2012 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place

Eunsuh Emily Chun, 11th grade

The year 1953 must have been one of unimaginable disorientation and loss of identity for most Koreans. I know this from the way my grandmother suddenly stiffens up and how a very detached, distant look settles into her eyes whenever I ask her about her life during the Korean War. She talks about the War as if it had robbed her of something important, and I realize that my grandmother is in her most vulnerable state when she is attempting to arrange the right words to describe what the Korean War was like.

In 1953, as the New York Yankees were winning their fifth consecutive World Series title and the first color television sets were going on sale, the small peninsula nestled between China and Japan was nearing the end of its 3-year devastating war. In 1953, as the world was celebrating the crowning of Elizabeth II of England and the premier of Peter Pan, Korea was fidgeting with the remnants of a broken nation. Coming to terms with the complete separation of a nation that had taken pride in its thousands of years of culture, history, and above all, homogeneity, was no easy matter. In his story “Cranes,” written in 1953, Hwang Sun-Won poignantly portrays this sense of disorientation and ambivalence regarding the future of the two Koreas. Although the story shows hope for reconciliation between the two Koreas through its two characters, it also provides more cautious insights about the irreconcilable differences the Korean War set in stone.

In the story “Cranes,” a potential reconciliation between the Koreas is illustrated through the restoration of the friendship of Songsam and Tokchae. Once a pair of inseparable friends whose friendship had been torn by the War, Songsam and Tokchae fortuitously meet again in their childhood village, where Tokchae is held prisoner. The interaction between the two, which provides key insight into their reconciliation, evolves from initial hostility to tacit acknowledgement of each other’s humanity and value. At first, Songsam addresses Tokchae in a bitter, demeaning manner and in turn, Tokchae sharply defends his position and his obligatory involvement in the Communist Farmers’ Committee. However, their conversation loosens as Tokchae starts sharing bits of his personal life, such as his marriage to Short Stuff and his unwillingness to run away. After each detail that Tokchae shares, Songsam recalls an endearing story or memory. In doing so, Songsam begins to see Tokchae not as a Communist enemy, but as a fellow human who is trying to eke out a living, like everyone else. Their ideological differences become irrelevant as Songsam’s amusing memories of their friendship allow him to see Tokchae in a sympathizing light.

Further signs of hope for future restoration of the Koreas in “Cranes” are evident in the symbolic usage of cranes. In Asian folk tales, cranes have traditionally been regarded as symbols of longevity and immortality. It is appropriate, then, for Songsam and Tokchae to see “a flock of cranes” dwelling in the demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel, an area that physically and metaphorically represents the division of the two Koreas. Furthermore, the crane that Songsam and Tokchae caught when they were young reinforces the crane’s representation of longevity, and in this case, the imminent longevity of Korea’s reunification. The crane that the two friends caught was eventually released from its tied-up state and seemingly shot in the air because it sunk to the ground; however, it “stretched out its long neck, gave a cry” and “vanished into the distance.” The crane’s resilience and immortality, even, reflect the resilience of the two characters’ friendship, and thus, the belief that the Koreas will reunite. Near the end of the story, Songsam tells Tokchae that it is “time for us [them] to go crane hunting.” By saying this, Songsam is, of course, letting Tokchae know that he will be set free. This line, perhaps the most profound in the story, brilliantly captures the budding reconciliation between the two characters; Songsam’s ultimate act of friendship and love towards Tokchae is freeing him, in both a physical and psychological sense.

However, such evidence for a hopeful resolve is undermined by equally convincing insight into the two Koreas’ irreconcilable division. For example, when Songsam presses Tokchae to “tell the truth” but Tokchae continues walking without saying a word, Songsam takes smug satisfaction in the fact that Tokchae is “feeling caught” and even remarks in his head that “it’s good to see their faces at a moment like this.” This scene is a reminder that it is difficult for Songsam to overcome his trained categorization of Tokchae as an “enemy,” because an entire war had been fought for the sake of two opposing ideologies, which are personified by Songsam and Tokchae. In addition, the fact that old people “would turn aside, pipes held behind their backs” and “everyone’s face was marked by fear” serves to show that the War had an irreversibly scarring effect on human souls. The horrors and grief of the War had subjected the people to uncertainty of a bright future of reconciliation between the Koreas.

Although the relations between North and South Korea continue to be hostile and there is no evident possibility of reunification in the near future, there is no harm in harboring a small hope that one day the restored friendship of Tokchae and Songsam that we wistfully read about will materialize into a friendship between the two Koreas. As we are still coping with the echoing aftermath of the Korean War, which manifests today as incessant, small conflicts between the Koreas, perhaps the only route we can take is to let differences dissolve in unbiased understanding and above all else, in crane hunting.