2018 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
Owen Ming Kong Hawes
third place, senior essay division
A Mirror to Our Blind Spots
Staring at my computer screen, I tried to process some news that I never thought I’d see. I had just finished reading Yi Mun-yol’s novella An Appointment with His Brother, and now I was greeted with a headline proclaiming North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics ...... to play in a unified Korean hockey team and march under a unified flag at the opening ceremony (Choe).
I was puzzled.
Not one month ago, every Western news source ran headlines detailing North Korea’s “dangerous” missile program (News Corp), the escalation of tempers in Asia and America (BBC), and the growing risks of a second Korean war. From which hat did the Koreans magically pull this new mood of cooperation? How can I explain such a dramatic turnaround on the Korean peninsula? Could a resolution to the conflict be so easy?
Maybe some answers are hidden in Yi Mun-yol’s novella.
An Appointment with His Brother is the story of a South Korean professor (the narrator), who travels to the Northern Chinese city of Yanji, on the border of North Korea. He is hoping to meet his father, who abandoned his family and defected to North Korea early in the narrator’s life. However, upon arrival, he is told that his father is deceased. His only option is to meet his North Korean step-brother instead. In the subsequent emotional journey, the narrator realizes “what I stood for to my brother was exactly what my father stood for to me in the days of my unfortunate youth. … I was a curse and hurdle to them, just as Father was to me.” (64)
The narrator’s realization of the absurdity of his previous emotions is what I like to call overcoming his “blindspots”.
A blind-spot is the inability of people to see past their ingrained viewpoints and accept the opinions and thoughts of others. The source of blind-spots is ignorance, pride, prejudice, hatred and fear, and they feature prominently in An Appointment with His Brother: in the narrator, his brother, and characters like the “Smuggler” and the “Unification Man”.
Yi Mun-yol uses these characters and their viewpoints to show the conflicts and obstacles that many South Koreans have when discussing reunification. For example, many South Koreans see future reunification with North Korea as a huge burden on their economy. In the Smuggler’s words, “it would take years to retrain the North Korean labour force to suit the needs of our society...they expect the same level of pay as South Korean workers just because they are of the same blood.” (17) The Smuggler’s blind-spot is that he lacks compassion, favouring economic interests over other human factors.
The Unification Man, on the other hand, suffers from naivety. He believes that reunification should be achieved as soon as possible, and will disregard the opinions of everyone who challenges him with the difficult reality of postreunification: “Isn’t it a nobler argument that we must unify first, whatever problems we have to deal with as a consequence?” (59) he asks, ignoring the fact that a rushed reunification will more likely breed racial violence rather than “nobility” amongst Koreans.
The Cafe Owner of Yanji provides poignant personal testimony about the prejudice of South Koreans and the negative consequences of reunification. During her brief stint in Seoul, she and her husband met with much “classism.” When asked by the narrator whether or not she was paid fair wages, the Cafe Owner responded indignantly: “Hell, no. Everyone just wanted to work us to death if they heard we were from Yanji.” (22) South Koreans like the Smuggler assume that their society is superior, but the Cafe Owner and the narrator challenge this blindness with their examples of exploitation and corruption.
Even the narrator and his step-brother have been blinded by prejudice and ideology for many years. When explaining why he kept the “appointment,” the brother says: “I came to see what you were like…I set out for an encounter with a lifelong enemy.” (64) Ironically, both brothers resented each other before they even met up, because both felt the other one had more love from their father. Just as the father created a split family full of bitterness, so the division of South and North has created millions of split families, all with their own blind-spots about each other.
In spite of these major difficulties and prejudices, Yi Mun-yol also gives hope for reunification based not on political resolutions but on personal contact and understanding between ordinary people. After they meet up, the two brothers are surprised to find they share the traditional Confucian values of loyalty, humanity, and the importance of ancestors. One of the most touching scenes of the story is when they drink liquor together blessed by the spirit of their deceased father -- a shared understanding that transcends words. Perhaps the two Koreas have more in common than they realize.
The narrator’s final conciliation with his brother, and by extension with his father, implies that we can overcome our blind-spots, and embrace each other as brothers, as family: “So it could be that unification is nothing other than a reunion of brothers who had been strangers taking place on a massive scale all at once.” (67)
In teaching me this, An Appointment with His Brother also shows me the importance of literature in today’s society of mass media and fake news. Literature brings to life much more powerfully and vividly the stories of complex individuals: the plight of black maids serving white women in Mississippi (The Help); true love overcoming bitter rivalry between families in Verona (Romeo and Juliet); even the tale of two Korean step-brothers, separated by ideology and hatred as much as by the North-South border, but bound together much closer than they realize through their genes and cultural traditions.
Literature like this is powerful because it helps us see beyond our blindness. Despite the complexity of reunification, real people can overcome bitter separation and rebuild “family” connections through awareness and understanding.