In The Northern Liberated Provinces of Korea
R.I.P. O.F.W. 1994–2017
Wu Ran-sang heard himself sigh. In this sigh, there were many feelings.
His heart and body hung between the sky and the dun ground along the northwest wall of the tallest building in Onsong. Nine stories. A recovered textile factory in the process of retrofit.
Ran-sang, an electrician of a singular talent, looked out at the view which the height afforded him. A warm mid-spring sun hung in a wide open sky of astonishing blue. The diamond pearls of the Tumen River glistened in their long band not too far off. This was now the Sapphire Coast and Onsong was in preparation to be a modest city of great culture and assimilation.
In the meantime Ran-sang was a now 29-year-old healthy male whose heartbreak was exacerbated by a mild fear of heights he was attempting to manage by calling up Sun-shin's voice in his head. She would have loved this: up so high on such a lovely day.
She had been so small, yet fearless. Final proof of this was her volunteering for the latest militarized operation after the 2019 liberation: eradication of the land mines along the DMZ.
Her family had been extraordinarily proud of her. But all the while he'd had a sinking feeling.
Their old blood didn't seem to mourn for a minute over her. When he heard the news, Ran-sang felt his future blow away like fast air at the top of Mount Paektu.
Prosperity was nothing without love, he felt, being of a romantic disposition. And though the former was bursting forth thru the open borders and across the glistening river, a sadness for his lost love perfumed his expression and momentarily delayed his work.
He closed his eyes and wished again to hear her heartbeat, always strong. The very drum from which the 5th Empire had sprung. Juche- this time for and with the entire world.
Then the loudspeakers came alive, startling him—they seemed unnaturally close. While they echoed into the one o'clock breeze he remembered—the broadcast music and dance hour.
The old propagandized public address system had wiring that was in the best shape of any since the liberation. So, artists put it to the best use they could, pepping up Onsong reclaimators during the post-lunch lull.
Lunch. Ran-sang's stomach grumbled immediately as he realized he'd worked right through it. As if on cue, a member of his crew called his name. "You still up there?"
At the end of the working day, when Ran-sang dropped his gear at the buildings base office, a group of fellow electricians accosted him with the birthday song and a massive sweet red soy paste cake. Over the weekend, the young man had achieved his personal holiday. "Must make it easy to remember when you're born in the Millennial year!" one had joked, referring to 2000.
Ran-sang smiled, but felt guilty too for not currently being in the most celebratory of moods. Ever since his late-teens there were celebrations everywhere all the time. As if overnight, North Koreans went from the most strict and depressed of peoples to the most jovial, carefree and optimistic. A very dark cloud had lifted at last. And though ruins from dismantled and charred signage and statues blown out by fire and bombardment still lingered across much of the landscape, the dreaded Kwanliso were no more, and great possibility arose and filled the horizon like a grand phoenix from their ash.
Here was Onsong. The first stop and the last stand in a land preparing to host a celebration among ongoing celebrations. In 2045 it would be a century—the end of the last great war, and a period of unprecedented struggle.
Sometimes he felt outside himself with being a part of a time and place so radically real.
Just after 1900 hours, Ran-sang came to in the bunker. He heard voices as they undulated and laughed, echoing from a mess hall not far away. Dinner had been rice and kimchi and pork and plenty of Coca-Cola, barley tea or corn wine… if Ran-sang had wanted it. Which he didn't. For the moment, sleep had fared better for him. Feeling lonely all day hadn't seemed right so soon after his birthday. But it had been formidable work, all this re-wiring and re-gridding the whole of Onsong. The whole of the NLPK. And here in the bunker, the reclaimed labor camp his particular electricians union had overtaken, all the creature comforts of a creatively electrified home had been impressively mantled.
Groggily, Ran-sang felt his mind languish with calculations indicating the wattage just within his vision. He sat up against the wall, and the myriad of string bulbs felt warmer. He felt brighter, better, on his modest cot with these unflickering glows well-earned and hovering close, heralding the evening.
Among the voices in the other room he placed Chinese speakers with the Korean. He understood it all. They were practically the same language now. A hybrid with some English. Often exciting and cosmopolitan, Chinese reminded Ran-sang always of his favorite high school class trip to Beijing.
"You're up! It's getting lively in there." Wa-jinn stood at the door for a moment. Then he waltzed into the dreamy sleeping chamber and sat right down on the bed.
"You miss her?" he continued as he leaned close to Ran-sang. Wa-jinn wasn't a good friend so much as a person who seemed to be able to read minds from time to time; someone who was very candid.
Ran-sang wasn't sure he wanted to talk about it for wading in melancholia, but he nodded anyhow. Wa-jinn used a goofy Chinese phrase to cheer up his comrade. "Tonight will be a good offering." He proffered a flask and Ran-sang didn't ask. "Whiskey," he said as he took it away from his lips and offered it back to its owner who offered it back again. "Let me guess," Ran-sang's voice speaking for him again, "Monument City."
Wa-jinn nodded and smiled wickedly. "For you! Your first time of course. We're going for you and with you. I've been sent to rally you." Suddenly Ran-sang, sick with being heartsick, couldn't think of anything he'd rather do.
Here was all the commotion. A large rag-tag crew of masons had arrived all the way from Kanggye with three trucks worth of reclaimed "artifacts" like cast concrete, columned stone and broken brass from old monuments and were drinking heavily in the wide mess hall—their mood almost manic and infectious. Ran-sang entered and they cheered. He recognized some of them. On the other comrades he scanned he saw only the smiling faces of friends of the future.
Soon the roaring night caravan departed for the not-so-secret destination nearly 60km away. The builders and riggers in this youthful team made busy constructing their own celebratory edifice in the name of all their fallen heroes, and defectors who had died during the old regime. They called the hallowed ground Monument City.
Ran-sang and a woman at whom he was stealing glances were seated on opposite sides of an open-air tented truck bed. Both were watching the dust disappear from under the rear tires and tail lights and back into the fixed sparks of town. The sky star-speckled black. The noise of intoxication was everywhere, and comforting. He didn't speak while he looked on. She smiled when spoken to by others, and brushed wind-whipped long hair away from her mouth. The ride was long and short at the same time. They arrived to Monument City already teeming with worker-revelers.
"Wow." Ran-sang stood, and took it all in as friends and strangers descended on the caravan. A sound system had been mounted and music was pulsing across the landscape. Tears worked up over the bottom edges of his eyelids as he realized this trip to Monument City was just the healing journey he'd needed. “Tiny Little, you see this?" he whispered his endearment for Sun-shin into the cool air around him. "All of this is for you…"
Wa-jinn's arm was suddenly over his shoulder. The girl who had been across from him in the back of the truck was now standing directly in front of him, looking into his eyes. "This is Zu Shi-sung. She's transferring to Onsong next week with her fiberglass installation unit." With subdued formality she smiled and offered him a blue rice cake in brown paper.
"You look hungry," she said, "and Wa-jinn tells me you had your birthday?"
Ran-sang quickly wiped his eyes and glanced at his grinning supporters.
Shyly, thankfully, he took the cake and smiled back.
Now felt like the right time to celebrate.