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It is not an
exaggeration to say that Yi Mun-yol (born in 1948)
is the most successful Korean writer of the last
quarter of the twentieth century. He is one of those
lucky authors who consistently win both critical
acclaim and enthusiastic popular following. Since
his debut at age 30, he has been a commanding
presence in the Korean literary scene, and in recent
years he has also received acclaim and critical
attention in Europe and elsewhere, as his works have
been translated into major European and Asian
languages. Yi, however, has not always been so
lucky. In fact, he was intensely unhappy in his
early years. Much as was the case with the
protagonist of this story, his father's defection to
the North forced his family to struggle not only
against poverty but social stigma and police
surveillance. So he repeatedly dropped out of school
and experienced great turbulence of spirit.
Throughout it all, however, he read omnivorously,
which served him well in his later career, as did
his early tribulations.
To date (1999) Yi
has produced close to twenty novels (half of them
multi-volume) and more than fifty novellas and short
stories, besides two collections of political and
social commentaries and two ten-volume translations
of classical Chinese romances. Even more impressive
than his productivity is the range and power of his
stories. Some of them are serious explorations into
man's existential condition; many delve into the
implications of the Oriental and Western heritages,
drawing from numerous classical texts from the East
and the West; some grapple with the meaning of
history and ideology; and some are satirical
portrayals of contemporary social mores. As Yi is
only in his early fifties, he is certain to continue
to enrich Korean literature and delight and
enlighten his enthusiastic readers worldwide.
with My Brother" is a story of the author's imagined
meeting with his stepbrother, his father's son from
his second marriage in North Korea after his
defection during the Korean War. The
narrator/protagonist of the story uses his
connections and money to arrange his younger
brother's visit to Yenji, in the Korean autonomous
district in China, to have a meeting with him there.
The protagonist had originally intended to arrange a
meeting with his father, but after learning that his
father passed away while the Korean-Chinese who had
been commissioned with the task was trying to make
it happen, decided to meet his brother in place of
Appointment with My Brother
Translated by Suh Ji-moon
Published in Korean Literature Today (Korean
PEN) Volume 4 No. 4, Winter 1999
(The footnotes have not
been saved in making this file)
It seemed that my brother's failure to take the trip
was not so much due to a sudden change in his
circumstances as to the indefiniteness of the
agreement between him and Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim made
profuse apologies for disappointing me for the
second time, and stressed that it is because he is
undertaking such a commission for the first time in
his life. And his sallow and haggard face, the
occasional flushes that spread over it, and his
fidgeting uneasily like a guilty child made me
willing to believe that he is not a professional
"I took it on, because it
didn't look too hard, and I could use some money.
But it's not as easy as it looked. Unexpected
complications occur, and connections just disappear.
I dumped quite a bit of money, just casting for
possibilities. So, it was half a month after his
funeral that I found out where your father lived.
But this time, there's no mistake. Your brother will
come, even if he is delayed a day or two."
Mr. Kim lingered on, after
he told me all he had to say. I became bored.
Perhaps sensing my boredom, Mr. Kim began talking
about the state of affairs in North Korea. But he
had very little to tell me that he hadn't told me
before or that I hadn't gathered from other sources.
It ran mainly on how wretched the North Korean
economy is, and how pitifully people are suffering,
with emphasis on the food shortage. Mr. Kim, like
other Koreans in the Korean autonomous region in
China, gave out information about the circumstances
in North Korea as a way of showing friendliness or
ingratiating himself to South Koreans. But, perhaps
because it was not himself but his wife who made
frequent trips to North Korea, he had only guesses
or hearsay to relate on points I really wanted to
Is he tarrying because he
wants me to pay him the last installment of his fee?
I wondered to myself, when at last we had exhausted
topics and just sat there looking at each other. But
I had no intention of paying him the rest of his
fee, even though that might look ungenerous. I had
heard it remarked often enough that Koreans in China
aren't naive and honest any more. But I distrusted
not so much his honesty as his ability.
But he really wasn't trying
to get the rest of his fee. As I was sitting there
silently with a tired expression, trying to hide my
boredom, he ventured, after much hesitation: "I know
this is not your first time in Yenji,1) but have you
been to all the places? I'd like to show you around,
if there are places you'd like to see."
So, it was to offer his
services to make up for my disappointment that he
lingered on. But, much as I appreciated his kind
offer, I was in no mood to take advantage of it. On
my first trip to Yenji in the late 1980s I made a
tour of the area for a whole day, visiting the
Hairan River and the famous well in Yongjŏng.2)
Moreover, I had no enthusiasm for sightseeing any
more. On overseas trips these days, it is only on
the first day that I feel any exoticism. I lose
interest very quickly, and from the second day it is
just as if I was in Korea.
After I drove him away with
polite words of refusal, I checked my watch and saw
it was already past eleven o'clock. Mr. Kim took two
hours telling me what he could have done in a matter
of a few minutes. I heard that he worked in the
international cooperation section of a state-run
business, but his duties must be quite light, if he
could waste so much time in a weekday morning.
I was introduced to Mr. Kim by Professor Liu of the
University of Yenji. I met Prof. Liu at the seminar
I attended the year before, a roughly put-together
affair which was really a pretext for its Korean
participants to tour Mt. Paekdu.3) Professor Liu
read a paper on the history of the Northeastern
region, especially Pohai.4) I was impressed with his
modest and frank personality even more than with his
scholarship, so I sought his acquaintance and we
When I told him, two days
prior to my departure for Yentai en route to my
return to Korea, that I wanted to see Tumen River,5)
he offered at once to be my guide, and we went to
Mt. Haishan together. When I beheld the land of
North Korea across the Tumen River, I felt an urge
to drink, and after getting drunk I became
sentimental and made bows towards North Korea from
the shore of the river, weeping. I had thus
performed in effect a commemoration ceremony to my
father who was still living--which would have been a
profanation in normal circumstances. Professor Liu,
having watched me in silence, said, when I recovered
"Why don't you get someone
to arrange a meeting with your father for you? There
are people who arrange such meetings for a fee. It
should be possible to bring your father over here,
and you can come for a visit at the appointed time."
I had heard of such things
being arranged. As a matter of fact, it was exactly
to cast for such possibilities that I went out of my
way to attend the seminar, which wasn't of much
interest to me in itself. But I was too timid to
disregard the stern warning of the Security Planning
Board. I was uneasy about venturing on something
like that, so I asked some people to introduce me to
an official of the SPB. The official cut me short as
soon as I broached the possibility and told me in
the most decisive tone:
"At this stage, as we still
don't have diplomatic relations with the People's
Republic of China, North Korea can do pretty much
what it likes in Yenji. Even though our agents are
accompanying your group on this trip, we cannot
guarantee your safety in case you make such a
clandestine contact. Suppose a few of their secret
agents come with your father and kidnap you to North
Korea. Do you think they'll let you claim you have
been kidnapped? And what'd be the use, even if you
could, of your insisting you're kidnapped? I suggest
you give up the thought completely. Time's just not
ripe, yet. We wouldn't be dissuading you so strongly
if you were a person of no importance. We are asking
you to exercise discretion, because if you plan
something like that and it goes wrong, it will not
only be a great misfortune for you and the members
of your family, but it will be a serious blow to
South Korea. We understand your urgent wish, as your
father is in his eighties. It's only natural that
you long to see your father before he passes away,
if only for once, but this is just too risky for
everyone concerned. We'll see if we can help you in
this, so please just attend the seminar and come
That was how my wish was
foiled even before I could make any attempt to
realize it. So, when the five days in Yenji passed
with the uninteresting seminar and a trip to Mt.
Paekdu, which I was already familiar with from
photographs, my sense of futility and frustration
was such that it exploded in tears that day.
I agreed to follow
Professor Liu's suggestion like one assenting to a
criminal proposal, and Professor Liu sent Mr. Han-jo
Kim to my hotel the next day. I was told that Mr.
Kim's wife's family was in North Korea, and that his
wife was legally a north Korean residing in Yenji
until she married him. Mr. Kim's father-and
mother-in-law lived in Chŏngjin, but his wife had
three uncles, who lived in Pyongyang, Ŭiju, and Hoeryŏng respectively.
It was the fact that he had connections to both
Chŏngjin and Pyongyang that made me decide to
entrust the arrangement to him. The address on my
father's letter which I received in the mid-eighties
was Pyongyang, but a relative who is a Korean
resident in Japan had told me recently that he met
my father in Chŏngjin.
Well, I noted down all the
facts I knew about my father and gave it to Mr. Kim,
together with three thousand dollars. I had to
borrow money from other participants at the seminar
to make up that sum, which was not Mr. Kim's fee but
the prospective expenses. I promised him a minimum
of twenty thousand yuan for commission, and assured
him that if more expenses were to occur, on account
of my father's rather prominent social position, I
would compensate him for that without any question.
Prof. Liu's guarantee for the honor of both parties
also helped bring about the informal contract.
Perhaps because the fee was
a bonanza to him, Mr. Kim paid me a visit with his
wife on the morning of my departure from Yenji and
made rosy promises. He told me that he might be able
to bring about my reunion with my father as early as
by that winter, which was only two moths away, and
assured me that I would be able to meet my father by
the following spring at the latest. The basis of his
optimism is that corruption is widespread among
north Korean officials, and that the almighty dollar
can easily buy a mid-level official.
In spite of Mr. Kim's
confidence, progress was extremely slow. I hadn't
put full trust in his optimistic prospects, but the
winter vacation passed without any word from him,
and summer vacation arrived without any news of
However, since I was
plotting something that is forbidden by the current
law of my country, I couldn't write to inquire about
the progress or cast about for information through
connections. Thus, a year went by amid my
impatience. Then, diplomatic relations were
established between the Republic of Korea and China,
which increased my impatience acutely. It meant that
the risk the Security Planning Board had warned me
about was removed.
Then, Professor Liu, who
visited Seoul in January of this year at the
invitation of a relative of his, gave me unexpected
"I'm sorry. I heard that
your father passed away last summer. Mr. Kim told me
only recently. It seems that his wife was sick for a
few months and delayed his looking into your affair,
and then he felt so guilty that you lost the chance
of meeting your father on account of his remissness
that he has been avoiding me. And it looks like he
spent all the money taking trips to North Korea and
trying to establish connections and so on."
Then he brought out a new
suggestion, which might be his own idea, or an idea
suggested by Mr. Kim.
"Mr. Kim is so worried
about returning your money, now that he can't bring
about the meeting. But where could he find such a
sum? So, I thought--how about if you met one of your
brothers, instead of your father whom you can't meet
any more? It seems like you have a few."
Frankly, Professor Liu's
new suggestion was far from having any appeal to me
at the time. It must have been because I was
overcome by a feeling of emptiness, as it seemed at
the moment that a half century of love and hate and
yearning and resentment all went up in vapor. How
can the object of my longing and resentment, who
still appears before me in many guises, though not
with such compelling power as in the days of my
adolescence and youth, disappear like a breath of
Of course, it was because
of my father's advanced age that I was so anxious to
meet him. But his death seemed unreal and
unbelievable to me. I suppose it was because the
image I harbored of my father was as a young man in
I kept thinking about my
father's death after I came back home without
responding to Professor Liu's suggestion either way.
I had too many decisions to make in connection with
Father's death, from whether to tell it to my mother
to what rituals I should perform as a bereaved son.
Mother never mentioned
Father again ever since she learned, in the
mid-eighties, that Father had five children from his
second marriage in the North. Such fertility of
Father's must have felt like a betrayal to her who,
after she was left behind at age thirty-three by
Father's defection, preserved her chastity without a
single blemish to her honor and devoted herself
solely to raising us three children. What, then,
would Father's death mean to her?
I was also uncertain about
what ceremonies it would behove me to enact as
Father's eldest son. Would I have to install a box
for his spirit and wear mourning, though belatedly?
How should I mark the end of the mourning period for
him, and would it be all right for me to observe the
anniversaries of his death afterwards, and had I
better have a prayer ceremony held for the peaceful
rest of his soul at a Buddhist temple or Christian
church? And what should I do about his domicile
registration, which shows him as still living? Would
my report of his death be accepted as valid? Should
I tell the clan council, which is currently
preparing a new genealogy book for my branch of the
clan? Or should I wait until the elders would be
liberalized enough to be receptive to the idea of
including my siblings in the North in the genealogy?
But I couldn't come to a
decision on any of these questions. Even Father's
death itself was hearsay, and I couldn't be certain
about even the fact of his death, having no
information about the circumstances of his death nor
even its exact date. In such a circumstance, who
could I announce his death to, and what ceremony
could I hold to mark it? It occurred to me that I
should at least let Mother know, but I wasn't sure
about that, either. Mother was showing marked
symptoms of Alzheimer's disease from the beginning
of winter, and there was no telling what strange
behavior the shocking news would provoke from her.
I'll have to know the exact
facts and circumstances before I can take any
action, I decided, and it was only then that I felt
the need to meet my brother, though I had
disregarded the suggestion when it was first made.
Until then, my siblings were vaguely people I'd meet
if the country would become reunited some day, but
now at least one of them would enter my life as a
So, I told Prof. Liu that I
would meet my brother, and in less than two moths I
received a message from Mr. Kim telling me to be in
Yenji on a certain date. Of course, the message was
not conveyed directly in explicit words, but the
code word in his innocuous letter pointed
unequivocally to this date.
I made haste to book a trip
to Yenji, in spite of its being in the middle of the
semester. But, even though diplomatic relations were
established, it was not easy to obtain a visa for a
personal trip. Moreover, meeting a North Korean was
still a risky business, as hostilities between the
two regimes could be aggravated and I could be
charged with making clandestine contact with an
enemy country. So, I decided against travelling by
myself, and hit upon the idea of joining the seven
nights-eight days tour which stopped over at Yenji
en route to Mt. Paekdu. There happened to be a tour
that exactly suited my schedule, so I left Seoul as
a member of a tour group.
