The Last Soju Factory

by Fred Colton

Journal Entry: 12/31/2015

What we know now is that Patient Zero likely came from Seoul. Probably a chaebol salaryman, the experts say, who reported to work with a severe flu. Of course he did; Koreans only skip work if they’re dead. And that day that’s exactly what they did. Because on that day, this salaryman took a flight from Incheon to Hong Kong International and coughed in a crowded elevator. Then every person on that elevator boarded a different flight and flew off to different countries.

Fourteen hours later the bodies were piled in the streets.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just twelve months ago it was the end of 2014, a good year by most measures. I was in the fourth quarter of my rookie year in Korea and had just re-upped my contract for a second round. My friends are I were young kings, getting paid an absurd wage to be white and speak English for four hours a day. Perfect fit for a loser like me. And so it goes in Korea: “just one year” always turns into “just one more year.” In my case, my school, gym, café, restaurant, and corner store were all within a paintball shot of each other on the same road. You could get drunk off soju for less than the cost of a one-way bus pass. Comfort zone—you goddamn bet. Some friends and family said I should leave, but I ignored them. It was either this life or returning to my old job formatting spreadsheets at a mid-level corporation in Anytown USA.

But then it all ended.

I woke up on the first day of the Apocalypse and had just enough time to read the score on my smartphone before the feed cut out. Mankind was on the ropes. They were saying said it was one of these upstart super-viruses NPR was always running stories about. A highly-evolved strain with an incubation period of mere seconds. Drugs couldn’t stop it or even slow it down; it was Kryptonite for the common man. Planes were falling out the sky and entire apartment blocks had been gutted by orange plumes of fire as unattended dinners burned up on stoves.

But there was still more bad news yet. Because while there were bodies piled up from Portland to Patagonia—there were none in Pyongyang.

Today was the day the isolationist North Koreans cashed in their chips. They were the only uninfected nation on the planet. With every soldier on the DMZ dead the border was now as open as a 7-11. Entire battalions of North Korean infantry were just strolling through Panmunjom like it was Costco. I was raised on James Bond and Michael Bay and so my first thought was: guns.

I put on my balaclava in case the virus was airborne and mounted my bike. My destination: the ROK Army installation two kilometers up the road from my villa in northern Incheon. I had to juke the stalled busses and corpses on the way. The bodies had red eyes, like they’d cried themselves to death. I found the compound abandoned and vaulted the rusty fence in the back. I rolled and stood up to find myself staring down the barrel of a K2 assault rifle braced in the hands of a man with a face so weathered it looked like bulletproof dragon hide.

Jackpot, I thought. It was Lee Chang-ho. Of course Lee Chang-ho had survived thus far, he was the toughest nut in the bushel. He’d been part of the Korean contingent that had fought with the US in Vietnam—a war the anti-communist forces had only lost because Lee Chang-ho had been too young to be there for the start of it. Now he was the vice-principal at my middle school, but only because he needed something to do all day besides ride the Seoul metro nonstop, like all the other ajeossis. He was 72 now and the Office of Education had told him he was too old to work; he had told them to go fuck themselves.

Anyway, he’d had the same thought I had: guns.

Lee Chang-ho didn’t shoot me; my eyes weren’t red. He tossed me a surgical mask and motioned for me to follow. He told me to keep quiet, that he would beat me to death with his rifle stock if I made any extraneous noise. I got the feeling that was the only phrase he knew in English. I picked up a K2 of my own and filled a backpack with mags and we low-crawled through the scrub and ended up four klicks west at a Jinro factory in a massive clearing off Yeonhui-dong. Jinro, as in the soju brand.

It was the last day of Chuseok.

A soju factory. A good place to go out, really, if you had to pick one.

“They will come here.” Lee Chang-ho loosened his tie and scanned the trees. “The Northerners. Like us, they love soju. They will come here, and here is where we will kill them all.”

Oh, Christ. He was still fighting the Vietnam War. He was still that seventeen year-old kid crawling through the elephant grass in Khe Sanh with a seven-inch blade between his teeth. He’d brought me here to shoot, not drink. He’d pick a fight with the Korean People’s Army and I was going to get skewered in the crossfire.

