"From Displacement to Homecoming: A Writer Dreaming of the Hometown He Left Behind": A Q&A with Lee Ho-Cheol

  • onOctober 19, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byLTI Korea

Q: Your hometown is Wonsan in Hamgyeong Province, isn’t it? What was it like where you grew up?

I was born into a middle-class farming family and grew up without any hardship. From the age of four I learned the Thousand-Character Classic from my grandfather, and until the age of seventeen I lived in Myeongsasimni just to the south of Wonsan. If you looked westward from our house there was a wonderful view out over Hwanghae Province. By the pass to Hwanghae was a big mountain and from near the top a beautiful stream came down. My short story “Big Mountain” is about that very scenery, the place where I grew up.


Q: Was there any particular moment or opportunity that ignited your interest in literature?

I have a sister four years older than me. My sister read to me from her school textbook and when she read Shakespeare’s “King Lear” I experienced a kind of literary shock. I could only have been about six years old at the time but even though I was young I think I was very sensitive to the emotion of literature. It was such a shock that on the night my sister had read me “King Lear” all I could do was think about how complicated this thing called life is.

In middle school I was active in a literary club. The first thing I ever wrote was when I saw a star in the sky right next to the moon and tried to capture it in a poem. My schoolteacher, who was a poet, went through my work underlining bits and complimenting it. That was the first time I realized that I had a talent for literature. In the third year of high school I was the leader of the literary club. I read so many books back then. I studied literature with the thirty-seven-volume World Literature Anthology from the Japanese Shinchosha publishing company, reading writers like Goethe, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. I was particularly interested in French novels and 19th-century Russian literature. That time studying the World Literature Anthology was how I gained a literary inheritance.


Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the Korean War?

The war broke out in 1950 around the time when I graduated from high school. On July 7, I was drafted into the People’s Army and went all the way down to Uljin. Then when the UN and South Korean forces made a counter-attack I was captured as a prisoner of war while we were retreating. As I was being transported under the watchful eye of the Southern military police, by some miracle I met my brother-in-law, and he secured my release so that I could return home to my village. All I could think at the time was that the heavens must have intervened. But then that same year, on the ninth of December, I came down to the south again on my own. Rumors were spreading as the Chinese communist forces joined the fighting that an atomic bomb would be dropped on us, and so without a second thought I tried to get away. Everyone was rushing to the quayside in Wonsan, and I joined the scrum and managed to board an American transport ship and went down to Busan. I thought I would be able to go back home after a week or so, and now it’s already been decades.


A photograph of the writer and
a boyhood friend taken in his hometown


Q: I’ve heard that you also wrote during your time as a refugee in Busan, what was that like?

Well you see I had been writing fiction since I was in high school. As a refugee I would write whenever I could while working on the docks, in a factory, and as a security guard at an American military base. It was at that time that I wrote the short story “Odol’s Grandmother.” I sent it to Yom Sang-seop and he was very complimentary. That was a huge confidence boost and so I decided to search out the writer I most admired, Hwang Sun-Won and laid out all of my writings in front of him. He told me to pick out just one for him to read and so I showed him two. He took an interest in my work and helped me begin my career as a writer. It was by Hwang Sun-Won’s recommendation that my debut story “Far from Home” was published in the July issue of Literary Arts. I also kept a record of my life as a refugee in Busan in a diary; those experiences became the basis for many of my later works.


Q: How would you describe your debut story “Far from Home”?

“Far from Home” was first published in 1955 when I was twenty-three years old. At first the title was “In the Darkness,” then “Moonless Night” and then after changing it again and again it became “Far from Home.” “Far from Home” is about working on the docks. I included all of my experiences from when I was a dock worker. Aside from myself the main characters were Gwangseok, Duchan, and Hawon, and they were all based on real people. The most important thing in this story is at the end when I leave Hawon behind. Making the decision to abandon Hawon is really the same as leaving one’s hometown. People have told me that the story of experiencing this need to leave one’s home, even if it meant the agony of never going back, was something that deeply moved them.


