The guard on duty blocked the woman with his M16. She was slender, one shoulder slanted down as if the suitcase she carried in her hand were too heavy for her. As she spoke to him, the steam of her breath rose up in the cold air.

The window of the guard post, which stood like a little tower at the entrance to the base, snapped open. “Hey, what’s she saying?” a staff sergeant called out. “Send her in.”

The staff sergeant wore his winter cap mashed flat on his head. “What brings you here?” he asked when the woman came closer.

“I came to visit Private Kim. Kim Young-min.”

“What unit is he with?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I wouldn’t know that sort of thing. I just know he’s here.” The woman’s face was red from walking so far in the cold. She automatically covered her mouth with her white-gloved hand when she spoke.

“Miss, we can’t find him with just that. You’ve got to know exactly what unit he’s in.” Another man, whose head had been hidden in the opening of the rusty stove he was lighting, stood up, stretching his back. He was a sergeant, but with his long, soot-stained nose he looked so comical the woman had to suppress a laugh.

“Can’t you figure it out?” she said. “You’re in the same company. He’s tall. He’s got a slim face, and his eyelids have a double fold.”

The sergeant and the staff sergeant looked at each other as if they were holding back their own laughter. “And what’s his relationship to you?” the sergeant asked with an amused smile.

The woman didn’t answer. Her hand still covering her mouth, she suddenly turned away, her smile gone cold. The parade ground behind the guard post was pure white, blanketed in snow. The whole way up there, she’d worried that she would miss the snow. Sunbeams shone like spikes of ice above the parade ground, and the barracks beyond were buried in the deep shadow of the mountains—the division between light and dark seemed especially sharp. The tops of pine trees pierced the dark silhouette of the mountains in the low sunlight, glinting like bayonets affixed on rifle barrels.

“Well, since you came all this way looking for him I’ll make a special effort,” the sergeant said.

The woman said thank you so softly that he could barely hear her.

The sergeant lifted the handset of the field telephone, and while he cranked out a signal the staff sergeant flung open the visitor log.

“What’s your name, Miss?”

“Lee Young-sook.”

“And your address?”


“Your home is all of Seoul?” the sergeant holding the handset said sarcastically.

“It’s Guro-dong, Guro-gu.”

“Wow, you’re from a nice neighborhood,” the sergeant said.

“House number?”

“Twenty-sixth tong, fourth ban, number 169.”

“Your occupation?”

The woman’s white-gloved hand went back up to her mouth.

She hesitated with the answer, her lips purple from the cold. The staff sergeant tapped on the window ledge with a ballpoint pen.

“You don’t have a job?”

“I’m a factory worker.”

“Excuse me?”

“Factory worker. I work in a factory.”

The two soldiers exchanged looks again and laughed quietly.

“What’s with ‘factory worker’? How about the more elegant ‘office worker’?” It was the sergeant again. The signal must have gone through just then, because he began yelling into the handset, but the reception was bad and he’d purse his lips, whistle a couple of times, and start yelling again.

“I said Kim. Young. Min! Private! What?” His expression suddenly hardened. “You’re sure the guy’s name is Kim Young-min? Goddammit! ”

The sergeant covered the handset with his palm and glanced toward the staff sergeant. The two huddled in a corner and whispered to each other. Now the staff sergeant took the handset, his expression noticeably tense. The woman watched them nervously, and when her eyes met those of the sergeant, who was staring straight at her, she looked away.

The long military road that had brought her there stretched out between the snow-covered fields, its tail hidden behind the saddle of the mountain. She realized that she hadn’t once given a thought to how she would travel back on that road. For now, it seemed too distant to be real.

Beside the guardhouse, with its label designating the post number, stood large signs with slogans like “Crush Them from the Start!” and “Exterminate Communism!” She noticed long rolls of barbed wire strung along the perimeter of the base, the distant barracks, the vast, snow-covered parade ground pierced by cold sunbeams. Everything seemed wrapped in a blanket of stillness. But for some reason she felt in danger, as if she were standing on ice that was about to crack, and her entire body shook with this unknowable fear.

Suddenly, he’s awake. And once he’s awake—though it’s obvious—he realizes that he is a soldier, a private in the Army, and that right now he is on night guard duty.

He must have nodded off, standing, with his M16 slung crookedly over his shoulder. He is shivering. His knees and teeth, especially—which have been chattering since the start of his shift—are shaking non-stop.

He opens his eyes wide. Except for the occasional sound of wind, it is dead quiet in all directions. Darkness lies before him, and a few steps into that darkness there is barbed wire, and beyond the barbed wire an even thicker darkness. Though the landscape is never-changing, he senses that there has been a change. Only after something cold and wet hits the tip of his nose does he realize what it is. Snow. Snow is falling, and gradually lighting the darkness.

