Yi Mun-Yol's Literary Appointment With North Korea

Novelist Yi Mun-Yol

From the vantage point of a Westerner — someone living in the United States, Canada, Europe, but also most of the rest of the industrialized world — making sense of North Korea is difficult because its culture, and, one could argue, its resident people, have such a remarkably low profile. Even a vilified country like Iran has an internationally recognized film industry that cinephiles know and appreciate. North Korea, as a social-cultural entity, is different; apart from its hysteria-toned news announcements, with their talk of "seas of fire" and vengeful destruction, its cultural productions are pretty much non-existent.

It's true that sometimes movies such as "The Flower Girl" gain international distribution, but these manifestations exist like exceptions that prove the rule. This absence is particularly noticeable in South Korea, where there is a ban on work that celebrates the North, and, in effect, a ban on North Korean culture. There are exceptions to this: during the presidency of Kim Dae-Jung, there was a thaw in relations between the South and North — what was termed the "Sunshine Policy" — and a North Korean fantasy/adventure movie entitled "Pulgasari" was shown. Outside the Korean peninsula but within the northeast Asian sphere, there is a certain amount of cultural interchange between the North and China. And Japan, which has a small-but-significant Korean population whose hometowns (and allegiances) hail from the North, also has some cultural interchange with the North. But generally, North Korea seems to exist as a cultural vacuum. It is not just Other — it is Neither.

A big part of the reason for this is the severity of the ideological split that accompanied the geographical split between the Koreas. For a long time in South Korea it was difficult to find writing that portrayed the “political other”. Sometimes, in South Korean writing, there are characters who are leftists, such as Kim Dong-man's guerrilla uncle in “The Rainy Spell”, or the underground publishers/activists in Chae Yoon's “The Grey Snowman”. But one does not find many North Koreans per se, especially if the story is set after the Korean War. And in part because the physical separation between the Koreas became so hermetic, North Koreans disappeared as characters in serious literature that was written outside the North. (North Koreans would continue to appear in popular culture as spies and so forth.)

Yi Mun-yeol's short story An Appointment with My Brother deals with this dilemma by telling the narrative of a (now) rich South Korean going on a trip to China, just north of the North Korean border, to meet his brother — or rather, his half-brother — after the death of their father. The narrator, Professor Yi, appears on the surface to be well-established. He is well-mannered (almost to a fault), and is well-off; arriving in China he is easily able to pay a middle-man to arrange the meeting with this brother, and is carrying a considerable amount in US dollars to give to his North Korean relatives in the event that he can actually succeed at meeting one or more of them.

But the narrator's background is freighted with pain. His father deserted him and his mother when he was young. His father was a communist who hid underground for a year just before the outbreak of the Korean War, before making his way to the North. There, he married another woman and started a new family. (It is worth noting that one of Yi's translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl, has described Yi's biography in eerily similar terms.)

The story, in an excellent translation by Suh Ji-Moon (that is, the version that many non-Koreans would read), gives both a thumbnail sketch of the narrator's life along with his reconstruction of his North Korean family's chronology (in the story, the family name is also Yi):

If their first child was born in 1955, and my father’s second marriage probably took place in 1954. Gang Myeongsun would have been 24. Then, it was most likely her first marriage. My father, who defected to the north at age 35, did not remarry for four years, until he was almost forty.

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 war broke out he stayed underground to avoid capture.

More than this, the transgressions of the father were visited upon the children in the sense that young Yi was now stamped by South Korean society with the mark of traitor; all through his youth, Yi had to struggle simply to keep up with his studies and find a way to fit into the larger society. “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 trouble staying in the top ten percent.”

In a parallel sense, Professor Yi's half-brother Yi Hyeok also, as it turns out, feels hard done by: because his father came from the South, his family was always viewed with suspicion by authorities in the North. “ If not for you, 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 not so much human beings as an invisible curse.”

This tension — of two half-siblings meeting in a situation where both have reason to envy the other yet both have reason to feel some degree of guilt (for Professor Yi, because he is now rich, and for Yi Hyeok because he is the one whose family did have a father) — lends the novella its psychological dynamism. The tension simply keeps the two brothers fascinated by each other yet at the same time distant. However, the brothers do not appear to dislike each other; in fact, part of what lends this story its poignancy and emotional authenticity is that both of them — highly intelligent men not given to exaggeration or sentimentality — feel a genuine bond even as they recognize they do not know each other existentially.