Until Mr. Kim left me, almost turned away by my
hints, I had thought that I wanted to be freed of
his boring solicitude. But when left alone, I
realized that I badly needed a rest. I was rather
tired from the sightseeing of a few days, which was
of little interest to me, but the greater fatigue
came from the stress of mentally preparing for my
encounter with my brother.
After deciding to travel to
Yenji for my first meeting with my younger
stepbrother who was a total stranger to me and who
grew up to manhood in a totally different culture
and milieu from mine, I prepared a detailed and
moving scenario about how I would manage it.
But, somehow, as time
passed and the hour approached, the awkwardness and
unnaturalness of the situation occupied my mind, and
I grew less and less confident of managing a moving
union. So much so that the previous night I tossed
and turned, polishing up my scenario which seemed
full of gaps and holes. Then my mind went blank that
morning. I suppose it was owing to accumulated
mental fatigue. So, I felt in a way relieved to hear
that my brother had not arrived, and yearned for
nothing so much as a good rest.
I closed the curtains and
lay down on the bed, thinking I'd get a couple of
hours' profound sleep first of all. Prof. Liu had
said he'd come over at three o'clock, so there was
enough time for a good nap. He rang me up early that
morning and was very apologetic about not being able
to come over at once, saying that he had to organize
something with a group of people from Korea.
But I couldn't get the
sleep I needed. I fell into a light slumber but was
awakened by an insignificant noise and couldn't go
back to sleep no matter how hard I tried. And as I
was taking an expensive tour, it seemed like a
terrible waste to sleep in a hotel room in broad
Unable to sleep or rest, I
left my room and headed for the coffee shop
downstairs for a cup of coffee. I thought that
afterwards I'd walk around the city to see how much
it has changed, and have lunch at a Korean
The coffee shop was doing
brisk business, unlike in the other cities we passed
by. Being a hotel that catered mainly to tourists
from South Korea, it seemed that most patrons were
South Koreans and their relatives and friends in the
area who came to meet them. I sat down at an empty
table and ordered a cup of coffee. But before my
coffee arrived, a man who just got up after
conversing with a guest spotted me and came over to
"Oh, so you didn't go to
the lake,6) either? I suppose you saw it before?
Well, I don't think there's anybody who's anybody
who hasn't seen it already," he rattled off and sat
opposite me without even asking for my permission.
He was a member of the tour group. I had noticed him
on account of his talkativeness. I was surprised
that he hadn't joined the tour to the lake.
"Yes, I saw it in the
spring of last year."
"Then, you must have come
on business. Why did you join a tour, when
commercial visas aren't hard to get these days?" he
asked, assuming that I was a businessman. I had no
wish to undeceive him, so I said:
"Oh, my business is nothing
much to speak of. I thought I'd see some sights and
look into some business while we're here. Well, what
makes you join the tour?" I asked, not out of
earnest curiosity but to avoid talking about the
purpose of my trip. It seemed, however, that the man
was as reluctant to reveal his reasons for not going
to the lake as I was.
"It's pretty much the same
with me. I have some business, it's true, but not
something worth talking about. And there's no direct
flight from Seoul to Yenji, either. And I haven't
seen Jilin and Xian that are on the itinerary," the
man hurriedly explained. He was quite careful for a
talkative man. That aroused my curiosity. What made
him detach himself from the group? But he changed
the subject, to avoid more questions from me.
"Well, that makes three of
us. I thought only myself and the unification man
were staying behind."
I knew who he meant by "the
unification man." He earned his nickname by
constantly talking about unification. He made
himself conspicuous in the group by another kind of
talkativeness from this man with a questionable
business. The other man's talk mainly ran along
lamentations on the lost glory of our country and
nation. Whenever he found an opportunity to hold
anyone's attention, he tried to enlighten and
"See, this land you're
standing on is an ancient territory of Paekje.7)
This belonged to Chinp'yŏng colony when Paekche had
Yosŏ and Chinp'yŏng colonies in present day China.
In fact, the whole of the central plain of China
used to be ours, before the Han race moved in," were
his first words on getting off the plane in Beijing.
At the Forbidden City, too, he intoned: "Yi
Sŏngkye8) should have pushed on into mainland China
instead of withdrawing with his army. Then, this
Forbidden City would have been ours. Do you think
the Manchus conquered China because they were
strong? Nurhachi conquered Ming with only 30,000
men. Yi Sŏngkye could easily have conquered China
with his 50,000 men two hundred years before that."
I suppose the man would be
thoroughly conversant with the books of ancient
history such as "Hwandan Kogi," and such theories
concerning ancient Korea as "Piryu Paekche," and the
"Imna Taemado" that hold that the ancestors of
Koreans ruled a great part of Northeast Asia. He
earned his nickname of "Unification Man" by breaking
out in long harangues enumerating the past glory of
ancient Korea and ending by stressing the importance
of achieving unification as the first step toward
recovering the nation's past glory. His tirade grew
even more vehement from when the group arrived in
"Look at this landscape.
Isn't it just like our own? I say this land must
belong to us, not just because so many of our people
live here, but because it is totally unlike China in
all respects. This piece of land would just blend in
with any part of Kyŏngsang-do or Ch'ungchŏng-do."9)
"There is no end to the
crimes the Japanese committed against us. They not
only swallowed up our land, but gave away Kando10)
to China through the so-called Kando Agreement. We
could have easily made this land ours by enough us
living here long enough."
Thus went his tirade during
the bus ride from Yenji airport to the hotel. Then,
at the dinner table last night, he declared, just as
if he had been an important political exile:
"I'm not going to the lake
tomorrow. The lake will be there when I come back
after unification. I'm going to spend the two days
here with the Korean residents in this area who know
North Korea well, and see what I can do to expedite
It must have sounded
impossibly naive to the others in the group. But I
took a more charitable view of him. It is true that
naivete is often perceived as stupidity and
immaturity, but naivete can sometimes be moving for
the pure passion in it. From time to time my
university invites lecturers to give talks on
unification during student festivals and seminars,
and quite a few of them are as naive as their
freshmen and sophomore audiences.
So, if this unification man
hadn't been haranguing a mostly middle-aged worldly
tour group but speaking to a nationalistic student
circle at a college festival, he could have deeply
stirred his audience. I was therefore inclined to
think that he had studied unification problems for a
long time and that he had some definite activities
scheduled in Yenji.
And the unification man was
the reason I was paying extra for a single room
during our stay in Yenji. The tour company was sure
to have made me share a room with this unification
man, to cut costs. I didn't want that. I didn't want
him to get wind of my reason for staying behind, and
I had no desire to be a witness of his activities
which might infringe on the current South Korean
law. It could even happen that he and I could become
implicated in each other's illegal activities, with
disastrous consequences for both. Well, it seemed
that this businessman was made to share a room with
the unification man.
"I'd have asked to be put
in the same room with you if I knew you were staying
behind, too. That unification operation is so
noisy!" the businessman said, screwing up his face.
Having it related to me at second hand, I became
curious to know how the unification man went about
his work. I have always wondered about the kind of
men for whom unification is not an abstract
possibility but an urgent and realistic necessity
and who knew what has to be done in what order to
bring about unification.
"Well, what is he doing for
"Just talk, talk, talk.
What else? Two groups visited him this morning, and
both sessions were like political rallies. They were
declaring that both sides should transcend the wall
of ideology through realizing the homogeneity of
nationhood and the commonality of blood."
"What kind of people were
in the groups?"
"Well, they seemed to be
people of some note here in Yenji, like professors
and writers. They were meeting our unification man
for the first time, but had met others in this
organization he's associated with. It sure was funny
to see our friend talking excitedly, just as if he
were talking to representatives of some
government-in-exile. He said things similar to what
you hear on North Korean broadcasts, such as that
you should smash neo-colonialists to recover true
independence and wipe out the national traitors to
accelerate unification. I'm scared I'll be made to
report his activities before the court, thanks to
having shared a room with him for a couple of days."
The businessman was a
lively talker. I egged him on, while trying not to
betray too much interest.
"Well, I suppose those
things are necessary for unification, considering
the way the U. S. is behaving since the fall of
"No, our friend might as
well have talked into the void. His guests were not
really interested in unification. They just seemed
to be casting for a connection to South Korea, so
that they could get invited to South Korea or set up
joint ventures with South Korean companies, and were
pretending to agree with our friend just to please
him. Our friend's good nature makes me worried."
"In what way?"
"He promised to procure
invitations for two of his new acquaintances
already, and to donate a significant number of books
to an organization. And he also as good as promised
that he'll secure the funds to build a library for a
school. I don't think he has that kind of
capability. I'm afraid he's going to disappoint a
lot of innocent, trusting people."
If the businessman kept on
talking about the unification man to deflect my
interest from his own business, he didn't manage it
very cleverly. Pretty soon, he was revealing his own
"Isn't it strange," he
pursued, "that most people, when they think about
unification, think only about nationhood and
ideology?. Are you like that, too, sir?"
Even though I was careful
to hide my occupation, he must have scented
bookishness from me. Anyway, here he was, addressing
me "sir" even though I'd said I was a businessman.
"Well, what then do you
think of in connection with 'unification'?"
"The first thing I think of
is how we can feed the twenty million hungry people,
and how we can make North Korea even superficially
resemble the South."
"I suppose the big
businesses will have to manage somehow. They'll be
gaining a lot of cheap labor and will have access to
many valuable resources close at hand."
"That won't be a guaranteed
advantage by any means. A client of mine is a CEO of
a big business, and he is really worried about what
might happen after unification. He said that he
could use guest workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan
and the Philippines dirt cheap but he couldn't do
that with the North Koreans. That's sure to trigger
regional conflicts, a much greater one than the
East-West conflict11) which has been so troublesome.
Also, he was sceptical about the quality of labor
North Koreans would provide. They are sure to have
the inefficiencies common to the socialist
proletariat, and their outworn ideas of "doing
things our way" just won't do in the structure of
modern business. He thought it would take
years to retrain
the North Korean labor force to suit the needs of
our society. As of now, the North Koreans are
inferior even to the Philippinos as a labor force,
and if they expect the same level of pay as South
Korean workers just because they're of the same
blood, then there won't be many places that would
want them, he said. If they can be used only in
primary industries, then the North Korean labor
force would simply be a liability, rather than an
asset, to our economy. And he was also negative
about North Korean underground resources. He said it
is true that North Korea has more in the way of
natural resources than we do, but only a handful of
them are of superior grade according to
international standards. He said it could happen
that our industries will be forced to buy natural
resources from North Korea even though they are more
expensive and of lower quality, just because they
come from our land. In a word, even the North Korean
natural resources could be a liability to our
"Well, I suppose all of
that would come under the category of 'unification
expenses.' I understand there are people who are
preparing for unification and figuring out the cost
of unification. So, we must provide against those
factors. I mean in economic terms. But I'm sure
political preparation, such as our friend is
engaging in, is also necessary. Unless we sort out
the ideological and political differences between
the North and South before unification, we could
well be heading for a bloody civil war."
"A friend of mine came up
with this theory. He said that the greatest risk
point of the unified Korea becoming communized is
three years after unification. By that time, many
South Koreans would fall below the poverty line, as
the South Korean economy would have been depleted on
account of unification expenses. And the North
Koreans would be suffering from a sense of relative
deprivation. Which means that there will be more
people who want the existing social order overturned
than those who want it preserved, so that the
population make-up will be one most susceptible to a
socialist revolution. Anyway, maybe because I'm a
businessman, I think economic preparation is the
most essential. As you no doubt saw in the collapse
of the Soviet Union, ideology is determined by
economic conditions. I think that their contention
that the base structure determines superstructure
His calling himself a
"businessman" aroused my curiosity once more. The
more I talked with him the more it seemed to me that
he was not an ordinary businessman.
"You said you have a CEO of
a big industry for your client. And you seem to know
a great deal that folks like us are ignorant of. May
I ask what kind of business you run?" I ventured,
even though I was sure it was a topic he was at
pains to avoid. A shadow of hesitation flitted over
his face, but he continued to be evasive.
"Oh, it's only a modest
venture. I do just about anything that will fetch a
little money." Then, spotting a man who was entering
the coffee shop with a bulky plastic bag, he sprang
up and waved to him, like one hailing a rescuer.
When I first visited Yenji in 1988, the year the
Seoul Olympics were held, Yenji had the distinct
appearance of a socialist country. That is, one felt
like one was looking at an old electronic appliance
that is sturdily built but ran on outdated software.
But when I revisited it the year before last, after
the lapse of four years, it had changed greatly. The
outward appearance had not changed much, but change
was perceptible everywhere. Whether for better or
for worse, the changes indicated the region's
approach to capitalistic market economy.
And another year and a half
had elapsed since then. I turned towards Friendship
Avenue, to check what changes took place in that
time, with the air of a serious inspector. Not only
was Friendship Avenue a main street where changes
would be most visible but it was also a street
dotted with Korean restaurants, so I was going to
take a look at the street and then eat lunch
But the changes of a city
is not something you can gauge on a scale. And I was
already over fifty and was not so alive to the beat
of a city any more. So, I soon felt tired, after
looking, without personal interest, at the buildings
and shops which seemed the same and yet different.
That made me turn into this cafe named "The Han
River" after walking merely a couple of blocks. The
signboard was written in big letters in Korean, for
the benefit of tourists from South Korea, and on it
was written in a semicircle in English,
cafe/restaurant. The signboard somehow looked
familiar. Perhaps it was because it was the kind
often seen in the streets of Seoul.
