Looking North from the Edge of Two Koreas
Crystal Hana Kim Searches for the Small Human Details
One day when I was six years old, my mother unrolled a map on our living room floor. She told me that I would always be able to identify the country of Korea, where she and my father had been born, because it looked like a rabbit. I watched as she traced the animal’s profile over the borders of our country. With a pencil, she drew a rabbit looking west, its snout and paws jutting toward the Yellow Sea, its sharp ears pointing northeast toward China and Russia. The little tail, where the city of Busan was located, dipped southeast toward Japan.
When she finished, I bisected the rabbit through its stomach, at the thick line between North and South Korea. “We’re only half a rabbit then,” I said.
“Both are part of Korea,” my mother replied. “We used to be one country, and one day that border will disappear.”
That conversation returned to me as I gazed out at North Korea for the first time this past April. Two days before the Inter-Korea Summit between South Korean president Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, I took a USO tour bus to the DMZ. After writing a novel set during the Korean War, after marrying a half-Korean man whose grandfather lost contact with his siblings in the North, after all I had learned about my history, I wanted to see the DMZ for myself.
At the Dora Observatory, I slid a coin into pedestal-mounted binoculars next to a group of 15 other Americans. Beyond barbed wire and a swath of unoccupied land, birds swooped low, disappearing into the high grass. Dusty red mountains rose in the distance. I fed coin after coin, studying the North Korean landscape: Kaesong Industrial Complex, Panmun Station, the transmission tower that cut off all frequencies coming from the south, a strangely tall flag post with a limp DPRK flag, and the city of Kaesong. Our tour guide, a young woman with a blunt bob in high-waisted jeans, pointed to various structures. She spoke in excited, halting English about potential reunification, skipping over so many seemingly impossible steps. What about nuclear disarmament? I wanted to ask. How would we dismantle the border? Who would rule a reunited Korea? And weren’t we getting ahead of ourselves when the most volatile aspect of these talks—Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting—had yet to take place?
I returned to the binoculars, focusing on Kijong-dong, the only North Korean village settled within the demilitarized zone. I searched for the local families that were supposed to tend the collective farmland. Kijong-dong, often called Peace Village or Propaganda Village depending on your political loyalties, was deserted. Where were the families? Where were all those people torn apart by the war?
I first learned of the hundreds of thousands of people who were stranded in South Korea, separated from their family and hometowns in the North, from my maternal grandmother. Despite having to flee her home with a widowed mother at the fighting’s onset, despite the hunger she faced for years, my grandmother considered herself lucky in many ways. First among them, she was born in the southern half of Korea. Unlike her fellow citizens who happened to be born north of an arbitrary border created by foreign powers, she and her family were allowed to return home when the fighting stopped.
“Through my grandmother’s life, I discovered what years of oppression and violence can do to a country, to its people.”
“Think of all the people who have to live without ever knowing if their mother, brother, or wife is alive,” my grandmother said when she told me about the separated families. I tried to imagine a hundred thousand Koreans waiting to return home, but I couldn’t. The number felt too abstract, unwieldy.
Where were all the people? I was still searching for a single person in the North when our guide announced it was time to go. As the tour continued, taking us to Dorasan Station and the Third Tunnel of Aggression, she shared significant dates, distances, statistics. The Dorasan Station was connected to the Kaesong Station 17 kilometers north on June 14, 2003. The Third Tunnel runs a total length of 1,635 meters.
And yet, I gravitated towards the smaller, human details, like the unassuming art exhibit I came across on the main floor of the train station. Displayed inside an iron train wheel sculpture, I found an old sewing machine with a scroll of cloth flowing from beneath the needle. On the cloth, printed in Korean, was a grandmother’s letter to her lost family and unknown grandchildren in the North. The grandmother starts with how devastated she feels to be writing to a grandchild whose name and face she will never know. She explains what happened in those first days of the war, how she became separated from the rest of the family. She wonders how her siblings are doing, if they will ever reunite, and if she would be able to recognize them if given the chance. She ends the letter with a plea to herself—to not give up hope, to not stop dreaming because the moment that happens, the possibility of reunification would be extinguished. I lingered by the scroll, stilled by this woman’s pain.
The letter reminded me of the power of narrative—how one story can make you feel more than a bundle of statistics and facts. Though I couldn’t picture a hundred thousand people torn from their families, this one person showed me the depth of grief and loss, the wreckage that comes from enduring a ruptured, unmoored existence.
Growing up, my grandmother’s stories had the same effect on me, forcing me to imagine living in a united Korea under Japanese occupation, of surviving a civil war, and of searching for stability in the years after, when her newly torn country had to rebuild itself. “The first time I saw an army tank, I hid under a pumpkin leaf,” she told me once, half-laughing. “As if that could protect me.” Through my grandmother’s life, I discovered what years of oppression and violence can do to a country, to its people.
When I started writing my novel, which begins with the Korean War, I returned to my grandmother’s stories. I composed vivid characters and specific details in the hopes that they would draw a picture of the war as clearly as my grandmother’s stories had done for me. I created characters that yearned for reunification and ones that didn’t dare to consider the possibility. Some lost family members and others held onto their kin with everything they had.
I created Nurse Yuri, a secondary character, who immediately came to mind as I considered the art exhibit in Dorasan Station. What would she have written in her letter to her lost family? Yuri, who remained at her post despite the armistice because she wanted to wait for her missing brothers. Yuri, whose belief in reunification slowly withered with the years.
This morning, I considered Yuri again. What would she think of today’s meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un? What would my other characters—Haemi, Jisoo, Kyunghwan, Hyunki, and Solee—think of potential reunification? While preparing myself for how today’s meeting could affect us all, I recalled the last stop on my DMZ tour: the Imjingak Village.
As the sun hung high that late April, the tour bus drove into a large lot, passing an amusement park before stopping in front of a tall glass building. I heard K-pop blaring from outdoor speakers, visitors chattering over coffee and ice cream. Disappointment swelled in me. This tourist trap was Imjingak, the village created for refugees who had lost their homes and families in the North?
My disappointment quickly dissipated though as I walked farther into the village. Away from the loud music and vendors selling treats, reporters conducted interviews and tourists silently examined photographs of the war, a train riddled with bullets, a monument for reunification. I paused in front of Mangbaeddan, a memorial built for refugees who cannot honor their ancestors and hometowns across the border. An elderly woman stood in front of the stone altar, her head bent low.
With a few minutes left, I found the Bridge of Freedom, which was once used to trade prisoners of war. I walked to the end, where a wall blockaded access to the North. Streamers and flags covered every inch of the wall; messages of hope, names of lost loved ones, and prayers for peace fluttered in the wind. I stopped in front of a South Korean flag, reading messages written in faded ink, when I noticed a different sort of banner. Tacked up in a corner, I found a Korean Unification Flag, a white sheet with one image at its center—a map of both Koreas united as one. I traced the outline of this country with my finger, remembering my mother’s lesson, remembering my grandmother’s childhood, my characters, the letter at Dorasan. The rabbit, with its snout and paws to the west, its ears to the east, its little tail. Without that line drawn across its stomach. Whole.