Born in Chinyong, South Kyongsang Province, in 1942, Kim
Won-il was still only a child when his father defected to the North during
the Korean War, leaving his wife and four children behind. Growing up in
great poverty and under the cloud of ideological suspicion resulting from
his father's act, he began to write in the early 1970s. His early works
were short stories portraying lives similar to his own, marked by childhood
trauma and bitter memories, with families destroyed by unspecified conflicts.
His first collection of short stories, Odumui hon (Soul of Darkness) was
published in 1973 and he was awarded the Hyundai Munhak Literary Prize
in 1974. His first full-length novel, Noul (Twilight) was published in
During the 1980s his works being more and more explicitly
centered on the problems arising from the division of Korea. His works
frequently illustrate the way in which ideology destroys lives and dehumanizes
those who pursue it, as in Hwanmyorul ch'ajaso (In search of disillusionment,
1983) and Kyol kolcchagi (Winter valley, 1987), where he portrays youthful
protagonists caught up in historical events.
His works focus on the way individuals experience history
and in the novel Madang kip'un chip (The house with a deep yard, 1989),
as in some short stories, he portrays children growing up in poverty without
a father. The portrayal of mothers' heroic struggle to take the place of
the absent father and instill a sense of morality and dignity in the children
suggests that his concern is to highlight the human sublimity attained
within such harsh struggles.
The ultimate message to be drawn from Kim Won-il's work,
which culminates in the nine-volume novel Nul p'urun sonamu (The Evergreen
Pine, 1993), is that individuals can transcend the suffering and humiliation
that history imposes upon them by reason of their human weakness. Behind
such individual stories lies a concern to suggest a wider hope for the
future history of Korea.
Prisons of the Heart
KIM WON IL
This year Korea sent more than 570 books to the seventh
annual Moscow International Book Exhibition for the first time. The Korean
Publishers Association handled the arrangements. Twenty-two local publishing
companies applied for spots on the delegation. I was among them. We stayed
in Moscow for the week-long exhibition, the seventh of its kind, then traveled
around the Soviet Union for 12 days, visiting Leningrad and Kiev. My wife
told me about Hyon-gu when she met me at Kimp'o Airport.
"It's so hard to talk on those overseas phone calls.
I knew you'd worry if I told you, so I didn't say anything when you called
from Leningrad or wherever it was. Your brother was hospitalized at Kyongbuk
University Hospital a week ago."
The prison authorities had finally transferred Hyon-gu
to the hospital. From what my wife said, I assumed that his condition had
deteriorated to the point where he required the constant supervision of
a specialist. At his first trial, Hyon-gu had been sentenced to 18 months.
The sentence was pending appeal to the High Court. I couldn't help feeling,
however, that it was not out of the goodness of their hearts that the authorities
had transferred him to the hospital. My brother contracted hepatitis ten
years ago, in 1979 right after he had been released on a suspended sentence
while serving a 20-month term. At the time, the whites of his eyes were
yellow with jaundice, but he recovered quickly on outpatient treatment
at a small hospital near Suk-yong's house where he was staying. While no
one would ever call him robust, Hyon-gu was hardly sickly, and after that
bout of hepatitis, he went on with his life, busy as always. After his
arrest this time, however, he often complained that he felt nauseous and
so listless he could hardly sit up. He couldn't digest the "fine cuisine"
they served at the jail where he was being held pending appeal. One day
in early July at the beginning of the rainy season when it poured everyday,
I went down to Taegu to visit him. It was only a month since I had last
seen him but he was miserably thin and his color was poor. His complexion
was a dark shade of yellow and his cheekbones stuck out prominently. He
was clearly suffering from malnutrition, as though he had gone on another
hunger strike. Five years earlier, he had gone on a hunger strike at Andong
prison and drank nothing but water for a week in protest against the inhumane
treatment of prisoners of conscience. When I visited him, he was thin and
pale, but not jaundiced.
"Sometimes when I worry about how the people will make
it through the rainy season with no work, it's like a dream. Suddenly I'm
free and I'm running up the hill to our neighborhood." A shy smile, unseemly
for someone his age, played on my brother's lips as he spoke. The parched
skin at the corners of his mouth gathered in wrinkles when he smiled, like
an old man, although he was only thirty-nine. There was clearly something
wrong with his digestive system or liver. I suggested he have some tests,
but Hyon-gu said he was taking some antacids and would soon be better.
I met his lawyer, Chu Yong-jun, and asked him to request that Hyon-gu be
placed in evaluative custody for tests and treatment at a general hospital.
Then I returned to Seoul. The request hadn't been granted by the time I
left for the Soviet Union.
In the car on the way home from the airport, my wife
said she'd taken a quick day trip to Taegu two days earlier and learned
that Hyon-gu was undergoing tests in the hospital. According to the doctor,
the problem was in the liver, not in the digestive tract, and it didn't
"They drained the fluid that was building up in his abdomen.
He lost six kilograms in the process. He's awfully thin. They won't let
him eat anything because of the tests, not even rice gruel. I'm afraid
your mother is going to collapse from the strain. But I've got the kids
to think of. You'd better go, no matter how busy you are."
My wife dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and then
seemed to remember something.
"Oh, your sister gave the lawyer one million won for
his help last time and for getting your brother transferred to evaluative
custody," she added.
The mid-August heat seethed outside the car window. The
leaves on the trees lining the street drooped, and in the distance an apartment
complex seemed to ooze as if it were about to evaporate like steam. Hyon-gu's
emaciated face hovered in the background hazily like a dead leaf at the
bottom of a pond. I was eight years older than my brother. We had spent
more time living apart than together and had never really had a chance
to get to know each other. We lived under one roof until I graduated from
high school. When he was in middle school, I was attending university in
Seoul. When he entered high school, I was in the army, and I was already
working for a living in Seoul by the time he entered university in Taegu.
The next morning I took the bus to work, leaving my car
in the apartment parking lot where it had sat covered for the two weeks
I was in the Soviet Union. As I checked over the sales records from my
absence, I realized few books would sell when everyone was off in the mountains
or on the beaches for vacation. I also reviewed the status of three books
we planned to publish in the fall. We were in a hurry to publish the first
volume of Anatolii Rybakov's <After 1935>, a novel that had gone on
sale in the Soviet Union only a month before. I had brought a copy back
with me and went to meet the Russian language professor who had translated
Rybakov's <Children of the Arbat>. Thanks to Gorbachev's perestroika,
<After 1935> had been translated into several Western languages as soon
as it was released in the Soviet Union. The novel was the first volume
in the second part of Rybakov's <Children of the Arbat> series, a work
that was bringing the aging author international renown. When I asked the
professor to translate the 300-page manuscript in two months, he expressed
reluctance, blaming the summer heat. In my rush to complete the translation
before our competitors published the work, I considered getting hold of
the Japanese translation and dividing it up among three or four Korean
translators. However, that ran counter to my basic publishing principles.
I had no choice but to convince the original translator to take on the
project. Besides, I knew I could count on the accuracy of his translation.
My small nine-employee publishing company had put out over 80 titles, but
with no decent books in the last year, finances were tight. One reason
for this was my own insistence that we not stoop to publishing sentimental
works that pandered to youthful fads despite our business manager's earnest
attempts to convince me otherwise. Still, our operating funds had received
a big boost from the 90,000 copies of Rybakov's <Children of the Arbat>
sold over a four-month period. We owed that success to the articles about
the Soviet Union's democratic reforms that filled the international affairs
sections of newspapers here in Korea. In fact, the main purpose of my sudden
trip abroad, my first anywhere, was to take advantage of the Moscow International
Book Exhibition for business talks with the Soviet Copyright Association,
part of the Soviet Writers League. I also obtained the rights to Varlam
Shalamov's novel <Kolyma Tales>, which depicts the forced-labor camps
during the Stalinist period, now the subject of reassessment thanks to
the thawing of cultural restrictions inside the Soviet Union. I spent that
evening sharing supper and beer with another Russian language professor
in hopes of convincing him to take on the translation of the Shalamov stories.
I had told my wife of my plans when I left the house that morning, so I
simply called her to say I was leaving, then boarded the night train to
When I arrived at East Taegu Station, the brief summer
night had passed and dawn was spreading across the plaza in front of the
station. My small bag in hand, I climbed into an empty taxi and asked the
middle-aged driver to take me to the university hospital. There are several
medical colleges in Taegu now so my simple request could have caused some
confusion, but anyone who has lived in Taegu for long knows that the university
hospital is the Kyongbuk University teaching hospital located in Samdok-dong
downtown. The medical college and university hospital, two of the oldest
Western-style brick buildings in Taegu, stand opposite each other on a
large site separated by a narrow street, only a short distance from East
As I stepped from the taxi into the early dawn, the street
separating the hospital and medical college was deserted. I was suddenly
reminded of my middle school days when I delivered morning papers in the
Samdok-dong and Tongin-dong area. The neighborhood hadn't changed a bit
but I recalled the road being much wider. Every morning I gazed up at the
stars as I strode along those empty streets so familiar to me. Six subscriptions
went to the medical college and seven to the university hospital. After
I had slipped thirteen copies through the windows of the guard boxes at
either side of the gate, the bundle of newspapers was light and my work
half-finished. Was it 1955? My brother would have been five since he was
born during the war. Mother raised three children selling American goods
at the Yankee market. We were miserably poor like all the other refugees.
The trees in the spacious courtyard were visible over
the low brick walls and as thick as always. The lush willow trees, which
covered the main road like a canopy, were moist with the morning dew. My
head ached as I stumbled along, and fatigue drained the energy from my
body. The effects of the beer I had drunk the previous evening were gone
now. It must have been the lack of sleep. Come to think of it, I'd had
less than two days to recover from the seven-hour time difference between
Moscow and Seoul.
The watchman was dozing in the guard box at the hospital
gate, his guard's cap nodding up and down in the feeble fluorescent light.
I thought of asking where Hyon-gu's ward was located but instead I turned
down a paved path through the trees toward the main building, a stout,
gloomy structure built during the Japanese colonial era. The fresh morning
air filled my nostrils. The prospect of seeing my brother depressed me,
though. I lit a cigarette despite my headache. The shrill cry of a waking
bird broke the heavy stillness.
The ward was secluded behind the other hospital buildings
next to the back wall blanketed with vines. It was as if Hyon-gu's temporary
respite from prison had landed him in a mental ward. I was met by a long,
dark corridor as I stepped into the single-storied building. The window
in the door at the other end of the corridor was distorted like the lenses
in a pair of eyeglasses. It was cold, like a prison, something my brother
had come to know as well as his own home. On one side of the corridor were
windows every five paces looking out onto the wooded courtyard. On the
other were rows of hospital rooms facing the back wall. The building had
withstood seventy or eighty years of use and now it was miserably rundown,
its plaster walls and ceiling covered with soot and dust and its cement
floors tattered from repeated patching. That special creosol odor of all
hospitals mingled with the smell of moist mildew. I walked down the corridor.
It was dark except for an occasional dim fluorescent light. The sound of
my footsteps was deafening as I wandered, leaning up to each door to read
the numbers in the gloom. Somewhere a patient's groans slipped out a door
left ajar because of the heat. The cries sounded like a desperate appeal
from the deep, and my mood darkened. Relatives of patients lay curled up
sleeping uncovered on the long benches that lined the corridor. At first,
I peered at their faces thinking that Mother or Tong-su's Mom might be
among them, but after the second face I remembered that Hyon-gu was in
a private room. There was no reason for them to sleep in the hall.
"Oh, you've come. It's me. Mother."
Despite the gloom, Mother recognized me from a distance.
Maternal instinct, I guess. She was seated on one of the benches, body
bent forward over one knee pulled up to her chest. Her face was invisible.
All I heard was her hoarse voice.
She asked how my trip was, and I responded by asking
why she was sitting in the corridor. She glanced toward the door of the
hospital room. "Some guy insists on staying in there so I decided to take
a nap out here," she replied. That is when I realized that a guard was
in Hyon-gu's room. My brother was still in custody while his case was under
"Yun-gu, something's terribly wrong here. I don't understand
this 'evaluative custody' but some hotshot from the prosecutor's office
came and told us not to worry about the hospital expenses. He said the
government would pay for everything. Then they did this fancy test where
they lay you on a big steel plate that looks like a cross and spin you
around. But the doctor won't explain what it means. They all say it's cirrhosis
of the liver or sclerosis or something like that but..."
