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FICTION

Panmunjom

  • onOctober 19, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byLee Ho-cheol
Panmunjom
2013
155pp.

The foreigners were quite at ease on the bus. But their sense of assurance seemed to collapse when they arrived at Panmunjom. They appeared rather out of place, wandering around with confused looks on their faces. Then they started taking pictures of everything that came in sight.

The guy who had been going on mindlessly about Okinawa pointed his camera at a North Korean MP, who gave him a fierce look and turned abruptly on his heel. An uneasy smirk came over the reporter’s face; he turned away and walked over to one of his colleagues.

“That guy’s not happy,” he whispered uncomfortably, nodding in the direction of the MP.

“Which one?”

“The shrimpy one over there.”

The two of them let out a few empty chuckles.

The reporter who had been so engrossed in conversation with her husband on the bus walked over to Jinsu and asked where the Chinese were sitting. Jinsu pointed out three people inside one of the buildings and told her they were probably Chinese. She glanced quickly in that direction and loudly thanked him several times.

The North Korean reporters had arrived.

At first Jinsu thought they were part of the group from the South, but then it struck him that there was something different about them. A careful look revealed that they had wide-cut pants and were wearing red armbands. Smiling, they walked up to where Jinsu and the others were standing. A number of the reporters from both sides seemed on familiar terms.

“I haven’t seen you for some time,” said a short, squat reporter from the North. 

“Well look who’s here,” responded one of the reporters from the South in a casual, informal manner.

There was a frostiness to the exchange. Both sides seemed to be sneering at each other, each trying to put on a show of superiority.

“How about a smoke?” The reporter from the North held out a cigarette.

“Leading the charge again, huh?” said the reporter from the South. Nevertheless, he took the cigarette.

“Why are you guys always saying things like that? ‘Leading the charge, leading the charge.’ What are you talking about?”

“Come on, don’t be like that. Let’s cut the nonsense and put all our cards on the table.”

“Well said. Let’s tell it like it is.”

This is really something. Jinsu smiled inside.

The older foreign woman, who had been standing beside Jinsu watching the exchange, asked in a whisper, “What did he just say?”

“That the Americans should get out.”

“Oh, really? That’s scary,” she muttered with a look of surprise. She gazed intently at the reporters from the North, then walked toward her husband, shoulders slumped. She pointed toward the reporters from the North and said something to him. The expression on her husband’s face held steady as he glanced toward them.

A chubby, fair-skinned reporter from the South wearing glasses with thick black rims breezed his way to the front of the group.

“Big Sister, is that you? Hey, Big Sister’s here. Long time no see. How’s everything going?” he asked in a ringing voice. The woman he was addressing appeared a little over thirty. She was on the attractive side, with gentle, wholesome curves.

 

 

Jinsu had assumed she was from the South because she was dressed in traditional clothing. Looking closely, however, he could see her red armband. She scrunched her eyes up as she smiled, glad to see the reporter from the South.

“Haven’t changed a bit, I see. Fatter than ever. Sucking the blood of the farmers and the urban proletariat. Shameless as ever.” Still, she held out her hand.

“Easy now. Before you go on the attack, how about a proper response to a proper greeting?” protested Black Rims as he shook hands with her.

“Attack? What’s gotten into you, Mr. Defensive? You certainly do seem nervous—you wouldn’t have something to hide, would you, something really awful perhaps?”

Everybody laughed. Even the foreign reporters who had been watching the exchange grinned as if they had guessed from the facial expressions what was being said.

“How’s Brother-in-Law?” Black Rims carried on. “And the kids, my nieces and nephews? No trouble with Father-in-Law? You must be having a tough time. I can’t sleep at night thinking about what you must be going through.”

The woman covered her mouth with her hand, barely able to control her laughter.

“Why are you always such a windbag? Didn’t you learn anything else in school?” interjected the short, squat reporter from the North.

“Nope. You, on the other hand, you’re filled with real knowledge, the solid stuff. That’s what turned you into such a midget. This is so ridiculous. Can’t even ask after each other with my big sister.”

The reporters from the South broke into peals of laughter. Even the short reporter from the North let out a sour chuckle.

“No way to get through to you, I guess. Rotten to the core. Utterly pathetic,” he said.

I’m pathetic? No, I’m being humorous. Humor—have you ever heard of the word humor? No, of course not. Do you want me to explain it to you?”

The meeting got under way inside the building, and everyone quieted down.

Jinsu rested his arms on the windowsill and peered inside.

“I don’t believe we’ve met. Is this your first time here? How do you do?”

The voice was amiable and pleasant. Jinsu turned to see a soft smile playing across a woman’s lips. Her eyes were clear and lively with a yellowish cast and her face was healthy-looking, with high cheekbones and a scattering of freckles. She was really quite cute. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a red armband. Her smile had all the bashfulness of a young, unmarried woman addressing a single man.

“How do you do?” responded Jinsu. What have we here? He stuck an Arirang cigarette in his mouth.