But, when I beheld my brother’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 again 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 sons, with a slightly backward curving spine and a slender waist which were the peculiar physical characteristics of the men in my clan. The only thing that felt alien about him was his apparel, which looked like a fashionable formal suit from the seventies.

An intuitive impression of shared genes is not enough, however, to bridge the gap that naturally exists between Professor Yi and Yi Hyeok. So Professor Yi tries to break the ice by discussing how his relatives in the North express their genealogy when they write the family name. This leads to a conversation which is rather detailed, and, given the emotional gravitas of this meeting — after all, the two have never before met in their lives and do so with full knowledge the meeting is somewhat dangerous and may not last long — somewhat fussy.

I returned my brother’s full bow with a half bow, and could use the plain form of speech without any hesitation or uneasiness.

“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 generation in my clan, so I thought I’d asked 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’ve thought I was asking what he was called.

“I’m Hyeok. Yi Hyeok.”

“I didn’t ask what you are called, but what character you used for your name. And you should not use the family name when telling your name to your older brother. Is it the character for ‘red’? The character made up of two ‘jeok’ 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 ‘hui’ or ‘seop’ in their names.”

“That’s right. My sister is Munhi, and my youngest brother is Museop.”

But it turns out the dialogue is not fussy at all; it carries with it significant emotional import. Professor Yi feels this, and its significance is connected to his profoundly conflicted emotions resulting from his feelings of desertion: “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, disregard the tradition of his clan in naming his children!”

The two then discuss the circumstances of their father's death; Professor Yi knows very little, not even the cause of death. Yi Hyeok tells him, then adds in a seemingly offhand tone that turns out to be revealing later in the narrative: “Yes. A cousin of ours is a doctor at the hospital. Uncle Kyoungho, 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 …”

And so the tone of the novella is set: seemingly minor details carry with them a depth of meaning that sometimes the principals of the narrative are fully conscious of and other times only fleetingly aware of. This is a narrative in which there is a conspicuous lack of symbolism — both Professor Yi and his brother are rationalists. Yet seemingly small events carry with them a symbol-like weight. Wherein lies this transformation of the apparently trivial to the symbolically important?

Part of the explanation lies in the very nature of the meeting: that of two brothers is a meeting of 'North' and 'South' — for Yi Hyeok, in particular, it seems psychologically imperative to defend the ways of the North … or at least this is the way his older brother perceives Hyeok's manner. But the 'trivial' in this story is not trivial at all from a psychoanalytic perspective, since the superficially low-key manner of the brothers also has its roots in the numbing that conceals great pain; a numbness that follows from a pain (a sorrow) that is in fact desired, since it is part of the grieving process.

My brother’s voice grew tearful. But I could not feel real sorrow, even though my nose bridge 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 Kyungho, whom I remembered as a relative who graduated from a commercial high school and worked in a bank before defecting to the North, could be a doctor.

The two men perform a funeral rite for their father. Then Yi Hyeok gives Profossor Yi a medal bequeathed to him by his father. Again, there is a disconnect that exists between socially sanctioned symbolism (the “importance” of this medal), the reaction of Professor Yi (who is reminded of cheap medals he saw on sale for a low price after the fall of the Berlin Wall), and what might be termed the synthesizing symbolism of the narrative (the medal represents Yi Hyeok's blustering defence of the North's social-political system but also represents Hyeok's growing sense of closeness to his older half-brother).

Then he opened a 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 20 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 ... 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 are like until I saw you.”

“Ah, what am I like?” I asked, with trepidation.

“I feel that you’re my brother. Or rather, that you’re worth the to be fathers eldest son. I don’t know how you have lived, but I feel that you won’t disgrace this medal.”

The picture we get of Hyeok is of a rather stiff and rigid man, but also one is decent and honorable. The humanizing of the North-as-Other happens so naturally that a Western reader, saturated in the narratives of the Journalism of Ignorance, is hardly conscious of the transition.

And when turns out — unsurprisingly — that Hyeok's reality (and that of the whole second family established by their father) has been much grimmer and more unfair than Hyeok first presents it as being, the reader is nevertheless struck more by Hyeok's essential integrity than his initial posturing and bravado. A section briefly cited above deserves to be quoted in full:

And that’s not all. I don’t know anyone who worked as hard as Father did all his life … Because Father studied and worked so hard, we never went hungry, but I came to wonder is 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’ve married whomever she wanted. But my smart and handsome father had to defer to the party executives all his life. I knew why from early on. And you why none of us could apply for admission to the political science or foreign relations department of 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 and 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. If not for you, 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 not so much human beings as an invisible curse.

