The rusty red pickup raced west out of town, bearing toward the river. An old man hunched over the steering wheel, swollen eyes squinting into the sunset. He swore gently, casually; he ran the back of his hand over his lips, salt-and-pepper whiskers scraping leathery skin. The young man beside him only stared out of his window, arms wrapped protectively around a box. In the flatbed, large bundles of leafy stalks rustled under secure tarps.
The old man nudged the young man, nodding ahead. “Straighten up. We’re two minutes from the Friendship Bridge. I don’t know if the Day of the Shining Star is gonna fuck this up, so you leave all the talking to me. Got it?” Despite the turns in the dirt road, winding through plots of farmland and rice paddies, the old man stared at the young man until he got a nod out of him. “In fact,” he mused, “you don’t talk until Shuanghe. I’ll buy you all the shiu mai you want if you don’t say a word until our rear tires hit Xingdan Road.” The young man nodded again, wordlessly. He pulled out two cigarettes and lit them, handing one to the driver.
They came up to the river, flowing nicely for this time of year. A long highway crossed it, with bright white towers. There were no other bridges on the river as far as the eye could see. The sun was setting just to the right of the bridge, between it and a low, flat white house. From this house a gaunt young man emerged. His green uniform was crisp, with two gold bars on his epaulets, but his cheeks were hollow and his expression was mean. The shoulder strap to his rifle slid off easily and he held his Type 58 in both hands, not even bothering to wave the truck down. Just stood there expectantly. The old man pulled up and halted obediently a short distance before him.
Both men in the truck snuffed out their cigarettes, tossed them in the passenger’s foot well. The old man smacked the young man’s arm; the young man rolled his window down all the way. The guard bent slightly to glare at both men.
“The bridge is closed,” the guard said curtly.
The old man laughed. “Come on, Corporal, the sun’s not down. We’ve gotta get this load to Dandong tonight. You get it? They’re waiting for it.”
“Not my problem.” The guard glanced at the box in the young man’s lap. It was wrapped in a few layers of produce sack, hand-stitched shut, with a large red stamp on it. “Ginseng?” he asked the young man. The young man only looked down.
“Cheap-ass ginseng, but good enough for those Chinese bastards, you know?” The old man laughed. “They don’t care, they’ll sell it to the American assholes anyway.”
The guard narrowed his eyes at the young man. “Why won’t you look at me? Why aren’t you talking?”
The old man swatted his partner’s arm and told him to offer the guard a cigarette. “Double Happiness, Cpl. Chol! Very good Chinese brand. Not the bullshit we… uh, you get it. This ain’t no Arirang.” The old man faltered and chuckled. The young man looked Chol in the face as he pulled out three cigarettes and held up a lighter.
The guard stared him down for a long moment, then took the cigarettes and stuck them in his pocket. “What are you carrying tonight?” he asked the old man.
“Fifteen bales of, uh, tea. The usual.” The old man shifted in his seat and nodded at the guard. “Hope it’s not too much trouble if you want to count them.”
Chol told them not to move and stalked around the vehicle. The two men heard the aged whine of the tailgate coming down, then the rustle of the tarps as Chol poked around, looked around. “I see sixteen back here,” he called up.
The old man laughed. “They’re working you too hard, Cpl. Chol. There’s only fifteen.” He looked in the rear-view mirror hopefully.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Keep it around! Maybe some nice Chinese businessmen would appreciate the gift, if you can’t use it!” The old man looked at the young man and muttered, “Gae-sae-ggi!” The young man smiled briefly.
One bound bale of marijuana slid out of the back and sailed through the air toward the guard house, the tailgate cried and slammed shut, and Chol walked around to the old man’s window. “All right, Hyong-Kim, you hustle on out. Thirty percent when you come back tomorrow. Problem?”
Hyong-Kim assured him there wasn’t, “but the Chinese guards will want their gift, too. I can promise you ₩800,000.”
Chol snorted. “A million.” One palm slithered up and down the stock of the Type 58.
