Summer of Soju

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The next morning, the wasted Korean of the night before creeps into our dorm and silently glares at Joey while he sleeps. He pulls out a finger and impales Joey’s cheek until he wakes up.

‘Yes?’ Joey grumbles.
‘Who you?’ the Korean retorts.
‘W-w-what?’ Joey stammers, still half-asleep.
‘Sneak in?’ the Korean accuses.
‘What?’ Joey moans, ’No… we checked in last night. We met last night. Don’t you remember?’
The Korean scratches his head and stares down at the floor. ‘Don’t… remember…’

‘We did,’ I say from my bunk.
‘Oh…’

The Korean looks puzzled.

He glances at me, then back to the floor, coughing out an uneasy laugh.

He stands with his hands on his hips, sighing, until a burp seems to climb up his throat and he’s forced to rush into the bathroom. ‘Sorry!’ he cries as he slams the door behind him.

*

At some point, we manage to crawl down to the hostel reception.

Joey inspects a pile of touristic flyers and picks one out with the North Korean flag printed on the front. He reads it out loud:

See the border of two divided nations, still technically currently at war. Come to the DMZ.

‘Could be interesting?’ he comments, shrugging in my direction.

And with that, we decide to go.

*

We drag ourselves to the pick-up point and purchase two tickets for 100,000 won. The bus gradually packs out with other English-speaking tourists, and once full, a smartly dressed Korean woman emerges from the front row.

‘Welcome aboard,’ she breathes into a microphone. ‘Welcome to this trip, to see the border of South and North Korea.’
The passengers lightly clap their hands together.
‘Yes, thank you.’ She clears her throat. ‘So, we will have forty minutes’ drive, and in this time, I will tell you some facts about Korea.’
‘Wow, thank you!’ An American woman behind me applauds.

‘Yes, thank you.’ The Korean woman smiles. ‘So… South Korea has been a Republic since 1948…’
‘Wow!’ the American dumbly praises again.

‘South Korea and North Korea are still technically at war. There was no peace agreement after the Korean War…’
‘Interesting!’
‘Seoul almost carries half the population of South Korea…’
‘Wow!’
‘We are currently in the presidency of our first female president…’
‘Really!’
‘In South Korea, we have one of the highest student suicide rates, because of pressure to succeed…’
‘Interesting!’

Each and every automated response feels like a cigarette singeing a hole through my brain. Joey places a hand over his eyes and shakes his head, muttering something.

Twenty minutes pass and the facts continue…

’The economy in South Korea is growing rapidly, it is the 12th largest in the world…’

‘Great…’
‘Considering its size, South Korea tends to perform well at the Olympic games. So, you could say it’s an athletic nation…’

‘Uh-huh…’

Reactions to the facts seem to have finally started to wither, even from the American behind us. The Korean lady stammers for a moment and glances down at her crumpled sheet of paper.

‘Umm…’ she winces, ’but not Kim Jong-un in North Korea, of course.’

And the passengers dazedly respond as they did before, nodding and smiling, pretending to listen, until something simultaneously clicks in their heads and the entire bus explodes with a deafening laughter, the passengers hardly able to contain themselves after a mere mention of the dictator’s name - the moment they’d all been waiting for.

One chubby American applauds the comment from the back. ’And what a guy he is!’

*

Armed soldiers wave us in as we approach the demilitarised zone.

They direct us on foot to a greyish building at the end of a dusty path, where our guide waves everyone inside and instructs us to take a seat in front of a projector screen. The lights are switched off as the last members of the group shuffle in. Military music starts blaring from the speakers and a South Korean flag is projected on the screen, flapping in the wind to a few off-beat claps from the audience.

The music suddenly switches to a cacophony of crashing drums and shredding guitars and a tumultuous voice resounds throughout the room:

’South and North Korea are still technically at war, and YOU are at the border - the CENTRE of the tension between the two nations!

‘Here, you will see the soldiers of South and North Korea, FACE to FACE!’ Two Korean soldiers show up on the screen. ‘Two divided nations, staring each other in the FACE!’

The crowd applauds.

‘South Korea, is a prosperous nation!’ Seoul is shown on the screen. ‘North Korea, not so much…’ Rural photos of North Korea follow.

‘But the South Korean president cannot reach an agreement of re-unification, all down to ONE man…’ Kim Jong-un appears. The crowd boos accordingly.

‘So now, see the tension for yourself… and prepare to see, the DMZ!’

We’re escorted out of the projector room and into another where our bags are scanned through an X-ray machine. We’re told to maintain a respectful volume, and that photos are strictly not permitted.

The guide shows us to a path outside, from which we can see South Korean and North Korean soldiers facing each other from either side of the border. It’s like they’re staring into a parallel universe. Each of them stands tall, disciplined, motionless, only distinguished by their respective uniforms.

As close as they could possibly be, and still they stand divided.

After fifteen minutes of staring at the guards we’re ushered back inside to the gift shop, where hundreds of unrelated novelty items are slathered with the ubiquitous ‘DMZ’ brand.

Joey and I browse the merchandise.

‘Do you think there’ll ever be re-unification?’ I ask him.

He puts on a DMZ flat cap and grins stupidly. ‘Oh, I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s a tricky situation. What do you think?’

I smile faintly and gesture towards a DMZ ashtray. ‘I don’t know much about it, really.’

’Well, if something should happen, then it probably will.’

‘I suppose.’

‘But they might just be better off staying how they are, you know?’ Joey picks up a DMZ branded cigar and places it between his lips. ‘Basically,’ he mumbles, ’both sides want to change the other, to corrupt the other. Obviously, the people in the South don’t see their side of it as corruption. And neither do we. But the North does, and they probably always will. That’s the problem.’

*

The sky is dark and moody as we leave the DMZ.

Cars float past like yellow balls of light, while tiny drops of rain splatter against the window. Joey and I share a pair of earphones to drown out another round of mundane facts. I play him a carefully selected assortment of Beastie Boys songs that are more difficult to attribute to the group, mostly tracks from Check Your Head and Hello Nasty, like Namaste, Something’s Got to Give, and I Don’t Know. He bops his head to each track, smiling, gazing out of the window and then back to me.

I take a deep breath. ‘Do you think you’ll tell Mimi about last night?’ I ask him.

‘What?’

I pause the music and repeat the question.

‘Tell her?’ He frowns and turns his head away from me. ‘No… why?’

‘Well, it’s just… I feel bad about it, you know. And I think, if I tell Mia, then… at least I won’t feel as bad.’

‘Sure.’ Joey shrugs. ‘But then what happens? Trust me, that won’t help.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Yeah, listen… we were wasted last night, and those were just prostitutes. No love involved, right?’

‘I guess so.’

‘So…’ he sits back and crosses his arms over, ‘let’s just keep it between us, yeah? There’s nothing to gain from letting it out.’

Back at the hostel, I climb into my bed and see a new message from Mia, a topless photo. I turn on my side to face the wall and reach into my boxers, placing my dick in one hand, holding my phone with the other, but all I can think of is that prostitute from last night.

I lie and say it turns me on anyway.

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