2012 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
Julianna Marandola, 9th grade
Friendships run deep. Even the hardest of hearts have carved on them channels, sometimes straight and sometimes tangled, left by a good friend over many years. Synonymous with friendship is unity, oneness, even wholeness. It is with great frustration and despair that North and South Korea, after more than a half century, have been unable to achieve this wholeness in any way. “Cranes”, the short story by Hwang Sunwon, was, and continues to be, a cry for the two Koreas to reunite and recognize that the 38th parallel does not divide two separate nations. Rather, it is a barrier between people who are one in the same: Korean.
The main characters in Sunwon’s “Cranes” are representative of North and South Korea. Songsam is a refugee living in South Korea, while Tokchae, Songsam’s childhood friend, remained in North Korea. Both men are farmers, simple people just trying to live through another day. By embodying the two Koreas in these two characters, Sunwon points to the humanity of all Koreans and strips away stereotypes based on geographical location. Tokchae is not portrayed as a hard-fisted communist, nor is Songsam described as a champion of democracy. In this way, Songsam and Tokchae are related, unified in their common careers, upbringing, and basic goal of putting food on the table. Though Tokchae was recruited to be the Vice Chairman of the Farmers Collective Committee and Songsam apparently holds a position in the South Korean government, neither was raised to lead or fight. They were instead raised for “digging in the dirt.”
With each step of their long walk towards Tokchae’s death, Songsam and Tokchae lose the hard outer shells that war and division have forced them to create. Slowly, Songsam comes to recognize Tokchae as a human being. He fights a constant battle of mind versus heart. The war and post-war turmoil conditioned him to think that every North Korean is an enemy. In contrast, his childhood portrayed Tokchae as an honest and good friend. Songsam’s internal discord is best exemplified in his decision on whether or not to give Tokchae a cigarette. Songsam’s initial reaction is to deny Tokchae this small pleasure because he was the leader of a government committee in North Korea. After recalling a warm memory in which he and Tokchae took part in a partially failed attempt to take chestnuts from an elderly neighbor’s tree, Songsam has a slight change of heart. He does not offer Tokchae a cigarette, but does have the decency to not smoke in front of Tokchae. Such an act shows how Songsam began to show courtesy to his enemy, and is symbolic of the small actions that could help guide the Koreas towards a better understanding of one another.
Hwang Sunwon made it a point in “Cranes” to communicate the importance of words and the danger of silence in the conflict between the Koreas. A while into the journey, Songsam begins to berate Tokchae and threaten him with a pistol. At first, Tokchae says nothing. Once the pistol is drawn, however, Tokchae speaks plainly to Songsam, professing his innocence except by association. These few words opened up a gateway for Songsam and Tokchae to converse for the first time about such things as Tokchae’s family and decision to stay in North Korea despite the personal sacrifice. For Songsam, Tokchae, and the Koreas they represent, silence breeds suspicion and armament invites conflict. Calm discourse has the potential to allow for understanding and the rekindling of old familiar ties.
The pivotal reconciling point for Songsam and Tokchae comes when Songsam spots a few cranes in the demilitarized zone of the 38th parallel, creatures of quiet beauty in stark contrast to the barren land that surrounded them. Related to the sight is the story of Songsam and Tokchae’s childhood antic of catching and keeping a crane for their amusement. When news came that their crane was in danger of being hunted, Songsam and Tokchae focused all of their energy into freeing the crane. After a fearful moment in which the crane sank and a gunshot was simultaneously heard, the crane and one of its brethren took to the skies. Moved by this recollection, Songsam essentially frees Tokchae and asks him to help catch cranes as they did in their youth.
This anecdote is the basis for Sunwon’s entire story and message to the Korean people. Tokchae and Songsam represent the two Koreas, and those who would punish the boys and kill the crane symbolize those who divided Korea and brought about punishment for anyone who did not sever ties with the opposite side. The crane itself is the hope of unity and wholeness for the Koreas. Tokchae and Songsam shared the common goal of preserving the crane. Koreans on either side of the parallel should have the common goal of preserving themselves as a singular people. Songsam was so stirred by the evidence of cohesion between himself and Tokchae that the two are able to settle their differences and become friends once again. Such commonality between the people of North and South Korea is the foundation of hope that the two may become one in the future. All it takes is one person, one movement, one beacon of hope to inspire the action of many.
North Korea and South Korea have yet to be reconciled, but this is not to say that “Cranes” is naïve or inapplicable. Time and time again, the story points out that North Korea and South Korea are both Korea, and their people are both Korean. They share a heritage, a history, and a culture that cannot be separated by a border. North Korea and South Korea are two branches of the same plant, sharing the same roots. Perhaps if there were more people who recognized the connection between the two Koreas rather than the differences, reconciliation could be brought about faster than once thought. Sunwon’s “Cranes” illustrates the tide of change that could come if every man let his crane fly free.