The old man sucked air through his teeth, pretended to think about it, and nodded, swearing the corporal was taking the food right out of his kids’ mouths. The rusty red pickup zipped to the bridge just before the sun touched the Dandong skyline. The young man watched the scrawny guard haul the large, white bale inside the house, in his rear-view mirror.
The broad Yalu River flowed beneath them. Their tires quieted down on a road more expensive than any in their own nation, outside of the capitol. “That was good, pretty good,” the old man said. “Glad that meongchongi is so bad at math. Good thing, huh?”
The young man only shrugged.
“Aw, come on. You can talk now, we’re clear.”
The young man raised his eyebrows at Hyong-Kim, then looked out at the dappled sunset on the river.
The old man barked out raspy laughter. “You’re not fucking around! Young-A wants his shiu mai!” He clapped the young man’s chest and closed the distance to the Chinese trade city.
The Chinese guards did want their gift. Even so, Hyong-Kim cleared nearly ₩3 million when Liwei unloaded the truck in the grove behind Shuanghe Dumpling. Liwei was demanding but fair, and he rewarded good, consistent work. Inside the restaurant, he fronted the first round of beers as the two North Koreans got settled in their booth. Young-A still chose not to say too much until his meal was steaming right in front of him, and he never lessened his hold on the box.
Liwei held his wrist as he poured a Tsingtao for Hyong-Kim. “Still can’t believe this economic boom for you guys, what you’re growing. I’m sure once our side catches on you won’t be able to just haul it over like this, but still.” His eyes glistened at the old man. “You look like you haven’t missed any meals lately. That’s great for you, huh?” He poured a beer for Young-A and the three toasted.
“It’s just like anything else.” The old man puffed out his cheeks and blew slowly, painfully. “You never get rid of all your problems, with money. You just climb up into a new level of problems you couldn’t see before, you get me?” He took a long pull at his beer.
“Not sure I follow.”
“Well, we were starving just a few months ago. My son’s kids, they couldn’t even find any frogs or rats anymore. I think we cleared them all out, our village did. Now? We’ve got so much money, I have to keep telling my daughter-in-law to play it cool, stop showing off. But she just can’t resist having friends over and serving meat for dinner.” He looked at Liwei and shook his head. “Real beef. That shit attracts attention. We have to have the inminbanjang over just to keep her quiet, but she’s started hinting about, well, new courtesy. Fucking bribes. You get me?”
Liwei sucked at his teeth. They all looked up at the waitress who brought two plates of shiu mai, one for the older men and a pile all for Young-A, who tore into them.
“And now my grand-daughter, I got her a notel. Was that enough? I caught her the other night watching that show, what is it? All the kids are into it.” Hyong-Kim spun his hand in the air, thinking. “Reply 1997. One of her friends sneaked one of those… flash-sticks, whatever. I tried to tell her: if inminban catches her with that? Our entire fucking neighborhood gets shipped out in Crows in the middle of the night.” He looked at Liwei sadly. “The kids, they don’t have the fear in them, the respect that we grew up with. I don’t know what’s changed. I just know we gotta get them outta here before they do something stupid. And that is just a matter of fucking time, you get me?” His shoulders slumped beneath a threadbare and ash-drab sweater. He snorted and shoved a hot dumpling in his mouth.
The relief from the successful transfer of quality marijuana and its generous payoff faded. It gave way to the more familiar dread of the world, the sickness pervading the local environment, that bled into Dandong from Sinuiju and parts east. Liwei wasn’t even immune, trafficking with people like Hyong-Kim, playing his game right on the border. All he had to do was piss off the wrong official and he could disappear in the night too.
The old men looked at Young-A, not technically Hyong-Kim’s nephew but adopted into the fold. He’d made good work on his steamed buns and was halfway into his second beer. Liwei glanced at the box on his lap, with the durable produce wrap and the counterfeit lading seal. “Is, ah, that what I think it is?” he asked the older man.
“Oh, yeah.” Hyong-Kim reached over and tugged at Young-A’s shoulder. “It’s okay, now. You can show him.”