“Did Seoul get a lot of rain last night too?” she asked.

What a cute gold tooth.

“Heavy rain, right?” she asked again.

“Yes.”

“Which news agency are you with?”

Gwangmyeong News.”

“Oh, is that right?”

Jinsu felt a quiver inside.

Off to the side, Black Rims was back in action.

“Okay, let me tell you about humor. You guys are never going to get it. You could die, go to heaven, come back again, and you’d still never get it. The only way you’ll ever comprehend what I’m saying is to start living a proper life. Understand? There’s no explaining it to you, you’re just too thick.”

“Look, you can get worked up all you want, but at least stop spitting all over the place.”

“Hey, I’m giving you a free lesson here, you ought to be paying me for this. Don’t interrupt your teacher when he’s telling you something important. You can learn from what I’m saying. Just be still and listen, it’s not going to hurt.”

Jinsu barely kept from breaking into laughter. He covered his mouth and chuckled and felt a sudden sense of release.

“What’s your opinion of that sort of person?” the woman asked with a tinge of a frown. When he didn’t respond immediately, she repeated, “What do you think of someone like him?”

“Well, don’t you think he’s pretty funny?” Jinsu looked at her, still trying to stop himself from laughing. She smiled, as if she too were about to laugh. But then any hint that she might have been amused vanished from her face.

“It’s like he’s covered under layers of filth and grime. No, he’s devoid of substance, maybe that’s a better way to put it. He’s like an acrobat, nothing but empty gestures. It’s decadent to consider him funny. Ranting about all manner of things, manipulating words to deceive his listeners. Not very straightforward, is it? What do you think?”

She certainly has a thing or two to say.

“I beg to differ. You mention acrobat-like gestures, decadence. But this already shows the limits imposed on your mind. Your side grasps a variety of individual tendencies only in relation to an overarching, objective standard. But we’re different. You say he’s manipulating words in order to deceive people. Can’t you see that it’s all in fun? That there’s actually a certain innocence to it? You can’t simply declare something decadent and be finished with it. You have to consider the context. Only when a given circumstance has been taken to its logical extreme can one say that signs of decadence appear. If you consider everything in absolute terms, the world becomes superficially apparent. But it’s unreasonable to insist on an approach like that. True, it can prove very useful when you’re breaking everything down into categories and types, but then you’ll never be able to grasp the truth that lies below the surface. You have to boil a persimmon to get rid of the sourness, right? But boil it too long and the skin comes off and it starts to stink. In other words, in any given situation, in any individual case, a certain amount of decadence is appropriate. Not too much, not too little. That’s what adds flavor to life, gives a person that sweet, comfortable feeling you get right before you drop off to sleep.”

“That’s the kind of argument people make when they’re afraid to face up to things. There’s no need to pay so much attention to the individual case. When a persimmon’s ready for eating, you eat it. What’s the point of idle speculation about the process it goes through to get ripe? We should always keep the big picture in mind. If you want to understand the society you’re in, it’s crucial to examine its overall structure. Otherwise you’ll be lost forever. You’ll never be able to break free from that ‘sweet, comfortable feeling’ of yours. You’ll never accomplish anything if you insist on focusing on the minute details of each particular situation. What we need to do is draw our conclusions and set our goals accordingly. That’s the reality confronting us. What do you think? Don’t you agree? By the way, how’s life in Seoul?”

Jinsu was about to offer a response to her mention of “reality” but was thrown off guard by the sudden change of subject. She smiled at his hesitation.

“Let’s drop it for now. Everyone should come to his own conclusions about this problem, don’t you think? I do believe I’m right as far as that goes. Let’s save time and discuss things in the most efficient manner possible. So how is life in Seoul?”

Jinsu said nothing.

“Well?”

“You first—how’s life in Pyongyang?”

“Fantastic. It’s really great.”

“Seoul’s fantastic too. Really great.”

The woman laughed, and Jinsu followed suit. The two of them found themselves chuckling together.

“Do all your family live in Seoul?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry to be so forward, but could I ask if you’re married?” She blushed ever so slightly.

“No, I’m not.”

Jinsu recalled entering Older Brother’s room the night before and encountering the lascivious smell coming from Sister-in-Law as she was changing her blouse. A wry expression came over his face.

“What’s your opinion regarding the exchange taking place between North and South?” she asked.

“Exchange? Oh, right, sorry. Well, I guess we could think of it like this. Aren’t you and I engaged in an exchange right now? That part of it’s easy enough… But of course it would be much too simplistic, too optimistic, to think that what we’re doing now could serve as an example for the sort of tone that should be adopted in the discussions. The relations between North and South are so very complex. The situation prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, I mean… To understand this horrendous ‘reality’ in and of itself—oh, I forgot, you wouldn’t know the English term reality, would you?” Jinsu asked abruptly with a smile, aware that he wasn’t making much sense.

“The facts as they are—actuality—right?”