Something seemed to catch in her throat and she couldn't
go on. I could hardly ask if it was cancer. I sat down beside her. There
was no reason to wake Hyon-gu. He needed his rest and I had no solution
to his problem.
"Isn't one of your high-school classmates a doctor at
the university hospital?"
"Yes. Most of my doctor friends moved to Seoul but one's
Five of my classmates from high school enrolled in Kyongbuk
University's medical college after graduation. Later four moved to Seoul
where they became department chiefs and later opened their own clinics.
Only Ham Kun-jo had remained in Taegu at the university hospital's Clinical
"A close friend wouldn't lie to you. Go see him. And
if he says... " Mother's diminutive body seemed to become even smaller.
She stifled a sob. The white hair at her brow trembled slightly, reflecting
the opaque light of the hallway.
My family moved to Seoul in the fall of 1947, the year
before I entered elementary school. Father brought only his immediate family
with him in his search for religious freedom in the south. We left behind
a small mountain village of 40 households located some 30 miles from the
remote town of Huich'on in North P'yongan Province. Father had founded
a frontier church there. Three years later the war broke out. Unlike most
Seoul residents, we were unable to escape to the south, and Father was
taken to the police station as a North Korean spy. In September 1950, the
U.N. forces retook Seoul and Father was dragged northward by the retreating
communists. Two children in tow and nine months pregnant, Mother followed
the advancing U.N. forces in search of Father. Outside of Sariwon in Hwanghae
Province, we ran into some people who had been kidnapped by the North Koreans
along with Father. They were returning to Seoul after miraculously escaping
their captors. One of them told us that 20 or 30 people, including the
Reverend Pak, had been killed in an American air raid at the Yonch'on crossing
in Kyonggi Province. Mother turned back south toward Yonch'on where she
confirmed Father's death at last. It was in Yonch'on that Mother gave birth
to Hyon-gu on the earthen floor of a house left empty when its inhabitants
fled south. Mother was widowed at the tender age of 29 in 1950, a nightmarish
year spent rushing helplessly from south to north and back again. Somehow
we managed to stay alive. Years later she would say there was no way to
record in words the hardships she had been forced to endure, including
the second retreat of U.N. forces after the Chinese communists entered
the war. For me, all that remains are my third-grader's memories of Mother
taking my sister, brother and I to an unfamiliar Taegu, of the miserable
cold and hunger, the endless walking and the bitter pain in my frostbit
toes. The image of little Suk-yong, indefatigable and without complaint
as she trudged alongside Mother, proof of the adage that women possess
a strength unequaled by men, is still fresh in my mind.
It is only now at the age of 47 that I can imagine what
it was like for Mother to make a life, alone and far from home, with only
her three children to sustain her. I could see the maternal concern etched
in her wrinkled face as she sat dark and deep in thought. She feared that
one of the children she had struggled so hard to raise might proceed her
"I shouldn't cry like this," she murmured. A distant
light shone in the tears that pooled in her eyes. I wondered how this bastion
of strength, built up through the years of perseverance needed to overcome
the challenges of life with three children in a strange land, could be
shaken to its foundation so suddenly. Good heavens, there was a time, at
well over sixty, when in her zeal to free my brother from prison Mother
thought nothing of donning a black armband and attending every meeting
of the Democratic Family Support Group. Mother often said that fatherless
Hyon-gu was the only one who shared a place in her heart, night and day,
like Father did. In her heart she had prepared a prison cell for Hyon-gu,
even when he was free in the outside world.
"There's 29 years between Hyon-gu and I, so last year
when we both made it through the Unlucky Nines that everyone always talks
about, I figured... " Mother stared out the window across the hallway.
She was using the traditional Korean system of calculating
age. I could sense in her quiet voice, hoarse as she tried to suppress
her tears, a despair that grew in proportion to her intense love for Hyon-gu.
I followed Mother's gaze, unable to respond. Between the sparse branches
of a Himilayasita tree a patch of sky shone above the two-story brick building
across the large central courtyard. The sound of birds pierced the clear
dawn sky like shafts of light. Faraway, on that distant horizon, the sun
was rising, oblivious to the single flame of life flickering out in the
hospital ward where we sat.
My bag in hand, I stood up without a word. A large notice
was posted on Hyon-gu's door: Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited. I entered
the room. My eyes were immediately drawn to another notice hanging at the
foot of the bed: Complete Bed Rest. Hyon-gu's eyes were closed; an intravenous
tube was stuck in his arm. Three plastic-covered steel chairs were arranged
around a table in the center of the room. The light of the lamp burning
on one wall was washed away by the sunlight flooding through the window.
A young man was sleeping on a bench, using the armrest
for a pillow. He jerked upright and glared at the unexpected intruder.
A pair of handcuffs and a billy club were strapped to his belt.
"I'm Hyon-gu's brother," I whispered.
I put my bag down on an empty chair and approached the
bed. My brother was sleeping, two haggard hands folded neatly on top of
the bed sheet as if they were bound together by the i.v. tube stuck in
his forearm. The scattering of whiskers that dotted his face under the
thatch of hair, greasy with perspiration, was pitiful somehow. His face
looked as if it were made from wood, carved down to the bones. His collarbone
stuck out from between the lapels of his pajamas, like a handle ready to
be grasped. I felt a certain reverence at the ugly sight of him, devoid
of flesh. When our family lived in a rented room in Changgwan-dong in downtown
Taegu, Hyon-gu and I had attended the Cheil Church nearby. Hyon-gu was
in the beginners' class and I was in the advanced class. I remember his
teacher saying how remarkable it was for a shy child like Hyon-gu to recite
his prayers so fervently, repeating "our mother, our mother" over and over
again. Hyon-gu was unusually devoted to Mother as a child, and so he was
more deeply loved by her than we two older children. It was Hyon-gu who
went out at dusk and waited for Mother to come home from work. He wanted
to eat dinner with her. And when she saw him, she always said, "Oh, has
my youngest son waited all this time so he can eat dinner with his mama?"
Then they would walk back through the gate together, Hyon-gu's hand in
hers. People often say that the child-like innocence of a good person remains
in their face as they age. The image of Hyon-gu as a child rose before
me as I looked down on the peaceful face of my sleeping brother.
I sat down in an empty chair. There was no reason to
wake him. At some point Mother had entered the room. The crew-cut young
guard with the angular face introduced himself as Mr. Ch'oe and recorded
my name, address and telephone number on his roster. He asked a number
of questions about this and that. I answered in the vaguest terms because
he seemed to be asking out of boredom and nothing else.
The door opened silently and a woman with a towel wrapped
loosely around her hair entered the room cautiously. She was dressed in
an army surplus shirt and baggy work pants and carrying a plastic water
"Oh, it's the woman from Sangju. You're here so early."
Mother rose to greet the woman cheerfully.
"Work starts at seven-thirty," the sunburnt woman answered
softly. She seemed apologetic, as if she had done something wrong.
The woman placed the jug of water in the corner. She
had just brought it down from the mineral springs on the mountain behind
her home, she explained. The woman looked at the sleeping Hyon-gu from
a distance, then sat down carefully next to Mother. "Let us pray," she
said and clasped Mother's hands in hers. Heads together, facing each other,
the two women prayed for the Lord to save Hyon-gu. The woman stayed for
about ten minutes, then left the room quietly. Ch'oe returned after washing
his face and hands outside.
"I think you saw the woman from Sangju at Hyon-gu's trial.
The whole thing started when the wreckers came to tear down the house she
was renting. Now look at all the trouble she's going to for us. She goes
to work at a construction site at dawn every day so she can take care of
her three kids and her crippled mother-in-law. Carrying loads of sand and
bricks up three and four flights of rickety steel scaffolding." Mother
placed the water jug under Hyon-gu's bed.
It was another thirty minutes before Hyon-gu woke at
the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
"Brother, when did you get back?"
So began a string of thorough questions. What about the
democratic reform movement in the Soviet Union? Some called it the final
confrontation of the twentieth century. Was that true? And what about popular
support for Gorbachev? The papers were saying he might be overthrown by
the Bolshevik conservatives who had been ruling for seventy years. How
were the Soviet people reacting to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and
the repudiation of communism by the peoples of Eastern Europe? Judging
from the newspapers sitting next to the telephone and Bible on his bedside
table, Hyon-gu must have read all about the situation in Eastern Europe
but apparently he wanted my eyewitness account. Or perhaps he wondered
how a middle-class intellectual who couldn't be categorized as progressive
or conservative would react to the situation. I would have liked to say
the Soviet Union was undergoing a period of bold readjustment, doing away
with the ideological hegemonism of the past, and that Gorbachev was extremely
popular, but I knew that would have been too hasty a conclusion. Besides,
my cursory observations might sound somewhat superficial to my brother
who had dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to understanding and linking
issues such as those facing Eastern Europe to the situation here in South
Korea. I answered vaguely, observing that socialism was in conflict, shifting
away from rigid doctrinairism in order to improve its citizens' standard
of living. I didn't want to discuss things like the long lines of consumers
I'd seen waiting for scarce daily necessities at shops and department stores
in Moscow and Leningrad because I knew that would involve a lengthy explanation
of issues that had been reported in the papers-the rigid bureaucratic political
structure, the apathetic attitude of the working class, the miserable quality
of goods produced in a society built around state-run production completely
devoid of competition and the like. My brother shook his head weakly, complaining
he couldn't understand why the ruling interests in Korea refused to yield
an inch when countries operating on the basis of seemingly rigid Marxist
economic theory were undergoing a process of realistic self-examination.
His voice was weak, but his face was bright, and he didn't seem to be in
pain as he spoke. Perhaps it was because of the painkiller he was receiving
through the i.v. or because liver disease has no subjective symptoms.
"On the outskirts of Moscow there's a housing complex
for the Soviet Writers League. Gorky asked Lenin to build a utopian village
for writers in 1930. Rybakov, an elderly author and chairman of the Soviet
P.E.N. Club, lives there. It's a kind of villa. The yard is quite large,
but there are only two rooms in the old wooden house-a bedroom and a combination
study, living room and kitchen, where people gather to talk. It was a simple
home for such a famous writer, but I imagine the homes of all Soviet citizens
are much the same. Rybakov was pleased to hear that his novels were popular
in Korea. He's seventy-seven now but his voice was strong and he was filled
with insights. He'd have to be to write a major work like <Children
of the Arbat> at his age. He is a fervent supporter of Gorbachev like all
the intellectuals. After all, Gorbachev has given all citizens the right
to unrestricted travel and freedom of speech, and artists now have full
freedom of expression. Rybakov couldn't have written <Children of the
Arbat> otherwise. It's an indictment of Stalin's reign of terror. According
to Rybakov, seventy-million people were killed or exiled during Stalin's
22-year rule. He claims the Slavs are one of the strongest peoples in the
world because they managed to survive as a people despite all that, just
as they survived centuries of invasions and domination by the Arabs and
Mongols. For him, perestroika is the fruit of the Slavs' patience over
those many decades."
My description of the trip dragged on longer than I had
intended, perhaps because I had just returned.
"I read all three volumes of <Children of the Arbat>
you sent. The scale of Russian literature is really something. It said
Rybakov was sent into exile in Siberia for three years during the Stalinist
period when he was a university student, but he later accepted the regime.
He even received the Stalin Prize shortly before Stalin died. For the next
30 years he didn't produce any major works. He kept silent out of the instinct
to protect himself, then a new era of freedom of expression dawns and he
finally attacks Stalin! What's that supposed to mean? What if he had died
before he wrote <Children of the Arbat>?"
Hyon-gu was acid in his attack on Rybakov. If I had criticized
Rybakov, I would be criticized as a bourgeois intellectual spouting armchair
theories, but my brother had more than the necessary credentials for such
"That's why some people say writers are the product of
the age in which they live."
Hyon-gu ignored my flimsy response and changed the subject.
"Socialist ideology is based in moral judgment, isn't
it? Right after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin set about the task of establishing
equality among the classes on the basis of an equitable distribution of
property, and now Gorbachev is implementing glasnost and perestroika in
an attempt to improve the Russian people's standard of living through the
introduction of political and economic pluralism on the foundation of equality
established by Lenin."
"Socialist economic theory may have worked in 1917 but
it's reached its limits today. They're don't even have electronic cash
registers at the state-run department stores. They're still using abacuses."
"But what is life like for the Soviet people?"
"By capitalist standards, they are generally quite poor.
