2019 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
second place, senior essay division
For decades, Western media has portrayed North Korean citizens as aliens. Their frequent narrative portrayal as nearly inhuman occupants of some foreign planet has resulted in virulent discrimination and estrangement. However, in An Appointment with His Brother, Yi Mun-yol offers a confounding perspective. Contrary to the media in its doctrinaire representations of unification, Yi portrays the complicated relationship between North Korea and South Korea through the strained relationship between two half-brothers. Yi’s portrayal of the North Korean brother acts to eliminate feelings of distance held by audiences by introducing a common element of humanity that the media has failed to convey.
While the media depicts North Koreans as having blind devotion for their government, Yi depicts lesserrepresented sentiments, unfamiliar to Western headlines, through the North Korean brother. Although at first the narrator’s brother is passionate in voicing support for North Korea, after connecting with his elder brother, he confesses the struggles that he has endured under the North Korean government due to his father’s ties to South Korea. Their father, who defected from South Korea, was loyal to the North Korean regime, yet he and his family were stained by his “blood relations… in the South” (64), unable to be treated with any societal respect. The younger brother’s drunken monologue at the end of the story reveals his unseen internal conflict. He confesses that in agreeing to meet with his brother, he was preparing to meet, “a lifelong enemy… an invisible curse” (64). Despite viewing his family as the cause of the tremendous pain he endured and representative of the South Korea that he despises, the younger brother eventually admits that after seeing his elder brother, he “wanted to hug and cry, not to abuse and curse ” (64). In seeing him, the younger brother realizes that the hatred he had felt was a pain shared with his brother from their father’s defection—symbolically, the split between the countries. Yi’s development of the brothers’ relationship around their shared grief and hardship reveals more complexity and emotion behind the intense rivalry between North Korea and South Korea than the media portrays. Instead, the rivalry is a wounded reaction to the destructive stigma that has permeated into the entirety of Korean citizens’ lives.
Misrepresentation, by South Koreans and North Koreans of the others’ country and of themselves, as well as by the Western media and its audience, heavily burdens efforts towards unification. The commemoration ceremonies illustrate these cultural misconceptions. Both brothers are unfamiliar with the formalities of the other’s commemoration ceremonies; the narrator’s brother “has no idea of what the spirit box, the spirit tablet, and the end of the mourning period were” (29), and the narrator labels his brother’s ceremonies as “just family gatherings in remembrance of the dead without any ritual” (29). Both brothers take offense to the ignorance, triggering “animosity” (29). This exchange represents the state of the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, where ignorance towards differing cultural expressions and misinterpreted intentions intensify the resentment within an already distorted rivalry. However, Yi suggests that efforts to understand and connect with unfamiliar people can clear misunderstanding and lead to genuine, positive relationships. After having the traditional ritual for their father, the brothers find newfound closeness from understanding each other’s cultures: “Somehow the bundle looked bigger than when we’d brought it” (48). Although the brothers began their exchange full of disdain, acting to understand one another leads to consideration and fulfillment, a suggestion Yi makes for the progress in North Korea-South Korea relations and for the Western media’s understanding of it.
Another misconception hindering progress in Yi’s eyes is both countries’ moral prejudices, which Yi also establishes through the metaphor of the brothers. After hearing his brother’s pointed assertion that South Koreans were “money-mad” (39), the narrator is compelled to recognize the validity of the claim. He realizes that he was “innocent of few of the financial malpractices… since the cleaning-up drive of the Kim Young Sam government began last year” (39). The narrator bought his infrastructure by ignoble means, and his loan applications, critical to his present success, were illegally approved. Although it has become ordinary to criticize the corruption in North Korea, Yi’s depiction of the South Korean brother reveals the similarly faulted nature of his own country, which is nonetheless more positively portrayed by Western media. Similarly, the narrator’s brother confesses his unhappiness with North Korea, refuting the slogan through which he used to defend his country’s honor: “‘A man who received more from the country than he gave to it’ – that’s just a platitude not worth more than a popular song lyric” (65). Again, Yi depicts the narrator’s brother’s suppressed feelings of betrayal by his country, but also breaks the North Korean stereotype as completely accepting and loyal to his or her country. By recognizing the bias of their criticism towards the other country and the existence of similarly immoral issues in their own, the brothers portray a realistic picture of the friction between North Korea and South Korea. Diverging from the media’s depiction of North Korea, Yi demonstrates the unclear nature of the situation: while North Korea is not free from wrongdoing, South Korea also has its share of immorality, and the media’s faultless picture of South Korea is simply an inaccurate portrayal of reality.
In a time period where possibilities of Korean unification continue to reappear in headlines, the perspectives provided by Yi offer much-needed wisdom concerning the effects of prejudice, calling into question the morality of the media’s antagonistic, immoral portrayal of the relationship between North Korea and South Korea. Is the West not also at fault for the wounds of betrayal felt by Koreans in its continual affirmation of these misconceptions? As events relevant to unification continue to transpire and as lines continue to blur, it is vital for all those involved, especially in the media, to recognize the complex entanglement of issues within the situation and the far-reaching influence of their actions.