2011 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place

Suah Kang

I was a mere third grader when the word “Korean reunification” first struck me in Ethics class with Mrs. Park. Although I tried to infer its meaning from the picture of the Korean peninsula colored in solid blue below the title of the chapter, I could not arrive at any definite understanding until Mrs. Park explained. “After the Korean War, Korea has been divided into two: North Korea and South Korea,” she said gloomily. Then, with a sudden gaiety, she added, “But, sooner or later, we surely will reunite for we always had been one people, so we all should be ready for that glorious and historic day!”

I believed her. I believed that the separation was only momentary like a silent, tense moment after a fight between siblings or friends that would soon be recovered howsoever. Not understanding the reason as well as the result of the war, I often asked my parents questions such as “Why did we even fight each other?” or “Why are we still separated?” Yet, they would only cast a perplexed look on their faces and evade my questions.

Perhaps, Hwang sun-won had been of the same mind, frustrated with the incomprehensible, intolerable reality of severing the people of one nation and bisecting the land that people had freely crisscrossed from the Land’s edge, Hae-Nam, which protruded into the Korea Strait, to the sacred Baekdu Mountain on the boundary between China and Korea. The time-honored tradition of solidarity that had preserved the homogeneous Korean society over five thousand years seemed to pale before the vicious two-year-long battle under the name of ideological war between the communist North and democratic South. Dismissing such a regretful outlook, however, Hwang anticipates an eventual improvement in the strained relationship of the two Koreas personified by two main characters—Songsam and Tokchae—in his short story “Cranes.”

Set against the backdrop of the immediate post-war period, “Cranes” depicts the promising restoration of trust between Songsam and Tokchae by reestablishing the perpetual Korean identity that had been tarnished from the conflict. The dialogue between the two characters plays a key role in ameliorating the uneasy atmosphere and healing the initial prejudice. As Songsam and his old pal Tokchae, now considered to be a communist traitor, begin to converse, the topic of conversation shifts from accusation of each other to personal stories of Tokchae, including his involuntary being of vice chairman of the Farmers Cooperative Committee, his ill father, and his marrying Short Stuff. This development of topic enables Songsam to sympathize with Tokchae as an individual rather than an enemy while reviving a sense of identity from sharing a common history. The growth of sympathy is further observable when Songsam reminisces about pleasant memories such as climbing trees, pilfering chestnuts, and hunting a crane with Tokchae. The recurring transition between his recollection and interpretation at present illustrates the interchangeable yet irrevocable Korean identity that works beyond time and situation as well. In addition, “a flock of cranes” compared to the white clad folk enhances the spiritual continuity of Korean unity which will materialize in the future. And, the symbolic use of unfettering and soaring of cranes suggests Songsam’s cathartic psychological freedom, gaining the cordial tolerance that allows him to free Tokchae. Thereby, “Cranes” rediscovers the potency of humanity that overcomes the enmity that ensued from the ideological dichotomy, confirming the essential coming of reconciliation through sustained identity.

But, the brightness of such hopeful resolution tends to overshadow another antithetical analysis of the story that is rather disheartening; in other words, the more pragmatic interpretation surfaces when excluding the anticipation of an optimistic denouement. For instance, disregarding its ultimate freedom, the trapped Tanjong crane that “could hardly walk… from being tied up for so long” connotes the prolonged stiff relationship between the two Koreas. Also, the apprehensive appearance and behavior of the characters such as “everyone’s face… marked by fear,” “old people… turn aside, pipes held behind their backs,” and “children, being children, turned away at some distance” reflect the ubiquitous despondency and human skepticism that blinds people to a long harmonious past after the war. Between the two characters, the intentional indifference is marked by Tokchae’s “face turned away” from the gaze of Songsam, creating a disgruntled mood of the reunion. His deliberate action seems to invalidate the previous tie with the friend and suppress superfluous effort in order to retain his apathy. Moreover, Songsam’s hostile greeting and provocative questions such as “How many people have you killed?” are heavily tinged with bitterness while the frequent use of profanity reveals apparent animosity and unwillingness to compromise.

Admittedly, the severe reality of status quo Koreas parallels the aspects found in the story. The barbed wire fence and the grey concrete wall still standing on the 38th parallel across the land have shut out any possibility of communication, only leaving the frigid tension and the sleepless vigilance to reside in. The Sunshine Policy proposed by President Kim Dae Joong in 1998 seemed to facilitate a rapprochement, but, in 2008, the restoration of the conservative presidency quickly dropped the complaisant attitude and exacerbated the tense relations by isolating the North. As means to defend themselves, the two Koreas point their pistols toward each other as Songsam did to threaten Tokchae. In fact, the recent North Korean assault on Yun-Pyung Island as well as the sinking of Chun-ahn-ham dismayed many South Koreans, creating fear that the extension of the fight could trigger a war and hostility toward belligerent neighbor, unrelentingly extinguishing the glimpse of hope to reconcile.

Thus, our generation struggles to cope with the current impasse. Although no mere vague expectation of reconciliation will ever solve the problem, “Cranes” continues to remind the younger generation of the fundamental Korean solidarity; the instinctive knowledge lives on. However, only time will tell. If the confined crane shall age and her legs shall stiffen and her wings shall atrophy, I ask myself, “Will she soar through the clear autumn sky again?”