2018 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
An Appointment with His Brother: Un-Romanticizing the Korean Reunification

Writers often assign readers a passive role; readers simply follow a story that occurs in a time and space disconnected from their reality. However, some writing is confrontational, forcing readers to question what role they would play in that story's virtual reality. In Korean author Yi Mun-yol’s novella An Appointment with His Brother, Yi invites his readers to consider a reality which they were either oblivious to or reluctant to acknowledge. Americanbacked South Koreans, likely the primary readers of this novella, have often perceived themselves as the potential liberators in this decades-spanning political, military, and ideological impasse between the North and South. However, through his characters’ dialogue and behavior, Yi questions the true motives of these readers’ desire for reunification. Perhaps most importantly, Yi challenges not only the feasibility of reunification but the unintentional, damaging consequences it could entail.

In Yi’s novella the unification man and the antique smuggler present two opposing viewpoints regarding reunification. The unification man claims that North and South Koreans “should transcend the wall of ideology through realizing the homogeneity of nationhood and the commonality of blood” (Yi, 15). Contrastingly, the antique smuggler speaks of a client who assessed, “North Koreans are inferior even to the Filipinos as a labor source” (Yi, 17). While the unification man’s vision of union is characterized by blind, romanticized fervor, the antique smuggler’s pragmatic lens views North Koreans not as brethren but as mere factors of economic production. Through the clashing viewpoints of these two men, Yi eloquently demonstrates the numerous issues that could potentially accompany reunification.

Perhaps more alarming than the unification man’s untenable reverie of reunification is the antique smuggler’s indifferent, analytical tone when discussing North Koreans. By deliberately exposing the opportunistic lens through which the antique man, and presumably many other South Koreans, assess the possibility of reunification, Yi elucidates the implications of a unified Korea. These implications are further examined in the protagonist’s brief exchange with a cafe owner in Yanji. As she explains to the protagonist the discrimination she and her husband faced in South Korea due to their heavy accents, he reflects, “Perhaps after unification North Korean workers would have experiences similar to what this couple experienced in South Korea” (Yi, 22). Through the protagonist’s musing, Yi suggests that if unification is achieved, North Koreans may be exploited by South Korea, a member of the Capitalist economic system the protagonist’s brother refers to as “the structure of international exploitation” (Yi, 46). Through this suggestion, Yi forces readers, assumably individuals from nations other than North Korea, to assess the actual role their countries would play during reunification. While many countries, especially the United States and South Korea, have historically believed they enjoy the moral upper-hand in this struggle, Yi’s South Korean characters, rather than being potential liberators, are more likely to treat North Koreans with contempt and an exploitative attitude following reunification.

By creating dimensional North Korean characters, Yi deconstructs the narrow portrait of the North Korean populace repeatedly endorsed by Western and South Korean media and rhetoric. An example of this common perception of North Koreans can be found in former President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, in which he contends, “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” Bush’s assertion typifies the attitude the rest of the world harbors towards North Korea. While this depiction of North Koreans as starving individuals oppressed by an authoritarian regime is not entirely untrue, it, if employed without any further context, is a gross oversimplification. It robs North Korean civilians of the opportunity to be seen as equals of individuals who live outside the regime’s borders. This alienating perception of North Koreans is reflected in the protagonist’s anxiety before meeting his younger brother. He describes his younger brother as “a total stranger … who grew up to manhood in a totally different culture and milieu” (Yi, 11). Even the protagonist’s offer to take charge of the commemorative services for their deceased father belies a cultural condescension towards his younger brother’s minimal, more informal traditional practices. However, the protagonist ultimately realizes that these generalizations and preconceived prejudices do not accurately define his younger brother. Following this realization, the protagonist asserts, “it could be that unification is nothing other than reunion of brothers who have been strangers taking place on a massive scale all at once” (Yi, 67). Through this musing, Yi suggests that, rather than in obscure and contentious rhetoric regarding the economic, social, and political implications of a reunified Korea, the key to taking meaningful steps towards reunification may start with the basic acknowledgement that North Koreans are fundamentally no different than South Koreans. This suggestion is strengthened by the negative light in which Yi portrays the antique smuggler, who fails to value the shared humanity of North and South Koreans.

In An Appointment with His Brother, Yi Mun-yol tackles daunting, often contentious questions a reunified Korea would bring. Through his characters’ diverging attitudes towards reunification, Yi forces readers to question the true motives behind individuals’ desire for reunification, as well as the true nature of South Korea’s role in this decades-long conflict. Through creating complex North Korean characters, Yi lays bare the incomplete images of North Koreans that many outsiders possess. Perhaps most importantly, Yi suggests that unification may not begin with mere economic calculations or empty, grandiloquent promises of the revival of past glory. Rather, it begins with the genuine recognition that North and South Koreans share the same pain, suffering, and desire to aspire towards a better future.