2018 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult second place
second place, adult essay division
A Clash of Realities: Searching for the Hidden Truth
Although Yi Mun-yol’s novella An Appointment with His Brother was written over two decades ago in 1994, it still serves as a thought-provoking reflection on the relationship between North and South Korea as well as their ties in the global sphere. When we consider the increased attention on North Korea in the news over the past couple of years (e.g. missile testing, Otto Warmbier’s incarceration, participation in the Olympics, K-pop cultural exchange efforts with South Korea), it is clear that Yi’s work remains relevant today. The characters he creates—Professor Hyeonu Lee, Hyok Lee, the businessman, the unification man—and the rivalries he establishes among them parallel the tension and struggles that North and South Korea face with each other and the rest of the world.
The microcosm in An Appointment with His Brother centers around the relationship between Hyeonu Lee, a successful professor in South Korea and our narrator, and Hyok Lee, his half-brother who was born following their Father’s defection to North Korea. However, Yi makes it clear that the story of these two brothers represents an idea of macroscopic proportions, namely that “unification is nothing other than reunion of brothers who had been strangers taking place on a massive scale all at once” (67). While the relationship between the brothers explores the cultural and social aspects of unification (with a particular focus on the emotional turbulence and powerful ties of family), the antagonism between the businessman and the unification man explores the popular economic and political/ideological arguments around unification. The issue of unification is frustratingly complex. It might be easy to sympathize with the unification man’s naïve idealism and denounce the businessman’s greedy capitalistic inclinations, but Yi challenges such flippant conclusions by showing us that preparations for both ideological and economic coherence must be considered in the unification process. Otherwise, the unified Korea might end up with millions of hungry citizens, economic oppression of one subpopulation by another, or a civil war because of ideological dissonance. For example, the narrator realizes that economic oppression is a real possibility when he meets the shopkeeper in Yanji who traveled to Seoul to earn money and suffered through economic exploitation because she was discriminated against.
The relationship between the two Lee brothers is an analogy for that between North and South Korea, and to some extent the emotional aspects can help to rationalize some of North Korea’s interaction with the rest of the world. There is an inherent defensiveness, tension, and anxiety in the meeting between the two sibling strangers in the story, and these elements fuel their need to display their independent success, even if they must resort to deception. When the narrator first asks his brother about the family’s condition, Hyok Lee boasts that his sister married the party supervisor of the Light Industries Committee; one of his brothers is a teacher; the youngest brother is a freshman in college; and that he himself works in the Organization Committee at Kimchaek Industries (34). To complete the snub, Hyok Lee adds that they were worried Father’s family in the South would be struggling, considering they were subordinates of the American imperialists (35). Put on the defensive, the narrator tells his own story with a malicious kind of honesty that severely downplays his success, though the truth of his financial wealth soon comes out thanks to Mr. Kim.
We later find out that Hyok Lee was not telling the whole truth, but his desire to present at least a façade of success, if only to impress his brother and preserve the dignity of his family, parallels North Korea’s control of what information can be release to the outside world. Documentaries about North Korea like The Propaganda Game (2015), Under the Sun (2015), and CNN’s Secret State: A Journey Into the Heart of North Korea (2017) that were filmed through legal channels were closely monitored throughout the filming process. The videographers were always supervised, and the scenes they observed were purposefully engineered to display North Korean pride, power, happiness, and success. In Under the Sun, a film about young Lee Min-zi and her parents’ lives in North Korea, the scripted (and sometimes even falsified) nature of what is seen through the camera’s lens is exaggerated by the multiple takes of some scenes within the documentary.
Frontline’s 2017 documentary North Korea’s Darkest Secrets takes a completely different approach using a lot of smuggled, illegally-filmed footage that shows the severe poverty, hunger, and oppression that a large portion of the North Korean population faces. This revelation of another side to the story is similar to the Hyok Lee’s second visit to the narrator’s hotel room. Hyok Lee confesses that their Father worked incredibly hard only to die in pain because they weren’t able to afford treatment for the pain in his last days; that while his sister married an important man, she was only able to do so because he was widowed; that the family’s prospects were severely limited because of Father’s blood ties in South Korea.
If there’s a central underlying theme in An Appointment With His Brother, it is that the truth should be sought after through personal investigation and individually experienced rather than blindly believed from third-party sources.