The interior of the place
also resembled a second-class cafe in Seoul. And
there were no patrons. Judging from the paucity of
customers at an hour approaching lunch time, it
seemed that the place was more a cafe than a
restaurant. And I had no intention of eating my
lunch there, either.
"Hello," a woman's voice
greeted me from behind a counter in a dark corner.
Although she had said just one word, I thought she
didn't sound like a native of Yenji. The woman who
came to stand in front of me as I sat down at a
table was a woman of about thirty.
"What would you like to
have?" she asked, proffering the menu, again in
accents very close to that of Seoul Dialect. I
examined her, and thought she looked like
proprietresses of such places in Seoul. For a moment
I wondered if she could have come from Seoul, but
that was quite unlikely. Even though I knew that
many people from Seoul was running various
businesses in Yenji, I didn't think any South Korean
would take the trouble to open a second-class cafe
in Yenji. And it was even more unlikely that a woman
from Seoul would be working as a hired hostess.
"Well, bring me a glass of
some fruit juice. And bring one for yourself, too,
if you like," I said, by way of inviting her to a
conversation, in the way I used to invite
proprietresses of provincial cafes in Korea to a
silly chat. The proprietress seemed to be quite used
to such overtures, and brought two glasses of juice
and sat down opposite me, without waiting for my
invitation. It could be because she was bored
herself and wanted to chat with someone, the
business being so slow, but her complete lack of
bashfulness seemed to indicate to me that she was
not from those parts.
"You don't look like a
native of this region. Where do you come from?" she
asked me, with exaggerated interest. It was exactly
the question I wanted to ask her, but I suppressed
my curiosity and answered her question first.
"I'm from Seoul."
"Did you come alone?"
"No, I came with a group.
But I detached myself from the group for a couple of
days to take care of some business."
"Are you a businessman?"
"Not really. I just had to
"Where are the rest of your
"They've gone to see Chŏnji
Lake. It's just a tour group."
"When are they coming
"Tomorrow night," I answered
truthfully, feeling no need to lie to her. She
nodded in satisfaction.
"Then bring your party here
tomorrow night. I'll entertain all of you well. We
have karaoke facilities, too. And beautiful girls.
They all speak just like South Koreans."
"I'll pass on the
information. Anyway, are you from this part?" I
asked, as casually as I could. She answered, without
"Yes, not from this city,
but I grew up close to here. Why do you ask? Do I
look as if I'm from somewhere else?"
"Yes, you don't sound like
a native of this region. You've lived in Seoul,
"Oh, my accent. Yes, I
lived in Seoul for a couple of years. People gave me
such looks to hear my accent, and there were
practical disadvantages, too. So I tried hard to
learn to speak the Seoul dialect. Does it sound
"What kind of practical
"As soon as people found
out I was from Yenji, they looked down on me and
tried to cheat me. They tried to take sexual
advantage of me, too."
She must have gone to Seoul
to make money. I couldn't help wondering how she
managed to stay for two years in Seoul and what she
did during those two years, but I didn't ask, having
heard about the harsh lives of the Koreans from
China in South Korea. So, there was a pause in our
"Well, how's business?" I
asked. The woman stopped sipping her juice and
answered, with a deep sigh.
"I thought I'd make bales
of money if only I could start a business like this,
but it's hard. This kind of place is too expensive
for indigenous people, and there aren't enough
tourists to keep it going. At this rate, all the
capital my husband and I saved doing all kinds of
dirty work for two years will go up in smoke."
The woman cast her eyes
towards the kitchen as she said this. Just then, a
man who looked prematurely old pushed open the door
leading to the kitchen and looked out. He must have
been her husband. Looking at his tired and
spiritless face I could imagine what their lives in
Seoul must have been like. The man must have done
manual labor every day without any holiday, and the
woman must have done any work that came by as long
as it paid well.
The thought recalled the
businessman's remark of a while ago in the hotel
coffee shop concerning the North Korean workers.
Perhaps after unification North Korean workers would
have experiences similar to what this couple
experienced in South Korea.
"So, did they pay you fair
wages?" I blurted out. The woman blinked her eyes,
but understanding my question, twisted her lips.
"Fair wages!Hell, no.
Everyone just wanted to work us to death if they got
wind that we were from Yenji. The only place that
paid us normal wages were the so-called 3-D
workplaces, where no South Korean would work. My
husband got cheated out of his wages in his
day-labor jobs, too. They always took away part of
his pay on one pretext or other."
"But weren't you paid
roughly the same as South Koreans? I heard that the
guest workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh
don't even get half of what South Korean workers
A ray of blue light flashed
from her eyes for a second.
"How can you compare us
with them? We're of the same blood, though we may
have lived apart for a few decades," she said in an
aggravated tone and then, casting her eyes toward
the kitchen, said rapidly in a low voice: "I'm sure
you heard these stories in Seoul. Do you know how I
made the money to buy this place? I did the maid's
work for prostitutes and endured sexual molestation
of drunkards. Why should a married woman put up with
that, if not for money? Look, I'm among the
better-educated around here. But in South Korea, I
couldn't even apply for any kind of office work, and
at the factories they said they'll pay me the same
as the Philippinoes. Why should I be paid the same
as those lazy girls who don't even understand the
instructions? How can they say that to a fellow
The woman bit her lip,
evidently re-living her humiliation. I was
witnessing, inside of an hour, a live case of what
the businessman had predicted during our chat. I
made haste to offer my consolation, feeling guilty
for having revived her painful memories.
"I'm sorry. They shouldn't
have done that to you."
"Seoul may be worth staying
a few years for making money, but nothing would
tempt me to live there all my life."
With that declaration, her
fury subsided a little. She added, in polite
response to my expression of sympathy: "Well, it
isn't as if all South Koreans are thieves and
exploiters. There were actually quite a few people
who have been kind and generous."
It seemed to me I'd sat
there too long. But I was embarrassed to just stand
up and leave.
"I'm terribly sorry. I saw
the sign saying that this is a restaurant, too, but
frankly, I've been craving Korean food for a few
When I gave my honest
excuse, the woman responded kindly.
"Oh, never mind. We're not
much of a restaurant, anyway. And we can offer only
light Western meals. Well, is there a particular
dish you're craving?"
"I'd like rice in hot and
spicy soup, and some kimchi."
"Well, I'll tell you. Turn
right as you go out the door, and you'll see the
sign for Seoul Restaurant before you walk two
blocks. It's not only called Seoul Restaurant, but I
heard they brought their chef over from Seoul. I
think it will suit the taste of people from Seoul."
Thanks to her kind advice,
I could have a proper Korean dish for lunch. In
fact, their dish of rice in hot and spicy soup with
strips of beef and kimchi had too much MSG and
sugar, perhaps in an attempt to suit the palate of
tourists from Seoul, but having eaten greasy Chinese
food for every meal for a few days, I was grateful
for even that much taste of Korea.
I had another confirmation of
the businessman's prediction for post-Unification
problems that same day. Professor Liu, who came to
see me around three o'clock that afternoon, said,
with an expression of bewilderment and frustration:
"Professor Lee, I just don't
understand the South Korean society, even though I
met a few South Koreans and have been to Seoul."
"Why, what happened?"
"This is not the first
time. I just don't understand. South Koreans often
ask me to help make cultural exchange, so I help
them as best as I can, and then when everything is
pretty nearly set up, they put me in the most
awkward position by making strange and unreasonable
demands. This time, too, this organization called
"Association of Writers for National Unification"
asked me to help organize a meeting with North
Korean writers. So, I asked my colleague Professor
Chang who has many friends among North Korean
writers to help, and between the two of us we worked
hard to organize a meeting of writers. We made our
selection thoughtfully. Because the South Korean
writers seemed to be radicals, we chose less radical
and less political North Korean writers to balance
out. But look at what the South Koreans say. They
say that the North Korean writers should be core
members of the North Korean literary establishment,
including if possible officially decorated national
writers. So, I told them that such writers are not
writers any more but politicians, and that they can
expect to hear nothing from them except political
propaganda. And do you know what they said? They
said that those are exactly the writers they want to
meet. I understand that they want to meet top-notch
writers. But the problem is that the reason South
Korean writers want to meet them is not just their
eminence. It's that they think they'll have the best
rapport with those writers. And they emphasized
their own Communist sympathies. I was flabbergasted.
They went on and on about the myth of Kim Il-sung
and enumerated statistics that show the superiority
of the North Korean system, which are long outdated
figures. It seemed as if they'd be just as
enthusiastic propagandists for the Chuche
ideology12) as any nationally decorated writer.
Well, how can that be 'cultural exchange' in any
sense? It can't be anything more than a political
rally of fellow Communists. And the conservative
writers aren't much better, either. They are the
ones who should meet the core Communists, but
they're only after writers of popular romance or
youthful advocates of 'openness. 'That's another
kind of banding together. Why call such things
'cultural exchange? 'Shouldn't an exchange aim at
listening to the other side and finding a point of
mutual understanding? But both sides are seeking
only to strengthen their own position by drawing
support from sympathizers. How can that be a
preparation for the day of unification? For such
people there can only be unification by force, not
unification by negotiation and agreement. Is that
liberal democratic thinking?They made me so furious
that I left my colleague to be harassed by them and
That was an example of politicized 'cultural
exchange,' and I thought such would be the
consequence of seeking unification solely through
"Well, I suppose we can't
expect practical fruit from the first. An exchange
route has to be opened up first, somehow. It could
even be that if extremely heterogeneous people meet,
only hostility and conflict would result," I said,
trying to soothe my friend's fury, but my heart was
heavy. The thought that my younger brother, whom I
would be meeting not long before, might represent
such a heterogeneous culture oppressed me.
Mr. Kim's telephone message
that evening deepened my anxiety.
"He's here. Your younger
brother. He just arrived. He's going to sleep over
in his maternal uncle's and will come to see you at
your hotel tomorrow morning."
It was true that my brother
was visiting Yenji ostensibly at the invitation of
his maternal uncle, but his going straight to his
uncle's instead of coming to me seemed to tell me
that he wasn't eager to see me.
The next day, my brother came earlier than I had
expected. No hour had been fixed for his coming, but
I had assumed that he would come around ten o'clock.
That was why I washed my face only around nine
o'clock even though I got up at eight. I was about
to go down to the dining room for breakfast when my
brother, accompanied by Mr. Kim, knocked on my door.
As I said earlier, I was
quiet uncertain about how I should act toward my
brother on my first encounter with him. I was
meeting my stepbrother for the first time in my
life, and between us there was the inborn antagonism
that exists between half-brothers. I was not sure
what I should say to him. I wasn't even sure if I
could use the plain form of address to him.
But, when I beheld my
bother's face as he followed Mr. Kim into my room
with obvious self-consciousness, I realized that my
worries had been unnecessary. My brother looked all
too familiar. His face was almost a replica of my
father's, which was growing dim in my memory but
which I remembered with the help of a few old
photographs, and that of my younger brother who was
born after my father's defection and who had
unfortunately died in his late thirties. And his
figure exactly resembled my eldest son's, with a
slightly backward-curving spine and a slender waist
which were the peculiar physical characteristics of
the men of my clan. The only thing that felt alien
about him was his apparel, which looked like a
fashionable formal suit from the '70s.
My brother, who was walking
in with a stiff face, also looked startled on
beholding me. He must have had a similar
recognition, judging from the marked softening of
"Your brother is more than
ten years your senior, so I think you should make a
bow," Mr. Kim said to my brother, who still looked
uncertain about what to do or say. It was a great
relief to me and helped make my first words to my
brother much easier to bring out. I returned my
brother's full bow with a half bow, and could use
the plain form of speech without any hesitation or
"How do you write your
name?" I asked, meaning what Chinese character he
used for his name. I had guessed, when I heard his
name, that my father had given him a character
marking the male children of my clan of my
generation, so I thought I'd ask my brother if I had
a chance to meet him. I had not expected that to be
my first question to my brother, but here it was.
But my brother must have thought I was asking what
he was called.
"I'm Hyok. Hyok Lee."
"I didn't ask what you were
called, but what character you used for your name.
And you should not use the family name in telling
your name to your elder brother. Is it the character
for 'red'? The character made up of two 'chŏk'
characters beside the fire radical?"
"Do your brothers and
sisters all have one-syllable given names?"
"No. My elder sister and
the youngest have two-syllable names."
"Then they must have either
'hi' or 'sŏp' in their names."
"That's right. My sister's
Munhi, and my youngest brother is Musŏp." A faint
thrill passed through my heart. A radical Communist
who could leave his young wife and three young
children in a burning city has not, after all,
disregarded the tradition of his clan in naming his
"Is the use of generational
markers in names a common practice in North Korea?"
My brother seemed to think it
odd that I should show so much interest in names,
and looked at me without comprehension. I in turn
looked at him, bewildered by his silence. Mr. Kim,
understanding the cause of mutual incomprehension,
came to our aid.
"You know, that common
character in siblings' names. They used to use it in
North Korea, too, but it seems nobody uses it any
"Oh, that. That's not used
any more. And our names don't have that, either," my
brother answered, comprehending at last. Controlling
a heightening emotional thrill, I explained the
custom of naming children with generational markers
embedded in the names.
"Use of the generational
marker doesn't necessarily involve using a common
character in all the children's names. The markers
follow the order of the five elements from one
generation to the next. Each clan has its own order
in lining up the five elements. We in our clan use
the order of earth, metal, water, wood, and fire.
So, in recent generations the markers have been Kyu
for the earth generation, Hyŏn for the metal
generation, Ho for the water generation, Pyŏng for
the wood generation, and Sŏp or Hi for the fire
generation. But the elements can be incorporated
without the use of those characters. For example,
members of our clan of my generation usually have
"sŏp" or "hi" in their names, but in case we're
given one syllable names, fire radical, or four dots
in the Chinese character, serves to indicate the
"fire" generation. So, you and your siblings all
have the mark of our generation in the clan in your
names. And I daresay that if Father gave names to
your children, they all have "kyu" as one of the
syllables, or have one syllable names using the
earth radical in the Chinese character."