The quality of goods being sold in department stores is on par with Korea's
in the mid-sixties, but their social welfare policies are working and they
don't seem to worry about everyday necessities. One of the advantages I
see in their society is, as you said, the high ethical and moral standards.
The people can't help but be honest and simple. Things might be different
for high-level party members, but in general there seems to be little corruption.
Lies don't work in that society."
"That's precisely my point. The Soviet Union may be twenty
or thirty years behind the West in terms of living standards, but equalization
is underway, isn't it? The process may be slow but at least they're trying
to achieve a higher level of equality, unlike Korea where the quality of
life improves for only a few monopoly capitalists, the political powerful,
and the idle rich who feed off them. Think about it! The rich live it up
on windfall profits while the poor live eight or nine to a cramped basement
room. I know that the socialist nations have been politically dictatorial.
Their cultural life is conformist and they haven't overcome their economic
backwardness. I'm simply saying that we must correct the vicious circle
of poverty that is right before our eyes. Now that our society has achieved
a firm developmental footing we must address the needs of the alienated
poor. Economic growth and exports aren't important now. The important thing
is making headway in the redistribution of wealth to the three-and-a-half
million poor people in this country. And if we're going to do that, we
must find the point where socialism and capitalism converge." Hyon-gu's
voice had dwindled to a gasp.
"Hyon-gu, that's enough. Give it rest. It's not good
for you to get all worked up. What you're saying was recorded in the Bible
2,000 years ago. Jesus knows. He's the one who said it's easier for a camel
to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom
of God." Mother had listened quietly until now.
I didn't have anything more to say on the subject anyway.
As we returned to reality I was little more than an idle spectator watching
another man fight for his life.
"Times are changing. Imagine my big brother going to
the capital of the socialist world on his first trip abroad..." Hyon-gu's
weary voice trailed off.
Hyon-gu knew the anguish I had gone through because of
him. When he was out of jail on the run, I was under police surveillance.
Twice they had picked me up and beaten me in hopes of finding out where
Hyon-gu was hiding.
Hyon-gu's political involvement began when he joined
the Christian Students' Federation after entering university in Taegu.
Since Father was a minister, you could say all three of us were destined
to be baptized as infants and attend church from childhood. Hyon-gu found
his answers in liberation theology. He began participating in anti-government
rallies and demonstrations in an attempt to liberate the masses from "oppression
and poverty." No one who knew him, including Mother, could imagine the
introverted and good-natured Hyon-gu changing so. At the risk of seeming
paradoxical, one could say that it was precisely because of his introverted
nature that Hyon-gu was able to change as he had. It made sense. He was
wanted by the police on several occasions, and after serving a jail term,
he was drafted into the military during his junior year. After completing
a full term of harsh treatment at a special forces camp on the front line,
he was discharged and spent the next year, 1976, the year before he was
to graduate, on the run after the issue of an arrest warrant for violating
Emergency Measure No. 9. He was arrested the following year at a construction
site in Kyongsan where he had been working as a day laborer. He was sentenced
to two years in prison and a four-years suspension of his civil rights,
but he was released on a stay of execution after serving just twenty months.
He then joined the labor movement in Taegu. He quit school and falsified
his academic background on his resume. He started out as a trainee at Tongyang
Textiles in the dye complex in Pisan-dong. Over the next few years, Hyon-gu
lived a vagabond's life, working at industrial complexes around Taegu,
teaching in a night school for laborers and organizing the local poor people's
movement. I was fired from my job as a reporter in 1980 like so many others
and had difficulty making ends meet until I started my publishing business
three years later. During that period and well after, it seemed there wasn't
a day that the police investigators didn't visit my home or office in Seoul.
They were looking for some sign of Hyon-gu. One detective said that wherever
Pak Hyon-gu went a labor dispute, strike or demonstration demanding humane
living standards for the poor was sure to follow. Hyon-gu was jailed twice.
Only then did the investigators' visits stop temporarily. His most recent
confinement was the result of his intervention in a clash between a slum
demolition team and a group of people displaced by an urban renewal project.
Hyon-gu was arrested on the complaint of two members of the team assigned
to the demolition of the Pisan-dong slum where Hyon-gu and his wife had
devoted themselves to the poor. The men had been injured, one seriously.
The authorities had fingered Hyon-gu as one of the worst offenders in the
Taegu area, but I couldn't believe he had done what they claimed. I had
come to see Hyon-gu as the strong but silent type, always modest and humble
toward others. Whenever he spoke of the poor people's movement he emphasized
self-sacrifice, devotion and love. But witnesses said they saw him grabbing
one of the demolition workers' crowbars and swinging at them, and my brother
had admitted it in court.
Last year, in mid-June I think, I went down to Taegu
to attend the wedding of my sister's youngest brother-in-law. Suk-yong
had called long-distance twice, begging me to come so she could save face.
The fact that her older brother was living a normal life in Seoul and was
actually the head of a publishing company was the only thing my sister
could offer with pride to her in-laws who over the years had seen Suk-yong
and their son dragged off to the police station time after time on Hyon-gu's
account. I went to the wedding with Mother and then, on Mother's insistence,
we set out for the hillside neighborhood behind Talsong Park in Pisan-dong
where Hyon-gu worked in the poor people's movement. It was about two in
the afternoon. I suggested we take a taxi but Mother said that was absurd
and insisted we take the bus. I stopped at a bakery and bought a large
cake for my nephew Tong-su. The entrance to Hyon-gu's neighborhood in Pisan-dong
was a large street built over a stream. The sidewalks were impossible,
packed with peddlers' wares spread out on the pavement. The air was thick
with the cries of the peddlers, hawking every imaginable product. Some
sold cheap clothes, fruit, cookies and toys; women sold vegetables; and
young men peddled plastic utensils next to fortune tellers who spread their
hand-reading charts out on the pavement in front of them. And there were
paraplegics selling ear-cleaners and toothpicks and beggars stretching
out their filthy hands with a runny-nosed kid parked beside them. In a
positive sense, the scene revealed man's altruistic struggle for existence,
but it was also like hearing the wails of the poor trying to eke out a
living. I followed Mother into an alley. After passing a number of shops
and stores bearing signs for employment offices, pharmacies, inns and beauty
salons, we headed up the path that marked the entrance to the slum. The
path must have climbed at a thirty-degree incline, too steep for any vehicle
except a handcart pushed from behind or an A-frame back carrier. It was
just wide enough for two people to pass and branched out on either side,
weaving between the densely packed houses roofed in tile and corrugated
cement. Garbage cans, small condiment jars and other household goods, like
apple crates, were stacked in front of some of the houses. Skinny children
dressed in nothing more than undershirts and underpants laughed cheerfully
as they played along the path. Their grandparents sat in the shade chatting
quietly. It was at that point that I first smelled what life was like for
the slum dwellers. The stifling summer air was thick with a disgusting
mixture of aromas-the stench of the sewer, stale urine and burnt hair.
During my days as a cub reporter on the city desk, I had covered the refugee
villages in Seoul's Sanggye-dong and the hillside slums in Sadang-dong,
but after five or six years living in a middle-class apartment complex
in Kangnam, I had forgotten all that. It was unfamiliar and alien now.
The path narrowed and curved, then suddenly sloped upwardly sharply to
a forty-five-degree incline. I couldn't understand how pipes made it up
the crooked path, how garbage and sewage from the outhouses were deposed
of, or how water made it back down.
"Yun-gu, the people who live here are respectable folk-factory
workers, plasterers, carpenters and such. More than sixty percent are day
laborers, peddlers or unemployed. And you know what the rest are? Invalids
who've been injured or who are too sick to work. It's like in the Bible.
People suffering from physical and spiritual pain have gathered here to
live, just like the sick and crippled living in that poor village in the
Bible. Jesus doesn't worry about the rich; he watches over these pitiful
Mother forced the words out in between puffs of air as
she set one foot in front of the other. She leaned forward, placing a hand
on each knee as she climbed. Then she paused and suggested we rest our
legs for a moment at a community water spigot. A group of people stood
in a line under the scorching sun, their water jugs arranged in a long
column stretching some fifty yards along the edge of the path. They seemed
more interested in the cake box I was carrying than in my own neat appearance.
I looked over the slum that stretched out below. Laundry fluttered on clotheslines
strung between the scab-like roofs like flags on sports day at a country
elementary school. The sun sizzled overhead. Mother mopped the sweat from
her forehead with a handkerchief and spoke:
"Yun-gu, it's one thing to see people streaming down
this path, lunch pails in hand, at dawn each morning, but what really brings
tears to my eyes is sitting here watching the same people come home at
sunset while another group sets out for the night shift... People who have
enough to eat can't possibly understand the exhausted, hollow eyes of the
people climbing up this path in the evening with a single package of flour
or rice or maybe three or four yont'an briquettes on a string. The kids
heading off for the night shift, even the bar girls with all their makeup,
always step aside for the people climbing up the hill in the evening. That's
their way of sawing hello."
Mother laughed when I asked how much farther it was to
Hyon-gu's house and the daycare center. "The poorest folk live closest
to heaven," she said, glancing toward the top of the hill. The houses above
us clustered together like crab shells. We stepped to the side to make
way for a group of women perspiring heavily as they carried jugs of water
up the hill in A-frame carriers, then we started up again. The houses below
the water spigot appeared to be around 350-feet square, but above that
point, they were much smaller with barely enough room under their eaves
to leave one's shoes. According to Mother, each household measured about
seven square feet and had three rooms. Sometimes the owner used two rooms
and rented out the third, or the owner used one and rented out the other
two. Hyon-gu was living in a rented room, of course. A cheap cupboard and
a dishwashing bucket sat under the eaves on the small porch. There was
no kitchen, only a flue where the yont'an was burned. Mother flung open
the door as if she knew no one was home. Inside the dark room were three
bags and an old chest of drawers on top of which lay some folded blankets.
A small desk was the only other furniture. The only thing of value was
a pile of books in the corner. Hyon-gu's household goods would have fit
in the back of a cart. The room was cramped, just large enough for three
adults to lie down.
"This is how Hyon-gu's family lives. How can I help him
if this is the way he chooses to live? Suk-yong told him she'd buy him
a television, but he refused. He said he didn't have time to watch television.
The fewer possessions he has the freer he feels. He's not like the rest
Mother closed the door and began walking to the daycare
center. She was in a hurry to find Tong-su. The daycare center was at the
top of the hill in the middle of a sparse grove of pine trees and bushes.
At one time trash pickers had lived there in dugout mud hovels. After they
moved on, it became a garbage dump. The daycare center had started in a
tent two years ago when the garbage dump was filled. Today its walls were
cement block and its roof corrugated metal, but it was a fine building.
I could hear the chatter of children. There were two classrooms the size
of the houses below and a playyard twice as large. The playyard and classrooms
were crowded. There were three teachers. I had heard several students had
volunteered to help Tong-su's Mom so I assumed that was who the young women
were. Tong-su's Mom came out of the classroom to greet us. "Oh, and you've
come too!" she exclaimed upon seeing me. The children playing in the dusty
yard gathered around the cake box. Mother peeked into the classroom and
found Tong-su. I handed the cake to him as Mother carried him outside in
her arms. According to Tong-su's Mom, Hyon-gu had gone out early that morning
to take care of a workman's compensation problem for a man who lived in
the neighborhood. Two fingers on the man's left hand had been severed in
a polishing machine at the Tonghyop Production Center where he worked as
an apprentice. Hyon-gu wouldn't be able to attend the wedding, she explained.
Suddenly I recalled a visit from Hyon-gu when he came to Seoul, sometime
before national health insurance had been implemented, and asked for 300,000
"Brother, they may be poor but that doesn't mean they're
all good. There are times you have to think of them as foolish children,
senile old people or mental patients. Sometimes they're impervious to reason.
They start fights at the drop of a hat. They lie. And on top of that they
steal. They're so exhausted from life, their spirits are broken. But before
you reproach them for their childishness, complaining and cruelty, you
have to share their miserable lives. You have to share their pain as I
have. Otherwise, you can't understand them. You can't endure a single day
as their friend if you don't love them unconditionally, the way a mother
loves her son even if he's a murderer. You may start out thinking you're
doing it in the spirit of service to others, but as you come to understand
the value of sacrifice, you finally realize the humility of love. You have
to forget things like pride or self-respect. I'm always emphasizing that
to my wife. This case is a little different, but a few days ago a mother
came to me. She was carrying her son on her back. He was dying of bone
cancer and she begged me to save him. For two days we carried him around
town to eight different hospitals but they all refused to admit him because
we didn't have the money for a deposit. On the evening of the second day,
he died on my back. His mother and I collapsed on the sidewalk and cried
with hopeless rage. That's why I've come to you. There is another family
in the same situation. We have to save this child."
