Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
Evidence of "man against himself" is obvious in Yi Chong-jun's story "The Cruel City." It is an allegory symbolic of the Korean people's determination to create an illusion of freedom for themselves. An old man, just released from prison, looks forward to "the privilege of releasing a bird" (p. 9) -- a gesture that signifies the freedom of an ex-convinct and, by extension, the Korean people. But there is an ironic twist to this story, for we soon discover that the shopkeeper has clipped the birds' under- wings. Unable to fly far, they are easily recaptured by the devious seller. He exemplifies the moral degeneration of the people when brothers willingly exploit their kin for selfish profit.
Is it wrong though to be selfish and to survive at the expense of one's heritage? Chon Kwangyong explores this question in his story "Kapitan Lee," in which Dr. Yi is constantly metamorphisizing into the kind of person the ruling party wants him to be. As a result, he assists in the victimization of other Koreans, turning them away from his clinic while accepting Japanese military men instead. But then the Korean people had been forced to change their loyalties time and again to the differing foreign powers that had occupied their country. There are two sides of every coin. Dr. Yi can be called a traitor for building a comfortable home for his family during the Japanese occupation. Yet, he is also a survior. Survival is important if there are to be any Koreans at all. "Man must know how to take the initiative and to adapt himself to circumstances," he says (p. 333). Dr. Yi is a perfect example of a man who chooses survival of the self, sacrificing any nationalistic ideology in the process.
One final reprecussion created by the war of fratricide is the illusion of independence to be gained by conquering the enemy. Although the partition of Korea has victimized the people living on both sides of the division, few of them question whether their feelings of hostility are justified, and fewer still take action against the authority figures who are in control of the situation. Hwang Sunwon's short story "Cranes" portray two boys who have grown up together but suddenly discover that they are enemies. Songsam has the unenviable task of escorting his friend Tokchae to his execution. In wartime, people have to make tough choices. This story relates how human compassion finally overcomes political ideology, with the cranes symbolic of peace and unity, for they see no borders. "This had been the demilitarized zone," Hwang writes. "The cranes were still living here, as before, though the people were all gone" (p. 90).
Finally Songsam releases Tokchae, just as they both set free a captured crane in the past, so that neither would become a "specimen" for the uncaring authorities. Songsam's decision bodes well for a divided country. There is hope that the two governments will put aside their differences one day, and Korea could be peacefully reunited like a pair of Tanjong cranes soaring toward the sky.
Chon, Kwangyong. "Kapitan Lee." In Flowers of Fire: Twentieth-Century Korean Stories. Ed. and trans. Peter Lee. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974, pp. 319- 347.
Hwang, Sunwon. "Cranes." In Flowers of Fire: Twentieth-Century Korean Stories. Ed. and trans. Peter Lee. Revised edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. 86-91.
Yi, Chong-jun. "The Cruel City." Trans. Choe Yong. In The Cruel City and other Stories. Ed. by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Arch Cape, Oregon: Pace International Research, 1983. 1-40.
Illustration by Julie Shim