Noting the surprise and
bewilderment on Mr. Kim's face at my lengthy
harangue on names, I changed the subject quickly.
"Oh, I should have asked
this first. What did Father die of?"
"Colon cancer. He died in
the People's Hospital of Kimchaek City."
As he said this, my
brother's eyes grew red and humid. My nose bridge
smarted, too, for the first time since I heard of
"Did he die . . .
"Yes. A cousin of ours is a
doctor at the hospital. Uncle Kyŏngho, who defected
from the South with Father, did everything he could
for Father. Father was unconscious for a couple of
days, but he didn't suffer like most people . . ."
My brother's voice grew
tearful. But I could not feel real sorrow, even
though my nosebridge smarted and my sight became
blurred. I wondered that my brother could feel such
acute sorrow at the mere mention of our father
almost a year after his death, and felt desolate
that I could not feel such sorrow even though I,
too, was a son. I was so far from being overwhelmed
with sorrow that I even had the presence of mind to
wonder that Uncle Kyŏngho, whom I remembered as a
relative who graduated from a commercial high school
and worked at a bank before defecting to the North,
could be a doctor.
"Well, I'm relieved to hear
that. But when is the anniversary? I have to know
the exact date, if I'm to discharge my duties as the
"Your brother wants to know
when to offer commemoration services," Mr. Kim put
in, as if he were a dutiful interpreter.
"They are August 21 and
March 18," my brother answered, understanding my
question at last.
There couldn't be two dates
of Father's death, but I understood. The eighteenth
of March was Father's birthday. It seemed that
commemoration services were offered on the
deceased's birthdays, too, in the North. A similar
confusion arose when we began to talk about the
formalities of commemoration ceremonies. My brother
had no idea of what the spirit box, the spirit
tablet, and the end of mourning period were. It
seemed that commemoration ceremonies observed in the
North were more like Christian commemorative
observances than traditional Confucian ceremonies.
My talk of commemoration ceremonies aroused the
first fierce antagonism in my brother.
"Well, since you don't make
spirit niches and tablets over there, I suppose it'd
be all right if I took care of commemoration
services. I'll observe his anniversaries and the
services on the first and the fifteenth days of each
month," I said decisively.
My brother's eyes blazed
ominously, betraying emotional turbulence.
"You mean, you want to take
away the commemoration services from us?"There was
animosity in his voice.
"It's not that I'll take
away the services from you. But since your services
are just family gatherings in remembrance of the
dead without any ritual, I'll offer commemoration
services according to tradition. In our family,
rituals are not meaningless formalities. Our clan is
a respected clan in the Yŏngnam area,13) and I am
descended from a line of first sons for twelve
generations. If our clan was an insignificant clan
with a short history, I'd have been the clan heir
and mine the head family. So, how can I leave out
services to my own father, when I offer services to
ancestors for eleven generations? Even if I wanted
to omit him, the clan wouldn't let me."
Then I went on to brag
about our splendid ancestors, who had ministerial
posts bequeathed on them posthumously and who held
such posts in their lifetimes as the magistrate of
Andong and prefect of Ŭiryong. Then I looked at Mr.
Kim. But Mr. Kim seemed to find it very hard to
explain the significance of such achievements of my
ancestors' to my brother. He just tried to make my
brother understand that commemoration services are
very important in yangban14) families and that they
are always offered by the eldest son. But my
brother's eyes did not grow soft. I wondered at his
"But I heard you don't
believe in ghosts and spirits?" I offered.
"Neither do you, from what
I hear. I heard that you in the South have all
become half Yankees and have given up traditional
I had to soothe his
rebellious feelings at all costs.
"It varies from people to
people. But I believe in the soul and the spirit,
not in the superstitious sense but as scientific
fact. I'm sure you know about such scientific
theories as the laws of conservation of mass,
momentum, and energy? I believe that our soul is our
spirit when we are physically alive, and the
activity of our spirit is our motion and energy.
Well, if the matter constituting our body remains
after death in changed form, how could our spirit
disappear with our death? The only question to my
mind is whether our spirits retain their memories
and identity. But I don't think it matters either
way. If, as many religions believe, our spirits live
on retaining their identity, then what God would be
as anxious to for our welfare as the spirits of our
ancestors? But even if they disintegrate and are
recombined as do our bodies, I don't think there is
anything absurd in honoring the spirits of our
ancestors, who brought about our being. Therefore, I
perform ancestor worship ceremonies not simply in
the spirit of commemoration but with true religious
Not realizing how fantastic
my theory on the continuation of the human spirit
would sound, I gave a summary view of my convictions
concerning the meaning of ancestor worship. My
brother's face became somewhat relaxed but he didn't
seem won over to my theory. Feeling defensive, I
"But what are you so
unhappy about? You seem to dislike the idea of my
offering commemoration services to Father's spirit."
Only then did my brother
speak his mind.
"It seems to me like you're
claiming to be the only legitimate son."
My brother was suffering
from the same antagonism that I felt when thinking
about my father's children from his second marriage,
an antagonism that inevitably exists between
stepbrothers. But my brother's frankness made his
protest inoffensive. It on the contrary made me feel
that I had the position of advantage as Father's
eldest son and the son from his original marriage.
I suppose it was from the
consciousness of my superior position that I asked
for the names and dates of birth of not only my
siblings but those of their mother, offering to
enter them in our clan's book of genealogy. My
brother seemed to wonder at the existence of such a
record, but wrote out all the information I
requested. His manner betrayed that he was far from
feeling the need for such a validation of his
membership in our clan, but he continued to write
the names and dates in my pocket diary.
It was my turn to be
disturbed. Kang Myŏngsun, of Chinju Kang15) clan,
born June 2, 1930. Munhi, female, born August 17,
1955. . . The notes read. I thought I could guess
what kind of marriage my father's second marriage
If their first child was
born in 1955, then my father's second marriage
probably took place in 1954. Kang Myŏngsun would
have been twenty-four. Then, it was most likely her
first marriage. My father, who defected to the North
at age thirty-five, did not remarry for four years,
until he was almost forty. So he observed at least
minimum courtesy to the wife he left behind in the
South. If it was the first marriage for his second
wife, she probably was a virgin, as free love and
prostitution were strictly forbidden in the North.
Then, even in case she came from a low social class
and had not had much education, she fully deserved
to be a legitimate wife. What's more, she had been
Father's wife for almost forty years, which is more
than three times the length of Father's marriage to
Who could accuse my father
of betrayal, for marrying again in that
circumstance, and of immorality, for the fertility
of his second marriage? Who can insult his second
wife and her children with the names of concubine
and bastards? It could even have been that the
twelve years of his first marriage with my mother in
the South was no more than a painful memory of a
sweet dream, and the three children he had by my
mother were simply Father's ineradicable blemishes
to his new family in the North.
"Do you have a photograph
of your family? I'd like to see what you all look
like," I said, taking my pocket diary my brother
held out to me. My brother hesitated for a moment
but took out his wallet and extracted a photograph.
It showed everyone in that family, except my
brother--probably because my brother took the photo.
All six people were smiling from ear to ear, against
the background of a sandy beach. Father looked quite
advanced in years, but except for a woman in her
mid-twenties who reminded me of my elder sister in
her twenties, the other children were all young.
I studied the photograph
closely, feeling envy rising in me, recalling myself
and my siblings in my childhood and adolescence when
my Mother eked out a living by taking in sewing.
Father's and the children's faces all looked faintly
familiar, but Father's second wife, Kang Myŏngsun,
was an irreconcilably alien presence to me. Her face
was noticeably dark and ruddy, her physique sturdy,
her expression strong-willed. She didn't look like
the natural spouse of a man like my Father, who in
my memory was an elegant intellectual. Her face drew
out my next question.
"Have you heard about how
your parents got married?"
My brother observed me for
a while and then answered, without emotion:
"My mother was Father's
student while he taught at the Agricultural College
of Wŏnsan. It was after she came back from the South
where she had fought brilliantly as a woman warrior
in the People's Army. They got married after they
met again in the Field of Yŏldu Three Thousand ri in
"Field of Yŏldu Three
Thousand ri in Mundŏk? What was Father doing there?"
"He was ordered by the
Party in 1954 to work on the irrigation project in
the Field of Yŏldu Three Thousand ri. I was born in
"Why did they order a
college professor to work on a construction site?
Father's major was agricultural economy, not
irrigation. Did you hear why?"
Then I thought I could
figure out what remained a mystery to me about
Father's career after his defection to the North.
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of the big purge of
the Southern Labor Party members. Father must have
been deprived of his professorship and sent away to
work on an irrigation project. That explains the
discrepancy between the report of my relative who
was dispatched to the South shortly after the
armistice and arrested for espionage and that of
another relative who was sent South in the sixties
and turned himself in. Whereas the former had said
that Father was a professor at the Agricultural
College of Wŏnsan, the latter insisted that Father
was an engineer working on a construction project in
a remote place. But my brother seemed to have no
knowledge of the fluctuations in Father's fortune.
"There was no 'reason. 'It
was the Party's order."
"He told me in his letter
of 1980 that he was working for the Science
Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture. Wasn't
"Father was an official of
the Institute until his death."
"Then why did he live in
"We've been living in
Chŏngjin from when I entered middle school. We lived
in Mundŏk while Father was the chief engineer on the
irrigation project, and then we lived for three
years in Pyongyang while he underwent re-education
in the Political and Economic College of Sŏngdo, and
then we moved to Chŏngjin."
I thought that if I
questioned him more closely I would be able to trace
the vicissitudes of my father's fortune subsequent
to his defection, but I changed the topic there. I
didn't want to provoke my brother's defensiveness.
But it was an unfortunate move.
"So how are you all
I asked the question to
show my concern for their welfare, but my brother's
eyes grew perceptibly hostile. They seemed to be
saying, I've been expecting this insult from the
"How do you mean? Do you
want to hear we're starving?"
"How could I? It's just
that we're siblings who'll have to be each other's
support come Unification. How are you all doing?"
"My elder sister has
married a diplomat and is living abroad, and my
younger sister married the party supervisor of the
Light Industries Committee last year. One of my
younger brothers is a teacher, and the youngest one
is a freshman in the Pyongyang College of Foreign
Languages. And I'm working in the Organization
Committee at Kimchaek Industries Consortium. We may
not look like much to you, but we can hold our own
"I'm so glad. So, it's true
that you have received more from the country than
you gave it, as Father said in his letter. I'd been
worried, even though I didn't believe all I've heard
about the North."
Because my brother's tone
was so sarcastic, mine also was ironic. My brother
provoked me once again.
"We'd been thinking you
were having a hard life in the South, so we were
awfully surprised when the National Security
Ministry told us about you. Father even said once
that you might all have been slaughtered. I wonder
what made the running dogs of the American
imperialists so generous to you."
It sounded as if he was
asking me, how did I come to be such cronies with
the running dogs of the Americans? To be honest, I
had till then never felt the need to defend the
system of government I was living under. But my
brother's implied accusation suddenly made me a
champion of the form of my own government, just as
if I had been a delegate in a South-North
"It's true we barely
escaped death. There'd be no end if I were to tell
you all our tribulations. I often had to go hungry
in my childhood and teens, and there were countless
humiliations. To this day I have a tendency to
overeat, which is a habit I picked up in my hungry
days. Because I wasn't sure when I'll have the next
meal, I ate as much as I could when I could. And,
boy, were we
watched!While I was
a college student, there was a policeman in charge
of me, who checked up on me regularly, so I often
had to give up my home tutoring job. And it went on
for two more decades, until I became a full-time
instructor at my University. It ended in 1982, with
the special decree of the military regime. And I'm
just getting by even now. My apartment is only about
one hundred and twenty square meters in area, and
I'd been driving a small car until I became a full
professor last year. This ten-day trip costs me half
my monthly salary. The rich in the South live in
palatial mansions and drive luxury foreign
limousines. Some of them fly to Hawaii or Australia
to play golf. I had to be awfully careful and humble
just to achieve this much success. I could never
take part in any anti-government demonstration while
I was a college student, and I was branded a
conservative reactionary all through the eighties,
when anybody with intellectual pretensions were
nationalists and progressives."
I recounted my tribulations
and the meagerness of my success with malicious
honesty. I said I was poor, like one who boasted of
his wealth by saying I am poor, and so is my
housekeeper, my gardener, and my chauffeur. But
while recalling the humiliations and misery of my
childhood as a defector's son I became emotional and
my voice shook violently as I went on. So, instead
of my malice producing the intended effect, it
stirred my brother's pity.
"I see. You have suffered.
While I was a child I saw Father silently weeping
from time to time. Now I understand why."
I felt very stupid, hearing
my brother commiserating me so wholeheartedly, but I
went on with my malicious self-display.
"It's only recently that I
could buy a small piece of land in our hometown. Of
course it's nothing, compared with what we used to
own. And I built a villa on a plot of land I bought
on the East Coast. But it's no more than a cottage."
"I heard that the
traitorous plutocrats have millions of square meters
of land, and that all the scenic places are taken up
by their deluxe villas where they cavort with young
There simply was no way. My
approach was too sophisticated for my naive younger
brother. It was then that Mr. Kim, sensing my
brother's incomprehension, put in:
"I understood, from what
Professor Liu told me, that you are quite a rich
man, to our standards. He said that your fortune is
worth more than a million American dollars, and that
professors in the South enjoy much better income and
higher social status than in the North."
The mention of one million
dollars seemed to stagger my younger brother. A look
of confusion replaced the compassionate look on his
face. The next moment his face grew red and he
asked, breathing roughly:
"Then, you've been bragging
about your wealth all this time?"