As I recalled Hyon-gu's words, the clusters of children
scampering around me seemed to fade in the distance and my eyes filled
with tears. At a glance I could see that the task Tong-su's Mom had taken
on at the daycare center was as difficult as Hyon-gu's. I looked in the
open window of a makeshift building next to the classrooms. A group of
about twenty women were sitting on the floor making artificial flowers.
On the far side of the room another group was busy stringing beads for
inexpensive necklaces. For the slum women who didn't work as day laborers,
housekeepers or street peddlers, knitting sweaters, pasting envelops, making
artificial flowers and stringing beads helped supplement the family budget.
Tong-su's Mom walked into the hospital room carrying
a bundle of food. Apparently she hadn't dropped Tong-su off at the daycare
center until eight-thirty. Her tanned face was heavily freckled under the
eyes and her straight hair was pulled back tightly and fastened with a
pin. She wore a loose-fitting cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up and,
instead of the blue jeans I was accustomed to seeing her in, a pleated
skirt, perhaps because it was summer.
After asking her husband how he had slept and if he had
been at all uncomfortable during the night, she turned to me to say hello.
"We owe you so much for coming here like this. You still
must be tired from your trip and I'm sure you're busy at work. And your
wife, with one child graduating from middle school and the other from high
school. She must be exhausted. You know they say the mothers of third-year
high-school students nearly die under the strain. And her with a middle-schooler
too! I feel so sorry for her."
Tong-su's Mom must have been three or four times as busy
as other women, what with taking care of Hyon-gu while he was in prison
and all her work at the daycare center, and yet she always had a smile
on her face and walked with a buoyant gait. Tong-su's Mom had an offhand
way of saying things, without malice, of course. That irritated Mother
but she attributed it to Tong-su's Mom's easygoing personality.
"Just look at the daycare center," Mother had said last
year when she visited us in Seoul. "Where are parents going to send their
kids in the slum with all its germs and smells? Who's going to take care
of those children when their parents are at work? Tong-su's Mom washes
them, she feeds them, she teaches them to read, and she takes them to the
doctor when they're sick. And that's not all. Since she runs the daycare
center, she naturally plays an important role in the women's movement there.
And she advises people on jobs and helps them out with their landlord problems.
As far as I'm concerned, she's right up there with that nun-What's her
name? Mother Teresa! But she's not made of steel. I don't know what will
happen if Tong-su's Mom collapses from the strain."
My sister-in-law met Hyon-gu when he was running a night
school for laborers at Industrial Park No. 5 in Taegu's Nowon-dong. She
had just graduated from high school in the country and had come to work
in the General Affairs Division of a factory where they manufactured eyeglass
frames. She met Hyon-gu when she started helping out at the night school
after work. I guess that is how they got together despite the fact that
he was nine years older than her. I remember the day they were married
by the Reverend Won Hyong-sop in that slum church in Nogok-dong. I guess
everyone is filled with happiness when they get married, but the smile
never left the bride's face that day. Older people say a bride will be
snatched away by evil spirits if she smiles on her wedding day but my sister-in-law
didn't try to hide her joy as she stood beside her aging groom.
Young Ch'oe was relieved by a guard named Hong who was
in his mid-forties, then Dr. Min, Hyon-gu's consulting specialist, and
a flock of interns entered the room on morning rounds. Dr. Min checked
the patient's condition for a moment, then, after exchanging a few sentences
of medical jargon with the interns, left the room with the interns on his
heels. I followed them out the door and asked the doctor about the results
of Hyon-gu's tests. Dr. Min was a clean-cut man in his mid-forties. In
a pleasant voice he said that they were still analyzing the results. I
asked if we could give the patient some of the thin mung bean porridge
that Tong-su's Mom had brought from home, but Dr. Min said that all the
necessary nutrients were included in the menu prepared by the hospital
and warned me not to allow Hyon-gu to eat anything beside hospital meals
and the quantities of water prescribed by his doctors. The team of physicians
then moved onto the next room. A few moments later, the nurses came through
on rounds and repeated Dr. Min's warning.
"Mother, you have to eat breakfast. Why don't we go out
and get something?"
Mother refused, however. She had giving up breakfast
long before. I decided to skip a meal as well since I would have to leave
the hospital grounds to find a restaurant that served breakfast.
Instead, I went to the Clinical Pathology lab to meet
my high-school classmate Ham Kun-jo. The lab was in another building next
to the main hospital structure.
"Well, if it isn't Pak Yun-gu! What brings you here so
early in the morning? Without even a phone call! Have you been ignoring
me because I'm stuck in this country hospital? How's the publishing business?
Are you selling a lot of books?"
Kun-jo was happy to see me. It had been more than two
years since we had last met. We went to the snack bar attached to the main
building and sat down, talking of our old classmates as he drank ginger
tea and I drank milk. Our high school was famous for its "T-K" connections
and many of our classmates had gone on to successful careers in politics
and finance. I had no close friends among them since I had stopped attending
class reunions in Seoul after I was fired from my newspaper job, but Kun-jo
was up-to-date on the exploits of all our successful classmates in Seoul.
Many former reporters had gotten their jobs back or had been hired by the
newspapers that were starting up around the country, he teased. Why was
I wasting my time with a puny publishing company? I recalled him saying
the same thing last time we had met with some classmates in Taegu when
I was in town because of Hyon-gu. A lot of banned reporters had hooked
up with political parties or the opposition movement, he said. A "T-K"
graduate like me could hardly join the opposition movement, but I had majored
in sociology. "Why don't you try working with the government party?" he
said. "You must have lots of friends who can help you if only you asked."
I simply smiled. He would have taken me for a complete innocent, blind
to the realities of the world, if I said there was more to life than fame
Mother left Taegu and came to live with us in Seoul while
I was attending meetings of banned reporters and staying out all night
for sit-ins. There wasn't a day that went by without her pleading with
me to stop. "You're the oldest son. Please don't go off looking for trouble.
Think of Hyon-gu and what he's doing. Think of me! Think of what we've
been through! All I have is you kids.
"Don't you remember when you entered university and promised
me that if Korea was unified in my lifetime, you'd carry your old mother
back to our hometown to see the azaleas bloom in spring? I don't care if
you make a lot of money or if you become a high-ranking person who can
order other people around. I just pray to God that your family leads a
happy life, that you're healthy and you take care of your children."
Mother went to all-night prayer sessions, she even fasted
so her eldest son would lead a stable home life. It was hard for me, caught
between my mother and the realities of life at that time. I don't handle
liquor well, but I drank a lot of soju during that period. Sometime just
after the launching of the Fifth Republic, Hyon-gu came to me about publishing
a manuscript on the labor movement in the Taegu region. I refused, not
so much because it was unseemly for an elder brother's publishing company
to carry a younger brother's book but because I was sure the authorities
would not look kindly on anything edited by the Taegu Democratic Labor
Union. The bulk of the manuscript dealt with changes in the regional economy
around Taegu, the local industrial structure, the manufacturing situation
and the conditions of the working class there. The rest documented the
pathetic struggle of laborers earning low wages under miserable working
conditions. The authorities had prevented most labor unions from organizing
so workers formed social clubs arrayed against the employers. These clubs
provided journal-like case studies on each of the factories.
When faced with the government's scheme to abolish and
merge newspapers around the country, I had in effect chosen to follow my
conscience and give up journalism rather than join the opposition against
government policy. Considering this background, it was only natural that
my publishing company had put out a dozen or more progressive social science
books and had come to be known as one of the firms that would handle such
works. Still, I was in no position to recommend a publisher to Hyon-gu.
As soon as I mentioned the suppressive political situation and urged him
to postpone publication, Hyon-gu flashed his shy smile and took his manuscript,
apologizing for wasting my valuable time. He never did reveal exactly how
he felt about what I said. Three months later, the manuscript came out
in book form and Hyon-gu sent me a copy. The book was confiscated by the
authorities as I had expected, and Hyon-gu was detained for two weeks along
with the editor and the president of the publishing company.
"Yun-gu, did you hear about Yi Chin-so? That fat fellow
who ran the construction business? He died! A heart attack from overwork,"
Yi Chin-so was a classmate during our senior year in
high school. I never expected him to die like that. Suddenly February 28th,
1960 came to mind. The government was afraid high-school students would
try to attend a campaign rally organized by the Democratic Party, so the
school administration encouraged us to come to school that Sunday, baiting
us with the promise of a movie. We protested the directive and thus became
the first high school to stage a street demonstration. At five past one
in the afternoon, the seniors led several hundred students out the school
gate and marched, arms around each other's shoulders, along the main street
in Panwoldang. Protect the rights of students! Revive democracy! Stop political
meddling in our school! We will not surrender! we shouted. At the time,
I was preoccupied with preparations for the university entrance examination
so I was not a leader in the movement. Still, I was filled with righteous
indignation against the undemocratic practices of the Syngman Rhee regime,
which conspired to impose protracted one-man rule on the Korean people.
We students united as one, abandoning our individuality in support of the
whole. We raced through Chungang-dong toward the plaza in front of the
provincial capital building, shouting slogans all the way. It was Chin-so's
shoulders that I held onto that day. Kun-jo was there too, of course. More
than three years had passed since I had seen Chin-so. As he entered his
forties, Chin-so put on weight, as one would expect a housing contractor,
and peppered every conversation with complaints about how busy he was.
He spent all day at his construction sites and evenings out drinking to
relieve the stress. He was practically a boarder in his own house, he said.
The housing market was good and his multi-unit row houses sold well, but
he didn't look after his health.
"I don't know why I have to run around like this just
to make a couple extra bucks. It's not like I can't feed my family. I've
become a snob. Yun-gu, it was good back then, wasn't it? I mean when we
marched up to the provincial capital building. We really got a thrashing
when they took us down to police headquarters. But look at us now! I sell
houses and you sell books. You're lucky. People think you're an intellectual.
That's more than I can say for myself. We ignited the April 19th revolution,
but look at us now. Some of us are sweeping streets while others are driving
around in fancy cars. I guess it just goes to show you. There's no telling
what life will bring. Well, drink up. Eating and drinking are all we have
The unpleasant image of Chin-so rattling on with a beer
in his hand rose before me. As a member of the April 19th Generation, I
had marched with my classmates to Police Headquarters in Seoul when I was
a freshman in university, but the true significance of April 19th gradually
faded under prolonged military rule. We hoped for a revival of real democracy
in Korea and leaped to the fore, armed with nothing more than our simple
sense of justice. In the end, the souls of 185 students shot down by the
government were sealed in a monument at Suyu-ri. Some student activists
who had played a leading role in the "Unfinished Revolution" were all too
happy to hook up with the new regime and move up in the world, besmirching
the name of the April 19th Generation again and again. In the end, however,
most of the participants had no choice but to return to their old lives.
It had been a spontaneous revolution. It all depended on the righteous
indignation of a mass of innocent and honest young people, but we lacked
any centralized strategy. I went on to marry and lead a peaceful family
life, living off my salary as a reporter and never making any particular
effort to carry on the spirit of April 19th. I blamed it on the subordination
of political development in a backward country and was forever disillusioned
at my own selling-out of the Revolution. To that day I had never stood
up and claimed to be a member of the April 19th Generation.
Kun-jo noted that the death rate for Korean men in their
forties was the highest in the world, then went on to assail the Korean
people's excessive drive for success, their self-centered pursuit of material
wealth, and the recklessness and impatience that resulted from these idiosyncrasies.
"Think about it. Dying in your forties at the height
of your productivity. And what about our kids? They're getting to the age
when they really cost a bundle, and it goes on until we marry them off.
That's how Chin-so died, rushing around like a maniac, thinking he had
all the time in the world. I don't get it. In the old days, people were
satisfied if they had three meals a day, but look at us now! We finally
have enough to get by and look at how we're acting. All the rich people
do is stuff themselves, scratching after all the money and land they can
get. And look at the students and laborers on the other side. Do they expect
the fat cats to come out waving a white flag and offer up a share of the
pie just because they resort to violence at every turn in the road? Violence
just causes confusion and it wrecks the economy. Labor strikes and gets
a little raise, but the government's so busy worrying about it that they
let prices go up and hurt everybody. Don't the working people understand
that? Why can't they wait until the per capita GNP hits $10,000?"
