2019 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
The Layers of Korea's Complexity

Long, neat rows of marching soldiers, massive rolling missiles, and a tight iron fist choking freedom from its citizens are what the Western world has come to know about North Korea through media coverage. Yi Mun Yol’s novella An Appointment with his Brother offers a more complex view. With characters and situations that challenge the extant narrative regarding the two Koreas, Yi creates a work layered with nuanced undertones that peel away the goodversus- evil facade we so often see.

The story mirrors Yi’s own life, fraught with the emotion and antagonism that come with a family torn apart by its patriarch. The narrator searches for the father who had abandoned him and defected to North Korea four decades earlier. Hearing of his father’s death, the protagonist, who is the firstborn, decides it’s time to meet his younger halfbrother. Arrangements for the “appointment” take place in the border town of Yanji, located in a limbo-like zone The Economist recently called “the third Korea,” home to a Korean-Chinese ethnic minority (“China's Ethnic-Korean Enclaves Have Become Less Korean”). Whereas Western viewers see the DMZ as “littered with scores of mines and barbed wire fences” and “‘the scariest place on earth,’” this area in China acts as a similar zone of cultural buffering between the communist and free world not otherwise widely known (Maresca). The existence of a Korean prefecture inside China is one of the first surprising insights for a Western reader.

While North Korea remains an isolated stronghold for the Kim Dynasty, smuggling across borders thrives. Whether it be an antique smuggler or a middleman trafficking humans, the ease of access to both sides of Korea, as well as to China, is unexpected. Although one would anticipate a writer to expound on the difficulty of an illegal journey, Yi’s deliberate ambiguity over the brother’s border crossing points to the opposite. Kim, who brings the brother across the border, writes the narrator an “innocuous letter” so as not to explicitly convey the message of the text, suggesting the tight grip over private messages; however, the use of code makes for a fairly easy bypass of the law to allow the clandestine meeting to take place (Yi 10-11). Yi also includes the businessman, who smuggles historic artworks and curios from the North and sells them for a markup. The “great many paintings, calligraphies, and old books owned by ordinary civilians” is striking for a citizenry living under a totalitarian regime (Yi 55). Yi thus corrects typical media narratives of North Koreans devoid of culture or personal items in their possession. While Chinese cultural objects are closely watched in customs, the border inspectors rarely understand the value of Korean treasures, allowing for smuggling to take place.

As the story unfolds, the difficulties of reunification become more apparent. Yi pits the unification man, who represents cooperation between all Koreans, against the businessman, who believes that unification would be financially disastrous for many. On the one hand, the businessman raises the idea of moving forth with caution, as “the South Korean economy would deplete on account of unification expenses” and “the North Koreans would be suffering from a sense of relative deprivation” (Yi 18). On the other hand, the unification man believes in brotherly acceptance for a better future, no matter the initial economic consequences. The unification man opposes the idea of smuggling altogether and those who “confuse good citizens” into believing cold, hard capitalism can cure their troubles. (Yi 60). In fact, it is even more complicated in reality. As pointed out by the New York Times, after decades of hearing about how Korea was, younger Southerners “now view unification as irrelevant” (NYT Editorial Board). Even in the novella, fundamental arguments over reunification between Southerners are apparent. If the South cannot unify over the issue, then the dream of reunifying will stay a dream.

Something else Westerners rarely hear about is how birthright can affect one’s social position, which job he gets, or how he is treated by his peers. Central to this story is the stigmatization people feel for deeds or wrongdoings by others in their family or simply being "other” themselves. Yi describes how much the father’s families are looked down upon in both countries: in the South, they are stigmatized for the father’s defecting as a communist; in the North, they are characterized and being a “Southerner.” They were denied high positions in North Korean government, unable to attend top universities, not allowed to apply to jobs such as the Social Security Minister “because of the blood relations Father had in the South” (Yi 64). The narrator had felt scared for his life in an anti-communist country in a family scarred by defection. As a result, the half-brothers realize that they have more in common than previously thought.

Yi uses a seemingly casual conversation between a restaurant patron and worker to illustrate the disgrace of being a foreigner in an alien land. The worker moved to Seoul with her husband for economic opportunity. When employers found out she was from Yanji, “‘they looked down on and tried to cheat ’” even going as far as “‘taking sexual advantage of ’” (Yi 21). The stereotypes of Northerners as “cheap, simple workers” and Southerners as “capitalist scum” will need to be left behind if reunification is ever to take place, as the stigma highlights the schism between South and North Korea.

An Appointment with his Brother challenges readers to think more deeply about the nature of Korean society. Yi Mun Yol brings to light human interactions not regularly reported by the media, which emphasize the militaristic back and forth between Kim Jong Un and the outside world. The inclusion of the midway border town of Yanji, the access to China through smuggling of cultural objects and humans, the importance of birthright, effects of stigma, and the constant Southern debates over reunification would surprise those used to media coverage from local and national publications.