Lee Ho-cheol’s debut story “Far from Home” is based on his experiences
working at the docks in Busan after having fled south during the war.
The story depicts the process of division and having to abandon one’s home.


Q: Long after the publication of your short story “Panmunjom” in 1961, fifty-one years later you wrote a follow-up story, “Panmunjom 2.” Aside from the many years between the two stories, how do they differ from one another?

When the short story “Panmunjom” was published in 1961 it was awarded the 7th Hyundae Literary Award. At that time I had gotten a reporter ID card and so I was lucky enough to be able to observe a meeting at the border, and “Panmunjom” was something I wrote based on my experience of talking with reporters from the North. Jinsu, the protagonist, travels to Panmunjom with an international group of journalists to see what it’s like and when he’s there a female reporter from the North starts speaking to him. The story is centered around the simultaneous sense of kinship and difference that Jinsu feels during the encounter.

With “Panmunjom 2” I decided that I had to write it after I saw Kim Jong-il’s funeral on television. I just had to express what I was thinking. At about fifty pages “Panmunjom 2” is more like a novella and it’s structured around the thoughts of the protagonist Jinsu as he witnesses the ongoing division of Korea and the death of Kim Jong-il. You could say that compared to “Panmunjom,” which I wrote when the division of the country hadn’t even lasted a decade, “Panmunjom 2” contains my perspective as someone who has experienced this division, ongoing for over sixty years now, firsthand.


Q: You visited North Korea in 1998, and in 2000 you had a very moving reunion with your younger sister. Can you describe how you felt then?

In August 1998 I went to North Korea for ten days as part of the reporting team for the Dong-A Ilbo. I was able to visit my homeland for the first time in forty-eight years. We only went to Pyongyang though. Then on August 15, 2000 I went again as an advisor to the Red Cross during the first round of reunions for separated families, and there I met my little sister again after fifty years. My sister started crying as soon as she laid eyes on me. Seeing that, the first thing I said to her was, “Let’s not cry.” Then we were able to sit together in the hotel and talk for about two hours. Before the reunions ended we were able to see each other a total of three times. When I left my hometown my grandfather and parents, my older sisters and younger sister and my younger brother were all still in Wonsan, but now my younger sister is the only one left. All of them have passed away. It was heartbreaking.


Lee Ho-cheol lived most of his life separated from his hometown and
his family due to the division of the Korean peninsula. On August 15, 2000
he joined the first round of family reunions as an advisor to the Red Cross
and was reunited with his younger sister after fifty years.


Q: The division of Korea continues after many decades, what are your thoughts on unification?

I have constantly been pressing the issue of overcoming division, but after all these years there has been no progress at all towards a solution and so, to tell you the truth, I’m exhausted. I also think it’s a shame that young people these days aren’t interested in unification at all. Before North and South Korea were separated you could travel as you pleased all the way from Busan to Hoeryong just by buying a train ticket. My generation lived through such times, but as division drags on longer and longer nowadays people look at North Koreans as though they’re martians just fallen from the moon.

To be honest I hate the word “unification.” It’s too loaded. For now we’ve got to set aside ideological or political unification. First it’s important that people from the North and South can travel backwards and forwards as much as possible. If the people traveling north and south increase and the numbers of people sharing meals and time together increases, unification will come naturally, just like water bubbling up from a spring. I like to call it “one household unification.” We need to stop thinking that we have to unify right away. It’s difficult to know what might happen in North Korea but we have to wait. Unification has to come about naturally. All we can do is wait because it is something that cannot happen grudgingly. Of course I do wish that the time we have to wait could be shortened. And in the process it would be wonderful if a reunion center or meeting room could be set up—if we could exchange letters and communicate with each other freely.


Q: What role do you think literature can play in relations between North and South Korea?

