A modest but quietly controversial look at two very different Koreas, questioning long-held orthodoxies.
North Korea is widely held to be among the world’s most awful places. But, suggests prolific South Korean novelist Yi in a moment that seems almost calculated to draw official scrutiny, perhaps it’s not so awful as all that. Says the North Korean half brother of a South Korean professor during a not entirely planned-out reunion, asked how he’s doing, “Do you want me to tell you how we’re starving and can’t get enough corn gruel to eat?” Conversely, the North Korean semblable wonders how it is that the invading Americans managed to miss their chance to massacre his newly found half brother and his family during the war. Yi’s premise is fruitful: it was the South Korean’s father with whom he was to be reunited, having fled to the North in sympathy with the Communists during the war; that he has other family across the barbed wire is a surprise to him. It is also a surprise for him to learn that his life is as strictly regimented as any in the land of the Kim dynasty: “I could be arrested under the National Security Law,” the South Korean allows, “for illegally crossing the border and having a clandestine meeting.” Yi gets in a few sly digs at both stereotypes and their perpetrators, as when, recounting an academic summit, he depicts the South Koreans as more doctrinaire than their northern brethren: “I tried to introduce the South Koreans to people who were a bit more open-minded and less political,” says a cultural emissary, “since they themselves seemed to have a bit of a—how should I put it?—radical slant.”
Yi’s novella complicates our understanding of relations between North and South, warring places so different that reconciliation—to say nothing of reunification—seems impossible.