An Excerpt from “Oxford Soju Club” by Jinwoo Park13 min read

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On the first day, Yohan flies into Bergen in pursuit of the defector, and after taking a cab into the city, he walks to the small fourth-floor lodging he rented, from which he can see directly into the window of his target’s apartment.

The place is small and cramped. So much land, yet so little space, he thinks. With all the endless scenery that he witnessed as the plane was descending onto the tarmac, people can still barely stretch their legs in their own homes. In a space roughly the size of a large closet, there is everything. A bed, a small kitchen, and a table with one chair.

Over the course of the week, he maps out his target’s patterns. He has grown a light beard since Yohan last saw him. He steps out of his apartment every day around mid-afternoon and gets back for dinner time, somewhere between 1800 to 1900. He also jogs regularly in the mornings. Usually the same route. Down the hill, through the city center, and then to the docks, and then he comes back up.

Yohan carries out his plan on the eighth day. He watches the target, clad in a black jacket and jeans, stroll out from the building’s front entrance. He waits for an hour, walks across the street to the other side, and enters the target’s building. He climbs a narrow set of stairs once inside. On the third flight of steps, he turns to mark’s door. He picks up the lock and opens it, slowly stepping forward, wary of a wire crossing his legs. Instead of traps, he is greeted by a modest dwelling. None of anything he sees is much better than what he can get back in the Republic. A single bed, a table large enough for two, a chair, and a stool by the fridge. It is a mirror image of the space that he is temporarily occupying.

Yohan goes to the window, pulls back the curtains, and looks outside. The day is cloudy, and few people are in the streets. Beyond, he sees a mountain rising above the city. By his calculations, the man will arrive in approximately two hours. That gives him some time to search the place for weapons, but to his surprise, he does not find much that would give him concern. There is a single kitchen knife in the drawers that could be used, but otherwise, the room is furnished as if his target was a harmless man to begin with, not the living weapon they were all made to be. So Yohan drags the chair over, sits facing the door, and waits.

When the man returns, he holds a bundle of groceries dizzily crammed into a brown paper bag in his arms. He sees Yohan sitting there. They exchange nods, the man calms as a host finds a guest early.

“Dongmu,” the target says, putting the groceries on the counter, and setting himself on the stool. The Hamkyeongdo accent is heavy in his Korean.

Yohan does not answer. His protocol is clear in these missions: do not engage, but simply execute.

“I saw you, dongmu. I was wondering when you’d come over. Across the building. It’s small, isn’t it? I took a look at that place too when I first came here. This place is much nicer, though still far away from spacious. I think the apartment I used to have with my omani back home was much larger.”

The man, leaning his arms on his knees, smirks momentarily and then watches a floorboard. It makes Yohan uneasy, his eyes also traveling to the same spot on the floor, wondering if something is under there.

“Would you like some tea?” The man stands back up, heating up the kettle.

The man takes Yohan’s silence as agreement and simply carries on, putting two bags of black tea into two mugs, one red, and one grey with a small triangular piece chipped away from the edge, leaving a short trail of forking cracks beneath. The gas stove heats up, the blue flames flaring after a quiet tick tick tick and a whip. The green kettle’s bottom is blackened and the fire licks at it hungrily.

“There is no hurry,” the man says. “I should tell you, I’m not going to run from this.”

Yohan hears thumps booming down from above as if someone is stomping around the upper-level unit. From the wall, a woman’s voice can be heard. She sounds angry like she is accusing someone, though no one else seems to be in the conversation.

“It’s a bit noisy here. I thought it’d be nice and quiet in Norway. Turns out people are people everywhere.”

Yohan calmly leans back, his eyes steady but cautious of sudden unexpected movements.

“I suppose this is as expected,” the man says, looking out the window. “I don’t know what I wanted to find. I suppose that’s why I haven’t left, though I should’ve.”

The kettle whistles and the man stands up to get it. Yohan readies himself, expecting the other to hurl the pot of boiling water at him while he makes a break for it. But he does not. In his slow, relaxed movements, it is clear that this man has no deliberate intentions in his body. He is simply going through the flow of his day.

He serves tea, for himself and Yohan.

“How is he doing? Our Commander,” he asks Yohan, his hands wrapped around his mug.

Yohan does not answer, still glancing around the room, vigilant for an unseen threat that may spring itself.

“Please, dongmu. Do spare your comrade some companionship in his last moments. Have some tea. It was very expensive. Here, everything is.”

Yohan sniffs first, then presses the edge of the cup on his lips, letting barely a few drops into his mouth and pausing. Once he confirms that it does not taste off, he takes a fuller sip.

“Is it good?” The target asks, his hope for a positive answer hanging on his lip.

Yohan shrugs.

“Ah, I was hoping for more of a reaction. I suppose money doesn’t exactly buy better tea. Capitalist trickery and whatnot,” he shakes his head as he sniffs his own cup and raises it to his lips just enough to take a shallow slurp. Then, he puts it down on the small table next to him and leans in with his hands pressed together.

“Do you not miss home?” he asks Yohan.

After a pause the man chuckles, having reminded himself of something.

“Right, maybe not as much as I do. I have my omani back home, you see.”

The man drifts off for a while, setting down his gaze on a place beyond the room, trying to catch something in the air fleeting away.

“When they sent us out here, they sent us out here without anything. Not even a picture. Do you know what that’s like? To forget your own omani’s face? I didn’t know it could even happen. It started with thinking of what her ears looked like because I had rarely seen them. My omani, she has these long locks, you see. So, it hides her ears. And it started there, that specific place that disappeared from my memory when I tried to conjure her face. It spread to her mouth. I forgot how her lips formed when she would speak. How her smile curled way up to her cheeks. She had this endless smile for me. I remember it. I know of it. It’s just, now I can’t remember what it looked like. I know the feeling it used to give me. But, for the life of me, I cannot remember what her smile looked like. How her face would wrinkle in so many ways when she did it. Before I realized what was happening, I lost her nose one day. And then her cheeks. And then her eyes, and she became a figure. A blank canvas of a face. Like those egg ghosts, you heard from folk tales yeah? Their faces just erased, a flat smooth surface with nothing on them.