Lots of people are saying that the era of literature is over but I don’t think like that. The work of literature is to take responsibility for an area of life that things like the social sciences or philosophy cannot reach. The essence of literature is that it comes out of close attention to life as it is lived; literature is a voice that emerges from real life. Literature can’t solve the relationship between North and South Korea directly but it does have the potential to appeal to people and change the way they look at the issue. And so I think that literature must take the initiative and consider what quality of life means, take a long-term view and really meditate on what the real tasks are that are facing the current era. Writing passionate works and bringing about change, that is the power of literature.


Q: The attitude of young people today towards North Korea is very different from that of the previous generation. Do you happen to have any concerns about this?

I think the differences are only natural. What must young people have been feeling when they saw scenes of crowds of people crying at Kim Jong-il’s funeral? They must have thought, “How can they behave like that?” Here you can say what you want about the leadership and no one will come and take you away. A good society is one where you can speak freely and easily about the person in the highest office. It is not just the person with the most power who has influence. There is still a long way to go, but here everyone is able to demonstrate their skills and talents as they please. That’s something people in North Korea can’t even imagine. They can’t put a foot out of line. And it is oppression by those in power that has made them that way. That’s why I think the most important thing is freedom. But then here we are, showing ourselves up because we take freedom so lightly. If you practice freedom without a second thought it results in chaos. The more freedom you have the more careful, the more considerate you have to be. Knowing how to practice freedom with dignity shows the true standard of a society.


Interviews and articles on Lee Ho-cheol from around the world.
Lee was known as a writer of division literature the world over, and the foreign
press would cover his books whenever their translations were published overseas.


Q: You once said, “a writer writes as much as they live,” I wonder if you could explain this for us.

Whatever kind of fiction it is, novels always end up reflecting the inner world of the writer. In the end a writer deals with their own life. More than science or philosophy, literature is closely interwoven with life and in it you can find a depth of wit and wisdom. That’s why all writers can only write as much as they have lived. What more is there to a novel really? Stories of people living their lives, that’s what they are.

As for my case, in my first published work “Far from Home” I wrote about leaving my hometown, then in Southerners, Northerners I was drawing nearer and nearer to returning to the place of my birth. Of course a lot of time passed between those works too. Really it’s as though I’ve written the journey from division to unification. And so if I had to sum up my literary work in one phrase it would be “the process of going from division to unification.” From displacement to homecoming. This is my life, and therefore it is my writing too.


Q: How many literary works have you written to date? And among them which ones are you most fond of?

I think it must be around 250. And if I were to choose the essence of my literary work it would be something like Southerners, NorthernersPetit Bourgeoisie; South Wind, North Wind; and Seoul Is Heaving. As for short stories I would have to say “Wasting Away,” “Panmunjom,” “Big Mountain,” “Far from Home,” and “Stripped Bare.” If I had to pick just one of those works to define my writing it would be Southerners, Northerners. It’s a novel about when I was captured as a prisoner of war by the Southern army in 1950, and it contains my life and experiences from that time until I finished writing it in 1996. It took me more than ten years to write, from the mid 1980s to the 1990s. In a way my life is bound in those pages.


Q: What kind of mindset do you think writers and novelists should adhere to?

I just want to say honesty. The truth is not easy, you know. Without tensing your neck or shoulders, you have to be honest in a relaxed way, frankly and humbly. That’s what is most important. The moment you read something you can tell if it has been written just to show off and put on a front. That kind of writing can never pass the test of time. You have to have no greed and then good things come out from the top of your head to the tips of your toes and fingers.


Q: Going forward are there any remaining tasks that you want to achieve with your writing, with literature?

I hardly even need to say it. Unification. I want to go back to my hometown. I have written novels for almost sixty years and the basic foundation of all my works has been the relationship between the North and the South. But of course this is not only my problem. In both the South and the North more than two generations have grown up in this era of division. Just as it has been my whole life, going forward too, my literature will be about expressing North Korea in different ways. I suppose you could say that’s the task that remains for the rest of my life. 


※ This is an abridged version of an interview on NaverCast dated May 17, 2013.