2020 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
Remembrance and Reconciliation in Hwang Sun-won’s “Cranes”

As the Korean War approached a ceasefire in the summer of 1953, citizens on each side of the 38th parallel confronted the probability that North and South Korea could remain irrevocably divided. The newly established demilitarized zone separated an estimated 10 million Korean families, and few imagined that they would ever reconcile. As historian Mark Peterson notes, “the war, by making unification a more distant prospect, made...separation permanent” (207). Tensions and uncertainties remained high as the war came to an end, and pessimism toward the possibility of future reconciliation settled over both Koreas. Among the myriad post-war Korean writers who chronicled this turbulent period was Hwang Sun-won, a North Korean-born author who lived in the South after the war. In “Cranes,” published in 1953, Hwang acknowledges the profound pain and difficulty that reunification might entail, but still espouses hope that the Korean people, separated so violently by borders, armies, and ideologies, might someday rediscover their commonalities. Invoking the power of common memories and personal bonds, Hwang suggests that the Koreas’ geopolitical differences might eventually be overcome through personal connection; however, he also warns that remembrances and relationships are ephemeral, and as decades pass, these touchstones of hope and humanity become harder to remember and to rely upon for reunification.

In “Cranes,” Hwang toggles between two temporalities: the tense, violent Korean War raging in the present; and the comparatively idyllic, pastoral childhood of Hwang’s protagonists in the recent past. At the center of the narrative is Songsam, a Public Peace Corpsman tasked with punishing his childhood friend, Tokchae, who has since become vice chairman of the Farmers Collective Committee. To desensitize himself to the orders he must carry out, Songsam attempts to depersonalize and forget his past connection to Tokchae, whom he insists on calling “this fellow” and “a guy,” despite having grown up with him (306). Songsam attempts, too, to distance himself from his hometown, which he initially insists “did not seem like the old village where he had grown up as a youngster” (305). Still, despite his efforts to ignore his history and fulfill his current duty, Songsam’s present landscape is punctured by memories of the past: a patch of chestnut trees reminds him of how he and Tokchae, as boys, once ran away from the elderly villager who owned the grove; passing a hill, he recognizes the spot where he and Tokchae had once worked together cutting fodder. Try as he might to enforce the severe division between North and South Koreans, Songsam’s shared past with Tokchae illuminates the connective tissue holding them inextricably together.

Ultimately, Songsam’s remembrances of his and Tokchae’s shared childhood — including their common social ties, their shared experiences as sons of farmers, and their longstanding friendship — prevent Songsam from inflicting any governmentmandated punishment upon his old companion. As he leads Tokchae into a field, ostensibly to be killed, he suddenly remembers a crane they had once caught and released in the same area, as children, in order to save it from being shot by a government specimen-collector. Announcing spontaneously that it is “time for us to go crane hunting,” Songsam decides, in response to their shared memory, to let his old friend run free (312). Comparing Tokchae to a crane, which in Korean culture traditionally symbolizes harmony and reverence of the past, imbues the scene with the suggestion that shared memories directly affect future harmony (Philadelphia). Transnational peace and understanding, for Hwang, must stem from a recognition of deep-rooted commonalities and mutual history rather than permanent division and difference.

Songsam’s climactic reconciliation with Tokchae is thus directly enabled by the men’s shared social background. Hwang implies that Songsam’s political allegiances may have superseded his mercy if he did not personally know Tokchae, and if he was therefore unable to recognize Tokchae as a person and not merely as a geopolitical enemy. Songsam, through his history with Tokchae, understands that his old friend is not a soulless member of the opposition, but merely the son of a “dirt-poor farmer,” whose political motivations for joining the Farmers Collective Committee amount to a reluctance to abandon his family, who must “ the earth to stay alive” (309). In “Cranes,” remembrance alone provides the grounds for reconciliation between Songsam and Tokchae, who represent the opposing Koreas.

Since the publication of “Cranes,” critics have retrospectively challenged Hwang’s apparent idealism, which indeed seems misplaced in light of North and South Korea’s intensifying contemporary antagonisms. As Mark Peterson points out, the Korean War culminated in a “stalemate,” and after the violent conflict, “the two halves of Korea returned to where they had been before the war, with injured, maimed, and wounded on both sides. Neither side gained anything; both sides lost much in the way of life and property” (Peterson 208). Much has remained static over the past seven decades, and with no reunification prospects in sight, Koreans’ common memories and personal ties to those on the other side of the demilitarized zone have become increasingly distant, if not nonexistent. Hwang's hope for reunification may have been plausible in 1953, but any remaining opportunities for reconciliation — premised as it is on the maintenance of collective memory and personal relationships between North and South Koreans — may now be running out. However, stories like “Cranes,” which highlight the human dimensions and costs of the Korean partition, may provide some of the common histories that are missing from contemporary geopolitical discourse, and could help bridge the widening gap between present and past, between entrenched policies and genuine human connection.