2020 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
Cranes: The Power of Hope

Although present day South Korea is a thriving hub of trade, iconic pop culture, and compelling history, its brother country, North Korea, is shrouded in a miasma of ambiguity, mystery, and isolation. Dim threats of nuclear war hover on the horizon of diplomacy between the two nations. Apathy and empathy circulate alike among young and old Koreans, while the rest of the world tastes bitter fear of what the future will bring from the Korean peninsula. In the midst of such national and international tension, it is difficult to remember that only a little over seventy years ago, these two polarized countries were one. But in Cranes, a short story of the effects of the Korean War on a small rural village north of the 38th parallel, acclaimed writer Hwang Sunwon reveals the profound power of hope; how, in the midst of terrible violence and polarization of friends, family, and nation, unity of mind and country is always an undying dream.

The story depicts two childhood friends: Tokchae, a hardworking farmer, and Songsam, who escaped from the North to the South during the war. Tokchae is arrested for hiding from South Korean soldiers, and Songsam escorts him to Chongdan. Along the way, Songsam ponders the history of their friendship, and how they have become so politically and situationally estranged: Tokchae has married and will be a father, while Songsam has left behind most of his Northern roots. Ultimately, Songsam decides to free Tokchae and face the consequences, even if it means death.

Tokchae, with his strong roots in the land and in his agricultural livelihood, represents North Korea. Songsam, a free spirit who is willing to leave behind all that he has known to find a better life, represents South Korea. In order to highlight the parallel between their friendship and the division of the Koreas, Hwang utilizes two powerful symbols, the chestnut tree and the cranes, successfully illustrating his hope for Korean unification.

First, the chestnut tree represents the past unity and subsequent division of the Koreas. As he leads Tokchae through the village, Songsam recalls how one time, he had been caught climbing the tree and had fallen out of the tree onto the burrs below. He and Tokchae had run for their lives, despite the pain in Songsam’s backside. Songsam had plaintively cried while pulling out the burrs, when Tokchae had “suddenly reached out with a fistful of his own chestnuts and stuck them in Songsam’s pocket…”

Hwang uses subtle details to illustrate Korea’s division. When Songsam climbs the tree, and Tokchae stays on the ground, the situation represents how both Koreas had pushed themselves towards completely different ideologies; Hwang skilfully shows their polarization by evoking the contrast of going skyward, or staying on the ground. In addition to this contrast, he represents the deep pain induced by the division of the Korean peninsula and the ensuing war through Songsam’s fall to the ground onto the burrs. He underscores how the two countries had essentially fallen away from one another, only to be afflicted by suffering of breaking an age old mental, emotional, and national unity. In the end, however, Hwang uses the image of Tokchae offering Sangsom his own chestnuts to highlight the hope of reconciliation between the two friends, and the two Koreas.

Secondly, Hwang utilizes cranes as a symbol of distinct hope. As boys, Songsam and Tokchae had caught a crane and had “tied it up, even its wings.” The crane, in its helplessness and captivity, characterizes how North and South Korea have become mired in stubbornness and disunity, and how the division of what should be whole brings about bitterness. Hwang advocates reconciliation by illustrating how both boys decided to free the crane: “their own crane, the one that had come down to earth, stretched out its long neck, gave a cry, and flying up into the sky…vanished into the distance.” Through this illustration, he highlights the hope of national redemption and the rectification of all past wrongs and mutual failures between the two Koreas. Essentially, Hwang emphasizes the importance of having a profound faith in future peace, defying all the ghosts of bygone destruction and mistakes.

Despite Hwang’s use of the chestnut tree and the cranes as symbols of the past and future situation between the two Koreas, there seems to be no immediate hope of reconciliation. The two countries are more divided than ever; the mercantile and cultural successes of half of the peninsula shine brilliantly in the world, while the other half seems only to boast of its powerful weapons of destruction, deliberately perpetuating the keen despondency and fatalism of those who hope for unification. However, Hwang does present a realistic view of the situation. He reveals that peace is not an easy task by highlighting the situational and ideological differences between Tokchae and Songsam. While Tokchae refuses to run away from his home, sighing, “People like us, all we know is working the earth to stay alive. What good would it do us to run away?” Songsam, leaves his elderly parents to wander “the strange streets and hamlets of the south.” Through this, Hwang reveals how polarized the North and South are in their ideologies and ambitions.

However, Hwang’s objective through this story is to show the power of hope. Even while signifying the differences between Tokchae and Songsam and North and South Korea, he suffuses the story with hope of future reconciliation between both countries. He reveals that, although the dream of unification, pounding in each fervent Korean heart, seems to be lost in the quagmire of harsh reality and present despair, hope is a candle that will never be extinguished by darkness. Indeed, Hwang plants this seed of hope in the soil of tomorrow; even if the world only sees what is broken, and not what can be made whole, one day, a unified Korea will go “soaring through the clear autumn sky” and remain unified in thought, in blood, at heart, and in spirit.