"Oh, no. I just told you
how I'm living. And, as Mr. Kim said, it's nothing
remarkable in the South."
I defended myself hastily,
but I was blushing red. To hide my shame and
embarrassment, I hastily took out from my suitcase
the liquor and nuts I had brought along. Before
leaving Seoul I went to my hometown and supplied
myself with the liquor from Andong and the chestnuts
and dates from nearby hills, as well as the
persimmons peeled and dried there. I had brought
them to give to my brother to be offered to my
Father's spirit, but I was also hoping that they
would bring me and my brother closer. I was going to
use them to soothe the embarrassment or antagonism
that might be felt between us, so I hastily took
them out. Pretending calm, I first took out of my
suitcase the porcelain jar containing the Andong
"This is soju from Andong.
Offer some to Father for me."
I held out the jar,
emphasizing the word Andong, but my brother didn't
respond in the way I had hoped. He took the jar with
reluctance, and said gruffly:"We have excellent
spirits in the North, too. You didn't have to bring
it all the way here."
Then, seeing the nuts and
dates and the dried persimmons, he snubbed me: "Why
did you bother to bring those? Do you think we don't
even have nuts to put on commemoration tables?"
My brother's gruffness gave
me a good opening. I began soothingly:
"This soju was brewed with
the water from our Father's hometown. I'd have liked
to bring the rice wine from our local brewery, but I
brought soju instead because rice wine might change.
I know you have excellent spirits, but how could
they be as delectable to his ghost as this soju from
his hometown? It's the same with these nuts and
dates. The chestnuts are from the backhill of our
hometown, and the dates come from our ancestral
hills near the market area. The persimmons are dried
in the Pine Valley, on the other side of the
mountain from our hometown. So, they're all from the
land of Father's childhood. He visited our hometown
regularly to look around the hills and creeks even
in his busy youth. How he must have yearned to be
there for more than forty years!"
I could not go on. My
brother was listening in grave silence.
"Since you don't have a
spirit niche, please offer them before his grave. It
is a great impiety for me not to do it myself."
"I will, Brother," my
brother said, without any hostility or reserve in
his voice. We were brothers again.
After that, my
brother made ready to leave, taking the soju and the
fruits and nuts from me, saying that he had another
business to look after. And he didn't even say he
would come to see me again, even though he knew
quite well that I was leaving Yenji by the eleven
o'clock plane the next morning.
As there was no telling
when I would be meeting him again, I was loath to
let him go like that. My brother also seemed
reluctant to leave, even though he was making haste.
So, I suggested having lunch together. My brother
consented, and we went to a nearby restaurant.
Afraid of offending my brother again by a display of
my affluence, I asked Mr. Kim to choose a
restaurant, and we went to a modest Korean
The beer we drank with the
lunch produced the unexpected effect of removing the
awkwardness between me and my brother, and made our
exchange much more familiar and natural. Looking at
my brother tossing down glass after glass of beer as
I poured it out for him, I was thinking that he is a
true member of my family, when my brother said with
a flushed face:
"You know, you remind me so
strongly of Father when you drink. Father used to
drink beer without screwing up his face in the
least, just as if he were drinking plain water, and
his laughter rang loud when he got drunk. It can't
be a conscious imitation, as you were still young
when he defected."
"I think I faintly recall
Father's laughter that used to ring out from the
men's study. Is mine so very like his?"
Father left us when I was
seven. But it must have been a year or two prior to
that that I heard his laughter. The year before the
outbreak of the war he stayed underground to avoid
capture, so he couldn't have laughed and drank, and
after the war broke out he was just too busy to have
had time to make merry. So, I couldn't have been old
enough to note the quality of Father's laughter. The
most I could have thought must have been, Father's
drinking with his pals.
But the shared memory of
Father's drinking brought us close, and brought down
my inhibitions. I felt that I couldn't let my
brother go without apologizing for the spitefulness
I showed him in the hotel room. So, I began to
"I'm sorry about what I
said this morning. I hope I haven't hurt your
feelings. I didn't mean to brag about my affluence.
Just take that as my assurance that you don't have
to worry about me, even if I had to suffer acutely
after Father's defection. Don't think that all South
Koreans are money-mad."
It was an excuse and
self-justification, but not without an element of
truth. Uneasy thoughts about how my father's family
was faring crossed my mind from time to time before
I met my brother, so it didn't seem preposterous
that they would have worried about how we were
But my excuses brought on
new shame. Even though I was a passive participant
in the speculative schemes managed by my wife, I was
innocent of few of the financial malpractices that
was written up in the papers since the cleaning-up
drive of the Kim Young Sam government began last
year. My wife bought the apartment I currently live
in in her widowed sister's name to avoid taxes,17)
and my villa on the East Coast, which is quite an
expensive resort villa now, is built on the site of
a farm house at the tip of a deserted bay my wife
bought dirt cheap ten years ago. And the three
thousand pyŏng plot of farmland in my hometown is
not only deeded in somebody else's name but was paid
for by an irregular bank loan. And that was not the
only time I got an irregular loan, either. My friend
who is a branch manager of a bank repeatedly
approved my loan applications though he knew they
were going to be used for purposes other than stated
on the application. That is how I became a
millionaire, which I couldn't have become if I just
saved up my salary and made investments permitted by
law. But my brother accepted my explanation without
"Oh, don't worry. It was
small-minded of me to get cross like that. I'm
really glad you're doing so well."
Then, after much
hesitation, he took out of his small handbag a silk
pouch the size of a pocket diary. My brother's face
seemed to be saying, "now it's time I show you my
truth." Mr. Kim, sensing what was in the pouch,
"Why did you bring that
here?" he asked my brother.
"Father told me to give
this to him."
Then he opened the pouch. A
well-polished medal came out. From the way my
brother handled it, it must be a very precious
medal, but to me it didn't look like anything very
important, even though it was shiny from careful
polish. I was in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall
came down, and they were selling East German medals.
I bought one for twenty marks. My brother's medal
looked similar to that one.
"This is our national
first-class medal of merit. This is the highest
recognition Father received in return for his
lifelong service to the Republic. He received it for
his ten years of devoted work on the irrigation of
the Field of Yŏldu Three Thousand ri, at the height
of the struggle for agricultural development in the
'60s. I heard that the great leader himself
conferred the medal on Father," my brother said,
looking straight into my eyes. I was moved. I wasn't
comparing the relative status of the college
professor and an irrigation engineer any more. Nor
did I reflect on the misery of having to change
one's field of specialization in one's forties. I
was overwhelmed with the thought that Father was
giving us--his family in the South--the highest
reward that he earned in his life. I thought I could
understand what he meant. Father was telling us that
he was sending us the highest honor he earned in his
life, as a small consolation for all the ordeals
that we suffered on account of him. My brother's
next words moved me as much as my father's
"My family objected to my
bringing this to you. They said it shouldn't be
given to a crony of the running dogs of the American
imperialists. But I held out. First of all, it was
Father's wish. And I also said we couldn't know what
you were like until I saw you."
"So, what am I like?" I
asked, with trepidation.
"I feel that you're my
brother. Or rather, that you're worthy to be
Father's eldest son. I don't know how you have
lived, but I feel that you won't disgrace this
medal."So saying, my brother offered the medal to me
with both hands, like one performing a solemn ritual
of conferment. It was at that moment that I recalled
Mt. Haishan. So I asked Mr. Kim, without consulting
my brother first:
"Do you remember the hill
by the Tumen River we went to with Professor Liu
"You mean Haishan?"
"Yes. How long does it take
to get there from here?"
"I think an hour would be
enough for a round trip."
I looked at my brother.
"This business you have to
look into this afternoon. Do you have to do it this
"Why do you ask?"
"No one knows when we can
meet again after this. Can you spare two more hours
My brother checked his
watch. It seemed that both his inclination and the
time he could spare were very uncertain. He frowned
a little but asked me calmly:
"What are you thinking of
doing in those two hours?"
"I want you to take a trip
with me to Haishan, by the Tumen River."
"What're you going to do on
"We have a traditional
ritual called "offering from afar." That is, we make
offerings to our ancestors from a distance, when we
cannot visit their graves due to war or acts of
Nature. We go as close as we can get to the grave,
and make offerings there. Since you have to pay your
respects at Father's grave anyway, how about us two
making the offering together, from the bank of the
Tumen River? I would like to offer a cup of liquor
and make a bow to Father's ghost."
By the time I finished
explaining, my brother's mind was made up.
"All right. I'll go with
So, we went to Haishan
together. Sensing our desire to be alone together,
Mr. Kim didn't offer to accompany us. He just helped
us purchase in a nearby market the fish and fruit to
offer to our father's ghost, and putting us in a cab
driven by a driver of Korean descent, left us. Since
he didn't say anything about the rest of his fee, I
guessed that he was intending to collect it at my
hotel that night.
Unlike in the streets of
Yenji city, there was no change noticeable along the
Tumen River. Under the sky dimmed by dusty wind from
Chinese mainland, North Korean mountains across the
river lay gloomily prostrate, and there were the
huge billboards proclaiming "Chollima18) Movement"
and "Speedy Operation" standing on mid-slope, just
as two years before. The Tumen River was also the
same, its meager volume of water showing signs of
Since we didn't have a rush
mat to spread, we spread a piece of newspaper on a
plot of level lawn. Even though I knew that such
things could be of no use to my brother, I explained
to him the rules pertaining to the preparation of
offering tables for ancestor commemoration. I also
told him our clan's special method of laying out
nuts and fruits on an offering table.
"I am the consecrator
today. I would have liked to offer cooked rice and
three cups of spirits, but since this is only a
makeshift offering, we'll just offer one cup. You
pour out the soju, and I'll offer it.
Even though we were making
the offering from a foreign land, we were not
deficient in piety. The fact that I didn't feel in
the least awkward or self-conscious, even though the
taxi driver who drove us there kept eyeing us with
curiosity from the river's shore and passers-by also
cast glances at us, indicates that I must have been
driven by an almost religious fervor transcending
mere filial piety. Perhaps infected by my fervor, my
brother assisted me without a single mistake, even
though my instructions must have contained much
terminology that was unfamiliar to him.
The real sorrow of a
bereaved son overcame me after the offering of
spirits was over and I wrapped up the ceremony with
a half bow. The landscape of North Korea, my
Father's Republic which looked as if it was
hunkering desolately and gloomily under a veil of
dust, came into my eyes as I dropped my head to bow.
It seemed to me an image of my Father's life in
North Korea, and seared my heart.
Born as the only son of an
ambitious mother who was widowed young, Father's
childhood and youth was filled with legendary
episodes half based on fact but heavily embellished
and fictionalized. Then he began his career as a
young ideologue. Even though it had some setbacks
and hazards, his thirty-five years in the southern
half of the peninsula presaged no failure.
But how would he have reviewed
his forty years in the North at his deathbed? Of
course, Father was guided by the light of his
luminous ideology. I heard that Father had once said
to Mother that he'd be content to be a janitor of a
primary school or a factory worker if only the
republic in his heart becomes a reality. But could
he have been content? The family he'd left behind
would have been a bleeding wound to him for a long
time. He had to change his line of specialization at
nearly forty years of age, and then spend ten years
struggling to stay alive. From a professor of
economics he was degraded to a civil engineer which
was as good as being a blue collar worker, and then
chief civil engineer. Then he had to turn himself
into an irrigation expert. Even if he may have found
it good in his last moment, I have the right to
determine his life a failure and mourn, I said to
myself, while trying to contain my flowing tears. In
my childhood, whenever there was news of unrest
along the armistice line, I imagined my Father
leading an army into the south, mounted high on a
white horse. When we began to have more detailed
information about the North Korean society and the
newspapers disclosed the names of North Korean power
elites, I simply believed that the reason my
Father's name was absent from the top 100 North
Korean politicians was the unreliability of the news
source and nothing else. When, during my graduate
student assistant years I obtained documents on the
history of the Communist movement in South Korea and
did not find Father's name listed in any of the
executive committees of not only the core Southern
Labor Party but any of the peripheral committees, I
was confident it was because Father disguised his
identity, as many of the Communist bigwigs did in
those days. My belief sprang from one fact, and one
fact only: without believing that he was a giant,
there was no way of explaining or justifying the
sufferings and pains of my mother, myself, and my
siblings. Now, those sufferings and pains gave me
the right to mourn Father's failure.
I thought I was weeping for
my Father's failure, but I realized by and by that I
was crying for myself. I cried for the miseries and
pains of my past, for which no possibility of
compensation of any kind remained, and I wept for my
spirit which became distorted in the process of my
struggle for survival, while I vowed to stay alive
until "that day." As I became more and more
emotional, I shuddered to think of the accusations
levelled at me by the "grassroots" and "nationalist"
historians, accusations which I countered with
confidence in the 1980s. I mistook the
neo-imperialist army for liberators, and
neo-colonialists for a blood ally, and am a
reactionary historian greedily sucking the fruit of
economic development implemented by military
dictators, which made the Korean economy a hanger-on
on the advanced countries'.
My bow became prolonged
while I was controlling my emotion. But my brother
stood immobile beside me with head solemnly lowered,
until I coughed a couple of false coughs as a sign
that we should end our bow. As I was collecting the
offerings after wiping my tears, I saw that my
brother's cheeks were wet, too. My sorrow must have
infected him. Feeling even greater fraternal
affection, I flopped down on the spread newspaper.
Raising the cup that still held wine, I said,
"Do you know that wine
offered to the spirits of the dead are to be drunk
by the descendants? That's called 'drinking blessed
cups.' Come, let's drink this cup blessed by our
What my brother said,
taking the cup from me, surprised me. "Is this
Chebiwŏn brand soju?"
