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WRITERS' NOTES

The Journey to Meet Lo Kiwan

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byCho Haejin

I Met Lo Kiwan is my second novel. It tells the story of three principal characters: Lo Kiwan, who leaves North Korea for Belgium and applies for refugee status there; South Korean writer Kim, who goes on a wild-goose chase after Lo Kiwan in Belgium, and later, England; and Park Yoon-cheol, who aids Lo Kiwan and brings Lo and Kim together. What connects these seemingly random characters is their pain. Each suffers from the guilt that they owe their lives to another’s sacrifice, or the feeling that they are somehow responsible for another’s death. United by this shared guilt, the three characters find ways to heal each other. At least, that is what I hoped for when I wrote this novel.

Lo Kiwan is a North Korean defector who goes to Belgium by way of Yanbian. After losing his mother in Yanbian, Lo suffers from survivor’s guilt, only to find that he must battle again for his survival, this time against social exclusion and the language barrier as a foreigner. After many trials and a lengthy wait, he finally gains refugee status and leaves for England in hope of a better life.

Kim, the other main character, is the head writer for a popular, human interest-based television program that relies on viewer donations. She quits her job one day after discovering that one of the program’s subjects has met a terrible fate because of her good intentions. Leafing through a weekly magazine, Kim chances upon an interview with Lo Kiwan. His paradoxical pain at having chosen life after his mother’s death resonates deeply with Kim, and she decides to go search for him to hear now he found an answer to pain. Kim’s journey to meet Lo Kiwan is, in this sense, a journey of self-discovery.

Park Yoon-cheol is a former doctor who left South Korea for political reasons during the military dictatorship, and acts as an interpreter for Lo Kiwan during his refugee application process. Park also provides vital information about Lo Kiwan to Kim when she comes looking for Lo in Belgium. Haunted by his wife’s secret euthanasia, Park helps Lo because he identifies with Lo’s survivor’s guilt.

What I’ve explained above is why I do not consider I Met Lo Kiwan as a political novel, but rather as an attempt to answer the question of whether we can truly understand another person’s suffering, or to what extent solidarity is possible. I believe that there is a Lo Kiwan in all of us in the sense of feeling like a lonely outsider, and I wanted to highlight this human side of Lo Kiwan. Ultimately, I wanted to explore the possibility of forging a true connection that goes beyond mere sympathy through the solidarity of the three characters. 

 

by Cho Haejin

Author's Profile

Cho Haejin (b.1976) debuted when she won the New Writer’s Awards and was published by the quarterly magazine Munye Joongang in 2006. She authored the short story collection City of Angels and the novels I Met Lo Kiwan and A Forest That No One Has Seen.