Kun-jo's illogical grumbling stretched on and on. He
returned to the subject of Chin-so's death, then told of his own daughter,
a senior in high school, who was taking private piano lessons from a famous
music professor in Seoul in order to improve her chances of getting into
a music college there. Twice a week she flew round-trip to Seoul for a
two-hour session with the professor. It cost Kun-jo one million won a month
at the very least.
Kun-jo then took on the educational system. "It's like
pouring water into a bottomless jug," he complained. If an upper-class
Philistine like Kun-jo was a member of the April 19th Generation, then
the term had truly been reduced to little more than an empty slogan. Nevertheless,
the fact that he had remained in Taegu and hadn't taken advantage of his
"T-K" connection to make a place for himself in Seoul like so many of our
other classmates was fascinating. Perhaps his griping was a way of venting
his anger at never having joined the ranks of those in Seoul. Satisfied
that I had listened long enough, I turned the conversation to my reason
"You know about my brother, don't you? Hyon-gu's been
"That brother with all the problems?" Kun-jo asked warily.
He said he had seen a picture of Hyon-gu's trial in the local paper at
some point. It must have been the preliminary trial when the people displaced
by the urban renewal project in Pisan-dong had caused such an uproar.
"I knew he was in custody. What's wrong with him?"
I described Hyon-gu's case history. I told Kun-jo that
it looked like the test results were in and I wondered if he could find
out how serious Hyon-gu's condition was and what the doctors planned to
do. He paused for a moment, then said he would try.
"Let's have lunch together. I'll meet you at your brother's
I understood that to mean that he would let me know the
results at that time.
When I returned to Hyon-gu's ward, five women were seated
in chairs or squatting on the floor in the corridor discussing something
with Tong-su's Mom. Their faces were downcast.
"Did you meet your friend?" Tong-su's Mom asked.
"He said he'd stop by at lunch time. He'll have some
news by then."
"Well, then I'll call you here around that time. If you
go out, please leave a message with Mother."
Tong-su's Mom stepped back into Hyon-gu's room for a
moment, then emerged to bustle off with the women. She chided them for
coming to the hospital when they should have been out making a living.
One woman with a towel wrapped around her hair glanced into Hyon-gu's room.
"Mr. Pak'd better recover soon and return to the village," she murmured.
The woman then turned to leave, wiping her eyes with the back of a rough
hand. The five women were obviously mothers with children at the daycare
center. Their faces were furrowed and tanned by the sun. They wore baggy
pants and dusty workshirts like the woman from Sangju, so I assumed they
too worked as day-laborers on construction sites.
I sat down on a chair in the corridor and smoked. As
I wiped the sweat clinging to the back of my neck with my handkerchief,
my sister approached, folding her parasol. Suk-yong met her future husband,
Mr. Kim, a country boy attending pharmacy college in Taegu, when she was
in junior college. Thanks perhaps to her pleasant looks and generous disposition,
the two married immediately after graduation. They had three children and
ran a pharmacy in a suburban apartment complex. Mother spent two or three
months a year at my house in Seoul and the rest of the time at Suk-yong's
in Taegu. Each day she climbed the hill to Hyon-gu's place with bundles
of food as if she were out hiking for exercise, despite her advanced age.
After two weeks or so at my house in Seoul, Mother invariably complained
that apartment life was like living in a chicken coop. Like prison, she
said. And then without fail, Suk-yong would call long-distance, saying
it was about time for me to send Mother back to Taegu. Since my sister
often had to look after the pharmacy, which was located just a block from
their house, she needed Mother to feed the kids after school and take care
of things around the house. And, of course, after nearly 30 years working
in the market in Taegu, the hard-working "North Korean lady" had grown
fond of the city, though it was not her hometown. She still had many friends
at Kyo-dong Market, the old Yankee market, and Hyon-gu's precarious existence
always weighed heavily on her mind. So she would hurry to leave Seoul,
lamenting her predicament, of course, and insisting a widowed mother should
live with her eldest son. Still, when I dropped her off at the bus terminal
on my way to work, her diminutive frame fairly bounced as she headed toward
the gate. Since Hyon-gu's most recent detention, however, she had settled
in Taegu for good. She played an important role in caring for Hyon-gu when
he was in prison.
"Brother, my husband looked up a doctor he knows here.
He said Hyon-gu's condition didn't look good but he avoided giving any
detailed answers." Suk-yong snapped her parasol closed. There were no shadows
in her voice, which was as bright as her personality.
"Considering they've finally authorized a transfer for
medical evaluation, we have to assume his condition is pretty bad. If you
get branded for a political crime, your life isn't worth a plug nickel
"You know about liver disease, don't you? Once you have
cirrhosis of the liver, there's nothing Western medicine can do for you.
Just a good diet and plenty of rest... Stomach and kidney functions can
deteriorate too, so it's hard to digest anything and urination is difficult..."
As the wife of a pharmacist, she sold a lot of liver
medicine, but her knowledge of liver disease was similar to my own. When
I didn't respond, Suk-yong asked if Mother was inside and turned to enter
Hyon-gu's room. I called her back.
"Thanks for helping out last time."
I pulled a folded envelope from my wallet.
"What are you talking about?"
"Hyon-gu's lawyer 's fees."
"What? You're trying to pay me back for that? It's not
like we're strangers."
Suk-yong pushed my hand away with a stern look. For an
instant, my chest tightened at the thought of the unique bond of sibling
love we shared.
I had already left for the Soviet Union when Hyon-gu
was released on bail. I had left 900,000 won for my wife to use for household
expenses but she was not able to come up with the one million won in cash
needed to pay the lawyer from her own bank account. While she waited for
Miss Ch'oe in the Accounts Department at work to transfer some funds, it
seems my sister in Taegu had paid the bill. Suk-yong even called my wife
to tell her not to worry about the money since she knew how difficult it
was for publishing companies these days. But it was not Suk-yong's responsibility,
though. That's why I had brought a check with me.
Suk-yong insisted that she would not take the money.
She said she had never distinguished between her in-laws and her own family
and would readily do the same for her in-laws if necessary. After squabbling
for a moment, I stuffed the envelope into the linen handbag hooked on her
arm and stepped into Hyon-gu's room.
Ham Kun-jo came a little after noon, dressed in his street
clothes. He didn't mention the problem I was wondering about and instead
led me off explaining how he knew a good restaurant to celebrate our reunion.
Mother said she would eat in the room with Suk-yong because the rice and
mung bean porridge that Tong-su's Mom had brought would go bad if they
were not eaten soon. It was humid in the building but when we stepped out
into the blazing sun, perspiration gushed from every pore. The sun scorched
down on the top of my head. The dog days of summer were over but it was
a blazing hot Taegu day.
"You eat dog meat, don't you?" Kun-jo asked as he started
his car. When I replied yes, he steered the car along a suburban highway
in the direction of Kyongsan. High-rise apartment complexes stretched all
the way to the edge of the city. It may have been simply because of the
midday heat, but the traffic seemed light, unlike Seoul where there was
little difference between inner city congestion and traffic in the suburbs.
Kun-jo boasted of the benefits of dog meat for middle-aged men, how it
was not a tonic to be reserved for the summer months. He criticized the
elitism of Westerners who treated Koreans like barbarians just because
they ate dog meat and argued that every people's basic right to enjoy their
distinct national customs and tastes should be respected. Kun-jo said he
was one of the officers in the "Bow-wow Club," a group of doctors in their
forties who went out for dog meat on a regular basis.
There were many large restaurants specializing in dog
and goat stew in the wooded foothills between Taegu and Kyongsan. Private
cars packed the parking lots, and dog meat connoisseurs in their forties
worked their chopsticks zealously around tables indoors and out, their
neckties loosened and sweat pouring. We found a table on the corner of
an outdoor platform covered by a reed canopy, and in a knowledgeable tone
Kun-jo ordered three portions of "neck meat" stew.
"What did the people in Internal Medicine say?" I asked
as the vegetables and meat simmered in the pan on our table.
"It's hard to tell. They say he has serious sclerosis
of the liver, but they're all very hush-hush about it. It isn't a simple
assault case, you know, and on top of that, the appeal is pending..." Kun-jo
paused. "I grilled one of the younger doctors. Everyone knows what sclerosis
of the liver means. I said they'd have to send him off for long-term treatment
since they could hardly imprison him again. And then this young guy says
it looks like they'll recommend surgery if the family consents."
"And..."I asked breathlessly.
"We have to assume it's cancer. He said something about
the tumor being four centimeters across already..."
Hyon-gu had cancer? I knew modern medical science had
no cure for liver cancer and it was rare for patients to live for more
than a year after being diagnosed. They were usually discharged from the
hospital and cared for at home, and it was all over in three or four months.
Often they died from complications during surgery or immediately thereafter.
Whenever I got a phone call about the death of a friend my age, it was
usually a car accident or liver disease. At wakes, I had heard many stories
about the progression from hepatitis to death. To listen to these clinical
descriptions you would think liver disease was the dagger of a vicious
criminal sneaking up in the dead of night, not an ailment generally affecting
Korean men in their late forties. The liver does not register pain so the
disease lies hidden without noticeable symptoms until one day, out of the
blue, you're told you have chronic sclerosis of the liver. For a man in
the prime of life, completely unprepared for death, it was tantamount to
a death sentence. I had come to see liver disease as an elite troop of
warriors who destroyed not only the liver but all the surrounding organs
in a single swoop. Its deadly poison didn't discriminate. It made a home
for itself in the liver, then proliferated until, at the decisive moment,
it exploded to spread throughout the body and shut it down.
"And if they perform surgery?"
Kun-jo answered casually as he wiped his face with a
"There's a chance. The success rate is a lot better when
the cancer is discovered in the early stages, of course, but I've heard
of people holding out for three or four years after surgery. Some go on
to live perfectly normal lives. You know, the liver is the biggest organ
in the human body. It weighs three pounds and can regenerate on its own.
A patient can lead a normal life even if his liver only functions at one-third
its full capacity."
"So does Hyon-gu have to have surgery?"
"If he doesn't go under the knife, dietary therapy and
rest are the only alternatives."
"Do you mean his condition is serious enough to require
surgery?" I stammered, fully aware my questions were useless. I watched
myself struggle to hold onto hope like a man clinging desperately to a
flimsy tree branch. All I could do was knead my sweaty palms together.
"It looks to me like they can't come to a final decision
because your brother's case is under appeal. Liver disease can be cured
completely if it's discovered early, but it was already too late by the
time they brought him to the hospital. Still, you can't necessarily blame
that on the prison authorities. People often come in for a routine check-up
and discover they have liver disease. A perfectly healthy person might
feel a little tired from overwork so he comes into the hospital for a check-up
and finds out he has cirrhosis of the liver. Then in three or four months,
maybe a year at the longest, he's gone..."
I didn't hear what Kun-jo was saying. Energy drained
from my mind and body like wax from a burning candle, and everything around
me receded in a blur. The image of the other diners savoring the scalding
stew in the belief that heat beats heat, as if the secret to long life
lies simply in eating such tonics, the sound of their chatter, none of
it registered with my senses. All I could see was Hyon- gu, his haggard
face, so thin and honest, smiling self-consciously as he lay in bed. For
him, death was someone else's problem. But in his face I recalled a scene
from his childhood that I realized was not completely unrelated to his
During the winter of 1950-51, when the four of us trudged
southward from Tongduch'on through Seoul to Ch'onan and Osan, malnutrition
had reduced Suk-yong and I to skin and bones. Hardly a scrap of food ever
made it to Mother's mouth. She had survived Hyon-gu's birth without so
much as a midwife's help, but now her milk had dried up and her breasts
were little more than empty pouches. The newborn Hyon-gu sucked until her
mulberry-like nipples were red with blood blisters, but there was no milk
to be had. While my sister and I staved off hunger by gathering withered
cabbage leaves from the frozen fields and cooking them over a fire built
of dead branches, Mother carried Hyon-gu from family to family among the
refugees fleeing south, this time from the Chinese communist offensive,
begging for something to feed her baby. They never gave her mother's milk;
it was always gruel, and when she couldn't get that, Mother kept Hyon-gu
alive on the dried dregs of another family's gruel pot. He had a relentless
will to live. Sometimes as we walked twenty or thirty miles at a stretch,
Mother would stop and ask me to check inside the blanket because she couldn't
feel his warmth against her back. There he would be, a single flame clinging
precariously to life. Hyon-gu made it all the way to Taegu, stuck to Mother's
back like some kind of growth. We spent the winter in a refugee camp, then
moved to the steep slopes of Shinam-dong where we built a straw shack.