"How do you know Chebiwŏn
"I remember Father talking
Then, picking up a chestnut
to snack on, he asked, with a light smile:
"Are there still many
chestnut trees in the back hills of Father's
"Yes, they were replaced
with improved breeds, but the hills are still
chestnut hills. How do you know about those hills?"
"Oh, I know the pine
valley, and the quarry creek, and the red screen
mountain, and the rock for watching fish frolic."
My brother enumerated the
names of places in my hometown like one who had been
there many times. I felt Father's strong nostalgia
from the fact that he talked about his hometown to
his children who had never seen our hometown.
Wanting to repay my brother in kind, I asked:
"Is Chŏngjin still so cold
and windy? With the sandy wind that cuts into your
marrows? And is there still the three-mile long
pebble field? And is the Kimchaek iron refinery
still spewing out smoke and dust?"
"How do you know about
"How could I be indifferent
to the place my Father and my siblings live? I know
about the Double Swallow Mountain and the Camel
Mountain and the Susŏngchŏn Creek."
My innocent younger brother
looked visibly moved. I felt conscience-stricken
when I saw how easily my brother took all my
professed concern at face value. I felt as if I was
cheating him for some purpose. That made me more and
more sparing of words.
Now that I had bowed to
Father and wept for him together with my younger
brother, I felt more at home with the latter. Till
then, I was obsessed with the thought that I must
clinch my fraternal hold on my younger brother. The
fact that he was only my half brother made that seem
a difficult task. That must be why I was saying
things for deliberate effect and was more talkative
than usual. But I felt I didn't have to be impatient
or anxious any more. As I became more silent, my
brother began to talk more. It seemed that my
brother is not naturally gregarious, either, but
having drunk some beer and soju and being assured of
brotherhood, he seemed in a mood to find out what
had long been questions with him.
"What is South Korea really
"Well, many ugly things
happen there, it is true, but people live there."
"How is life over there? I
hear such contradictory reports about it. According
to the "Facts about South Korea" issued by the
government, it must be wretchedly poor. But from
what some of the people who have been overseas say,
it seems like it's rather the reverse. And what I
heard here last night also . . ."
"Yes, it's true that South
Korea is quite well-off at this moment. But there's
no guarantee that the affluence will last. Some
compare the affluence of South Korea to the
affluence enjoyed by estate stewards of rich men.
You know, those who collect rent from tenant farmers
on behalf of landowners. Cynics compare it to a
concubine's menagerie. You know, the kind of women
who spend all their money to eat and dress well for
the moment, and even borrow money to do that,
instead of planning and saving for the future."
When I told him my thoughts
frankly, my brother told me his thoughts frankly,
"Yes, I heard those
criticisms, too, but it seems to me that we mustn't
look at it completely negatively. If we are heading
towards a market-oriented economy of private
ownership, isn't it better to be a landowner than a
tenant farmer? And isn't a steward in a better
position to become a landowner than is a tenant
farmer? One shouldn't fall so low as to be a
concubine, to be sure, but I think we can regard a
steward as a moderate success in the capitalistic
world. I mean, he is in a position of advantage in
the structure of international exploitation."
"It's so strange to hear
such words from your lips. Are there many in North
Korea who hold such views?" I could not help asking.
Then, my brother looked a little flustered and said,
"Well, in fact I was just
quoting my friend who is in the International
Economic Relations Bureau. He served abroad for a
few years as a second secretary in charge of trade.
When I first heard it I thought it was such a
reactionary thought. But hearing your words, it
occurred to me that he might be right. But I wasn't
sounding you out or anything."
"It seems to me that he
looked only on the good side of the South Korean
economy. I suppose that's what South Korea is aiming
at--joining the circle of advanced countries,
globalization, and development through technology.
Those are all slogans of those struggling to become
a landlord in the structure of international
exploitation, aren't they? But attaining those goals
aren't as easy as mouthing those slogans."
"But you've been doing well
so far, haven't you? Especially if you think only of
"We've been managing quite
successfully, but the stress is becoming evident.
The advanced countries are trying to restrain us,
and we are becoming more and more dependant the
bigger our economy grows."
"You mean on the U. S. A. ?
Do you have to be in such harsh servitude to them?"
That put me on guard, but I
was not in a mood to be guarded in talking with my
brother. So, I just exaggerated my worries
concerning the matter, based on what I heard others
"We have a serous problem
of political dependence, too, but economic
dependence is really serious. The political
sanctions are not so terrible compared with the
economic threat of the U. S. , backed by the vast U.
"Then why don't you break
with the U. S. and become self-sufficient?"
"That would be like an
independent farmer with a few hillside patches of
land to just live on the oats and barley of his own
growth, in his own hut. That's what you've been
doing until recently, isn't it? How did you like
"We can manage. If only we
are spiritually armed."But my brother's voice as he
said this was not as spirited as that of the
announcers on North Korean TV making similar
"Oh, I'm not sure. Even
Japan, whose economy is maybe ten times stronger
than ours, took a hard beating when it rebelled
against the U. S. some time ago and had to beg for
forgiveness on bent knees."
Our taxi driver, who had
been pacing the river bank impatiently waiting for
us to get back in, coughed loudly to remind us. I
made haste to get up, as we had drunk up all the
soju and as we were skating on dangerous ice in our
"I hope it's not too late
for you?" I asked my brother. He checked his watch
and grew tense.
"Oh, I'd better go back. I
didn't know it was getting so late."
Then he gathered together
the remainder of the offerings. The offerings
consisted of only fruit with sliced-off bottom and
top, dates and nuts and some dried fish, but somehow
the bundle looked bigger than when we'd brought it.
My brother's left shoulder sagged as he lifted it.
"Here. Give it to me. I'll
"No. I ought to carry it,"
he said, and transferred the bundle to his right
hand. Perhaps because of the liquor consumed, I had
the momentary illusion that we were coming down from
the hill of our ancestral graves in our hometown
after making seasonal offerings.
"We're not supposed to take
back home what we had offered before ancestral
graves. We have to give away what's left of the
offerings to the grave keeper or to relatives living
near the graves, in the spirit of spreading the
blessings of the deceased. Do you have a relative to
give them to? If you don't, then just give them to
We continued our
conversation in the taxi on our way back. But, even
though considerably drunk, my brother was very
cautious in what he said. He defended his regime in
"Why are the South Korean
rulers such fools? I mean, about the nuclear
weapons. Now, if we develop nuclear weapons, come
unification, which is bound to happen some day,
South Korea will be a nuclear nation for free. Why
do the South Korean politicians have to try to stop
us desperately, just like the Americans are doing?
Are they afraid we'd attack the South with the
And then, when I demurred
to his immovable faith in his regime, he resorted to
the standard North Korean rhetoric:
"You know, we in the North
live in perfect union with the land. In Chŏngjin,
where I live, everywhere I go there are traces of my
labor and devotion. I helped build the Susŏng river
bank and the bomb shelter in the Camel Mountain as a
high school student, and as students we also helped
plant seedlings in the Lanam Field, so that I can
say I trod on every inch of the field. I can truly
boast that every street, dock, and railroad in that
city has received my labor and care. The same goes
with everyone and their hometowns. They have cared
for every blade of grass and every tree growing on
I was thankful that my
brother didn't irritate me by singing praises of
"the Great Leader" and "the Dear Leader." I had no
wish to shake his firm faith in the virtues of the
system he lives under. Whether he believed in them
from the heart, or whether it is a faith drilled
into him by repetition, I deemed it fortunate that
my brother was able to keep his faith in and
affection for his regime. And I expressed my
When the taxi turned into
the city of Yenji I recalled that that may be my
last as well as my first meeting with my brother,
and grew impatient, like one who had forgotten to
perform an obligatory ritual.
"I leave here tomorrow
morning. Can we meet again?" I could bring out the
question only when my hotel came in sight at the end
of the street, when my brother ceased talking for a
moment. My brother, who had been engrossed in his
talk, suddenly became alert and turned to face me,
but said without confidence:
"I don't know. I'll try to
come by to your hotel tonight or early tomorrow
"Well, if you can't make
it, this is good-bye. And we don't know when we can
Then I became regretful,
feeling that we had wasted our precious time
together with inessential talk. My brother seemed to
be feeling similar regrets.
"I'm sure it won't be too
long. I'm sure we'll be reunited before long." But
his voice lacked confidence. An internal conflict
that went on in my mind during the whole time since
meeting my brother but was pushed aside for a while
by the emotional turmoil following the commemorative
I had brought with me from
Seoul a little sum in US dollars to give to my
brother. I didn't think my brother would be in dire
straits, considering his family background and
education, even amid the economic stress that North
Korea is under, but it was possible that my brother
might get into difficulties if his meeting with me
became known. But, after I met him, I wasn't sure if
I should offer it to him or not. Because he seemed
so sensitive about North Korea's poverty in
comparison to South Korean prosperity, I had been
putting it off. Now, the decision became an urgent
But while I was trying to
decide, the car was already entering the hotel
driveway. I stole glances at my brother's profile,
like one fishing for a clue. But my brother quickly
checked his watch again and hurriedly got off.
Nowhere on his face could I find any hint of
expecting financial assistance from me. I thought of
asking whether he'd accept a gift of money from me,
but there was no time for it now.
Getting off the taxi after
him, I gave up the thought of thrusting the envelope
of dollar bills into his hand and just grasped his
hand. My brother, who seemed about to say something,
winced and closed his mouth.
"Then, is this going to be
"I'll try . . . to come
"Don't try too hard. As you
say, our country will be reunified before long.
Then, we can meet whenever we want."
I don't know what he did at
the Organization Committee at the Industries
Consortium, but my brother's hand was rougher than I
expected. I stroked his hand with my other hand and
bade him good-bye.
"Good-bye and keep well.
I'm sure Father's spirit watches you all. Be careful
about everything and take good care of yourself."
I felt really sorry to part
with him, like one letting go without any assurance
of future reunion a brother he has lived with for a
long time. My brother's eyes also seemed to grow
"You take good care of
yourself, too, Brother."
"Please give my love to my
other brothers and sisters." Then, I added, like one
who has made a grave decision. "And to our mother,
One of my anxious
uncertainties after I decided to meet my brother was
how to call my brother's mother. Should I call her
"mother in the North?" Or "my stepmother?" But none
of them seemed appropriate. So, I had been making do
with "your mother." But she became "our mother" in
my mind at the moment of parting from my brother.
In ancient Oriental law,
there were exceptional cases where a second legal
wife was authorized by law. In the modern rational
sensibility, too, my brother's mother was fully
entitled to be regarded as my mother. But I was
surprised that "our mother" rolled out of my mouth
so naturally, and winced. My brother was visibly
affected, too. His alcohol-clouded face sobering up
at once, he gazed at me for a moment and bowed.
"Please give my love to my
sister and my nephews and nieces. And to our mother,
"Our mother" seemed to roll
out of his mouth quite naturally, too.
The hotel lobby was
bustling with the arrival of a new tour group. It
seemed like a large group, and a score or so of men
and women were checking to see that their suitcases
had arrived. From the accent of their loud
exclamations I could see that they were from the
There was a time when I was
glad to meet Korean tourists while travelling
abroad. I used to go up to them, even though they
were total strangers, and asked them where they were
from, and, if I had been in that city for a few
days, offered advice on places worth seeing. But
from some time ago I began to feel embarrassment
when I met them, felt the meeting awkward, and ended
up trying to avoid talking to them altogether.
It was the same that day. I
disliked them from the moment I set eyes on them.
All the men were wearing safari jackets, as if they
were going to Mt. Paekdu to hunt tigers, and every
one of them had cameras hanging from their necks.
More than half of the cameras were Japanese-made
video cameras. All of them, whether young or old,
were wearing denim jeans or shorts, and famous maker
tennis shoes. In both color and design their
apparels were displaying crude Western leisure and
sports fashion, as if they were under the illusion
that when you're sightseeing you have to leave
behind your dignity at home.
Most of them seemed to be
married couples, so most of the women were probably
housewives, but none of the women were wearing
proper skirts. Young and old, they were wearing
either tight-fitting slacks that revealed their
less-than-elegant figures, or culottes that didn't
even properly cover their knees. Even when dressing
for convenience of travelling, it should be possible
to dress neatly and soberly.
And they were carrying on
as if they had bought the hotel. The men were
standing in threes and fours talking excitedly, not
caring to see if they were becoming nuisances to
other guests of the hotel, and the women seemed to
be imitating the postures of loose women in Western
movies, sitting cross-legged on the sofas exposing
their thighs or with their legs propped on
suitcases, just as if they were in their own living
rooms. They were no doubt displaying their
self-assurance based on national prosperity, but
their impudence and lack of manners disgusted me.
But I didn't have to let
them know my disgust, so I walked past the lobby
with as casual a face as I could feign, and was
heading toward the elevator when somebody greeted me
with "How are you?"
I looked back, thinking it
was a North Korean accent often heard in Yenji, to
find that it was our "unification man" who was
staying behind in the hotel, like myself, but whom I
hadn't seen for the past two days. I suppose he
sounded like a North Korean because he pronounced
the greeting with extreme courtesy. His attire
presented a sharp contrast to that of the tourists',
consisting of grey formal suit and brown necktie and
black leather shoes. It seemed as if he was
underlining his dignity by his choice of colors.
"Oh, fine, thank you. I
heard you were staying behind. How's your work
going?" I replied, and noted something strange as he
came closer. On his suit jacket and shirts were
stains of many colors, as if he had food poured over
him and hastily towelled off. When he stood beside
me I thought I could smell food.
"Oh, these stains? The
waiter spilled the dish on me at lunch . . ."
