social script. She grabbed her bags and ran to the arrivals board, wishing for a moment that the music would stop for a second and let her focus on the damn sign. The clerk at the info desk parsed her as a confused out-of-town student and pointed her to the right train platform. Gratefully, they spoke full-speed Southern dialect with no suspicion that she wouldn’t get it.

It was clear once she saw it. The platform had plenty of international students, and even a handful of fellow Northerners. They looked glaringly obvious to Eun Sol now, wearing clothes a decade out of date and craning their necks to gawk at it all. She felt a pang of embarrassment, but quickly caught herself. If I’m fated to become a sneering Southerner, it won’t happen on day one.

Once that urge was mostly quashed, she grabbed a stack of Busan tourist brochures: hikes, clubs, gardens, historical sites, restaurants, and whatever else the kiosk held. She sat down and began annotating them, plotting routes through the maps and highlighting points of interest. Not even the roar of the arriving train could distract her.

The intercom’s final boarding call barely reached her, but some fellow students tapped her on the shoulder and helped haul her bags. The train was already stuffed full, with ten overlapping conversations in progress. Most of them were in unfamiliar languages or thick Southern dialects. She joined a discussion in the familiar Northern style of morbid jokes and layered slang. She got some friendly laughs from Southerners, who rattled off stanzas of lewd puns. The train abruptly accelerated, nearly toppling everyone, but the jokes barely paused. It departed from the station and barreled towards a strange frontier.