Soon after, Mother began hawking foreign cigarettes, American soap and
the like in the Yankee market. I returned to school at the tent school
for refugee children and my sister began her education there. Everyday
after school I had to stand in line for a bag of dried milk or corn flour
at a relief center run by an American. Those bags of relief food kept Hyon-gu
alive although there were days when I came home empty-handed despite a
three- or four-hour wait. My brother's strange symptoms began when he was
three. Mother had stopped peddling on foot by that time and took Hyon-gu
with her to the Yankee market where she spread a tarpaulin on the ground
and sold her wares. Mother couldn't hold him by the hand all day so when
she was selling something or turned her attention elsewhere, Hyon-gu often
disappeared. In the blink of an eye, he waddled off to the neighborhood
trash can. During the summer, he stuffed himself with every watermelon
and musk melon rind he could find. It was as if he were trying to make
up for the hunger of his infancy. Once he nearly choked on a peach pit
as he sucked off the last starchy dregs of fruit. I guess we shouldn't
have been surprised when his belly swelled up taut like a tadpole's, mottled
with sinewy blue tendons. It was only then that Mother took him to the
public health hospital. There was nothing they could do except give him
a few santonin tablets and recommend a liquid diet and regular meals. As
soon as Hyon-gu took the santonin, a flood of worms came out in the form
of diarrhea. Mother said when she wiped him, the paper was black with thread
worms. His belly began to shrink gradually after that. And the color returned
to his yellowed face. But as I read somewhere, one's health as an infant
lasts into one's eighties. Hyon-gu was clearly destined to poor health
as a result of the hunger he experienced in his infancy.
Kun-jo ordered a bottle of <soju> flavored with shredded
cucumbers. He said you had to rinse your pallet with a strong drink when
eating dog meat stew, although he wasn't in favor of drinking at midday.
Kun-jo loosened his tie and dug into the stew, picking out pieces of meat
with his chopsticks and plunging them in a dish of sauce. "You know, protein
is the best thing for liver disease. Dog meat is pure unsaturated protein.
The problem is that once you have cirrhosis and the liver begins to harden,
you can't digest meat," Kun-jo explained as he used his teeth and tongue
to suck the soft meat from a bone he had plucked from the pot.
I had missed breakfast but a bitter taste filled my mouth
and the food didn't appeal to me. I felt guilty about Hyon-gu and his liver
problems as I sat listening to someone tell me how to preserve my own presumably
normal liver with high-protein foods. I too am not in the habit of drinking
during the day but I downed three glasses of <soju> with only a few
bites of meat and soup on the side.
When I returned to Hyon-gu's ward, eight young people
were lined up two abreast in the scorching sun by the entrance. I couldn't
tell if they were students or factory workers but there was a woman among
them. One of the young men led the others in a musical shout. Their clenched
fists pierced the air with each slogan.
"Save Pak Hyon-gu!"
"Save him, save him!"
"Free Pak Hyon-gu immediately!"
"Free him, free him!"
"Provide for displaced homeless people!"
"Help the homeless! Help the homeless!"
I paused, perspiring, to watch with the other spectators.
Was this bravery or arrogance? Seeing Hyon-gu's youthful compatriots I
was suddenly overcome by a strange feeling. Was I that brave during the
April 19 Revolution?
When I tried to enter the corridor, I was stopped by
three riot police. An officer carrying a walkie-talkie asked to see my
identification. I showed him my resident's registration card and told him
I was Pak Hyon-gu's brother. He let me through, then made a call on his
walkie-talkie. Two more riot police stood guard in front of Hyon-gu's room.
Inside, the ceiling fan rotated noisily. The guard named
Hong, menacing compared to young Ch'oe who looked like a harmless noncom,
was staring out the open window with a bored expression on his face. He
turned to glare at me as I entered the room. An overweight fellow with
short hair, dressed in navy blue pants and a white shirt open at the collar
sat in a chair with his legs crossed, reading a newspaper.
"Who are you?" he asked in the gruff tone of an investigator.
"I'm Hyon-gu's older brother."
He returned to his newspaper without a word.
Mother and Suk-yong were huddled at Hyon-gu's bedside
with a balding man in a worn short-sleeved summer jacket. The man was praying
in a quiet voice.
"As the Lord said, we are the children of God and He
will protect us. He will cleanse us and give us eternal life where there
is no grief or lamenting. Lord, cleanse our brothers of this pain and suffering.
Rid us of evil and help the good and powerless be born anew just as you
made all creation new again."
"Amen," Mother prayed. Her bible was open in her hands.
The man in the frayed jacket with a few wisps of scraggly
hair swept across his broad crown was the Reverend Won Hyong-sop. He was
the one who got Hyon-gu involved in the slum church and had presided over
his wedding. Reverend Won had since opened a church in the shanty town
in Nogok-dong. The first time I met him he was sitting next to Hyon- gu
at the defendant's table in court. The preacher and three members of the
Christian Students' Federation were sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence
for possession of seditious materials. At the time, I was known as a capable,
if somewhat impudent, reporter. I had an opportunity to speak with Reverend
Won in a coffee shop after the trial. My wife and I never miss church on
Sunday, but I can't say I am a true believer. And back then I was hardly
a dedicated churchgoer. I asked him, "Do you believe in the resurrection
of Christ?" I was always at a loss for words when someone asked me a presumptuous
question like that, but Reverend Won answered with ease.
"If I didn't believe in Christ's resurrection, how could
I devote my life to this profession? Jesus Christ rose from his tomb four
days after he died on the cross. His disciples saw him, but Thomas said
he wouldn't believe it until he had seen Jesus with his own eyes and touched
the wounds in Jesus' hands. People today are like Thomas. They place hardheaded
reason and science above belief. In the end, Jesus appeared before Thomas
and showed him his blood-drenched hands. I don't live in Thomas' time,
of course, so I can't see Jesus' wounds with my own eyes, but..."
It was what he said next that most astounded me.
"But in the cries of the poor, in their tears and pain,
I see his wounds. Jesus Christ was resurrected amidst the anguished here
on earth. He was reborn in the image of the poor to show us, just as he
showed Thomas, that he died for our sins. He's asking what we can do for
Their prayer finished, the four of them looked up and
saw me. As always, Reverend Won greeted me with his unique handshake, embracing
my hand instead of shaking it. As usual, Reverend Won was dressed liked
a laborer or coolie. That day he was wearing a pair of wrinkled pants and
cheap tennis shoes.
"Dr. Min asked to see the patient's family. I told him
we'd go to his office together when you came back. What did your friend
say?" Mother blinked the tears from her wrinkled eyes.
"He's not sure either... I'll explain later."
I turned to Hyon-gu. They said they had drained fluid
from his abdomen, but under the sheet his belly still bulged above his
gaunt frame. He smiled when our eyes met. Beads of perspiration stood on
his face and neck, despite the fan turning overhead. I wiped his forehead
and neck with a moist towel I found on the bedside table.
"How do you feel?"
"The nosebleeds I had before I came to the hospital have
stopped, but my back still hurts."
"Do you want me to rub it for you?"
"Mom already did."
The shouting outside grew louder. It drowned out the
buzzing of the cicadas. The overweight fellow sputtered a string of obscenities
and rushed out the door.
"I wish I could go out and send those kids home, but
they say I can't leave the room without permission," Hyon-gu said.
"There was a big commotion a little while ago," explained
the Reverend. "Two students and a factory worker knocked on the door asking
to see Hyon-gu. That guard refused and locked the door from the inside.
Then he phoned someone and a bunch of riot police showed up. The students
called their guys together and..."
"All this trouble because of me. I have to get better
soon. And if they say there's no hope, I'll just have to accept it. I realize
that now. I've worked hard. I have no regrets. I'd do the same thing all
over again if I were born in Korea and nothing had changed. I wouldn't
want to do anything differently."
It sounded like he was uttering his last words. My chest
ached. I suddenly realized that he had lived his entire life with a special
prison cell readied in his heart. A life without regrets was a beautiful
thing, but in Hyon-gu's case, frustration overshadowed beauty.
"Oh, stop talking like that," Mother said. "You're going
to outlast me by 29 years. You see, you were born with a long lifeline.
The older kids probably don't remember since they were so young at the
time, but when Hyon-gu was baptized, Reverend Yi at the Cheil Church said
the Lord had taken your father to heaven and given us this new life in
his place. He said Hyon-gu would live to do his father's work here on earth,
just like one of the children of Abraham. I remember what he said word
for word. Years later I went to visit Reverend Yi at his home in Yonch'on.
He was over eighty at the time and quite ill. I repeated what he said at
Hyon-gu's baptism and he laughed at my remarkable memory."
I had heard the story of Hyon-gu's baptism many times.
Mother believed that story so completely it seemed to have an almost hypnotic
power over her, and as she repeated it now, her voice was charged with
a certain conviction. Her belief that no one could take Hyon-gu from her
was like a religion, unshakable in its absolutism. Her tenacity and strength
had been unrivaled, when her son was in prison or wanted by the police
and when she was at Democratic Family Support Group meetings. And in the
end, her son had always been returned to her.
"Well, Mother, let's go see Dr. Min."
No sooner had I spoken than Hyon-gu shifted as if he
wanted to get out of bed.
"Brother, I need to piss."
I helped Hyon-gu up and carried his i.v. bottle as I
supported him as he shuffled to the bathroom connected to his room. He
opened the fly of his hospital pajamas with his free hand and pulled out
his withered penis. "I feel the urge but it never comes," he muttered,
then he stood for a moment, legs trembling. His swollen belly heaved as
he gasped for breath. It was several minutes before a few drops of cloudy
urine, or pus perhaps, fell into the toilet. They must have been using
a diuretic. Why didn't it help his kidney function? My slim hopes for a
surgical cure crumbled. While I lacked Mother's unshakable faith, I couldn't
believe Hyon-gu would bid farewell to life like this. He had always held
body and soul together despite everything he had been through. And he had
so much to offer the world compared to other people.
After the Seoul Olympics, he had left the labor movement
to focus his energy on the poor peoples' movement.
"Industrial workers are lucky. At least they can form
unions. Most poor people are day laborers with no regular income. How can
they form a union? And if you look at the composition of poor households,
you'll find that practically every family has a couple of handicapped or
elderly members. The mentally and physically handicapped are concentrated
among the poor, so I've decided to dedicate my life to them from now on."
As Hyon-gu said, there was no question God would recognize
the value of his "Love the Poor Movement." Hyon-gu had found his calling.
After helping him back to bed, I left Hyon-gu in the
care of Suk-yong and Reverend Won and went to see Dr. Min with Mother.
As we emerged from the long corridor, we encountered
two elderly men arguing with the riot police at the entrance to the ward.
The dispute was over whether the men would enter or not. One of the old
men wore a straw hat and mustache. He recognized Mother and said, "Sister
Mun, how are you?" Mother answered him by name and bowed. The two men appeared
to be residents of the Pisan-dong slum like everyone Hyon-gu knew.
"They say Mr. Pak can't have any visitors. I can understand
why they won't let the young people in, but how come they're preventing
us old folks from paying our respects? Is his condition really that serious?"
"If these people say no visitors, what can I do? But
that talk about Hyon-gu being in critical condition is a lie. He's not
in critical condition," Mother replied emphatically.
"Let's go, Mother."
I pulled Mother along by the arm. The shouting had stopped,
and when we stepped outside, the students were seated in the scorching
sun, their clothes drenched in perspiration. It was a silent protest I
guess, but the sight of them sitting there, soaked in sweat, without a
sound, reminded me of Buddhist monks meditating.
"Some of you look like students," the fat investigator
cautioned. "If you're really intellectuals, don't you think you should
give the other patients a little consideration? What do you think this
is, a public market? Besides, Hyon-gu's condition is extremely serious.
They're not allowing any visitors except the immediate family. How's he
going to get any rest with all your shouting? If there's any more yelling,
we're going to take every last one of you down to the station! Understand?"
The investigator turned on his heel and walked into the ward.
It was on our way to the main building that I was finally
able to tell Mother what Kun-jo had said. Since her religious belief and
faith in Hyon-gu had such a firm hold over her, it seemed best to tell
her the truth now in order to ease the shock she might experience later.
