2018 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place, adult essay division
A Case for Empathy and Economics
“Blood is thicker than water”, an ages old adage that hums in the background of Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment with His Brother as the narrator attempts to find closure and comfort in the aftermath of his two-time-defector father’s death through meeting his North Korean half-brother. Yi Mun-yol cleverly orchestrates a narrative based on the narrator’s first meetings and false assumptions, first with his brother and then reiterated with the round characters “unification man” and “business man”. Through a series of misrepresentations and continued encounters, Yi exposes potential problems of reunification such as clashing political ideologies, the potential for massive human exploitation and neo-colonization of their own people, as well as presenting the less overt intricacies of social stigmas and citizen’s emotional fatigue at rejoining their scattered families. Still, despite these false beliefs and conflicting sources of information, the two men are able to reconcile their differing nationalities and distraught childhoods of being stigmatized as “defector’s son” for their concern for their brother, their commonality of blood. While there is a critical analysis of what stands to be lost through unification, the text provides a poignant remark on the human ability for empathy to overcome.
A simple internet search of the term “North Korea” brings forth sensationalist reports of blood-stained torture chambers, nuclear warfare on the brink of destroying the peninsula, and descriptions of a dual society of Pyongyang elite and labor camp workers. An Appointment with His Brother deconstructed these extremist and politically biased views by depicting hardships in North Korea as paralleled to the South— social stigmas and economic disadvantages as consequences of an imperfect system. And while North Korea is free from some of the implication of South Korea’s latestage capitalism ,such as being the “running dogs of the American imperialists” (34), his brother’s current sufferings shed light on the strict social hierarchy and the burden of stigma his entire generation must carry for a lifetime. One father has stained two childhoods with defection, but only one has had the freedom to fashion successful life for himself. Additionally, while both brothers have had rigorous anti-Communist and anti-Capitalist educations, the Yi Mun-yol presents two level-headed kin with moderate views and consideration for both sides of the border: one bound in a system of never-ending social stigma and one skirting the law to accumulate land and monies to create “success”.
The issue then raised in the narrative of reunification is the violent clash of economies and political economies such as the “economies-first” method versus the “return to nature” (58). This clash is recognized in the two opposing antagonists of “reunification man” and “business man”. First, viewed as a naive soap boxer and then recognized as a well-educated liberal. the “reunification man” champions for “a restoration of justice, as our nation was originally one” (58). He believes in perfect parity, or an even redistribution of resources and blending of societies so that one is not “absorbing” the other in a neo-colonialist manner. Conversely, the “business man” – a representation South Korean conservatives and the American train of thought— thinks only of the hefty “unification expenses” and the potential return on investment… or ability to profit off the imbalances of natural resources and labor classes. He gives no thought to the human condition or “righteousness” of the situation. By presenting us with such opposite, antagonizing characters, Yi Mun-yol characterizes the bipartisan views of reunification, suggesting there is little room for conversation or progress to be made in the interactions between the two. While both contain valid points on the issue, the animosity between the two prevents a blending of ideas or compromise.
So who is of the right opinion in regards to North and South Korean reunification and where do these reunification efforts go from here? Through the brothers’ conversations and the characters at the hotel, the novella deconstructs what is previously black and white – such North Korean society as evil and South Korea as a neutral good in the media or economic vs. moral considerations— and presents us with a series of intricate blurred lines and social ambiguities. And in the end, despite overcoming pride, hardships, and a “half a century of love and hate and resentment and yearning” (9), the brothers are still quite separated by their governments and the lines drawn from them. The brother breaks down in a touchingly honest confession of jealousy and suffering to which the narrator can offer words and comfort and observe, “the shoe shops of history are always run by unskilled shoemakers” (65). In Yi Mun-yol’s opinion, it is not the people who lack the empathy or strength to break the half-century divide, but the governments that serve to widen this chasm. But perhaps in the future, in a more moderate era with compromising parties and persistence in communication and conveyance of emotion, the two nations could naturally come together as one.