He looks back at the guard post quite a distance away. His co-worker is in that guardhouse, but there’s no indication of whether or not he knows it’s snowing. He may have fallen asleep with his butt seated on his steel helmet.

“Hey! Stay alert. If you see the patrol, challenge him. Loudly!” That’s what his colleague had said at the start of their shift, before crawling into the guardhouse. When a superior says something like that, it usually means that he intends to relax, get some shut-eye. He himself is a private, and his superior is a corporal. Suddenly he wants to get the corporal and shout out to him that it’s snowing.

“I’m trying to decide if I need coffee or a new job.”
Cartoon by Caitlin Cass

But, immediately, the private regrets it. Because he knows there’s no way the corporal will enjoy the snow as much as he does. And now the corporal is coming out of the guardhouse, flustered, as if he’d been asleep on his helmet, just as the private thought.

“What? What’s the matter?”

“It’s snowing,” the private says.


“Snow. It’s the first snow of the season.”

“Fucking idiot! You scared me! This the first time you seen snow, dumbass?”

It’s been six months since the private started his military service, but there’s a lot he still cannot understand. For instance, until then he would never, ever have imagined that he’d be treated like an idiot because he was happy to see snow falling.

“How long’s it been?” the corporal asks. “The time, I mean.”

The private digs out his wristwatch from inside his thick, Arctic uniform sleeve and holds it right up to his eyes.

“Thirty . . . No, forty minutes.”

Shee-it. Every minute feels like a fucking year.”

The corporal spits through his teeth. It’s rare that every other word out of his mouth isn’t an obscenity. But through his unique use of tone and inflection he has a way of making it sound like he isn’t swearing at all. There’s a tradition of cursing in the military, and the corporal has a mastery of military conventions beyond his years. The private knows that the corporal is actually four years younger than he is—the corporal started his military service early because of a government registration error. His eyes are prematurely old, but apart from that the corporal still has the face of a kid.

Compared with the corporal, the private is utterly inept at picking up military traditions. For a while, after he was called up and his head was buzzed, he couldn’t even state his name and rank properly. Whenever the drill instructor jabbed him in the belly at roll call and said, “You!,” he knew he was supposed to yell at the top of his lungs: “Yes, sir! Trainee! Kim! Yo-ung! Mee-in!” But he couldn’t. It all felt like a ridiculous play to him and, like a self-conscious actor with no talent, he just could not perform his role convincingly. He had even tried to duck his military service. But no one gave a damn about something as trivial as his self-consciousness. He was punished—his toes braced on his bed and his melon head pushed against the cement floor of the barracks—until he could properly state his name and rank.

Motherf—!” the corporal says, his head thrown back so that he can watch the thickening snowflakes. “Looks like we gonna be stuck on snow removal all morning tomorrow.”

Tomorrow is Sunday. How sad, the private thinks, to be concerned only about tomorrow, having to be on snow detail, when he could be appreciating the snow falling right now. But the private envies the corporal, who knows how to think and feel like a soldier, and sometimes he feels inferior.

“Corporal Choi . . .” he says. Better to talk than to just let his jaw tremble in the cold. “What did you do back home? If I may inquire.”

“If you may inquire? You sure like using those pretty words. You think I don’t know you went to college?” The corporal shoves his face close and, in a soft and intimate voice, he says, “I guess the Army does have its perks, huh? I mean, out in the world how could you be acting like this in front of someone like me?”

The corporal is smiling, his teeth bared, but the private doesn’t dare smile along. If there’s one thing he’s learned thus far, it’s that he has to be cautious when a superior behaves erratically like this.

“The Army is truly fair, if you think about it,” the corporal says. “See, in the Army, how many mess-hall trays you rack up tells you everything you need to know. What could be fairer, see? I just can’t understand assholes who say Army life is hard. When I was a civilian I never got more than four hours of sleep a night. But here—not even counting when I’m on duty—I get at least six. And, even if the sky were to split in two, have you ever not had three squares a day?” He pauses for a moment, and when he continues it sounds like he’s spitting. “You really want to know? I worked in a bathhouse.”

“A bathhouse? What kind of work do you do in a bathhouse?”

“Fucking moron, you think you wear a necktie and do office work in a bathhouse?”

The corporal is silent after that, and for a short while all that can be heard is the sound of their footsteps in the snow. He must be angry, the private thinks. Maybe he regrets flapping his jaw a bit too much in front of a newbie.

“Hey, how long’s it been?” the corporal asks after a while, his voice hoarse.

The private looks at his watch. Everything seems noticeably brighter now because of the snow.

“It’s been thirty minutes.”