When I said they had found a tumor in addition to the sclerosis, Mother
let out a gasp, "Oh my God." Then she clamped her bruised lips together
and said no more. Her expression was calm, as if she were thinking carefully,
so I couldn't say anything else. She walked briskly but the toes of her
rubber shoes trembled with each step.
I asked for Dr. Min at the reception desk in the Internal
Medicine Department. The nurse told us to go to Internal Medicine III.
The doctor was out, they said, but he was somewhere in the hospital, so
we waited in his private office on the other side of the examining room.
The air conditioner was on and the small room was cool. It was twenty minutes
before Dr. Min showed up. He gave a detailed explanation of the difficulties
in curing liver disease, whether to console us or prepare us for the hardships
ahead. He didn't refer to Hyon-gu specifically, but the frequency with
which he used the term "fatal" was ominous. Mother brought up the subject
of cancer, but Dr. Min circumvented the question tactfully, saying they
had discovered a tumor the size of a bean on one of the hardened walls
of Hyon-gu's liver.
"Our preliminary consensus is that surgery should be
performed in conjunction with radiation therapy. Of course, this approach
offers a fifty-fifty chance of recovery. If the patient or family is opposed
to surgery, we'll have to rely on insulin and dietary therapy, but..."
"Does radiation therapy mean the cancer has spread to
other organs?" I broke in.
"If his condition were that serious, we would recommend
discharge from the hospital rather than surgery."
"Has the hospital informed the prosecution of its plan?"
"We simply advised them that this was the course of action
we would take in view of the test results."
The doctor was business-like, yet he seemed relaxed
and his voice was calm. I looked at Mother. She was staring at the doctor.
A few strands of white hair fluttered against her wrinkled brow in the
breeze of the air conditioner.
"There won't be any surgery. You will not put a knife
to Hyon-gu's body. I'd rather cure him by the laying-on of hands than let
you put a knife to him. God is on our side no matter what anyone says!"
Mother leapt from her chair. Her tiny frame seemed to totter and I reached
out to steady her.
"Dr. Min, we'd better contact the lawyer first. Is Hyon-gu's
condition really so serious that it requires immediate surgery? If that's
the case, it's their fault for failing to transfer him for medical evaluation
sooner," I blurted as I stepped out into the examining room, my arm wrapped
around Mother's waist. There was no response from inside the doctor's office.
On purpose, perhaps, the first step in helping the next-of-kin deal with
As we walked back to Hyon-gu's ward, Mother asked what
I thought about taking Hyon-gu to a religious retreat center in the mountains.
She said she had heard of a minister who had cured terminal cancer patients
by the laying-on of hands. That evening a woman from church familiar with
the treatment of liver disease was bringing a bottle of worm soup to the
hospital. Mother was certain that, with the help of God, we could cure
Hyon-gu by taking him to the mountains and feeding him natural remedies.
She fully understood the seriousness of liver disease, but her voice was
surprisingly clear and her step confident. I knew her lack of tears meant
she hadn't given up hope, and this was soon confirmed.
"You must be busy after your trip. Don't waste time hanging
around here. Go back to Seoul and take care of your own business. I'll
call you if anything urgent happens. It only takes four hours to get here
from Seoul, right? Tong-su's Mom and I took care of Hyon-gu when he was
in prison. We got them to move him to a hospital so they can't stop us
from taking him home or to a religious retreat center. I'll go see the
lawyer, Mr. Chu. He's a deacon at our church and he always listens to what
Mother worried about me too. I told her I would meet
the lawyer, but I knew he couldn't tell us what to do about the surgery.
I wasn't sure what Tong-su's Mom, the one closest to Hyon-gu, thought,
but I myself was inclined against surgery. It was a last resort. Still,
I couldn't trust my own common sense, so I decided to return to Seoul on
the night train and seek the advice of a classmate specializing in internal
I went to the lawyer's office near the Taegu Regional
Court. Chu yong-jun was a human rights lawyer around Hyon-gu's age who
handled a lot of political offenses. I explained the results of Hyon-gu's
tests and asked what he thought about moving Hyon-gu to Seoul National
University Hospital, which was known for its success in liver treatment.
I thought Hyon- gu could be tested there one more time and then we could
decide about surgery.
"The way I see it, they're grasping at straws with this
surgery thing," he said. "And the prosecution has the audacity to think
they can stall for time if the patient's family refuses to allow surgery.
I'll submit a request for a change in the place of detention--to Seoul
National University Hospital and to his residence in Pisan-dong. I don't
know about the hospital but I'm sure the prosecution won't allow him to
return to Pisan-dong. The slum community and the factories in that area
are where Hyon- gu's been most active. They have nothing to gain by sending
him back there. The more his problems are publicized, the more trouble
they're going to have." Chu promised to submit the request the following
I returned to the hospital. The sun was already dropping
toward the horizon, the end of a long summer day. The students were gone,
but the riot police remained in front of the ward and at Hyon-gu's room,
ready, it seemed, to work round-the-clock from now on, just in case something
The crew-cut young Ch'oe had returned to stand guard
inside Hyon-gu's room, but the overweight investigator was gone. Suk-yong
and Reverend Won had returned home, and my sister-in-law had brought Tong-su
to see his father. Tong-su's Mom stood on the far side of the bed, pummeling
Hyon-gu's lower back with her fists as he lay on his side. Tong-su was
perched on the edge of the bed, and father and son were engaged in an affectionate
conversation. Tong-su's Mom smiled as she listened.
"When I grow up, I'm going to be a doctor so I can make
Daddy better," four-year-old Tong-su explained.
"That's good but there are a lot of sick people in our
neighborhood. You have to make them better too."
"Right, right! Yes, I'm going to be a doctor! Daddy,
if you're too sick to walk, can we take a taxi home? Not a bus. You see,
I've never ridden in a taxi. I'll show you the picture I drew at the daycare
Mother looked up from her Bible and peered at Tong-su
over the top of her reading glasses. "Little rascal," she murmured. There
was no shadow of death in that room. How could Hyon-gu die, leaving behind
that young wife and child? There I was, nearly fifty years-old, and I felt
a lump of emotion filling my throat. It was only then that I remembered
the gifts I had brought from the Soviet Union: knitted wool shawls for
Mother, Suk-yong and my sister-in-law and two toy cars made of tin for
Tong-su. I pressed the two cars, a fire engine and an ambulance, into Tong-su's
"Neat! I have to show these to the kids tomorrow. Thank
you, Uncle Yun-gu."
Tong-su strutted around the room waving the two cars
over his head. Happiness filled his face.
I went out into the corridor to smoke. Darkness spread
across the courtyard outside. The orange sky glowed between the leaves
rustling in the breeze. Patients in wheelchairs rolled leisurely around
the spacious courtyard, enjoying the evening cool. But I heard whispering
nearby. I leaned against the window frame and saw four elderly men seated
in the shadows below. I recognized two of them as the old men Mother and
I had met on our way to meet Dr. Min.
"You remember when they were tearing down the shanties
in our neighborhood? I've never seen Mr. Pak so angry. He's always been
as gentle as a lamb, but he stood there blocking the door of om's place
with his arms spread out. He asked for just one hour so he could help that
old sick grandmother out of there. But did that ignorant bunch on the demolition
team pay any attention? They said they had to execute their official duties.
They didn't give a damn about what was happening to those people. They
shoved Mr. Pak out of the way and started tearing down the shack with their
hammers and crowbars. Then all of a sudden there was a scream from inside
and the woman from Sangju came running out the side door with a baby in
her arms. She screamed for them to wait a minute because her mother-in-law
was still inside, but the demolition team acted like they didn't hear.
And then a piece of roofing flew off and hit the Sangju woman's baby right
in the forehead. The blood came pouring out. That's when Mr. Pak got angry.
His eyes blazed like they were on fire. I thought, 'Uh-oh, now there's
going to be trouble,' and sure enough, Mr. Pak ran up to one of the demolition
workers and grabbed his crowbar and started swinging it all over the place.
He was crying like a crazy person and flailing at them, screaming "You
aren't human, are you?"
"If I'd been there, I would have done the same thing.
Those bloodless bastards."
"Reverend Won was there too, and he said something really
strange after Mr. Pak was arrested. How did he put it? Ah, right. He said
it was like seeing the Lord Jesus overturn the chairs of the moneychangers
and drive the peddlers from the temple of God."
"We're losing a precious human being. Nearly twenty years
in prison, in the labor movement and then the poor peoples' movement, and
when did he ever get three square meals a day? My daughter told me he went
on plenty of hunger strikes when he was in prison. No wonder his liver's
"There are plenty of hungry people whose livers are just
fine. Why does a young guy like him have such bad luck?"
"People are saying they aren't going to sit still for
it if something happens to him. The workers over at Songan Dye and the
women working at Korea Light Electronics--they say they've started a fund-raising
campaign to pay his hospital expenses."
I listened to the old men for a while, then stubbed out
my cigarette and returned to Hyon-gu's room. The lights had come on. I
called Tong-su's Mom out into the corridor and told her what Dr. Min had
said about surgery. She already knew Hyon-gu had cancer on top of the cirrhosis.
As I had expected, she was opposed to immediate surgery. She said she'd
wait a few days and see how he reacted to the hospital treatment, since
we couldn't very well move a prisoner on bail without permission from the
"I've been asking around," she said calmly. "We'll have
to decide something by Sunday. That's three days from now. I've heard there's
a new treatment for small tumors. They wrap the tumor in a thin plastic
membrane, like cellophane, to prevent it from spreading. Will you look
into that when you're up in Seoul? It would be a good idea to reserve a
room at Seoul National University Hospital. I'll go to court tomorrow with
Tong-su's Mom's face was grim. She bit down on her chapped
lips. She seemed to have prepared herself for the worse. I couldn't help
thinking how fortunate it was that she was handling this crisis so rationally.
"Tong-su's Mom, is that you?" One of the old men stuck
his head in the window at the sound of her voice. "If they won't let us
see Mr. Pak, why don't you come out here? We have something to tell you."
"Are you still here? I'll be right out," she said.
I left East Taegu Station around midnight. I intended
to return to Taegu in four days after arranging things at work so the business
could run without me for a while.
The following day was hectic as I rushed around taking
care of company business and Hyon-gu's affairs. I called Hyon-gu's hospital
room and Suk-yong's pharmacy to see how things were going in Taegu. They
said Hyon-gu's symptoms were much the same although he couldn't urinate
and his back pain had worsened. It was nearly midnight when I finally made
it home and fell into bed without even bothering to wash. That was the
first real sleep I'd had in over two weeks.
It was the following afternoon around one-thirty that
I received an urgent long-distance phone call from Suk-yong. I'd just returned
from Seoul National University Hospital.
"Brother, what should we do? Hyon-gu's in a coma. You
have to come right away. This morning at dawn he complained about the pain,
that he couldn't stand it. He slipped in and out of consciousness, but
I could hear Suk-yong's sobs clearly but somehow they
rang like a distant echo in my ears. Suddenly all energy drained from my
body. The inevitable had finally happened, but what was I supposed to do?
I threw down the receiver and sat at my desk in a daze. Miss Ch'oe in accounting
asked if it was bad news, but I could only sigh, my eyes closed for a moment.
"Go over to the Housing Bank and withdraw everything
in my account," I instructed. "Five-hundred thousand won in cash and the
rest in checks."
Then I called home. I told my wife about Hyon-gu and
said I was going straight to Taegu. She said she would ask her mother in
Ch'ongju to come up right away and watch the kids so she could go down
"Don't take the car. You mustn't drive when you're upset
like this. Understand?" She insisted and then hung up.
I hadn't thought of that, but I guess women can be a
lot more perceptive than men.
I decided to take the train since Seoul Station was closer
to my office than the Kangnam Express Bus Terminal. The fields and mountains
rose hazily outside my window as the train passed out of Yongdungp'o. The
green foliage soaked up the hot sun, flaunting its verdure. If only a dying
man could be revived as easily with water and sweet sunshine, I thought.
Hyon-gu's gaunt, yellowed face rose before me, his body pickled in sweat,
oscillating between life and death like a child on a swing. Summer is always
hell on the sick, but this steambath heat was surely rotting Hyon-gu's
innards. It was just like when the electricity goes out, no, when the voltage
is low and the inside of the refrigerator gets warm, and the contents,
locked in the airtight space, rot. If I applied that metaphor to Hyon-gu's
body, the cord was being pulled out and pushed back in again, and the contents
of his body--his liver, of course, and his kidneys and intestines and lungs--were
rotting. It was too horrible to think about. No, it would be better to
recall Hyon-gu at another time, another place. That tiny flame clinging
to Mother's back hadn't gone out that winter when our family made this
same journey southward. What was the difference between his survival then
and his death now 38 years later? Was it that he was leaving behind a son,
a new generation? Or had God wanted to see what beautiful things he would
do when he grew up? Was God saying "Come to me now that your work is finished?"
