2020 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
A Tale of Two Koreas

In his short story “Cranes,” writer Hwang Sun-Wŏn illustrates the complex and heart-rending relationship between two childhood friends that find each other identifying with opposing ideologies. It is not difficult to comprehend that the two main characters of the story represent North and South Korea, who have been unable to resolve their conflict to this day. Throughout the story, Hwang’s desire for North and South Korea to set aside their differences and unite is made clear several times.

The most obvious of Hwang’s allusions to his hope for the reconciliation of North and South Korea takes the form of the relationship between the two main characters, Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae. When Tŏkchae, the analogical reflection of communist North Korea is introduced, he is at opposing ends with Sŏngsam, who represents South Korea. Over the course of the story, Sŏngsam comes to the realization that the cause of their conflict is purely ideological. Once he looks past their opposing ideologies, he is able to see how much he and Tŏkchae have in common. They are able to reminisce about their past and Tŏkchae’s wife, and Sŏngsam marvels at the fact that Tŏkchae has started a family. Sŏngsam also discovers that Tŏkchae isn’t evil because he identifies with the Communist side; in fact, he was forced into it when he was made Vice Chairman of the Farmers’ Communist League because he stayed to help his father with the farm labor. In contrast, Sŏngsam had fled by himself, leaving his parents and family behind. Using their pasts, Hwang brings to light the fact that neither the citizens of the North nor the South were necessarily correct in their beliefs, or held a moral high ground, but in fact that the division between the two was tragic circumstance. In the end, Sŏngsam decides that he must release Tŏkchae and save his life. In this way, Hwang depicts a North and South Korea that have successfully set aside their differences and learned to care for each other.

Another more elaborate reference to the reconciliation of the two Koreas that Hwang makes is centered around the crane that Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae caught as children. In this analogy, the crane represents the people of North and South Korea that have had their lives torn apart by the division between the two Koreas, while Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae’s capturing of the crane and tying it down represent the failure of the North and South Korean governments to come to a compromise and reunite. The crane, a portrayal of the victims of the aftereffects of the division, is forced to suffer as a result of Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae’s selfish, albeit not entirely ill-meaning actions. However, upon hearing news of an individual from Seoul that had come with a permit to kill the crane, the two realize that they must set the crane free. Hwang’s desire for the two Koreas to put aside their wants for the betterment of its people is illuminated in the story.

While the fact that the Koreas have still failed to reunite makes Hwang’s story seem naïvely optimistic, Hwang includes details that prove that his writing is more complex than mere dewy-eyed wishful thinking. In the story about the crane that Sŏngsam and Tŏkchae captured, the two decide they must release the bird only when they hear of a collector that is headed down to kill it. In a research report written by Bruce W. Bennet and published by the RAND Corporation, “Alternative Paths to Korean Unification,” Bennet asserts that the three major paths to reunification include war, a regime collapse, and peaceful agreements led by both governments, although Bennet does add that “a win-win outcome for the two governments does not seem to exist”(Bennet, 57). Hwang recognizes that drastic conditions are necessary for the two governments to put aside their differences and let the two Koreas reunite. Hwang also establishes that he is aware that reuniting the two Koreas could potentially bring about even more issues and challenges for the Korean people. At the end of the story, as the crane is released, Hwang adds that at first, the crane has trouble walking and flying from being restricted for so long. In an article published on World Finance, written by Barclay Ballard, Ballard states that because of the different natures of South and North Korean economies, economic reintegration could prove to be very difficult, and South Korea would even need to assist North Korea in preparing to transition into a market economy before reunification plans even begin (“The economics of Korean Reunification”).

Although Hwang’s views and hopes for reunification seem more naïve and unjustified than ever, as Korea still fails to reunify, he shows a delicate understanding of the difficulties that reunification between the starkly different Koreas faces. While reunification may seem as though it will never be achieved, it is evident that both Koreas have grown remarkably in terms of culture, beliefs, laws, and economics since the Division that occurred in 1945. Perhaps now more than ever, we must remain optimistic for reunification and strive to look past the ideological differences that tore a country and the families within it apart so many decades ago.