“Then I saw her one night. I dreamed of her. She was talking to me. Wearing this pure and white jeogori and chima. She was telling me that she was waiting for me. I asked her where she was waiting and she wouldn’t say. Like that, I dreamed of her for weeks. I never dreamed of her before. Why now, I asked. Why now? Why would she be compelled to come to me after all this time? I had to think something was wrong.

“So I asked the Commander. I asked him if he could send her a message for me, and he told me he couldn’t and I asked why, but he wouldn’t tell me why I couldn’t. I asked whether she was living in an apartment in Kaesong as he told me she would be. He said yes, and I asked which apartment. He wouldn’t say and he said that it was classified. Why would that be classified? I just wanted to know that she was okay, that she was provided for like the Dear Leader promised. That was all. But the Commander told me I didn’t need to know anything. Only to accept what I’ve been told. That what he said was the truth because he was speaking the words of the Dear Leader.

“But I knew that something was off. Because the dreams never stopped. She kept showing up. She told me that she was sorry and I kept asking her why she was sorry and for what, but she simply kept crying. From that, I knew something wasn’t right. Something had happened to her.”

Then, in the comrade’s face, Yohan recognizes a familiar look. It is the face of silent and defeated desperation that he has only seen in other children when he was still an orphan, far before his discovery and rescue by the Commander. He has seen it many times, a despair of a certain kind that creeps over when the situation is life or death, yet there is nothing that can be done. When hunger cannot be assuaged because no food would arrive, or when pain cannot be relieved because no one would care for it.

“They said my omani would be taken care of. Yet, she could be in the camps, and I wouldn’t have an idea. Fancy that, right? You risk everything for the Leader, but out here, who knows.  If I died out here, would anyone know that I was here for a reason? Would people see the identity the Bureau has set up for me, whatever it is. Or would people see the man that I truly was, before I came to all of this?”

The man flashes Yohan a bitter grin.

“In a way, you are the fortunate one, my dongmu. You are tethered to no one. You’re a floater. You know nothing about what it means to have someone who depends on you, who is connected to you. To know that you have been someone to others before.”

Yohan holds his silence. His grip on his cup tightens. He says nothing back, not because there is nothing to say back, but because he knows he shouldn’t. There is no need to respond. Again Yohan repeats the Commander’s instruction in his head. Do not engage, but simply carry out the task.

“You must see it. We are all dead already. The moment we stepped out of our homes onto this foreign soil to do our duty, we all became empty husks. All of us came here with something left behind, and I don’t know why I ever thought this was for the best, because all I want now? Right now? Is to taste my omani’s stew.”

The man sighs and suddenly rises from the stool. Yohan, almost startled, thinks about inching his hand to his hip to reach for his pistol. But the man shows no indication that he is about to resist. Rather, it looks as if he has finally made a decision that he had been putting off for a long. The man finishes his tea in one gulp and puts it in the sink. Then he turns to Yohan.

“Well,” he says. “How will we do this?”

“The pill.”

“Which one?”

Yohan takes out a small black box from his coat, and opens it, revealing a white pill with a red stripe across it.

“Ah this one,” the man recognizes it. “At least the Commander shows me mercy.”

Yohan nods. From the Bureau, to the Commander, to Yohan, and now to him.

“What will they say about me?” he asks.

Yohan begins to recite what the Commander prepared. “That you were on a mission here to listen in on a Russian politician’s meeting with the Norwegians. But they found you out because a Southern spy located you. Your pursuers got close. They almost had you. And as they were ramming down the door, you realized that there was no way out. You committed suicide, and went down without spilling a word to the Republic’s enemies.”

He nods with each beat of the story, listening carefully to the words being weaved by Yohan.

“Good,” he said. “Not that it matters.”

The comrade plucks the pill from its container and stares at it for a while. He drags it around on his palm with his index finger. Then, he lifts his head up and smiles at Yohan, who has never seen this kind of serenity in a man about to die before. Every time until now, he has either had to do it by force or do it without his target knowing. But here, this comrade seemingly has no fear or doubt about his demise.

Yohan cannot help but ask, “Was it worth it?”

“What was?”

“This.” Yohan briefly spreads his arms.

The comrade puts his head down again, and it does not take him a long thought to raise his face toward Yohan with a smile. “It wasn’t. But I did it anyway. That’s what mattered.”

Yohan, rapt, tries to not show his interest. He simply flicks his chin toward the pill, telling the comrade to get on with it.

“I hope you find something for yourself in the end, dongmu,” the comrade says.

Then he pops it quickly in his mouth, swallowing once. He walks over to the bed, lies down, and closes his eyes. There is no struggle, nor the slightest utterance of pain on his lips. He simply falls asleep. After five minutes, Yohan gets up and leans his head down on the man’s chest. There is no heartbeat.

Yohan collects the comrade’s money and identification papers, all hidden in the cupboard, behind a false panel past the scantily placed plates and mugs. He takes all but one of the fake passports and leaves it on the table for whoever discovers him to see.

That is how he reports all of this.

 


Jinwoo Park is a Korean Canadian writer based in Montreal. He completed his Master’s in creative writing at the University of Oxford in 2015, and has been working in the tech industry as a writer since. In 2021 he won the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers’ Award for his first manuscript, Oxford Soju Club.

 

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