Similarly, when Hyeok confesses the harsh truth of how difficult it has been for his side of the family because of the brand of suspicion that has followed them all their lives, he does not mince his words: “I lied to you. I'm not on the organization committee of the Gimcheak Industries Consortium. I'm merely an engineer sorting rocks and minerals there.”

The confession can hardly be a surprise to Professor Yi: earlier he noticed his brother's hands were unusually rough. Nevertheless, the truth, as it will once it starts to pour, pours out in its entirety: Yi Hyeok also contradicts his earlier, rosy depiction of their father's death: “And his last was not so peaceful, either. We spent all our money to buy painkillers for him, but in the last few days we couldn't get him any, so we had to watch him writhe with pain.”

Professor Yi's meeting with his brother is one in which certain narratives of middle-brow Western discourse are played out with complete predictability: the North is not a paradise; its people (for whatever reasons) have a 'party line' that they tend to employ as an opening gambit. But its people are not robots, either; nor are they fanatical. Furthermore, their experiences also have an effect on those outside — that is, those from the South.

When Professor Yi hears his brother tell him about how he is one with the land because he has helped construct many of the structures in the region where he lives, the professor takes his brother's expressed pride and happiness with a grain of salt; while on one level, it may be valid enough as an expression of genuine emotion and thought, it is also a kind of compensatory mechanism for the urge to confess which soon follows. Yet despite this apparent unmasking of the illusions of Northern ideology, Professor Yi ends the story regarding his fellow travellers from the South with more distance and more jaundice himself: the South Korean tourists in the hotel where he is staying reveal “impudence” and “lack of manners”. Moreover, two men the professor meets — a volunteer for the cause of unification and a corrupt art dealer — also leave Professor Yi with a curious emotion: while his brother, through a process of confession, has allowed himself to become closer to the professor (by showing himself to be fundamentally honest), Professor Yi in turn finds himself becoming more alienated from the people who are “his”. The humanizing process does not only bring us closer to others; it also assists us to see through the self-deceptions of those who continue to cling to them. This is not a story in which the North or the South finally displays itself as 'correct'; it is a story in which some balance is achieved – a balance of clarity of insight.

Yi Mun-yol is celebrated within South Korea for his corpus of work. He has also burnished his reputation in recent years as being the first Korean to have a short story published in the New Yorker. This is significant on two levels: in and of itself (a career success) and also because, while there are several writers of the Korean diaspora such as Lee Chang-Rae, Richard Kim and Kim Young-ha who have succeeded with English-language audiences, there are very few Korean writers who have (Shin Kyoung-suk being something of an exception). The result is several writers — writers of genius, in my opinion — such as Yoon Heung-gil, Bak Won-seo, Chae Yoon, etc. who have been relegated to obscurity with anglo audiences. This leads to a cultural absence — a sort of blank screen — on which stereotypes can be projected. South Korean stories about the Korean War help illuminate the ambiguities of that conflict. (It is a pity that North Korean writing is also not given more of a chance to be read, since this might be beneficial to international relations on several levels.)

This article is published in Pacifism21.org along with another article of mine which discusses the incident of the “Sony hack”. It was a tremendously popular news story that had its place at the top of the news cycle. However, this prominent news story was overtaken, soon enough, by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which in turn has been replaced by the multiple Paris attacks focused on the Theatre Bataclan, and other recent atrocities, such as the constant grind of mass shootings. Our age continues its regular bloodiness. Particularly with the first attacks in Paris, at Charlie Hebdo, however, one also can see that culture itself can be at the heart of violence. Apart from the shock of the Hebdo massacre, from a certain point of view of culture and its place within the sphere of politics, it is hard to imagine a more forceful reminder that, yes, culture does have the ability to intertwine with politics, and, yes, it does affect the larger, material world. Culture is not separate from the Big Reality of political activity. It is part of it. It needs to be paid more attention in this regard – not for its “lessons”, but for its nuance and subtlety and humanity.

Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, filmmaker and academic. He lives with his wife in South Korea, and has published work — both literary and academic — in The Puritan, Eclectica, The Brooklyn Rail, Dark Sky, The HUFS International Journal of Foreign Studies, Canadian Notes and Queries, and elsewhere. He has written on William Blake, Thomas De Quincey, Yoon Heung-gil, and Richard Kim and graphic fiction, and presented papers to conferences in Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Oxford and Jember, Indonesia and Berlin. He is currently at work on a 22-volume mega-project entitled Plastic Millennium that includes novels, poetry, art, and film-making.