“Fucking sonofabitch!”

It takes the private a moment to realize what’s wrong.

“Didn’t you say forty minutes before?”

“I’m sorry. It’s just so dark. . . .”

“Get over here, you little shit.”

He steps forward, approaching the corporal, whose eyes are shining in the dark like those of some animal.

“Are you making fun of a superior, punk? If forty minutes went by just a little while ago, and now it’s only thirty, how many minutes did I just lose because of you?”

“I’m not . . . I just . . . read the watch wrong because it’s dark.”

“No excuses! In the Army, ten minutes is enough to have a quick fuck and still have time left over to eat a bowl of ramen. You understand?”

The corporal looks barely old enough to have finished high school, so it’s doubtful that he’s ever even had “a quick fuck.” But he continues, in a commanding tone: “You will now commence taking responsibility for the ten minutes that Army Corporal Choi has unjustly lost. Is that clear?”

When the private is silent, the corporal’s voice grows louder.

“Why aren’t you answering? Did you just laugh at me?”

“How am I supposed to take responsibility?”

“Tell me a good story. So good we don’t even notice the time going by.”

“But . . . I don’t know how to tell stories.”

“What are you talking about, punk? You had a taste of college, so you must know lots of stuff. Talk about your love life out in the world.”

“I never dated.”

“Would you look at this punk. No fighting spirit. Assume the position, you little shit.”

Still wearing his helmet, the private crouches, bends over, and plants his head on the ground, the cold snow digging into the nape of his neck. There’s a thought he has whenever something like this happens: This is just a play. That bastard is playing the role of a corporal, and he himself is playing a private. But he has absolutely no aptitude for playacting.

He thinks about how puny and foolish a being he is. If there’s anything he’s learned by coming to the military, it is that. It’s as if the enormous machine called the military existed to teach precisely this lesson, and men like his commanding officer—and even his peers, like Corporal Choi—are conspirators faithfully executing their mission to that end.

During basic training, he often suffered because he had to pee at night. Maybe it was because he was tense. He had to wake up five, six times a night to pee, but, according to regulations, you couldn’t just run to the latrine whenever you had to go. Trainees were required to leave their quarters in groups of three. Once, he’d awakened before dawn with an unbearable urge to pee, but he could not bring himself to wake the guys who were fast asleep at his side. The night watch would not let him go to the latrine alone, and after a long ordeal, clutching his swollen balloon of a bladder, he had no choice but to rouse his neighbors. But they got angry and refused to get up. When it got to the point where the urine was about to dribble out, he crawled back onto the sleeping platform. He took out his canteen, covered up with a blanket, lay down. And, in the darkness under the blanket, he pissed into the canteen, grinding his teeth in agony. Feeling the weight and heat of the canteen in his hands, he realized that he no longer had anything left into which he could relieve himself. At roll call that night, the officer on duty inspected their canteens, of all things. While his was being opened, he prayed that the duty officer’s nose was stuffed up, but the officer was not congested, and when he flipped the canteen upside down and poured out its contents anyone would have realized that what fell to the floor of the barracks was not water but urine. He wasn’t able to come up with a plausible explanation for why his canteen was filled with piss. That was when they started treating him—almost officially—like an idiot.

“Hey, punk! On your feet!”

Suddenly, the corporal pulls him by the arm, whispering sharply. Then, still bent at the waist, he skitters like a squirrel to hide behind a boulder. The private awkwardly follows behind the corporal, peering into the darkness, where he’s already in a perfect sitting position, ready to open fire.

“Hands up!”

“Hey, it’s just me,” a voice says.

A dark human silhouette is visible among the bushes on the hill that rises up from the barracks. From the sound of the voice, it’s probably the staff sergeant on patrol. But the corporal doesn’t care and yells loudly once again.

“Hands up!”

“Damn it! I said it’s me. Patrol.”

Because of the snow and the cold, the patroller probably just wants to do a quick lap and go crawl back under his blanket again. But the sharp and rather unpleasant sound of metal scraping metal that follows stops him in his tracks. The corporal has worked the charging handle on his M16, chambering a round. The patroller abruptly raises his arms.

“About face.”

The corporal’s voice isn’t very loud, but it has authority behind it. Even as he grumbles, the patroller, arms half raised, can only meekly obey.



“Who are you?”


“Your business?”


The corporal asks the questions one after another, according to regulations, his tone very serious. To the private, he seems like a kid carried away with playing war, and the private shudders with trepidation.

“About face! Three steps forward toward the sentry.”

The patrol steps closer, and the corporal finally lowers his rifle and salutes smartly.

Loyal-ty! All quiet during duty.”

“Good, good. Very sharp. Who’s the other guy?”

The private steps forward, answering with a barely audible mumble.

