2018 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
second place, senior essay division
In the highly globalized world of the twenty-first century, all people seem to be connected. Information travels from continent to continent in seconds. Everyday life in one country is filled with goods that originate in a nation thousands of miles away. Yet in the middle of these interconnected networks stands an untouched island: North Korea. Baffled by the closed off country and searching for a logical, and perhaps politically expedient explanation, the country’s image is politicized. Unfortunately, the political conversation is very far from the individual lives of North and South Koreans. Perhaps because the people making judgements are not the ones directly affected by the conflict, reason always trumps idealism. The disconnect between the politics surrounding North Korea and the circumstances faced by Koreans raises the question of whether idealism can survive in such a place.
This disconnect is illustrated vividly in Yi Mun-yol’s novella An Appointment with His Brother, which tells a tale of the son of a South Korean defector meeting a brother living across the border. It depicts the persecution faced by each brother due to decisions that they did not make. By looking at the issue in a way personal to the main character, the novella presents a touching, realistic view that is different from the one presented to me by media. News coverage paints North Korean citizens as either starving prisoners trapped within an economically failing country or brainwashed by their government. The North Korean characters in this story, however, are neither starving nor brainwashed, claiming that they “have received more from the country than (they) gave it” (34). Citizens are devoted to their country as Hyok Lee, the brother living in North Korea, shows when he describes his connection with the land. Nevertheless, that does not stop them from being thoughtful about their government’s policies. Hyok Lee even ventures so far as to question that "'(if) we are heading towards a market-oriented economy of private ownership, isn’t it better to be a landowner than a tenant farmer?’”(46) Faith comes not just from brainwashing but rather from true belief.
I was shocked when I read that the main character’s father defected from the South to the North. Based on what I had learned, it felt like he was running from wealth and freedom to poverty and tyranny. Yet his choice was based on a deep belief in the North Korean system of government. It was one he continued to pride, treasuring his medal from the North Korean government until his dying day. This kind of true belief, surprising in comparison to the effects of propaganda described by the news, adds another dimension to the North Korean people, suggesting that some are both critical thinkers and idealistic individuals.
The disconnect between politics and circumstances is even more prevalent when dealing with the critical issue of reunification. The novella presents the two typical major arguments against unification - political and economic. Vehemently opposing political ideologies make coming together difficult. As shown in the novella when a cultural exchange turns into “a political rally of fellow Communists” (25), both sides do not look to exchange views but rather search for groups echoing their own arguments. An ideologically divided country coming together can lead to turmoil for the government and turbulence for citizens. On the other side of the spectrum sit people who prioritize economic disparities, believing that “‘ideology is determined by economic conditions’” (18). The argument presented by the business man in the novella is that an economically weakened North Korea will simply be swallowed by the South upon unification. Workers who are trained in a different kind of workforce will not be able to do anything besides the most menial of jobs and earn wages lower than those of foreign nationals while South Korea carries the burden of feeding 20 million additional people. Both arguments are intellectual and lacking of emotion. As they are mostly made by those not suffering from the division, the view of each is bleak and mercilessly critical.
The political views of reunification, however, overlook the struggles of people, and it is in these struggles that one finds idealism. Indeed, one of the novella’s central themes is that much of life is determined by choices taken by others. The only chance people have to be happy is to find the best parts of life and make do. Mun-yol presents two brothers who have been cursed by the choices of their father, their governments, and the other’s existence. Liu’s father’s escape has subjected him to a life of “countless humiliations… (and) there was a policeman in charge of (him) who checked on (him) regularly” (35). Meanwhile for Hyok Lee, the existence of Liu has brought more governmental distrust and stunted opportunities. Both brothers have lives dictated by circumstances and the choices of others. Instead of choosing to hate one another they choose to embrace this newfound family, and Lee tells Liu that “I’m sure we’ll be reunited before long” (50). For them the politics of reunification are distant and irrational. They do not care about the arguments about why reunification is impossible. They ignore what is deemed “rational” and choose hope because hope is the only way to make otherwise miserable lives feel bearable. The only way for them to be a family is through reunification. Therefore, although reality may lie in the cynical political view, these brothers need idealism instead of reality, never doubting that reunification will one day come.
In a world where politics triumph over hope, where negotiations and policies drive our interpretation of the people around us, maybe it is time to reconsider idealism. Perhaps it is important to remember that the people affected by each policy, each negotiation, and each presidential statement need a little sunshine. As the 2018 Olympic “All Korean” hockey team showed us all when athletes from both countries stepped onto the ice as one, maybe it is time to learn from the example of those struggling and choose hope.