I didn't understand divine providence, and besides, cold-hearted reality
had nothing to do with the providence of gods. I went to the dining car
and drank two bottles of beer for lunch.
It was six-ten and the sun was just dipping behind the
provincial capital building when the train pulled into East Taegu Station.
I rushed to the university hospital by taxi. The front gate was closed
tight, and two armored buses used to transport riot police were waiting
next to it. Several policemen were guarding the side gate which stood slightly
ajar. People were waiting in line to show their resident's registration
cards and tell the riot police where they were going before entering. I
took my place at the end of the line. Instinct told me this all had something
to do with Hyon-gu. When it was my turn, I gave Hyon-gu's room number.
"What is your relationship to the patient?" the policeman
asked as he looked at my identification card.
"I'm his older brother. I just arrived from Seoul."
"Let him through," said a man standing in front of the
guard's station. It was the overweight investigator I had seen in Hyon-gu's
room two days earlier.
I dashed through the gate. As I rounded the corner of
the main building, a chorus of song splashed across my sweaty face. The
sound of clapping kept time with the music.
<Look at the pine trees in the wild
There is no one to care for them.
Whether it storms or snows
All the whole world is green and fresh...>
An extraordinary scene was unfolding in the courtyard
in front of Hyon- gu's ward. A squad of riot police in full battle dress
stood in a circle around a group of about fifty people--students, laborers
and women from the slum village--who sat in rows clapping and singing.
Two robust middle-aged men who looked like officers stood next to an armored
jeep holding walkie-talkies. Tong-su's Mom was talking to them, gesturing
vigorously with her hands, but they stood in silence, eyes riveted on the
demonstrators. At the back of the crowd, I caught a glimpse of a banner
held by two women wearing towels wrapped around their heads. The woman
from Sangju was one of them.
<Long live Pak Hyon-gu, Beacon of the poor!>
It was no time to stand watching this confrontation.
I nodded to Reverend Won who sat among the singing protesters, then turned
to enter the building. I identified myself to the riot police at the front
door and at Hyon-gu's room and hurried inside. Everyone in the room turned
to look at me, but I didn't stop to say hello as I rushed to the bed where
He didn't answer. It was as if he were mired in a deep
sleep. His skin was already different. It was no longer that of a living
person. A pea-green tinge had spread across his entire face. He wrinkled
his brow intermittently and let out a deep sigh as if he were having a
bad dream. His belly was noticeably more distended than three days before;
it reminded me of a pregnant woman ready to give birth. The uremia was
in his bloodstream and spreading throughout his body. I took my brother's
thin hand. It was cool and moist. Something dripped from my face onto the
bedsheet. Was it sweat or tears? I struggled to hold back the sobs.
"I guess there isn't a thread of hope. They say it will
all be over tonight, that no one can save him now. I can't believe I have
to accept what the doctor said," Mother sobbed as she wiped Hyon-gu's face
with a moist towel. "The Lord took your father and I guess He needs to
take Hyon-gu now. And this old mother is left behind. I know I have to
accept the Lord's will... but why does it have to be like this?"
As she watched Hyon-gu lying in a coma, Mother no longer
insisted he was alive within her. She pulled the bedsheet down to his waist
and undid the buttons on his pajamas. Perspiration hung like drops of dew
on his bony ribs. His chest was dark yellow, the color of clay. She wiped
the perspiration methodically with a towel.
"Is he finally going to meet the father he's never seen?
The father he always longed for. I wonder what your father looks like now.
Do you think he looks the same as he did when he died? He was only thirty-three."
The ceiling fan rotated noisily but not a single strand
of Hyon-gu's sweat-drenched hair moved in its breeze. Perspiration flooded
from every pore as if his body were disgorging all its moisture. His shallow
breathing faltered, then quickened again with an explosive snort of his
nose. It seemed he might suddenly open his eyes and sit up with that shy
smile on his lips. But then his breathing slowed once more. A tear gathered
in the corner of his eye and trickled down the side of his face.
"When did he go into a coma?" I asked Mother.
"Several hours ago. He hasn't come out of it since. They
refused to release him so now we can't even try laying on hands at the
religious retreat center. I pleaded with them. I would have carried him
on my own back, barefoot, all the way to the retreat center on Kumho Mountain
just like I did when we fled from the war, but... Oh, Lord, look at him.
Don't you see he's trying to take on all the worries and hardships of the
poor people of this world? Don't you see him crying?"
I stepped back from Hyon-gu's bed. Only then did I look
around the room to see Suk-yong sobbing, a handkerchief to her eyes, as
she sat with Tong-su on her lap. Tong-su glanced at me sideways with frightened,
bloodshot eyes, the toy cars clutched in either hand. The older guard,
Hong, and the middle-aged investigator-type watched my movements in silence.
Outside, shouts were flying.
"Free the prisoner of conscience, Pak Hyon-gu!"
"Free him now, free him now!"
"Send the prisoner of conscience Pak Hyon-gu back to
"Send him back, send him back!"
As I stood there dazed, the guard Hong looked out the
window, shaking an angry finger and muttering.
"Look what those good-for-nothing bastards are up to
now. They're coming over the wall."
I turned to the open window and saw several young men,
either university students or workers, climbing over the vine-covered courtyard
wall. The investigator rushed out of the room.
Outside it was noisy with shouts and the buzzing of cicadas,
but inside I felt like I was suffocating from the oppressive heat and ponderous
silence. I couldn't even look toward the bed where Mother leaned over Hyon-gu
murmuring something over and over again. I escaped into the corridor, lit
a cigarette and stared blearily out into the courtyard.
"If you don't disperse by seven-thirty, we're going to
take you all down to the police station. You have twenty minutes to disperse!"
One of the middle-aged police officers by the jeep was
using an electric megaphone to address the crowd. The protesters responded
with a chorus of boos and resumed their singing. This time they were accompanied
not only by clapping but by drums as well.
Tong-su's Mom walked briskly out from behind the building
where the riot police had formed a barricade. Three young men followed
her. She entered the ward, leaving the young men outside. The shadows were
already long and the corridor dark.
"They say he can't set foot out of here before he dies,"
Tong-su's Mom said as she stopped in front of me. "Not that I expected
them to. The people from the village wanted to take him home for a people's
funeral, but it's impossible. It's as if the authorities expect some kind
of riot if they grant our simple request. Who knows? Maybe they'll never
give us the body. Maybe they'll just cremate him."
It was clear she had already accepted the hopelessness
of Hyon-gu's condition.
"Oh, would they really do that? I'll discuss the burial
arrangements with Suk-yong's husband."
With that remark, I finally accepted the inevitability
of Hyon-gu's death and felt a deep sadness as I mechanically ticked off
the things to be done before the funeral.
Tong-su's Mom paused for a moment, deep in thought, then
looked up and glanced around us.
"Actually," she whispered with a determined expression
on her face. "We're going to try to take Tong-su's Dad home to die, no
matter what they say. We already decided this afternoon."
I stared at her blankly, unable to comprehend the meaning
of her words. She turned and hurried into Hyon-gu's room.
Moments later, the crowd of protesters outside swelled
to sixty or more, and a new chorus of slogans began.
"Release Pak Hyon-gu before he dies!"
"Release him now! Release him now!"
"Permit Pak Hyon-gu to go home for a people's funeral!"
"Permit him to go home! Permit him to go home!"
One of the young men who had been with Tong-su's Mom
a few moments earlier was leading the shouts. His slogans were emphatic
and had the ring of a tacit understanding with Tong-su's Mom. Suddenly
I grasped what she had meant. The young man's shouts must have excited
the crowd because the protesters rose to their feet, thrusting their fists
in the air with each slogan. "Is he really going to die?" "How can this
be?" "Is it really that serious?" Whispers filtered through the crowd.
The protesters' confusion was plain.
The shouts quickened.
"The authorities must take responsibility for Pak Hyon-gu's
"Take responsibility! Take responsibility!"
The young people in the front row surged forward, their
arms locked around each other's shoulders. Soon the whole group was clasped
together and moving forward like a great wave, ready to pierce the thick
wall of riot police. The police held firm, however, their shields braced
"If you do not disperse, we're going to take you all
A molotov cocktail flew in the direction of the jeep
where the officer was shouting breathlessly over his megaphone. Pong! it
exploded. A triumphant cheer rose from the crowd. They pressed forward,
determined to break through the wall of police.
"You mustn't use violence. Violence won't solve anything!"
Although I couldn't see him, I knew that voice belonged
to Reverend Won.
Pong, pong! More molotov cocktails exploded. This is
a hospital, not the streets! Reverend Won's voice was lost in the roar
of the crowd. Pok, pok! Tear gas canisters began to explode as if to say
there was a limit to the police's patience, hospital or not.
"Take them in! All of them!" commanded the officer over
The riot police pushed their way into the crowd and began
arresting protesters. Screams and shouts pierced the air as pandemonium
swept the courtyard. The riot police who had been guarding Hyon-gu's door
clattered down the corridor and out into the courtyard.
The stench of tear gas reached my nose. My eyes brimmed
with tears and I began to sneeze. I dashed into Hyon-gu's room. It was
then. A young man carrying a two-by-four jumped through the back window.
No, not just one young man, but several, all wearing masks. They rushed
to surround Hong, the guard, threatening him with their clubs. His face
blanched with fear and his mouth dropped open as he raised his hands in
"Mrs. Pak, let's go. Hurry! We have a van waiting at
the back gate." A young man dressed in work clothes shouted to Tong-su's
"Hey, boys! What is this? Where do you think you're going?"
Mother stammered, shielding Hyon-gu with her outstretched arms as if she
were about to sweep him up in her embrace.
"Mother, I want to let Tong-su's Dad die in our room
in Pisan-dong. He's not a criminal. I can't let him die here, locked up
under guard!" Tong-su's Mom cried as she grabbed the foot of the bed. Her
eyes glimmered with tears as she looked down at Hyon-gu breathing feebly.
"You're right. You're right. Come on, Tong-su. We'll
lead the way."
Her daughter-in-law's words seemed to have brought Mother
to her senses. Mother grabbed Tong-su from Suk-yong and boosted him onto
"Grandma, is Daddy really going home?" Tong-su asked
"Yes, he's going home. You're going to be the daddy from
now on. You're going to do all the things Hyon-gu couldn't finish. You're
Grandma's baby boy now," Mother cried out like a woman possessed.
Mother flung the door open, taking the lead with Tong-su
on her stooped back just as she had carried Hyon-gu that winter we escaped
to the south.
"Brother, should we be doing this?" Suk-yong asked with
a bewildered expression on her face.
"What else can we do? Come on, let's go." Overwhelmed
myself, I pushed Suk-yong ahead of me.
"We can't go out the front. Quick, the back way!" exclaimed
Suk-yong with new conviction as she followed Mother.
The corridor was dark and already clogged with tear gas.
Outside, confusion raged as dense smoke filled the courtyard.
The young men pulled the bed along by the sides and pushed
from the rear. I couldn't see Hyon-gu's face in the twilight of the corridor.
I was anxious. And then suddenly something surged through my brain like
an electric current. It was the realization that Hyon-gu was beginning
to build a prison cell for himself inside each of our hearts. I finally
understood that I couldn't let Hyon-gu die in captivity. I knew the charges
against him might remain unsettled forever, but I understood now that,
like the symbolism of the incident with the demolition team so clearly
revealed, it was my responsibility to carry him to freedom while he was
still alive, even if I couldn't take him all the way back to his room in
Pisan-dong. I grasped hold of the bed alongside Tong-su's Mom. The bed
raced down the smoky corridor. Suk-yong and Mother scurried ahead toward
the rear door, my sister's arm encircling Tong-su on Mother's back. It
was at that moment that the young men waiting there flung open the door.
The closed passage was open and filled with light like an exit to freedom.
We pressed ahead pushing the bed through the tear-gas like it were cannon
smoke, just as we three children had made our way south that winter with
Mother. It was only then that I finally felt a rekindling of the overwhelming
excitement we students shared as we marched shoulder to shoulder toward
Police Headquarters that April 19th so many years before.
Translated by Julie Pickering