At the Taedong River

by Ko Un

Translated by Brother Anthony, Gary Gach.

Why have I come here?
After a sleepless night,
the morning waters of the Taedong
were yesterday,
are today
and will be tomorrow's blue waves.
Such times are coming.
Times of change are coming
down a road no one can block.
Only change brings truth.

Why have I come here to this river's edge?
Standing, trembling, on the verge of tears,
I gaze across to eastern Pyongyang and the plains of Munsuri.
This must be.
Once these two peoples, divided,
become one people,
become one life to the very depths of their being,
I will no longer sing of my people,
no longer speak of my people,
I will forget that completely,
and go roaming far through the heavens above.
Until then --
until then
as a wild beggar, or no matter what,
I am necessarily one with my people.
Until then
I am simply one seed of my people, soon to spring fresh.

This morning I stand beside Pyongyang's Taedong River.
A poet of old sang of the river as "tears of farewell"
but today l gaze across the river
and think of days spent by the Han River
left behind when I came here.
I think of the two rivers meeting
and becoming one, far out in the sea to the west,
no longer distinct at all.

Now the sun rises.
Scattering the night of the two divided parts of this land,
new dawn pierces the night
the pain of daybreak --
far to the east, rising suddenly,
a blaze spreading fanwise, the sun breaks forth.

Why have I come here?
In times past
we each lived in separate worlds.
Had different ideologies, different beliefs,
sang different songs,
grew divided, fought.
In those days of hatred five million died
In those days the whole land was laid waste,
here and there cities were reduced to rubble,
the nights filled with the sounds of grasshoppers.

The battle line became the bloodstained armistice line.
Guns barrel to barrel, the barbed wire
became a wall dividing us as enemies,
became a fence
inside of which we got used to living.
We no longer knew that we were two,
no longer knew we were each only half.
Could not see that the two were dividing into three, four.
Ah, how quickly sped the years behind walls.

But we can never secure things by cement like that.
We can't stop
and linger at the end of an age.
We were one for so long.
For a thousand years, our country
was named by a single word,
expressing love, expressing sorrow.
Our heart was one,
our wisdom one, one to the point of foolishness.
The past fifty years of division form a mere gully
and now, that gully at last filled in,
one single land comes striding.

Why have I come here?
In the morning waters of the Taedong
yesterday flowed away --
today is flowing away --
tomorrow will flow away.
Points where each has differed till now are obvious,
so first must come meeting, the discovery of what's the same.
First there must be meeting, where all seek the same.
At the center of vast history's stage
there has to be such. sincerity in meeting
that little points of difference can be laid to rest --
so much empty space between separated lives,
signs of the grieving souls on either side.

Why have I come here?
The one people we have to create
is not a matter of going back, nostalgic for the past.
Burying all the mistakes, all the savagery, all the shame of the past,
it's a matter of gathering and establishing a completely new people.
Yes, unification is not re-unification but a new unification.
Unification must be the dazzling creation of an afterwards.
not what went before.

Why have I come here?
Why am I now returning home?
Because I am certain our people has a tomorrow.
Standing this morning before the Taedong River
I behold the tomorrow awaiting me and all my descendants.
Thanks to this meeting surely we who have come here
stand at the forefront of a century's history.
Now I return home,
bearing a flower.

Translators' note: The Taedong River flows through the heart of Pyongyang. The Han River flows through Seoul. Both rivers flow westward into the Yellow Sea where the poem imagines them being united

During the summit meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il held in Pyongyang in June 2000, Ko Un read this poem at the party celebrating the signing of the joint agreement.