2020 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
Embracing Moral and Political Ambiguity As A Pathway To Redemption

Humans are obsessed with moral dichotomies, eager to label good and bad, allies and enemies, the divine and the satanic. Yet in “Cranes,” a story that explores an unlikely friendship as a parable for the viability of Korean reunification, author Hwang Sunwon resists this impulse for oversimplification. Rather, he is willing to engage uncertainty and ambiguity, demonstrating that both are necessary for a humane and dimensional understanding of the era. Through vivid anecdotes and an emphasis on his two protagonists’s parallel experiences, Hwang structures a singular relationship as a microcosm for the sacrifice necessary for reunification. Hwang’s depiction of a border-transcending friendship, however, does not confer a naively romantic vision of reunification. In Songsam’s village, one characterized by surveillance, repression, and imminent violence, subtle gestures become political acts. Hwang is not a stranger to the political repression of the era. Throughout his story, he remains loyal to this reality. The most compelling moments of glimpsed humanity, of the potential for redemption and reunification, consequently lie not in overt gestures of reconciliation but, rather, in stolen moments of decency and solidarity.

One of the most prominent tensions in Hwang’s layered narrative is that between shared humanity and political fealty. Through evocative, intimate glimpses into Songsam’s past, Hwang further engages this tension between personal relationships and political responsibility. As Songsam accompanies a bound Tokchae to the edge of the village, he reminisces about their childhood escapades, remembering Tokchae’s act of kindness decades ago after Songsam’s chestnut filching went awry: “Tokchae suddenly reached out with a fistful of his own chestnuts and stuck them in Songsam’s pocket” (307). After this memory, Songsam “threw away the cigarette he had just lit. He makes up his mind not to light another while escorting this fellow Tokchae” (307). Though this seems like an insignificant gesture, it represents a moment of human decency, of Songsam’s tacit emotional solidarity with Tokchae. Songsam is not comfortable with enjoying a luxury that his counterpart cannot afford. This minimal act intimates the sacrifice necessary for reconciliation, a thematic undertone that crescendos toward the story’s end. Herein lies the efficacy of Hwang’s story: Rather than entertain grand, politically untenable scenarios as testaments to the possibility of reunification, he centers on small moments, ones that less observant individuals are likely to dismiss or pass over altogether. The mundane, then, becomes a vehicle for moral and political resistance, for glimpses of the possibility of what could be.

Hwang further interrogates and dismantles the fictive moral schism between north and south through exploring the parallel lived experiences of Songsam and Tokchae. When Songsam questions why Tokchae did not flee north, Tokchae cites his bedridden father. He claims, “I thought of getting away too, even if I had to carry my father on my back. But he said no, he couldn’t” (309). Through this exchange, Songsam becomes a direct foil to Tokchae: When faced with the prospect of displacement, Songsam could afford to migrate while Tokchae could not. From this conversation emerges a powerful refrain, a thematic continuity that haunts both characters: “If farm workers left the farming, where would they go?” (309). This simple query affirms that physical displacement dislodges more than a sense of geographical belonging. It also disorients one’s identity and purpose. Both Songsam and Tokchae’s fathers ask, “Where would a farmer go, and leave the farming?” (309) when prompted to move. The parallel dilemmas of both individuals, despite their political disparities, demonstrates that deeper than nominal divides lies an indelible loyalty to Korea as a singular home.

Hwang’s most overt moments of symbolism manifest in the form of cranes. He provides two parallel moments with cranes: Songsam and Tokchae’s childhood experience capturing a crane, and the cranes both characters witness as they go “crane hunting” (312) as adults. Though seemingly disparate, a singular conviction coheres these two experiences: a willingness to compromise personal safety for the preservation of something beautiful and worthwhile, arguably even transcendent. When Songsam and Tokchae hear that a man from Seoul intends to shoot a crane, the two children are willing to jeopardize themselves, so long as their shared secret is set free: “It did not matter that the grown-ups might find out and give them a scolding. All they could think was that their crane must not die” (311).

A similar conviction impels Songsam’s radical decision toward the story’s end. As he abruptly announces, “Hey, time for us to go crane hunting” (312), Tokchae blanches at the danger of their situation and thinks, “You’re going to be shot” (312). Though the entity that unites both individuals in the current moment is less tangible than the Tanjong crane of their youths, it nonetheless mobilizes them in a time of danger. The magnificent “something” that Songsam compromises his safety for comes not in the form of a bird but, rather, in his recognition of Tokchae’s inherent dignity as a human being. Through freeing his friend, Songsam tacitly affirms that Tokchae’s human decency transcends his political identity. In a situation fraught with danger, even imminent death, Songsam is willing to compromise himself to preserve his companion’s safety and, by extension, the vision of a broken yet enduring past.

Hwang, however, is intentional in leaving his conclusion ambiguous, again refuting the stance that his is a naive vision of political reconciliation. As the two friends crawl through the weeds, “two or three cranes, their huge wings spread, went soaring through the clear autumn sky” (312). Though Hwang’s concluding description flirts with the impression of flight and, by extension, freedom, it is unclear whether this imagery of liberation extends to the fates of Songsam and Tokchae. Through emphasizing the continued possibility of violence and death, Hwang underscores the human sacrifice and moral audacity necessary to actualize the vision of a united Korea. Genuine redemption and reconciliation, he intimates, begin not with grand gestures but with a commitment to honoring human decency, with a fealty to the shared emotional vulnerability and lived experiences that cohere those on opposing sides of war.