DAYBREAK, 25 JUNE 1950, TAESŎNG-TONG, KOREA
The rooster crowed and warned the evil spirits of the night that it was time to leave, but the thunder-like roars still rumbled in the background, ignoring their cry. Kyu yawned, stretched, and carefully got out of bed to begin his chores, not wanting to wake his wife and daughter. Korea may be known as the Land of the Morning Calm, but this day wasn’t starting that way. He heard more rumblings in the distance, and there were numerous lightning- like flashes in the dawn’s early glow. Outside, the earth was wet, so it had rained during the night, and the storm remained still growling in the distance. Kyu left the house, fed the goats and chickens, and hitched the oxen to the yoke to start another day on the farm. His wife and daughter would be up soon to make breakfast. His mom always slept late on Sundays, so she would not be stirring yet. His stomach growled at the thought of Nabi’s warm cooking. The thunder-like rumble grew, accompanied by a mechanical rattling noise sounding somewhat like a train. No normal storm made noises like that.
As Kyu walked from the barn, the foot-tall ssal julgi (rice stalks) in the non (rice fields) waved gently in the water, fertilized by human and animal dung. Woo Kyu-Chul and his ancestors have raised rice on this farm outside of Taesŏng-tong for centuries. His grandfather was here when the Japanese jjokbari invaded in 1910 and built the Gyeongwon railroad. It ran from Seoul, the new capital in the south, through Kaesŏng, the old capital west of here, to Wonsan in the north. Maybe the mechanical sound was a new type of train? Kyu didn’t know, and it didn’t seem to be threatening, so he continued with his chores.
During his grandfather’s day, the Japanese wae-nom did not tolerate disrespect and would harshly discipline at the least infraction. His grandfather did not like the wae-nom, and they tortured and killed him as an example. His grandmother survived somehow and raised their only child, his father, under the Japanese watchful eye until he turned fourteen. Then the wae-nom took him away to be educated. He returned three years later and soon married a local girl. Kyu was born not long after in 1932. When Kyu turned ten, his dad was taken again to enlist in the Japanese army. That was because he refused to change his Korean name to Japanese. Kyu has been the head of the Woo household ever since. He never saw or heard from his father again.
After that, Kyu’s Eomma (mom) raised Kyu by herself. Using her meager earnings, she hired help to keep the farm productive and teach Kyu traditional Korean values and ethics under the Japanese watchful eyes. The wae-nom required everything in school be taught in Japanese, but Eomma made sure the farmhands taught Kyu Korean history and culture. They even taught him Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which was illegal. The farmhands also taught him how to defend himself the Korean way using tae kwon do. Even under Japanese occupation and high taxation, they survived. Certainly there were times during the occupation when they had to mix barley with the rice to make a meal because the Japanese took the rice. There was even a short period when they had to eat chicken feed gijang (millet). But they always had enough to get by. Then the Japanese were defeated in 1945, and things became better.
When Kyu turned fifteen, Eomma knew he would need help on the farm. Kyu’s interests turned to more than just animals and farming. It was time to find Kyu an anae (wife). Eomma worked within the Woo clan and picked out a suitable bride for Kyu from Kaesŏng before he turned sixteen. When he met her, Kyu thought Nabi was the most beautiful butterfly that he had ever met. He fell madly in love with her.
A year later, the seon (arranged wedding) occurred at the house of Nabi’s parents at dusk. Grim-faced and hiding his emotions, Kyu rode to the house on a borrowed horse while his girukabi (wedding leader) and groomsmen walked. When they arrived, he presented Nabi’s mother with a kireogi (wild goose) and bowed twice in respect. Geese mate for life, so Kyu was promising a long life of love and care for Nabi. It was a traditional kunbere (wedding ceremony) with both Kyu and Nabi wearing gilded hanbok dresses. A samulnori percussion quartet played before the ceremony, and Nabi’s sisters performed a buchaechum (fan dance). Kyu was seventeen and Nabi sixteen when they were married as calculated by the traditional Korean method for determining age. They sealed their vows by bowing and sipping wine in a gourd that Nabi’s mother provided. After the wedding, Nabi moved in with Kyu on the family farm. Through their love, their daughter Sa-rang was born, with the traditional blue Mongolian birthmark on the small of her back. Kyu thought he would work the farm in peace with Nabi and Sa-rang forever now that the Japanese were gone.
The end of the war in 1945 split Korea in two, with the Russians accepting the Japanese surrender north of the 38th parallel and the United States accepting it south. Taesŏng-tong straddled the line between the two countries but fell under control of the south. Kyu didn’t much care. He paid his taxes and worked the farm— raising two oxen, a couple of goats, and some chickens with Nabi and their young daughter Sa-rang—and left politics to others. They had relatives in the South who claimed Syngman Rhee, president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), would make them all rich and that Premier Kim Il-Sung from the North, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), would take everything away. His cousins in the North said just the opposite. Kyu didn’t believe either side. He was just glad that the Japanese were defeated and he could raise his family in peace on the centuries-old farm. Sure, there were stories that the North wanted to reunite Korea by force and rule the entire peninsula, but Rhee also claimed he was the rightful president of all of Korea. He had heard the stories that the ROK Army fought off several North Korean attacks. Many were killed—they said maybe as high as ten thousand died in these skirmishes during the past year— but Kyu didn’t know anyone who had perished and the closest episode had happened over by Kaesŏng in May last year. These events seemed to be happening more frequently along the border to the east but not around Taesŏng-tong.