“Exactly. The whole problem hinges on that. It makes appealing to such things as national customs seem meaningless. Don’t you agree that we’re faced with a reality that’s nearly impossible to overcome?”

“Not necessarily. There’s nothing overly complicated about the situation. It’s rather simple, actually. Don’t you think you’re in charge of your own destiny? Don’t you? You are, right? That’s what makes it so simple. There’s no room for a defeatist attitude, for indecision. The problem is when people take a simple situation and make it complicated for no good reason. You engage in an exchange and that’s it, you’ve got yourself an exchange,” she said in a soothing tone.

“But each side comes to the table with its own agenda. You can’t just assume that no calculation has gone into any of it. Your side makes use of the commonplace notion that things should be approached simply, but our side is different. And our side has its reasons for taking such a position. That’s where cold, hard reality comes into play. I’m talking about survival of the fittest, to eat or be eaten. We have to start being more frank with each other.”

The woman blinked in astonishment. “So it’s all about who eats and who gets eaten? The way you frame the issue is just plain distorted. Let’s tackle the problem head-on, okay? What sort of standard do you think should be set for politics? Don’t you think that above all else we need to eliminate what you might call the sentimental attachment—or, to put it another way, the force of habit, the inertia—that allows for the privileging of a particular individual or group? The right to choose belongs to the common people, those who toil in obscurity. They must be given the opportunity and the freedom to choose,” she declared fervently, turning red with excitement.

“I agree. They must be given the right to choose. No doubt about that. Does your side give it to them? What form does freedom take in your world? Have you ever considered the possibility that freedom has become just another one of the things you foist upon the people? It doesn’t matter whether you want to regard such coercive measures as necessary, justified by the predetermined historical trajectory of your so-called progressive democracy, the one projected by the chosen few. How about it? Is life bearable in the North? I’d appreciate an honest answer.” Jinsu grinned, as if he had got her where it hurt.

“It’s a question of conviction. Freedom is not a word to be bandied about by someone full of hot air. The true value of freedom emerges only in a society that has established ethical standards that take human dignity into account. Justice comes before freedom. Otherwise freedom becomes nothing more than a tool to be manipulated. Like an apple that’s shiny and red on the outside but rotten to the core on the inside. Do you know what our basic moral position is? Our concern is with mapping out the future direction for the entire nation. The individual must find a place within this concern. That’s where freedom lies. I guess in the final analysis it does come down to ideology. Apathy, indifference—that’s the only way to describe your way of thinking. What you mean to say is that all you want to do is play around, engage in all sorts of depraved activities. You have no proper concept of freedom, you have no ideology. What you’ve got is your animal urges. That’s what’s leading you from one day to the next. That’s what the ‘self’ you want to revel in is made of, your staggering, aimless self…” Her voice trailed off in anger.

“What’s left after you throw away the self? The highest form of freedom is the one that allows people to play around a little, to commit a few harmless misdeeds. That’s the way people are—it’s human nature. There are societies that make the necessary allowances for this. These societies possess both depth and adaptability. They are appropriately tolerant of such behavior while maintaining an overall balance and stability. Does that line of reasoning make me full of hot air? Who’s full of hot air, someone who throws away a sense of self and becomes nothing more than an ideological abstraction, or someone who, appropriately—”

“By all means, you’re right. How can there be ideology without the self? Why throw away the self? The point is, one must take a firm, clear sense of self and ground it in the proper ideology. Otherwise, you’re nothing but the empty shadow of a person, wandering around without a purpose. Your view of freedom is rotten to the core. It’s got a putrid smell. It reeks… How can you possibly try to justify yourself in such a way?”

“It’s possible. Completely possible. There’s no limit to the depths of the inner self. Your side only thinks of people in terms of data to be made use of in the most efficient manner possible. I’m getting a feel for just how one-dimensional the moral standards are in your society.”

“No. It’s just that right now we’re confronted with some pressing circumstances. That’s the reason for it.”

“Have you heard of Dostoevsky or Shakespeare? What do you think of them?”

“Of course I’m aware of them. Dostoevsky inserts a characterized version of himself in his novels. His emphasis on the unnecessarily grandiose gestures made by the urban petit bourgeoisie places his work in the category of speculative philosophy. As for Shakespeare, he offers an incisive portrayal of the various aspects of a country in which the sprouts of civil society are first appearing.”

“That’s frighteningly abstract.”

“No, that’s the essence of it. One shouldn’t get hung up on particulars. You have to grasp the overall framework.”

The older foreign woman walked by; the smile on her face seemed to say, How wonderful.

They stopped talking. A calm seemed to come over them. Black Rims was having his picture taken with his “big sister.” The two of them were laughing, the earlier fuss apparently forgotten. Meanwhile, half a dozen reporters from both sides were bickering beneath the eaves of the building where the meeting was taking place. 

 

pp. 41-72 

Translated by Theodore Hughes
Reprinted with permission from Asia Publishers, Seoul, Korea.