top of page

"After the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Healing the Deepest Fracture"

The New Yorker, February 2018

During the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, I didn’t expect to cry when athletes from two Koreas marched as one into the stadium, carrying the flag of unification, but tears filled my eyes. It was as if my body couldn’t be stopped from remembering some unspent grief. The twenty-third Winter Olympics are closing out their second week, and the Games may yet live up to their billing as the “Olympics of peace.” A joint Korean women’s ice-hockey team went winless in five attempts, but the images of athletes from the North and South playing alongside one another will be slow to fade. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, also invited the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, to Pyongyang for a summit.

​For Koreans around the globe, the Pyeongchang Games have the power to evoke the yearning to reconcile with an estranged twin, but they also carry the painful history of warring brothers. I was born in Seoul, in 1968, and am the child of two Koreas. My eighty-three-year-old father is from Wonsan, on the northeastern coast of what is now North Korea, and my seventy-six year-old mother is from Busan, at the southernmost tip of South Korea. I lived in Seoul until I was seven, and my family immigrated to Queens, New York, in 1976. Although I’m a naturalized American citizen, when I watch the Games, I root for the athletes of three countries: the U.S.A., South Korea, and North Korea.

​My favorite Korean Olympics story is the one that nearly every Korean knows. Sohn Kee-chung was born in 1912, in Sinuiju, in what is now North Korea. The son of a grocer, Sohn attended his local school during colonial-era Korea, when Japan brutally occupied the Peninsula. As a boy, he was such a remarkable runner that he was sent to Yangjeong High School, in Seoul. At first, he ran shorter distances, but he eventually found his métier in the marathon, setting world records even before competing in the Olympics. To run the marathon at the Berlin Games, in 1936, Sohn had no choice but to compete for the Empire of Japan and as Son Kitei, the Japanese version of his name. In Germany, Sohn Kee-chung won the gold medal, running the course in 2:29:19.2.

​In Berlin, Sohn insisted that he was Korean, not Japanese. At the medals ceremony, he held the small oak-tree plant he was given close to his chest, to intentionally cover the Japanese flag. At the press conference afterward, Sohn tried to tell his minders that he was Korean. He autographed his name in Korean and even sketched a map of his country. The Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo published a photograph of Sohn’s victory but erased the Japanese flag from his running uniform, resulting in the imprisonment and torture of journalists from the paper and the suspension of the Dong-A Ilbo for nine months. The Japanese government forced Sohn into early retirement and did not allow him to compete as a runner.

​After the Second World War, Sohn became a South Korean citizen, and he coached the next generation of runners, including two winners of the Boston Marathon and an Olympic gold medallist.

​In 1988, when I was nineteen, I watched the opening ceremony of the Seoul Games with my parents on our Zenith color television, the size of a large apple crate. Sohn was in his seventies then, and he burst into the stadium carrying a smoky torch, both his arms raised proudly, waving at the crowds. He ran swiftly around the track, and the audience went wild with good feeling. This elderly man was so vigorous and joyous, and I felt proud to be Korean, because he had resisted the humiliating occupation and the destruction of his country. For a depressed nation needing a powerful symbol of resistance, Sohn Kee-chung served as a patriot and hero. He died in 2002, at the age of ninety, beloved and celebrated.

​For the current Games, despite the national hoopla, Pyeongchang has become a byword for apathy among young South Koreans. They don’t consider the Olympics to be a step toward reunification; rather, they think the Games are just that—games, and, frankly, they do not appear interested. In a 2017 survey by Seoul National University, more than seventy per cent of South Koreans in their twenties said that they opposed reunification. The reasons are myriad, but the one cited most often is the economy. The younger generation is not willing to bear the extraordinary cost of reunification, estimates of which range wildly between one trillion and three trillion dollars.

​I think I understand. South Koreans have good reason to be wary after making numerous political and economic concessions over the years, all while suffering betrayals and persistent nuclear threats. The elderly and the middle-aged lack sufficient trust to engage again and cannot see how reunification can work ideologically, while the young cannot imagine the sacrifice.

​South Korea has achieved the “Miracle on the Han River,” the extraordinary economic growth of a formerly colonized and war-devastated nation. But the young South Korean is profoundly anxious for her future. For several years now, young people in South Korea have been calling their country “Hell Joseon” to indicate the inequity of the rigid class system, which benefits the economically privileged and the well connected. Facing high unemployment rates and the insecurity of the gig economy, the young bemoan the futility of their immense efforts. The mental-health data is nothing short of alarming. For thirteen years straight, South Korea has had the leading suicide rate for nations in the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development, an umbrella group for the world’s democratic, free-market economies. In their passionate pursuit of postwar reconstruction, South Koreans have worked too hard and rested too little, and they are spent.

​Unfortunately, peace Olympics or no, the Korean problem today is the Korean problem of yesterday. Because of its geography, the Korean Peninsula remains regionally significant to very powerful nations: China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. For the Koreas to get along, let alone to reconcile, they need to deal with the interests of their respective allies, which may not necessarily represent the interests of their own people. If the youth are rolling their eyes, I imagine the middle-aged and the elderly are shrugging their shoulders and sighing, Aigoo.

​And yet.

​It takes little imagination to know how much the North Koreans are suffering. The North Korean people lack the most basic freedoms: press, travel, information, religion, organization, education, and individual expression. Twenty-five million North Koreans are hostages to one young dictator. His sister-emissary received adulatory coverage at these Olympics, but even she could easily be eliminated, just as others before her have been.

So I worry about my family in both republics—the twenty-five million who live in fear of a ruthless young leader and the fifty-one million South Koreans who have been running for their lives without pause.

The Olympic Games will soon end, and South Korea will have achieved another impressive feat, but what next? I worry that Koreans never seem to get a reprieve from the constant anxiety of a war that has not yet ceased. Perhaps what is initially needed for Koreans to heal the deepest fracture is to admit that the brinkmanship of competence or military strength may in fact be enervating, not rejuvenating.

Recently, I went to a poetry reading in the Bronx, where South Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and American high-school students were meeting via Google Hangout. The kids meet regularly, as participants in the International Poetry Exchange Program, created by Caroline Kennedy, the former Ambassador to Japan, who was also in attendance.

It was a Friday night, and I’d gone because I like kids and poetry. My son is away at college, and I miss his energy and the sound of him. I thought it would be nice to listen to teen-agers from the Bronx read poems to their counterparts overseas. I needed some joy. I sat down in my hard plastic chair, waiting to feel something that happens now and then when we listen to poems being read out loud.

Choi Hyeong-seok, an eighteen-year-old from Poongsan High School in Andong, stood up. He was physically seven thousand miles away from us, but the wall-sized white screen was only five feet from my seat. His dark, slender eyes looked pensive, and I looked at his genial, open face, curious as to what he was feeling. Choi read his Korean haiku, which he had translated into English:

Warm and peaceful
But always in here
Coexistence in the freezing, melting.

I felt something sharp. He was talking about the North Koreans, the ever-present tension and anxiety—But always in here. He was writing about them and himself, and he was moved.

After he finished, the organizer asked if there were comments or questions in the audience. Leaning forward a little in her seat, Kennedy raised her hand, and she asked Choi quietly, “What do you mean by ‘freezing, melting’?” The young man opened his eyes wider and said without hesitation that he was thinking about the Olympics and what they meant. He was trying to sort out his questions about his nation. His thoughtfulness gave me hope.

When I was his age, I had Sohn Kee-chung as my example of what a Korean could be in the world. This young man will have the unification flag and memories of these Games. They’re imperfect guides, but they might inspire him on the uncharted course of peace.

bottom of page