“It’s the college boy! Did you remember to bring your weapon today?” the patrol asks with a sideways glance.

The private feels the familiar humiliation but remains silent. He knows full well that when people call him “college boy” they mean the opposite.

On his first day of guard duty as a private, he’d come out to the post and left his rifle behind in the barracks. What made it worse was that he hadn’t even realized he’d done so until he was caught by the patrol. It was his first time on guard duty and he was terribly nervous, but how he could forget the all-important rifle even he could not comprehend. After that, they all called him “college boy” instead of “dimwit,” and he guessed that between the two labels there was a hierarchy more complicated than a simple degree of humiliation.

The patrol looks around the guard post once. With nothing else to do, he tosses out a few words, as if he felt guilty having to go back without accomplishing anything. “Do a good job,” he says. “Who knows, maybe you’ll even make the papers and they’ll reward you with a leave.”

“Damn—what are you gonna find? It’s not like we’re gonna catch a seal up here in the mountains.”

“What’s with a seal? If you’re lucky, maybe some bug-eyed mutt will come by—in a low crawl.” The staff sergeant snickers as he walks back down the hill.

Not long ago, there had been an incident at a base on the coast. A soldier on night watch discovered a mysterious form crawling up the beach. He gave the command to halt, but the dark shape continued to advance, so he opened fire. It turned out that the creature was just a seal. The story was that the lucky soldier who shot it was granted a leave in recognition of his exemplary night tactics and “one shot, one kill” marksmanship. They’d read that story in a newsletter and—just last night—had had to listen to the unit commander lecture them on the need to be especially alert on nighttime guard duty. He’d used that lucky soldier as a motivational example.

“Do you know what it feels like when someone holds his hands up in front of my sights?” the corporal blurts after the staff sergeant has disappeared into the darkness. With a flourish, he pops the magazine out, unchambers the seated cartridge, and slaps the magazine back in. “I just wanna waste him.”

The private is instantly chilled—he knows that the corporal isn’t joking. He shoulders his rifle more tightly and its hard stock digs into his side.

The trigger—as the marksmanship instructor always said in basic training—needs to be squeezed gently, like your girlfriend’s tit. But the private never understood the comparison between the particular coldness of a metal trigger and a girl’s breast. . . . It’s like that with everything for him, but he’s especially bad at marksmanship, so bad that he hasn’t qualified on the range even once since he began his military service.

Which is why, to this day, he has never been allowed to go on leave. Every time his turn comes around, his name is left off the roster. After three or four such occurrences, he went to see the company commander.

Cartoon by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

The C.O. was the sort of man who never took off his hat and sat ramrod straight at his desk, as if he were under inspection. When the private told the C.O. that he wanted to know why his name was left off the order logs for leave, the reply was “That’s obvious. You can’t go out on leave.”

The C.O. did not open his mouth again. He just glared up from under the low bill of his cap, his eyes slits.

After a long moment, the private asked, “Sir, may I know the reason?”

“You failed to qualify in marksmanship. You fail marksmanship, you can’t leave the base. That’s my policy.”

He had no choice but to retreat then. But he could never qualify in marksmanship, so, as expected, he was left off the next list as well. Once again, he went to see the company commander, but this time—because the C.O. was extremely annoyed—he was literally kicked out, his shins left black and blue. And yet he still tirelessly went back to the C.O. every time a new list was posted.

“I just cannot qualify in marksmanship, sir. My eyes are terrible.”

“Then why don’t you get glasses?”

“Sir, to get fitted for glasses I need to leave the base.”

“Then qualify in marksmanship!”

He knew it was reckless, perhaps laughable, but he could not give up his protest. He himself had no idea why, even as he was engaged in the act. Kicked in the shins, threatened with a stint in the stockade for insubordination, yet still he doggedly sought out the C.O.

“Are you protesting against me?” the C.O. said at some point, exasperated. “A demonstration—is that it? It must be second nature for you.”

In the end, the private couldn’t tell whether he refused to give up on this reckless and foolish behavior in order to prove that he wasn’t an idiot, or because he was an idiot. Eventually, he even became afraid that the C.O. might actually grant him the leave.

“Hey! How many minutes?” the corporal shouts.

Once again, the private makes an effort to look at his watch.

“Now . . . it’s been an hour and ten minutes.”

“So how many minutes left?”

“Around fifty minutes.”

“Ugh, this is unbearable. Un-fucking-bearable,” the corporal says in a voice that sounds like chattering teeth. The private looks up at the countless snowflakes disintegrating into the empty air. The sky, the barracks on the far side of the hill, the hills and fields scattered all over the country aren’t visible; the only things he can see now are snow and barbed wire. There’s nothing left in the world but barbed wire. Funny—that’s what they’re guarding. The barbed wire.