The man explained, noting my
expression. But it wasn't very convincing. Why did
the waiter hoist the dish up to this man's head? I
couldn't help wondering. The stains were on the
collar of his shirts, too. But, hiding my thoughts,
"I think you'd better ask the
hotel to clean your shirts and suit at once, if you
don't have a spare set. I'm sure they can have them
ready for you by tomorrow morning. Since we're going
to stop over in Beijing for a night, there might be
an occasion for dressing formally."
"It's all right. In Beijing
I'll go sightseeing to Yihuayuen and the thirteen
tombs of the Ming emperors like everyone else, so
I'll dress informally."
While the man was saying
this with a feigned nonchalant expression, the
elevator door opened. I pressed the button for the
eighth floor, and he also pressed the number of his
floor. Then, he turned toward me and asked, "Are you
I recalled that Mr. Kim was
coming to see me, but as he had said he'll come
after dinner, I said, "No, not right now."
"Then, how about going up
to the lounge and having a chat, instead of just
sitting in your room by yourself? Our group will
come back only after dark. You seem to have had
several glasses already. I'll buy you some beer. How
about it, professor?"
I looked at him in surprise
at his identifying me by my profession. He smiled
and said, "I knew from the first. I'm a nobody, but
my special interest is history, so--You're professor
Hyŏnu Lee of Taehan University, aren't you?"
Before I recovered from my
confusion, the elevator stopped on the eighth floor
and the door opened. The man pressed the door close
button without consulting me and pressed the button
for the sky lounge floor.
The lounge was almost
deserted, compared to the coffee shop downstairs. I
sat down beside a window with a good view, feeling
like the man's prisoner. Of course, it is quite
likely that even if I hadn't run into this man I'd
have come up to the lounge for a drink, to soothe my
desolation after parting from my brother like that.
The unification man ordered
three bottles of beer and some dry snacks with
barely a glance at me for approval, and then
muttered, with a sullen grin,
"The thief must be plotting
something big at this moment. I should have gone
back to the room and disrupted that."
"How do you mean?"
"That thief who's staying
behind with us. He said you and he had a talk in the
coffee shop yesterday."
"Oh, you mean that
businessman. Yes, I had a talk with him briefly."
"Businessman? He's a thief.
Do you know why he's here? He's here to smuggle out
cultural treasures. His shop in Insa-dong is a
veneer for his tomb digging and treasure smuggling."
Only then did I recover
from the shock of the unification man's having known
me from the first but having given no hint of it
till then. I suppose the historian in me took alarm
at the thought of a tomb digger and smuggler of
"Is that so? But I don't
think it will be that easy to smuggle out cultural
treasures from here. I mean, Chinese customs
officials must be experts at detecting cultural
treasures. They've had to fight drainage of cultural
assets for a long time, you know"
"Yes, their own treasures.
But people like this thief are not dealing in
Chinese cultural treasures. So, the Chinese customs
don't know them."
"Don't the Chinese regard
the remnants of Koguryŏ19) and Pohai20) as their
cultural property?" I said, thinking that the
antique dealer must have come there to find the
treasures of the ancient Korean kingdoms that had
been in the Manchurian region.
"Oh, the thief is
collecting Yi Dynasty potteries and paintings and
"Could there be enough such
things in Yenji to make his trip worthwhile? I mean,
most people here are descendants of thosewho drifted
to this area during the Japanese occupation period
because they were absolutely destitute. I don't
think those people could have brought valuable
potteries and paintings, when they had to walk more
than a thousand kilometers, begging."
"He and his kind collect
them not from this region, but from North Korea. I
was shocked. And apparently he's done it many times
Then I understood. Well,
since there are ways of sneaking in people from
North Korea, like Mr. Kim did my brother, there must
be ways of sneaking in things, but I couldn't help
being curious about the methods.
"How do they do it?"
"This is what I gathered
over the last two days. First, you get hold of
someone who has relatives in North Korea or who goes
in and out of North Korea on legitimate business,
and give him a lot of money. Then, that man buys up
anything old he comes across in North Korea, which
he can do with just a few dollars. Then he brings
them here, disguising them as household items. Like,
one could put hot paste in a Yi Dynasty pottery, or
sesame oil in a Koryo celadon. It seems that because
of the excellent quality of North Korean mud, there
were a number of good kilns in North Korea. Some of
them produced celadon of a unique character, like
the kiln in Mt. Kyeryong in the South. Let's see . .
. I heard there was one somewhere in Hamkyŏng
Province. And there seems to be a great many
paintings, calligraphies and old books owned by
ordinary civilians that are not designated as
protected cultural properties by the North Korean
government but which will fetch a handsome pile of
money in the South. The thief said that they can
easily get a painting by Kyŏmje or Tanwŏn for a
thousand dollars and sell it for half a billion won
in Seoul, and that he once swapped a scripture
printed in gold type with an electric rice cooker
and sold it for a quarter billion."
"But how can they sneak
them out of North Korea?"
"There doesn't seem to be
much customs inspection on the North Korea-China
border. They don't seem to care much about antiques
other than designated national cultural properties,
and the almighty dollar can blindfold customs
There was no need to hear
any more. I couldn't help but marvel at the spirit
of capitalistic enterprise that can open routes for
any and every operation that yields big profit. The
unification man twisted the corners of his mouth and
offered another information as well:
"Well, our friend is not
deficient in other talents as well. He even has a
That seemed to be what the
unification man really wanted to talk about.
"A local wife?"
"He has a Korean-Chinese
young woman acting as a liaison person. I don't know
how much money he gives her, but she doesn't even
try to hide the fact that she is his mistress. He
said that he had originally hired her on his first
trip here as a personal interpreter and secretary. I
wouldn't blame him so much if she had been a Chinese
girl. But to make a plaything of a young Korean girl
like that! He went out with her last night and
stayed out, and I saw her in the room again today."
I shuddered at the power of
money, which can turn everything under the sun,
including human beings, into a commodity. But, since
my professorial status was known to my companion, I
was reluctant to dwell on sexual gossip. By that
time we had emptied three bottles of Qingtao beer
between us, and I had drunk a considerable amount of
beer and soju previously, but I still had that much
discretion. So, even though my companion seemed to
be in a mood for some more salacious gossip, I
changed the subject by asking, "Well, how is your
unification project going?"
I had unthinkingly repeated
the term the antique dealer had used concerning my
companion's activities, but my companion became
defensive at once, suspecting sarcasm.
"Oh, the thief must have
given you wrong ideas about me. How can an ignorant
and insignificant man like me work on a unification
project? What did the thief say exactly?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't
mean to cast a slur on your activities at all. And I
just used a word that came handy. But . . . isn't
that what you're engaged in?"
My companion didn't take
issue with the term any more. It seemed that it was
not so much the term I used as something the words
reminded him of that made him vehement.
"Oh, you needn't apologize.
I'm just meeting this and that person in the hope of
helping to bring it along, but I have no tangible
results yet. I think it'd have been better to go see
"But I don't think you had
any intention of going to the lake from the first,"
I observed casually. But he looked startled. Hastily
feigning calm, he said:
"I thought you might not
notice, being an academic person. But you have sharp
eyes. Well, I've got nothing to hide. As a matter of
fact, the organization I've been working for for
many years disbanded, in order to form an
international body of people from many countries and
all strata of society eager to hasten the day of
unification. Because this city is geopolitically so
important, I was dispatched here to persuade
important people of Korean descent to join the new
body. My mission is to meet those important people
of this region who have been in close contact with
us from before, and also look for new people who
could work with us. I joined the tour group to make
myself and my mission inconspicuous. Our emissary to
the United States went there by himself, but our
envoy to Russia also joined a tour group going to
Moscow and the Tashkent area. But, even though I met
and talked to a number of people yesterday and
today, not many people understand our objectives and
"Could it possibly be that
your approach has its priorities reversed? I mean,
could it be you're approaching the problem from a
purely political perspective?"
I must have been drunk. The
subject was not one that could be discussed in such
simple terms, but I recalled what the antique dealer
had said the day before and more or less repeated
it. My companion must have been quite drunk, too.
His reaction was fierce.
"Oh, you mean that economic
problems must be considered first in thinking about
unification? That talk of unification without
serious consideration of the economic implications
is nothing but sentimentalism, and so on? Are you of
that opinion, too? But you'd better keep this
clearly in mind. Every one of those who say that
economic considerations should come first is a
swindler or a far rightist who insists that South
Korea should simply absorb North Korea."
Then, he calmed down a
little and became more logically argumentative.
"The unification of the two
halves of Korea is a return to Nature and
restoration of justice, as our nation was originally
one and our lands were originally one. So, those who
label the effort to return to our natural original
state a political approach and argue that economic
preparations and achievement of cultural homogeneity
should precede unification are those who really
don't want unification. They pretend that they are
being rational and prudent, but they have other
motives. Those especially who insist that economic
preparations must come first are evil-minded
imperialists who would like to wait until North
Korea gives in to the South, so that they will gain
a colony the size of North Korea, which will double
the size of their markets and bring them twenty
million more consumers. If not, why are the economic
conditions in North Korea and our economic
capabilities so important? If we regard North
Koreans as our true brethren, then how can we talk
about unification expenses and so forth? Isn't it
our duty to share everything we have with our
"Well, nowadays even
siblings of the same parents don't share everything
equally. Even Germany, which was much better
prepared than us, suffered from so many problems
after unification. And Yemen, which united
politically first, seems to be having a civil war."
Unlike when I was talking
to the businessman the day before, I argued in favor
of economic preparedness. I suppose it was easy for
me to switch sides and perspectives because I hadn't
thought seriously about unification. My companion
flared up again.
"That, I say, is nonsense.
Look. Do you think the day will ever come when the
two sides reach economic parity and cultural
homogeneity, so that there will be no problem
whatever after unification but profit and pleasure
to everybody? Do those who hold economy-first theory
really believe such a day will come? They know
better than us that such a day will never come.
That's exactly why they insist on it. So, isn't it a
nobler argument that we must unify first, whatever
problems we may have to deal with as a consequence?
At least it's more honest, isn't it, Professor?"
But what if a situation
like the ideological conflict following our
liberation from Japan and the Korean War and its
aftermath result? I could have asked, but I felt
tired. To tell the truth, I have always felt that I
am not qualified to offer opinions concerning
unification and join ideological debates. This
consciousness, which is something resembling an
inferiority complex, may have its root in my
self-consciousness as the son of a Communist
defector, or the conviction of sin inculcated by the
rigorous anti-Communist education we all received as
children. Anyway, I always felt tired whenever I had
to be present at an ideological debate. So, I tried
to change the drift of the talk, but unintentionally
aggravated his fury.
"Well, it's not that I'm
really opposed to the political approach. I just
repeated what I heard from other people. In the hope
that it might be worth your consideration."
I wasn't necessarily
thinking of the antique dealer when I said "other
people." But my companion immediately decided that I
meant the antique dealer. He flushed scarlet, and he
raised his voice.
"It's what that thief said,
isn't it? He mouthed sarcasm all day yesterday to
me, and I guess he badmouthed me to you. Guys like
him are exactly the sort I'm talking about. It's his
sort that go around with a wise air, confusing good
citizens by saying that we have to be careful and
prudent about approaching unification. Why is it
that the bad guys are always best at taking
advantage of any new development? As soon as the
South began to have contact with Yenji, the likes of
that thief came here and corrupted our innocent
brethren. The likes of him gave Korean residents
here pocket money in return for robbing and
swindling them, so Koreans here are only after
money, and don't care about their fatherland and
nation. Now, thieves like him are penetrating into
North Korea. At the moment, the most they can do is
to sneak out antiques, but just imagine what would
happen when the North collapses and the South
absorbs the North. Within just three months, South
Korean thieves like him will buy up all the real
estate in North Korea, taking advantage of the
imperfect sense of real estate ownership of North
Koreans. Not only that, but they will practice
usury, traffick in human bodies, and they will lord
over their North Korean brethren as if they were
their feudal lords. Why, they'll far outdo the
Japanese in cruelty and exploitation. We accuse
North Koreans with defacing Nature because they
carved the names of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il on
boulders, but you just wait and see. As soon as
South Koreans are let in North Korea, all the
beautiful mountains and scenic places will be
covered with tourist hotels and private villas. We
must eliminate those thieves before the day of
It seemed to me that the
unification man and the antique smuggler were fated
to be antagonists. There are such pairs in the
world. Two men who have keen insight into each
other's vices and faults and cannot stand them. As
far as I can see, these two didn't know each other
until they met on the trip, and they shared a room
for just two days, but the unification man seemed to
regard the antique smuggler as a mortal enemy.
In any case, it is never
very comfortable to hear someone talk about another
with so much animosity. I tried my best to invent
excuses and apologies for both sides, without
speaking my real mind, and I could extricate myself
from my companion only when it was almost eight
I felt like going to a bar, get dead drunk, and just
collapse on the bed, but I suppressed my urge and
went back to my room. Mr. Kim would be coming for
the final payment, and it was possible that my
brother would come again. And a hangover wouldn't be
a good thing to have on the flight to Beijing the
It was good that I
exercised self-control. Mr. Kim knocked on my door
within half an hour of my return to my room. The
reckoning was concluded without any difficulty. Mr.
Kim, perhaps because he was new to the kind of work,
did not inflate expenses or exaggerate the
difficulties he had to cope with. I ended up paying
him much less than I had expected to.
So, having more US dollars
left in my pocket than I had expected, I thought of
my brother again. I thought up pretexts that would
make my giving the money and my brother's accepting
it less embarrassing. You paid Father's funeral
expenses that I, the first son, would have had to
pay had I been living with him, so please take it as
a reimbursement. . . . If by ill luck it becomes
known that you met me here, you might need some fund
to iron out matters. . . . But Mr. Kim's parting
remark disappointed me severely.
