Chung He and his wife Dae live in Sinuiju on the banks of the Yalu River. Yalu is its Chinese name and means “duck green” which refers to its color. The river’s Korean name, seldom used, is Amnok and means boundary between two countries. The Yalu borders China and the town of Sinuiju where Chung and Dae live. Sinuiju is opposite the bustling Chinese town of Dandong.
The river remains frozen for four months of the year November through February. It is bordered by forests which are full of wolves, tigers, jaguars, bears, foxes and wild boar.
Chung is a poor fisherman who ekes out a living on his daily catch of carp and eel, which he is obliged to share with the border guards who let him fish in certain spots on the river all perilously close to the Chinese border. He has a daughter named Bong-cha who is seven years old. Bong-cha accompanies Chung on his daily fishing trips. She is tall for her age and skinny since she, like most North Koreans, suffers from malnutrition. They live on their small boat which is moored on the side of the river not far from the town.
It is about twenty feet long, made of wood painted a light grey in color. It has a tiny cabin constructed of sheets of corrugated metal nailed together in a haphazard fashion. The family sleeps in this 5 x 5 space, their bodies pressed together to keep out the cold that comes creeping in slyly through the cracks. The smell of fish seeps into everything and permeates their thick blue cotton suits and covers the skin underneath their clothes with its relentless odor. They have a small potbellied stove which barely keeps them warm during the day, since much of what they burn are tiny pieces of wood scavenged from the banks of the river.
Their diet consists of the small amount of fish they manage to keep after paying out some in bribes to the border guards, and selling some in the market in the center of Sinuiju. With the money they earn from these sales they buy tiny amounts of rice, sugar, salt and tea. Vegetables and fruit are an unknown luxury and something Bong-cha has rarely tasted if ever.
We come upon Chang and his family in 1995 the year that marks the middle of the great famine. As the years of the famine progress, all of the fish that Chung and his family catch are removed from them and placed into the Public Distribution System, which is slowly running out of food.
Chang is forced to take great risks by creeping out at night without light and fishing where the vigilant authorities cannot find him. This works for a bit, but the food they are able to find is so meager that he has to watch as his wife and daughter, who is now eleven, become no more than walking bones. Chung agonizes at the fact that he can put both his hands around his daughter’s waist and that the fingers meet easily and overlap. Finally in 1999 during the middle of the winter, his daughter becomes very sick. Her beautiful face, she is an exquisite child with dark hair, almond eyes and pale skin, shrinks to no more than cheekbones and eyes.
Every night in the small cabin in which they live, her father hears her coughing, her chest heaving with the effort to catch her breath. Both he and his wife do not say anything to each other, but they know that she is close to death.
Chung goes to the authorities at the Public Distribution System to beg them for food for his daughter, and on his way there as he walks through the snow-covered street of Sinuiju, a stray sheet of newspaper blows across his foot and covers it. As he looks down he sees, but cannot read through eyes stiff with cold, that the government is spending millions of dollars to purchase 40 MIG-21 warplanes from Kazakhstan.
On arriving at the Office of Public Distribution he is told by an official who looks warm and well fed that there is no food, and that if he does not leave immediately he and his family will be forcibly moved to a nearby Stalin-style industrial camp, where they will be put to work.
On returning to their boat with the bad news, he and his wife desperately make a warming broth for their daughter from the soles of an old pair of leather shoes that Chung has worn in school many years ago when he was a young man. All hope like a dark bird has flown from their tiny home, and while Kim Jong and his family feast on the fruits of foreign aid that they have diverted into their own coffers, his daughter dies later that night in both their arms.
As the small body that is no more than skin and bone lies in their arms, they remember their daughter, who despite her hard life loved to run across the thick river ice near their boat and shout back at them, her black hair flowing in the wind like a flag of independence under her small cloth cap; her hands clumsy in their cloth mittens. She was so full of joy they remember, and like a delicate songbird soared across the arc of their life bringing them comfort and hope.
Their daughter Bong-cha loved to sing, and they remember her singing as she sat perched on the front of their boat, as the fishing lines dangled loosely in the water in front of her on a warm spring day. She told them she was singing the fish to sleep in their underwater gardens, blue and green with river weed and rocked by the gentle currents.
in your deep water garden
sleep gently in the weeds
don’t let the big birds get you
or the nets snare you
close your eyes and dream
The old man and his wife weep as they remember their daughter, who was their light and their joy.
Meanwhile as they mourn her death, many miles away in the capital, Kim Jong remarks to his wife where she lies reclining in their red, Chinese lacquer bed, and as he slowly unbuttons his black coat from the neck down, “let the people eat nothing”.
Since it was winter and Chung and Dae did not want their daughter’s body to decompose in any way before a proper burial could be arranged for her, they laid her outside on the small wooden deck, wrapped up in a hand embroidered, silk blanket that Dae’s mother had given to her on the occasion of her wedding.
They went to bed that night pressed up against each other on the solid wooden boards of the boat, each one silently nursing their sorrow like a small bruised flower that grows in a dark and secret place.
When they woke the next morning Chung went out to recover his daughter’s body and prepare it for burial. He and his wife would bath and dress Bong-cha in her best suit. They would comb her hair and collect any stray pieces that had fallen which would be placed with her in her grave. They would be unable to feed her the three spoonfuls of rice that was an old tradition. However despite their abject poverty they would take one of the small metal coins lying in the tin cup under the floorboards of the boat and place it in her mouth, believing that this would ease her journey into the next world. They would bind her body seven times with rope before they broke the ice on the river and placed her body in it. They would put together a pinso, a make shift shrine, where they would sit together and remember their daughter through stories they would tell to each other about her short and sweet life. They would sing to the fishes about her.
When Chang lifted the blanket however it felt very light and he realized immediately that his daughter’s body was not inside. He called out in alarm to his wife who came stumbling out of the galvanized cabin into the cold, rubbing her eyes. Her breath came out in short gasps and spun a cloud of white smoke around her shoulders.
Dae cried out in alarm when she saw her daughter’s body was gone and flapped her small hands uselessly in the air like a trapped, brown sparrow. They looked all over their boat but they could not find her anywhere. Chang thought that perhaps the wolves and foxes had come onto the boat in the night from the nearby forest and taken her far away.
Chang would have gone to the authorities to report this unbearable loss, but he remembered his last brush with them and did not want him and Dae to be sent to a work camp. Instead the two, broken old people nursed their sorrow silently and it stung like nettles all over their frail and famished skin.
They passed the winter in a daze hardly eating and getting weaker and weaker as the cold crept into their brittle bones and settled against their hearts, immoveable and frozen. In the spring barely alive they began to fish again. It was as if the river and the fish knew of their loss, remembered the little dark-haired girl who sang so sweetly, and it gave them a bumper harvest of eels and carp.
When old Chang took his full buckets to the market as the famine was breaking and food was starting to weakly flow again, he met some of his fellow fishermen who were also there to sell baskets of carp laid out on grass and leaves, and long brown eels twisting and thrashing in metal buckets.
As he was passing a group of several men whom he knew by name, he greeted them gently and told them that he wished them plentiful fishing. He told them that the river had been kind to him and that he hoped they would be as lucky, that he hoped the spirits of the water goddess would bless them as she had blessed both him and his wife.
The men nodded at him and smiled, one however looked away and once the old man had passed said out of the corner of his mouth, the words spinning away from where his fellow fishermen were gathered:
“Old man your daughter had little meat and she tasted like fish”.