“Corporal Choi, where is your home?”

“What? Home?” The bastard answers in a loud voice, as if he’d never heard that word before.

The two of them are stamping their feet, walking in place without rest. It’s partly because their feet are cold, but, also, if they stopped moving even for a moment their ankles would be buried in snow. After a long while, the corporal opens his mouth again.

“Fuck, you’re just full of useless questions, aren’t you? Our place is on top of the mountain in Sadang-dong, in Seoul. Quite a sight. Couldn’t afford shit, but they bred a big litter in a house the size of an apple crate. Family of six, crawling all over each other.

“Hey, you know who I hate the most in this world?” the corporal asks suddenly. “It’s my old man. Day in, day out, he comes home after getting shitfaced and beats us kids like it was his job. The old lady’s a real piece of work, too, calling that man a husband, playing dead like a mouse in front of a cat—not a squeak. Truly pathetic. So, the second person I hate most in the world? None other than her.” The corporal forcefully kicks the snow under his feet.

Out of nowhere, the private feels a strange urge to console him. The corporal is glowing, his eyes like a beast’s, but his voice is a young child’s, starving for something. Under the falling snow, the private feels as if the two of them were the sole survivors of a shipwreck, clinging to a rotten plank in a vast ocean.

“How is it that you’ve only learned to resent the world?” Those were the words of his major adviser in college. Of all the things he’d said, that was what pierced the private’s heart and, for some reason, felt more insulting than anything else.

He looks at the corporal and thinks, How is it that you’ve only learned to resent the world?

A month ago, while washing the dishes in an icy creek flowing next to the barracks, the private received a message to come quickly to HQ. He was being ordered to ready himself for leave immediately and to report to the company commander. He ran to his quarters, taking off the rubber gloves that had frozen stiff on his hands, confused about what was going on.

When he stepped into the unit’s admin office, the C.O. handed him a sheet of paper. It was a letter notifying him that his father had passed away. “Three nights, four days special leave,” he said. “Starting today.”

As the private was about to leave, the C.O. called out to stop him. “You! You wouldn’t be planning on going AWOL, would you?”

He did not answer. He had to change long-distance buses twice and go through four checkpoints to get to Seoul, and by the time he got off the night train, in Busan, it was dawn. When he entered his house for the first time in more than half a year, his brother was wearing a hempen funerary hat, his face blank. He seemed to have aged to the point where you could no longer tell how old he was, and their mother just lay there facing the wall. It all felt surreal to the private. His brother crossed the narrow room to move the folding screen that stood there a bit precariously and told him to look behind it. He lifted the end of the thin shroud and saw the face of the corpse.

“He started drinking a lot after you entered the service,” his brother said behind him, his voice hoarse and faltering. “You know he had to avoid alcohol because of his blood pressure. One day, he came home after drinking a ton, and then he just couldn’t get up. We didn’t even have time to do anything.” It sounded like he was making excuses.

His father was an elementary-school vice-principal put out to pasture in the countryside, waiting for retirement. When the private had come home, wanted by the law for avoiding military service, his father had held him by his side and called the police himself. He was handcuffed in front of his father, and fifteen days later he was sent off to basic training.

It was a three-day funeral, but two days had already passed by the time he arrived. They buried his father the next day on a hillside outside town, among countless other grave mounds that swelled up from the earth like large, scabby boils. The day before returning to the base, he went to Seoul. As always, the air at the entrance to the university campus was filled with tear gas from the riot police quelling the constant student demonstrations. Familiar faces gathered to greet him; their throats were hoarse, and they were enjoying their debates, as usual. And no one got drunk as quickly as he did. Seeing his old friends, he felt a combination of envy and betrayal, the way a child does after experiencing something he shouldn’t have. When they sang the familiar songs, he was silent, and when they finished he started singing alone. The match girl who works in a match factory in Incheon . . . It was what he’d sung during basic training, a song that taught the soldiers how becoming shameless helps one forget the pain. He raised his voice especially at the part where the girl’s pubic hair gets burned off as she tries to smuggle a matchbox under her skirt, but when he came to the end there was no one left beside him. He returned to base a day earlier than the date printed on his pass.

“Want to hear a funny story?” The corporal seems talkative now, for some reason. Thick snowflakes are beginning to pour down. The corporal tilts his head back to look up at the sky.

“I told you before that I worked in a bathhouse, right? I’m at some bathhouse in Miari at ten o’clock at night after we finished all our work, and the owner lady calls me over. She’s a widow who lives by herself—doesn’t know where to spend her money. When I go in and see her laying there stark naked next to the tub, I can’t breathe. She’s a real heavyweight, must weigh more than a hundred kilos. Well, the bitch says to me—laying there—‘Mister Choi, come here and scrub my back.’ ” He mimics the woman’s nasal tone perfectly.