But you know, it actually wasn’t so bad. The battles were essentially nonevents; every day or two a North Korean patrol would wander up to the factory gates hoping to scoop up soju for their platoon and Lee Chang-ho and I would cut them down and bury the bodies.

We bonded. Over the weeks we achieved native-level proficiency in each other’s languages and got lit up off the green stuff as we lamented that everyone we’d even known and loved was now rat feast. My shooting—three round bursts to the head—endeared me to him. That’s what a decade of Halo gets you, I guess.

There were some glowing moments of cross-cultural connection and newfound understanding. One day he told me, “You know, I used to hate all you expats. I thought you were like the rest of them, just a talentless schmuck who came to my country because he couldn’t find a decent job in his own. But you’re all right.”

I thought we were needling each other, since he’d said exactly what I was. So I said in return, “And I thought you were just a humorless workaholic by day and an alcoholic by night,” I told him. “But you’re all right, too.”

“I don’t understand,” he said. “How was I not all right before?”

It was New Year’s Eve when the North Korean brass finally figured out there were two holdouts in the Incheon Jinro factory. We were down to our last pallet of soju. Lee Chang-ho and I toasted each other, slapped in our last mags of K2 rounds, and got to work.

Artillery blew off the roof and I took a sniper round through the shoulder. This was the end. Lee Chang-ho’s weapon ran dry but he fought on, improvising Molotov cocktails out of soju bottles and strips of his blazer and shot-putting them out at our attackers. As my hands went numb I heard a sound like a buzzsaw coming from the skies. Just as the black faded in I saw a triangular shadow cut across the factory’s courtyard.

Now I’m writing this on a medical ship off the coast of Okinawa.

Lee Chang-ho and I were saved by a rag-tag group of UN commandos who’d gotten their hands on an A-10 Warthog from Osan Air Base. They staged a flyby and used the jet’s autocannon to rip up the surging North Korean offense. So—Happy New Year to us. It’s almost midnight. Hm, crazy what a difference a year makes.

The doctor relayed to me some good news: that my hometown in the American Northeast was one of the many pockets that survived the outbreak unscathed; they’d gotten a solid quarantine in place early. The US, at least, had had a good practice round with the Ebola scare of ’14.

But I can’t go home, because he also had bad news: I’m about to die. Not from my bullet wound, but rather from a severely inflamed liver. I’ll be lucky to see the first dawn of 2016.  He said that, according to the X-rays, my two years of heavy drinking were the culprit. I guess that’s what you get when you move to a land where you can get drunk for less than the price of a one-way bus pass. Well, goddamnit. This is it, I’m paying it now—the price of the good life.

Korea, man. I should have left when I had the chance.



  1. Nice cheery post, Fred. I read this one aloud to my friend who was just coming down with the flu I gave him. Every so often I would reach to pat his knee and ask how he was feeling. He lost consciousness after the first few minutes. Don’t worry, though… it wasn’t the story. It was his 104 fever. I put Contagion on the DVD player (infinite repeat) and tiptoed out, confident that all would be well if I followed the advice from that medical website. I finished reading this on the crapper. I kept waiting for zombies or the Walking Man, but I realized North Korea is much scarier, especially since they apparently still have guns (what was that war for, then?)
    Back to my sick friend.
    The site told me to alert a doctor if the fever was 107 or higher. Turns out I read it wrong. 101, not 107 And Fahrenheit, not Celsius. Then I wondered if maybe I hadn’t left the thermometer in too long. I couldn’t see it under the sweaty sheets. His leg seemed to be in the way. I hoped the thermometer hadn’t snaked itself all the way in, like a reverse swallow. Anyway, I wasn’t going after it. It’s a hot tub thermometer, so it’s built for abuse. I hope.
    This morning I felt his forehead and it’s much cooler. Much. I’m glad, because I need to get to my job handing out coupons on the street. Funny how all my friends get sick but I never do. Just lucky, I guess.

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