"I don't think your brother
can come here again. These days Korean residents
here watch out for North Koreans and report their
activities for rewards. And special North Korean
Security agents are vigilant in their surveillance,
too. He really took a big risk spending so much time
with you today. He should have just met you briefly,
spent most of his time with his maternal uncle, and
returned home carrying the usual things North
Koreans buy here."
But . . . my
brother came again. Our party came back from Mt.
Paekdu past eight o'clock, and I returned to my room
after having a late dinner with them. About an hour
later I was taking a shower trying to wash out the
alcohol I drank during the day when someone pounded
on my door. I hastily dried myself and opened the
door to behold my brother standing outside,
"It's me, brother. There's
something I had to tell you."
I let him in hurriedly and
closed the window which had been opened for
ventilation. Seeing me check the door again to make
sure it was properly closed, my brother said, "Don't
worry. It's all right. It'll be all right even if a
National Security Ministry agent sees me. Won't you
give me a drink, if you have some?"
I made him sit down and
opened the refrigerator. Unlike in the hotel I had
stayed in two years before, there were several kinds
of drinks in the refrigerator. Because my brother
wanted strong liquor, I took out a small bottle of
whisky and a packet of dried beef jerky.
"Well, what is it?" I asked
my brother, who was tossing down the whisky without
bothering to put in any ice.
"I've got lots to say. How
I hated you and envied you and . . ." My brother
snuffled and went on.
"Do you know what you were
to me all this time? Father talked about you only
from shortly before his death, but I was conscious
of you all along. I used to have queer feelings in
the middle of Father's fond gaze. It was as if
Father was looking not at me but at someone behind
me. I didn't know who it was when I was a small kid,
but I could guess from when I went to middle school.
It was you. And I always felt Father was comparing
me with someone. Father praised me when I proudly
handed him my report card, but Father's eyes went
blank for short seconds. Maybe someone else's report
card loomed before his eyes. I sensed it even when I
was in grade school."
I recalled the exam sheets
and report cards of my long-ago childhood, which I
dimly remembered. Yes. My school record of that year
while we lived in a village near Seoul where Father
was making himself inconspicuous was splendid. Once,
when I handed him my exam paper which earned the
perfect score for the tenth time, Father rubbed his
stubbly jaw on my cheek and made me scream. The five
concentric circles21) that invariably decorated all
my assignment sheets. . . . But, afterwards, my
school record never recaptured the glory of that
year. As the eldest son of a virtual widow with
three children moving from place to place eking out
a difficult living and changing school every other
year with gaps of several months in between, I had
great difficulty staying in the top ten per cent.
"And that's not all. I
don't know anyone who worked as hard as Father did
all his life. Except during his last illness, I
don't remember seeing Father in bed. When I was a
child, Father was already away at work when I woke
up in the morning, and when I went to bed he was
always reading something as if he was going to read
all night. And I've never seen anyone as
knowledgeable as Father. Whatever I asked him about,
whether it was science, mathematics, or history, he
always told me, right up to my last year in college.
Because Father studied and worked so hard, we never
went hungry, but I came to wonder as I grew older.
Why weren't we living better, even though Father
worked so hard? Father was so smart and handsome
that my mother chose him for her husband even though
he was much older than her and had been married.
Mother was a college graduate and had the best
background, so she could have married whomever she
wanted. But my smart and handsome Father had to
defer to the party executives all his life. But I
understood early on. I knew the reason why none of
us could apply for admission to the political
science or foreign relations department in the Kim
Il-sung University, could never become an official
in the army, and couldn't even dream of becoming a
party executive or an official of the National
Security Ministry. Why, we couldn't even apply for a
post in the Social Security Ministry. I understood,
too, why my brother-in-law, who is able and comes
from a first-rate background, can't get on since he
married my sister. It was because of the blood
relations Father had in the South. Father could have
overcome through hard work and loyalty the Party's
distrust of educated defectors from the South. So,
you and your family were to us not so much human
beings as an invisible curse."
For a moment I felt dazed.
It was such a curious reversal. What I stood for to
my brother was exactly what my father stood for to
me in the days of my unfortunate youth. So I was a
curse and a hurdle to them, just as Father was to
me. Father had chosen to defect to the North of his
own will, but I had to bear the consequences of his
defection, which was no choice of mine. Even though
I was old enough to know that few people have any
choice in the current of history, my brother's words
gave me a sense of absurdity. But I could understand
his resentments only too well.
"Do you know why I came to see
you? Frankly, it wasn't to carry out Father's last
wish. His dying wish only inflamed my rivalry. Why
should Father want to bequeath on you the most
precious reward of his whole life? Then, what are we
to him? I came to see what you're like. To see what
our old curse and stumbling block looked like. No,
to be perfectly frank, I set out for an encounter
with a lifelong enemy. But . . . the moment I saw
you, I couldn't think of you as an enemy. I can't
explain, but you were . . . my brother. I wanted to
hug you and cry, not to abuse and curse you. And, as
I got to know you, I grew ashamed of my enmity. It
even seemed as if I've been longing to meet you all
my life. But where does that leave us? Who's going
to make up for your hurt? And what solace is there
for what we suffered? Isn't this just all wrong? Do
you know what's wrong? Do you?"
I don't know either, dear
brother. It was because I felt exactly as you're
feeling now, that we have innocently been the cause
of each other's suffering, that I shed tears on the
shore of the Tumen River. All I know is that an era
has passed, and that I have to take a radically
different view of my life. I feel vaguely that one
cannot blame anyone else for one's sufferings,
however little one deserved them.
"I lied to you. I'm not on
the organization committee of the Kimchaek
Industries Consortium. The committee's just where I
want to be. I'm merely an engineer sorting rocks and
minerals there. It's true that my younger sister
married the party supervisor of the Light Industries
Committee. But he was a widower much older than her,
and had two children from his previous marriage,
too. She couldn't have married him if he hadn't been
a widower, bright and proper maid though she was.
And the youngest, who is a student at the Pyongyang
College of Foreign Languages. He's a brilliant lad.
He wanted to enter the Political Science department
of Kim Il-sung University, but couldn't. And
Father's life was harsh, doing research or civil
engineering work just as the party ordered, without
security and comfort. 'A man who received more from
the country than he gave to it'--that's just a
platitude, not worth more than a popular song lyric.
And his last was not so peaceful, either. We spent
all our money to buy pain killers for him, but in
the last few days we couldn't get any, so we had to
watch him writhe with pain."
My dear brother, please
stop. You have to live under that system for some
time yet. If you can't get shoes that fit you, you
have to make your feet fit your shoes. Of course
it's best to find shoes that fit your feet, but that
is not always possible for everyone. The shoe shops
of history are always run by unskilled shoemakers.
The progressives of the South criticize such a
historical nihilism of mine, but I urge you, with
all my heart, because you are my own flesh and
blood, that you won't be too impatient about the
future, just as you shouldn't regard the present as
the ideal made real. You must not be lured into a
revolution that has no hope of success. You must
wait. There will be a future.
"And I lied about my elder
sister, too. My friend who's a second secretary at
the International Economic Relations Bureau I told
you about. He's not my friend but my brother-in-law.
He fell in love with my sister while he was a
student and they got married in spite of many
obstacles, but my brother-in-law had to suffer many
disadvantages on account of his marriage. He's a
graduate of the International Relations Department
of Kim Il-sung University, but he's only a second
secretary in his forties. And that in the economic
bureau. My sister's in Beijing now. The family
conference decided that I shouldn't tell you about
her being in Beijing. If you were to look her up, it
might have evil consequences for her and her
husband. But here. This is her phone number. Look
her up in Beijing, if you can spare the time. How
much harm can a meeting between a brother and sister
My brother handed me a
piece of paper with a telephone number on it and
then fell asleep. I carried him to one of the twin
beds in the room. As I was taking off his clothes,
his brand-new suit jacket gave me a nameless sorrow.
I had difficulty falling
asleep, having so much to think about and sort out,
but woke up early the next morning. My brother was
sleeping curled up like a foetus, the blanket which
I had carefully tucked around him pushed to a
corner. I approached silently and covered him again
with the blanket. Then I adjusted the pillow for
him, but he woke up.
Unlike when he rambled on
drunk, my brother acted very shy. He hastily put his
clothes back on and prepared to leave. Thinking that
maybe it'd be best for him to leave before it was
completely light, I did not try to detain him and
instead held out the envelope I had prepared during
"Here. Take this. It
contains twenty-six hundred dollars. It might be
useful to you some day."
I didn't think I had to
invent a pretext for offering the money. My brother
stopped still and looked at me. Then he seemed about
to say something but changed his mind and took the
envelope with both hands.
"Thank you, brother.
Good-bye," my brother said, bowing to me like a
schoolboy, and left the room.
Well, this may be just a cumbersome addenda, but I
feel that before I end this story I have to relate
what took place in Beijing. My attempt to meet my
sister, which was not in my plan at all, grew out of
my meeting with my brother. My becoming a witness to
the conflict between the unification man and the
antique smuggler also grew out of my taking this
trip to meet my brother, so it could be that
unification is nothing other than reunion of
brothers who had been strangers taking place on a
massive scale all at once.
It was one o'clock in the afternoon when our tour
group landed in Beijing the next day. As soon as we
checked into the hotel I called up the number my
brother had given me. A young woman answered the
phone and, when I asked for my sister, told me
succinctly that she was out. She sounded so cold and
decisive that I hesitated a little, but I gave her
my name and the room number of my hotel and asked
her to tell my sister I'd like her to call me.
But, even though I waited
beside the phone all afternoon, my sister didn't
call. Growing tired of waiting, I dialed the number
again towards evening. The same young woman answered
again and said the same thing. I repeated the
attempt again that night and the next morning, but
each time, the young woman picked up the receiver
immediately, as if she had been waiting beside the
phone, and returned the same response.
It was drawing near
check-out time. The rest of the group had already
checked out of their rooms before going to see the
tombs of Ming emperors. I couldn't linger in the
room any more. I hurriedly dialed the number again
for the last time. Just then, it flashed through my
mind that the young woman's voice had a familiar
ring. It resembled the voice of my sister's in her
younger days. The young woman's voice came through
the receiver. Listened to attentively, her voice
really resembled my sister's. Oh, it was you. I had
expected a more middle-aged voice, because you were
forty years old. That prevented my recognizing your
voice as my younger sister's.
But I could also detect in
my sister's voice a definite refusal, or evasion.
Perhaps my brother had called her and warned her
that I'd call. It could be that meeting me was just
too risky for her. It could be that that's why she
couldn't meet me, and so she anxiously waited beside
the phone to cut me off. The thought made me
hesitate. If she had reasons to avoid me, should I
insist on meeting her? After all, I have done
nothing for her as her elder brother, so I shouldn't
be doing her any harm now. But I just felt so sad to
leave without seeing her. So, I compromised.
"Please tell Mrs. Mun-hi
Lee when she comes back that her brother from the
South called her because he wanted to see her. He is
leaving for Seoul by the four o'clock plane, and he
is sorry to leave without seeing her because he
doesn't know when he can come to Beijing again. And
of course there's no telling if Mrs. Lee will be
here if and when he can come again. So, would you
please tell her that her brother will be in the
lobby of this hotel until one o'clock, and will be
in the airport from two o'clock?"
Convinced that the woman
was my sister Mun-hi, I conveyed my affection and
yearning for her in that half direct, half indirect
way. There was a short silence, and then the woman's
"Yes. I will certainly tell
her when she comes back. Well, good-bye." I thought
I heard a slight tremor in the woman's voice as she
I waited for two hours in
the hotel lobby and an hour in the airport, but
Mun-hi didn't appear. So, her good-bye over the
telephone was a parting greeting.
"Er, could I ask a favor of
you?" the antique dealer, who had been hovering
around me for quite some time, cautiously approached
me and said, just as I was on the point of giving up
waiting for my sister and was turning my eyes from
the entrance of the airport to my tour group. My
mind still in turmoil, I silently turned on him a
questioning glance. The antique dealer held out two
long cardboard tubes.
"I see you don't have much
in the way of luggage. So, won't you please carry
these two to Seoul for me?"
They were the kind of
cardboard tubes that hold scrolls of Oriental
paintings, the kind almost everyone buys one or two
of during their trip to China. So, I looked at him,
as much as to say why should he ask me to carry such
commonplace items? Then he said, with an embarrassed
"I'll be honest with you.
The tubes are just commonplace tourist things, but
what's inside are by Yosuje. Have you heard of the
"Yosuje? I don't think I
have." "He's a late Yi Dynasty landscape painter.
Some of his pieces are quite exquisite. Two of his
landscapes are in them."
The antique dealer winked
at me, as if to cement complicity. I took the tubes
from him reluctantly. Then, I looked around the
airport lounge absently when a figure arrested my
eyes. It was the unification man, sitting in a
corner by himself, even though all the others in the
group were talking and laughing merrily, as if the
airport belonged to them. He seemed despondent, or
oblivious of everything from grief.
"It's no wonder. He carried
on, making empty promises and boasting about what he
can do. Then a Korean resident, who had given big
treats to a guy like him before but didn't even hear
a word from the guy after he went back to Seoul, to
say nothing of receiving the promised invitation,
upset the food table on our friend while he was
making a speech. I guess it was unfair to him, but
in a way he deserved it, too, going around spewing
empty rhetoric. Hasn't he learned anything from the
collapse of Eastern Europe? I knew he'd get it some
time," the antique dealer whispered in my ear,
noting the direction of my eyes. I recalled the
stains and smell on his clothes of the day before.
But I didn't feel amused. On the contrary, I was
disgusted by the antique dealer's malicious glee and
looked away. Just at that moment, our tour guide
rushed toward us, wiping the sweat on his forehead.
"The boarding will begin in
five minutes. Pick up your passports, ladies and