“You know what I did? As I gently scrubbed her back, I politely told her something: ‘Lady, you’d be an eyeful hung up like this at a butcher shop.’ Then the bitch starts screaming at me. Her eyes are bugging and she’s calling me an idiot that doesn’t know his place, and says how I’m talking shit. Before I knew it, I was strangling her. She flailed around at first, then her eyes rolled back in her head. I guess if I’d applied a bit more pressure she woulda been a goner. I packed my bags and left right away. But you know what? After that, that feeling of grabbing her fatty flesh with my hands—it wouldn’t go away. Like that unsatisfied feeling you get when you don’t finish what you started.”

Suddenly, the corporal’s voice is oddly sombre. He pauses for a moment before he continues. “I mean, after that happened, even when I’m walking down the street, if I see someone with a fat neck I want to grab them and strangle them with my bare hands.”

The private laughs, but it sounds too deliberate, and he realizes that it might seem inappropriate or fake.

“I’m not kidding!” the corporal says, his voice harsh. “You stupid fuck.” He adds, “What this world needs is a war to kill off about half the population.”

“Corporal Choi,” the private says, “if a war breaks out, don’t you think that you might die first.”

“Why would I die, you moron? I know I’ll make it out alive. And, even if I do die, it doesn’t matter. It’s chance, anyway. It’s all a matter of who kills who first and survives. That’s more than fair.”

“That’s the wrong way of thinking about it.”

“What’s wrong about it?”

The private is frustrated and depressed. He wants to say something but can’t figure out what. He can’t escape the helpless feeling of knowing that words won’t change anything. “Whatever the case . . .” he says. “No one should die. That bathhouse lady, your father or mother—even you. No one deserves to die.”

“Oh, fuck off! Are you lecturing me—your superior—because you got some education?” The corporal turns around, his eyes gleaming with hostility in the darkness, and pokes the private with the end of his rifle.

Because his feet are freezing, the private can only march in place. “Corporal Choi,” he says, “can I tell you a story, too? Though I don’t know if it would be considered a dating story. . . .”

“You shoulda told it in the first place, dumbass. O.K. Go on.”

But the private briefly tilts his head back and looks up at the sky. Snowflakes are falling, countless, glowing like embers.

“Hey! What are you waiting for?” the corporal yells impatiently. “Don’t leave me hanging.”

It was a Sunday, a few weeks back. A choir from some church in Seoul had come on a morale-boosting mission to the Field Church, the small church on base. The inside of the church was colorfully decorated like an elementary-school classroom ready for show-and-tell. The conductor was a man, but the choir was all young women, and most of them seemed to be college students. The whole time they were singing pop songs for the troops, he was looking at one woman in the front row. Why, amid those many faces, did she catch his eye? Was it the out-of-style perm that didn’t suit her despite the high hopes that must have taken her to the hair salon? Maybe that’s why she looked more awkward, more needlessly nervous, than any of the other women, her face serious like that of a child singing a hymn. She blushed when she noticed his gaze. At first, she avoided eye contact, but then gradually, cautiously, she looked at him until she couldn’t take her eyes off him, and her face blushed even redder.

After the singing, the women and the soldiers played a game in which they were paired up as couples, and it was just his luck that she was his partner. When the conductor had them line up in front, holding hands, hers were rough. Her knuckles were larger than his. “What kind of a soldier has such small hands?” she whispered, her voice low, as if she were out of breath. Those were the first words she said to him.

The conductor was a lanky man with a friendly smile pasted onto his face like a Sunday-school teacher. A guitar hung around his neck, and he occasionally told a joke, treating both the women and the soldiers like children. Sure enough, every time he said something the women tittered like well-behaved schoolkids, as if they had rehearsed. The game was a contest to see which couple would be the first to finish the task announced by the conductor. There were challenges like finding Bible verses, or things like “one military sock and one lady’s stocking,” and the private and his partner always did well, because the woman worked harder than anyone else.

“Now I will pose the final question,” the conductor said as the game reached its climax. “It’s the thing that is the easiest yet hardest thing to find in the world. What is it? Love! Find love and bring it here.”

The women and the soldiers, who had been laughing and joking up to that point, all fell silent. But the conductor was making a serious face, as if to show that it was no joke. The soldiers complained. In that moment, the woman whispered to the private, “Let’s go up.” She ran up to the conductor, pulling him by the arm.

The conductor exaggerated his surprise and asked in a theatrical tone, “Have you two found love?”

“Yes!” the woman answered, breathless, ever the model student.

