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from the September 2003 issue

How the Other Half Lives

After spending seven years in the U.S., I recently moved back to Seoul, the capitalist capital in the southern half of my divided country. When I arrived, both sides were preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. People in the South barely took notice of the silver-haired U.S. veterans who had returned to marvel at sleek skyscrapers and cell phones in everyone's hands, focusing their attention instead to which politicians were involved in the Good Morning City Shopping Mall development scam and to the fact that Kim Byung-hyun, the Korean-born closer for the Boston Red Sox, scored a save against the Yankees. To the north of the 38th parallel, which stretches across the rabbit-shaped peninsula like a slash through its belly, the Communist government staged grand military parades to celebrate what they call "victory" in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.

Fifty years have passed since the cease-fire, but without much progress toward peace. In fact, the two Koreas are now closer than ever to yet another war. And we are now as different as could be, unrecognizable like siblings separated at birth.

Ideologies are deadly when they are based on hatred. Growing up in the 1970s in Seoul, I was taught that North Koreans were our archenemy, all of them red devils with horns. Everyone at school had to participate in anti-Communism slogan and poster contests, and girls jumped rope to a song that went, "Let's kill off those Commies. / It's about time." I imagine North Korean children were taught to see the South in the same way.

I hope I know better now, but the truth is, I really don't know how to regard North Korea and its people. Like most other South Koreans of my generation, I am stuck somewhere between that ridiculous, feverish hatred and familial sympathy, between the fear of North's nuclear threats and the burden that we need to confront this crisis in a sane, sensible way.

Reading and translating the three short stories for this feature was, for me, the most intimate encounter I have had with North Korea, an experience that I hoped would allow me to get better acquainted with this unknowable other half.

These works are not subversive underground literature; they are stories written by established elite writers that represent the Workers' Party, formulaic propaganda that all end with the reaffirmation of support for the Great Leader. Professor Shin Hyung-gi of Yonsei University in Seoul, who made the selection and provided the texts for this feature, characterizes North Korean fiction as nation-narratives. These stories, after all, are about the nation and its leader, not about individuals.

But still, I got a glimpse into the everyday lives of factory workers, rural youth, party officials, a complaining husband, a demanding wife, a loving grandmother, a young couple in love. In other words, people like any other people from any other part of the world—no red-horned devils. And I also believe that I discovered some truths in these stories, about the lives North Koreans lead, their small hopes, their limitations. They worked jobs, got married, had children, wanted better housing, went on business trips, struck up conversations with the prettiest young woman on the train at the first given chance. The one distinction that marks their stories is that, for these characters, all conflicts are resolved by their faith in the Great Leader, just as European medieval literature relies on religious belief and Hollywood comedies preach the power of romantic love.

Most importantly, I feel I have met some of the people on the other side of this broken land, people I am forbidden to come in contact with as a South Korean, and saw them as flesh and blood, perhaps for the first time. No, their stories were not aesthetically satisfying, but this experience was not about taste for me. It was about re-encountering my long estranged family and coming face to face with how much they have changed, without judgment. And that, I think, is a start.

Read more from the September 2003 issue
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