Young-A looked at the two older men, half a steamed pork bun in his mouth, and rolled his eyes upward as he fished in his bomber jacket for a box cutter. He slit through the woven plastic layers and exposed a rough, water-damaged cardboard box. A waitress walked up to see if there was anything else they needed, and both Liwei and Hyong-Kim urgently hissed her away. Young-A slit through the packaging tape around the lid and peeled the box open. He gouged out a couple handfuls of newspaper and sawdust before coming down to a hard shell of milky plastic. He set the cardboard box on the table and very gently lifted open the top shell.
The inside was pristine and white. There was a small, blinking Arduino board, two slices of banana, and a tiny woman.
Liwei hissed, “Ta-ma-de!“
Hyong-Kim nodded back at him. “This is Mi-Na. She’s Young-A’s older sister. Family secret, very easy to hide.” He chortled. “If you can hide a flash-stick with South Korean movies on it, you can hide a little woman who eats nearly nothing.”
“She’s beautiful!” Liwei was unable to tear his eyes from her. The tiny woman was perfectly proportioned, but only eight centimeters long, roughly. She had shapely legs, slender arms, tiny little apple-breasts, and glossy black hair that ran nearly the length of her body. She rested in a molded plastic seat, awake and alert: her minuscule eyes, plain and profound in black-on-cream, blinked adorably up at the Chinese trader. His callused hand hovered over the box. “Can I touch her?”
In one swift gesture, Young-A took up a dull restaurant knife and rapped Liwei sharply across the knuckles with the flat of it. The Chinese looked at him with resentment, and he was shocked to see an intense fire in the young man’s normally dull gaze. Liwei’s dark brown eyes drifted to his friend.
“I think she will command the top dollar, as the Americans say,” Hyong-Kim murmured. Liwei knew he’d given too much away, no cards left up his sleeve, so he had to agree.
He looked back at the young man. “And you’re willing to part with her, with Mi-Na?”
It was the first time Young-A spoke. “Mi-Na is our way out of the DPRK. Both of us,” he emphasized.
Liwei slumped in their booth, scratching the back of his head. “Look, she’s worth a lot—”
“Mi-Na is priceless.” Young-A’s face was hard and hot.
“She is, I agree! But that just means it’s going to be that much harder to find a buyer.” Liwei looked at the young man pleadingly, then sighed and poured everyone another round. “There’s people who have that kind of money here, yeah, sure. But they’re hard to approach, see? I don’t have the privileges to just walk up to them. I have to talk to people, make connections, and how many people will believe that you’ve got a koonago? How far will that story travel?”
“Liwei! Are you jerking us around?” Hyong-Kim clutched a fork in his fist.
“No, not at all! I’m not asking you to give her to me! Keep her, hold onto her… fuck, protect her with your lives. She’s worth a fortune, there’s no question of that.” He looked between the two North Koreans, his palms raised. “Stay here as long as you need to. I’m just saying, this is going to take a lot of time. I can find someone—if not an American congressman, then maybe one of those perverted Dutch entrepreneurs, sometimes they come down here after their lectures in Rason. They’ve got shitloads of money and no clue what to do with it except try to exploit your nation to make more.” Liwei laughed sharply. “Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work, sapping blood from a turnip. They’re just waiting for unification so they can sweep in and grab your real estate and cheap labor before the State Council brings the hammer down.”
Hyong-Kim eyed his partner, concern creasing his leathery face. The tiny woman sat up her box, stretching and yawning, glancing from face to enormous face overhead. Her perfect, pearlescent skin seemed to glow in the seedy dumpling restaurant. Young-A said, “I’m not handing Mi-Na off to European perverts. She doesn’t get separated from me: we go everywhere together.”
Liwei gave a strangled groan. “That makes it harder, except… maybe…” He raised his eyebrows at the young man. “There’s a way you could make a shit-ton of money and never let go of her. We might have to usher you up to Russia, find some actors, a studio I know of, but…” He smiled at the young man, then at the old man, and he waved for another round of beers. “You know what webcam girls are?”