“Then will you show us?”

She turned and looked straight at the private, her face, as small as a child’s, flushed red. Until then, he had not even been able to guess what the woman was thinking. Everyone was looking at them. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, but then she suddenly lifted her arms and wrapped them around his neck. By the time he felt her face coming closer, her lips had already touched his. The women all sighed, and the soldiers cheered and applauded loudly. But after the woman’s lips retreated, after the stolen kiss that had lasted for the blink of an eye, he just stood there like an idiot.

“What? That’s it?” the corporal exclaims when the private stops talking.

“Yes, that’s the end of the story.”

“Dumbass. You said you were gonna tell a dating story. Why’s it so dull?”

Now the private regrets telling the story. It feels as if he’s been insulted, as if something has been tainted.

“So how did it taste?” the corporal asks, licking his lips, unsatisfied. “Why didn’t you just bite ’em off and swallow?” His face says that he could not be more disappointed that such luck hadn’t come to him. “How much time left now?”

As the private is about to peer at his watch yet again, the two of them simultaneously sense that something is off, and as they have that realization they hear a loud noise—the empty cans hanging from the barbed wire clattering in alarm. In an instant they are on the ground, flat on their stomachs. A black silhouette, darker than the night, is caught on the barbed wire, and there is no doubt that it is human. The private presses himself into the ground. An icy shudder shoots up his spine and his entire body trembles as if he were having a seizure.

“Who—who is it?” It’s the strangled voice of the corporal. But there’s no sound from the darkness.

“Answer! I asked who is it. I’ll sh-shoot!”

“D-don’t shoot . . .” The voice comes out of the dark after a long while. “I’m . . . n-not a spy. . . .”

It’s the voice of an old man shaking in terror, too drunk to manipulate his tongue. He’s hunched over, frozen stiff, unable to say anything more. Only his heavy breathing is audible. He sounds like a sick animal.

The private feels a strange sense of disappointment along with relief. It is probably a local farmer who got caught in the barbed wire as he was stumbling around drunk. They must not have heard him crossing the field and approaching the barbed wire.

“Let’s do him,” Corporal Choi says in a hushed voice.

“What do you mean, ‘do him’?”

“I mean, shoot him.”

“Are you crazy?” the private says. “The man’s a civilian. Can’t you see?”

“Shut up, you stupid fuck.”

The corporal jabs the private’s side with his elbow and lowers his voice. “I’ll take care of it, so you just keep your trap shut. Who’s gonna know? The story is an unidentified intruder kept coming closer even when we challenged him and ordered him to stop. In a low crawl, I mean. Not a seal but a real infiltrator.”

The private gets goosebumps. Not because of the corporal’s words but because, in that moment, he understands what he himself is feeling. What he feels is definitely the urge to kill. It is hard for him to believe, but the life of a human being hangs on the tip of his finger. As his heart pounds, he feels a suffocating fear and an urgency, as if he were holding in a necessary bodily function. As that fear and urgency grow more intense, the desire to kill becomes clearer and more real.

The old man is not budging; he’s like a target set up on a firing range. The private feels the cold and rigid sensation of the trigger on his finger. If he were to move it, just a little, this silent frozen darkness would be instantly shattered and a human being would die bleeding—perhaps the entire world would shatter.

When the impulse becomes irresistible, the private yells out to the old man, “On your feet!”

A sharp metallic sound cracks the air and echoes in the night. It’s a horrifying sound. The corporal has pulled back the bolt and chambered a round.

“This is boring. Want to find some kids and start Rome?”
Cartoon by Christine Mi

“What are you doing, you idiot?” The private instinctively grabs the corporal’s arm.

“Huh? Are you serious? You insolent grunt!” the corporal yells as he gets up.

But the private does not release his arm and the two tumble to the ground again, grappling. The corporal screams in rage, trapped under him. “Let go, you fuck! Let go! I’m gonna shoot!”

The private suddenly realizes that his ears have stopped working. The strength is draining from his arms. At first, he is disoriented, but then he feels his chest burning and hears the sound of the corporal’s terrified voice.

“I shot you. I really shot you.”

The private sees that his body has crumpled to the ground, and he feels the cold earth against his cheek.

“I didn’t mean to,” the corporal whimpers. “Private Kim, I really didn’t mean to shoot.”

The private touches the right side of his chest. There’s something sticky and wet on his hand. But, strangely, he feels no pain at all, only that his arms and legs are now unresponsive, as if they belonged to someone else. His whole body feels heavy, as though it were sinking into the ground.

“What do I do now?” the corporal says. “Oh, no! What am I gonna do?”

The phone in the guard post is ringing and ringing, again and again. They are probably checking in with each post to determine the source of the gunshot. But the corporal just sits there, flat on the ground, crying like a child.

