2012 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
Carlo Castillo, 11th grade
The Tanjong crane is a majestic creature. It soars above the earth with its wide, white wings outstretched, each stroke gently beating the air. Its body is long, slender, and graceful, a living example of grace and beauty, as well as a symbol of Korean culture. However, one aspect seems to characterize Korea for many - war. For the last 60 years, the Korean Peninsula has been a house divided, a single people divided by war. The tension between these two nations is palpable, and the world often watches with bated breath, wondering if Korea will once again erupt with the fires of war. Regardless of this, Hwang Sun-won’s story “Cranes” reveals that the situation in Korea is far more complex. By portraying how the barriers between the characters, Songsam and Tokchae, are overcome, he reveals that mistrust and hostility can be overcome by kindness and compassion.
Hwang Sun-won first establishes the deep-seated mistrust that the two characters have for each other. Songsam repeatedly accuses Tokchae of killing people, while Tokchae reciprocates this animosity by giving Songsam a livid glare, highlighting the mutual distrust exhibited by each character. However, even as Songsam escorts Tokchae to his likely demise, he cannot ignore the memories of the childhood that they shared together. The cigarettes he is smoking remind him of the pumpkin leaves they smoked in secret as children, and he remembers an act of kindness, where Tokchae gave him chestnuts when he got hurt. These reminders are hard to ignore for Songsam, showing that despite his prejudices, he cannot deny the connection they share. Songsam struggles with this confusion throughout the first few pages of the story, seemingly unsure of whether Tokchae is as bad as he believes. These reveal the first few cracks in Songsam’s hardened exterior, as he still holds on to the happiness they shared in the past.
Songsam is further struck when he hears the truth about why Tokchae was “hiding out” as he was accused. He learns that he is simply a hardworking farmer who knows no other life, and that he dares not leave the family which relies on him. He must watch over his aging father and his new wife. This paints a new picture for Songsam, and he begins to soften. Tokchae is no enemy, just a person trying to make a living in a difficult world. He is not changed from the kind companion of Songsam’s youth. As Songsam also draws parallels with his own life, he is reminded of how the war had forced him to leave his own family behind. With this admission, Songsam realizes that his original appraisal of Tokchae was by no means a complete one. He sees that the lens through which he had viewed the world had distorted the truth.
Hwang then demonstrates how the characters reconcile through the symbolic representations of the crane. Songsam recalls how they once captured a crane but then chose to release it. The crane struggled at first, but then soared, showing that a new beginning is possible even if it seems difficult or unlikely, hinting at Songsam‘s change of heart. In the present, Songsam abruptly announces that it is time to go crane hunting, which is meant to be an invitation for Tokchae to escape. In doing this, Songsam saves Tokchae from execution; his act of kindness shows how he no longer views Tokchae as an enemy. Furthermore, the fact that Songsam resurrects a reference to their childhood (crane hunting) reveals how he now believes that the bond they shared should not be forgotten. In the end of the story the concluding scene is that of several cranes bursting out of the grass into the sky. It is fitting that as Hwang Sun-won reconciles the two, he closes with this image. The flight of the cranes is symbolic; it represents hope and a new beginning.
In the years following the Armistice, the cranes returned and made a home for themselves in one of the most dangerous places on earth, the DMZ. In the middle of landmines, machine guns, artillery, and soldiers ready to fight at a moment’s notice, the cranes have managed not only to survive, but thrive. The fact that such beauty has survived in the midst of the implements of man’s most barbaric invention, war, gives hope that a reunited Korea can one day exist. I have never been to Korea and I am not of Korean heritage; but what happens on this small peninsula has implications for every single nation on Earth. If the two Koreas put aside years of bitterness, they prove that nothing is stronger than the power to forgive or the unity of all people, regardless of creed or ideology. North and South Korea then, are not destined to forever oppose one another. Hwang Sun-won indicates that the heritage they share will one day overshadow the elements which drive them apart. The sentiment expressed by “Cranes” is not one of hopeless optimism, but an expression of the brotherhood shared by all of humanity. In this way, Hwang Sun-won was not a dreamer but a visionary.