2020 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior third place
third place, senior essay division
The year is 1950: turmoil lies on both sides of the 38th parallel. Violence. Warfare. Distrust. Antagonizing sentiments that still live today were born out of the Korean War, which resulted not only in the division of the two Koreas, but also of families, friends, and lovers. Published in 1953, Hwang Sun-won’s "Cranes" parallels the cessation of the Korean War with an attempt at true peace and reunification with loved ones. Oftentimes, the theme of reunification might be deemed too naive and unrealistic; however, Hwang’s story presents a juxtaposition of reconciliation and apprehension. Through the recollection of pleasant memories, placement of amicable and unifying symbols, and examination of the characters’ wary thoughts, “Cranes" portrays a possible alternate universe where two divided entities could overcome adversities to reap the benefits of reunification and friendship.
What “Cranes” succeeds to imply is that history holds future potential.“Cranes” takes place in a village along the 38th parrallel -- a village deserted and grim, with a not-to-be forgotten history of family and love. Once close friends in that village, the main characters --Songsam and Tokchae--are reminded of their platonic history throughout the story: making cigarettes out of pumpkins, Tokchae giving Songsam the chestnut burs he pulled out of Songsam’s back, teasing Short Stuff, and freeing the crane they caught before it was killed by the government official. Childhood memories like these naturally evoke nostalgia, a yearning for the past. For Tokchae and Songsam, the remembrance of the past allows them to rebuild trust in one another and play together once again, as observed in the final scene where Tokchae finally “understood, and began crawling into the weeds” as he had done before with Songsam. In the case of reunification, such memories serve as a reminder that past reconciliations can be imitated.
“Cranes” has been criticized as a story that pays little to no attention to the harsh realities of attempting reunification. Troy Stangarone, a senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, and many other accredited economists have noted that “the likelihood of unification is very low in the near future” due to the vastly different economic and political situations of the two nations. Despite its notes of optimism, “Cranes” delivers similar sentiments of worry and apprehension. Before each moment of reconciliation between Songsam and Tokchae is a moment of doubt. Songsam refuses to give Tokchae a cigarette because of his affiliation to the Communist Party. Tokchae feared fulfilling Songsam’s order to flush some cranes due to the thought that Songsam would shoot him. Distrust is interwoven throughout the story and is often blatant. To dismiss the story as naively optimistic involves ignoring those complex thoughts of suspicion. When applied to real life, the struggles the characters face can represent the economic and social issues reunification may create. According to Stangarone, the story presents one realistic way of how reunification would work, as opposed to war or the collapse of the North Korean regime: “ a gradual, consensual process.” Perhaps “Cranes” is a story that should be taken more seriously and merits consideration for the future.
Along with the economic difficulties, “Cranes” foreshadows the social realities that hinder the Koreas’ pursuit of reunification. Songsam and Tokchae encounter social pressures to despise one another. One significant moment is when Songsam shouts with heavy sudden anger at Tokchae after remembering the time when he moved to the south two years before Liberation. The reason he gets angry is not explicitly stated, but it can be inferred that the anger-evoking memory is filled with feelings of distrust, fear, and violence that prompt him to move away. That type of fear and distrust is not too different from the feelings of South Koreans when they suspect a North Korean defector to be a spy. Due to the distinct cultures of the two countries, antagonizing sentiments, supported by misinformation of either Korea, still live on today. This is reflected in the name-calling, ostracism, workplace discrimination experienced by many of the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. The inclusion of these prejudices that remain until the end of the story makes “Cranes” more complex than just a superficially optimistic children’s story; there is truth and reality behind it.
“Cranes” offers many opportunities for analysis of its situations and themes, and its rich complexity should not be ignored or undermined. The story presents the effects of othering and ways of rising above preconceived prejudicial notions. “Cranes” does not cloud reality; instead, it presents an idea, one that is attainable. At the end of the story two cranes fly, concluding with the metaphorical representation of what Hwang Sun-won wants to see in the futures of the Koreas: unity. Even though North and South Korea have diverged and developed distinct cultures and levels of modernization, “Cranes” offers measured hope during the troubling time when it was published that a better form of peace and unity can ensue.