The private musters all his remaining strength to lift his leg and kicks him. “Get up! Hurry, get up and do what I tell you!”

He can’t tell if the corporal can even hear him. He tries to be as loud as he can. “First, get rid of that guy. Quickly . . .”

There’s no need now. Even with his dimming vision he can make out the shape of the old man stumbling over the snow-covered furrows in the field as he runs away.


The private suddenly feels a strange euphoria. For the first time since entering the military, he has escaped formation and can be himself. Not a soldier but a human being. He opens his eyes wide, tears them open. The image of the corporal collapsed beside him is receding, blurring into the distance.

“Take out your magazine and replace it with mine. The rifle . . . I’m the one who fired it. I’m the one who misfired. Got it?”

But the corporal just looks at him blankly, still sitting there on the ground. The ringing of the telephone sounds ever more urgent. He tries to kick the corporal again, but already his foot does not respond. All he can manage is to draw up a shallow breath from deep within his throat and shout.

“What are you doing, idiot?”

The corporal finally stirs. The private is trembling violently. He watches the corporal’s every move.

“Good . . . Now . . . answer the phone. Report . . . there was an accidental weapons discharge.”

He suddenly realizes that his plan is laughable. Nothing can change reality, the private thinks. The bastard fired, and I got hit. But I am merely spinning it convincingly, like a scene in a novel. To prove I’m not an idiot? To show I’m not an impersonal and anonymous soldier but a unique human being?

His throat tightens and crackles with thirst. His parched tongue spasms painfully. Even as his entire body trembles, as if he’d caught a chill, a wave of sleepiness washes over him.

“Private Kim! Please, wake up. . . .”

The sound of the corporal’s tear-filled voice is hazy, coming from very far away. There’s something he must tell the corporal. He hurriedly gathers his thoughts, panting with effort, but he cannot figure out what it is. He must remember, quickly. There is no time. . . . Suddenly, he recalls the woman’s face, flushed as if she were about to burst, looking up as she wrapped her arms around his neck. He vividly recalls the touch of her lips, the feeling it left behind, burning him with fire.

“I’ll come visit. On the day of the first snow. You’ll wait for me, promise?” That was what she whispered into his ear as she left after the choir’s morale-boosting visit. Now—regardless of what happens in the future, whatever his fate—one thing is certain: he will never see the woman again, and that is the cause of his greatest despair. He is completely drained, and yet, still, he has to will himself, with all his might, to fight back the surge of tears, and before he knows it the snow has stopped falling.

“Miss? This is really unfortunate. . . .” the staff sergeant said, sticking his head out the window. “Um . . . they say he’s been evacuated to the rear.”

“What do you mean, ‘evacuated’?”

“ ‘Evacuated’? It means he was sick and got sent to the hospital.”

With a doubtful expression, the woman shifted her gaze back and forth between the faces of the two soldiers.

“You came here all the way from Seoul. . . . I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to give up and go back.”

“How sick is he that they needed to send him to the hospital? Which hospital?”

As the staff sergeant began to mumble something, looking panicked, the sergeant quickly butted in. “How should we know? In any case, he’s not here, so you can’t visit him. Do you understand?”

The woman gave him a puzzled look, as if she had no idea what he was saying, and after a moment she silently picked up her bag. It felt very heavy. She thought of the food inside that would be cooling and hardening.

“It’s really too bad. Of all the days you could have come . . . The buses probably stopped running, so you’ll have to find a room at an inn in town!” The sergeant called out to her, crinkling his long nose, as she left.

The woman bowed her head toward the guard shack and, covering her face with one hand, walked quickly past the sentry. But just a few short steps later she was walking like someone exhausted, her shoulders drooping, the bag almost dragging on the ground.

“Just can’t figure him out,” the staff sergeant said. “Of all the things—why would he go and do that the day before a woman comes to see him?”

“Wait a minute. . . .” The sergeant suddenly stood up, putting on his cap. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” he said. “It’s not right for a man to just let her go off like that. Least I can do is get her a room.”

“Hey, you trying to make trouble in your last year of service?”

“All that Army chow and you still haven’t got any sense. Don’t worry, I’ll watch my mouth.”

“Just your mouth? Nothing else?” the staff sergeant called out.

But the door to the guard shack had already closed. The sergeant caught up to the woman in no time. He could be seen busily making conversation and reaching to take the woman’s bag. The two argued over the bag between them, but in the end it looked as if the sergeant’s stubbornness won. Once the woman had given up the bag, she followed the sergeant obediently, like someone who has lost everything. A flock of birds hiding by the roadside flew up and scattered in front of them. ♦

(Translated, from the Korean, by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang.)