2019 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
Beyond Face Value and Fanfare: the Reunification of the Korean Peninsula

Following Korea’s historic hockey teams at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Koreans around the globe celebrated a momentous meeting between the leaders of the Koreas: Moon Jae In and Kim Jong Un. In addition to signing agreements to continuously prioritize peace, the two leaders agreed to sign a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics. Interactions between the two Koreas have long been publicized in the international media. However, in the midst of reunification talks lies the deeper question on how to truly make reunification a reality. While this subject is not publicized in the media as much as the potential for reunification, important changes must be made in the way North and South Koreans view each other. Thus, in a world in which the unification of the Korean Peninsula seems to hold more potential than ever, Yi Mun-Yol’s An Appointment with His Brother has become especially crucial and relevant. Through the characters in the book, Yi explores the obstacles present on the path to reunification, establishing that reunification can only be done when all financial, social, and financial challenges are addressed.

Yi’s novella artfully addresses the ideas surrounding Korean reunification through the juxtaposition of the “unification man” and the “antique smuggler”. To the readers, the two characters represent two “extreme” opinions of a unified Korea; while the “unification man” is drawn to the glory brought by a unified Korea, the “antique smuggler” is hungry to take advantage of the economic potential that reunification presents. Through the juxtaposition of both characters and the symbolic reunification of the South Korean narrator and his North Korean brother, Yi suggests a greater idea of what a unified Korea should be. Reunification only represents the settlement of contrasting ideologies or economies; rather, it is the union of the Korean people. This situation highlights the disconnect between the North and South Korean people, rather than one of ideologies or differing economies. Instead of finding a middle ground between contrasting opinions, we must strive to take a humanitarian approach to reunification.

The unification man “the past glory of ancient Korea and ending by stressing the importance of achieving unification as the first step toward recovering the nation’s past glory” (Yi, 14). While he addresses why the “utopia-like” potential of reunification is so important, he neglects to answer how to reunify. In fact, the unification man is motivated by his “naivete, is often perceived as stupidity and immaturity, but...sometimes moving for the pure passion in it” (Yi, 14-15). By labelling unification man’s passion as simply “naivete”, the narrator suggests that more complexities exist in reunification than what the unification man may think. The “glory” that he parades comes at a cost; without addressing other factors, such ideas can only be seen as naivete. In the same way, we may need to reconsider the true meaning of Korea’s hockey teams in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, also dubbed the “peace games”. Despite the highly-publicized crowds of athletes and spectators that waved flags of a unified Korea, nationalist sentiments in the media went silent following the Olympic games. Publicizing only the glorified, optimistic idea of reunification will not get us far in the ultimate goal of reunification - there are still barriers that we must take into consideration.

Contrasting unification man’s idealism is the antique smuggler’s more practical, pragmatic stance on reunification. He questions how South Korea will be able to “feed twenty-million hungry people...and make North Korea even superficially resemble the South” (Yi, 16). From a purely business-like perspective, he states, “the North Koreans are inferior even to the Filipinos as a labor force...the North Korean labor force would simply be a liability, rather than an asset, to our economy” (Yi, 17). He completely neglects the people as the central aspect of reunification, only searching for opportunities to better himself and the South Korean economy. The antique smuggler thoughts, although extremely opportunistic, point towards reality. The narrator’s conversation with the Yanji café owner reveals that she “couldn’t apply for any office work...and at the factory the same as the Filipinos” (Yi, 22). The restaurant owner’s experience working in South Korea reveals the reality behind the idealistic face of reunification. The cultural barrier between the two Koreas still exists today. Interviews with many North Korean defectors reveal that many struggle to adapt to South Korean society, facing fierce discrimination, and like the café owner, exploitation. Several accounts state that some defectors desire to return to North Korea. Such a difficulty in adapting to the South reveals that the differences between the two countries all now too large to simply “reunify”. Overall, the antique smuggler’s ideas, although critical and opportunistic, are worth considering in the process of reunification.

Yi’s novella reveals that the two Koreas cannot be reunified without the consideration of other factors. Over time, the two nations have taken diverging paths that have resulted in different economies, and more importantly, different people. Thus far, our discussions for reunification have largely resembled those of the unification man. Just like the Pyeongchang Olympics, we find that our optimism is often short-lived. Yi’s antique smuggler presents ideas that are important in our endeavor for reunification, highlighting obstacles and barriers that only the collaboration between the two Koreas can fix. Above all, Yi Mun-Yol’s An Appointment with His Brother urges readers to consider reunification as a humanitarian goal beyond the union of conflicting economic or social interests. Rather, reunification is a goal that both Koreas must actively pursue. Perhaps Professor Liu, the narrator’s friend from the University of Yanji, says it best: “Shouldn’t an exchange aim at listening to the other side and finding a point of mutual understanding? But both sides are seeking only to strengthen their own position...How can that be a preparation for...unification” (Yi, 25)?

Still, the ideas of both the unification man and the antique smuggler prove to be valuable. Through careful and consistent negotiation, and only after the two Koreas genuinely think as one, will true reunification be possible.