You can read the winning essays below.
2022 Korean Literature Essay Contest winning essays
Beyond Tropes: How Cho Haejin Subverts the Dominant Narrative about North Korean Refugees in I Met Loh Kiwan
By Phyllis Cha
The dominant narrative about North Korea, both in South Korean media and in the West, as noted in the afterword of I Met Loh Kiwan, is one of a country “frozen in the Soviet era” (Cho 113) with a meager economy—a country with a despotic regime that needs to be dealt with harshly. These overly general conversations deprive public discourse of the complexities of the North Korean situation and also group the North Korean populace into one mass, stripping citizens of their individuality and dehumanizing them. North Korean citizens are seen as an opportunity for capitalistic saviorship, stripped of their humanity so they can be used as political pawns. Cho Haejin’s novel, I Met Loh Kiwan, shatters these tropes by exploring the complexities of a North Korean refugee’s experience and the place he occupies as an individual. By revealing Loh Kiwan’s story, which extends beyond any black-and-white representation of the North Korean experience, Cho inherently humanizes North Koreans, allowing them to have agency over their story. Cho uses Kim jakka’s discovery and tracing of Loh’s footsteps to not only humanize Loh as a person, but to force the reader into a head-on-head confrontation with the suffering Loh has gone through. Loh’s life becomes the vehicle for comparison, asking the reader to acknowledge their own privilege. Through Loh’s humanization, Cho raises greater questions of human suffering and the function regret plays in human existence.
Cho starts the novel with the sentence “In the beginning he was just an initial, L,” (Cho 1). From the very first sentence, Loh is reduced into a single letter. The reader doesn’t know Loh beyond what they see on the page. This sentence keeps an abundance of information beyond reach—almost as if mimicking how Western and South Korean media describe North Korean citizens. But right away, Cho begins to humanize Loh, even with just the basic physical descriptors of his “keen eyes” shining with “apprehension and bewilderment” (Cho 2). By revealing his vulnerabilities, Cho makes Loh a relatable character to the reader, not just a nondescript North Korean refugee. Cho is also quick to name him, saying, “Thus did Loh Kiwan, the stranger without a country, plod south” (Cho 2). Through the literal use of his name early on in the text, Cho begins the work of distinguishing Loh as an individual. These descriptions, as well as the immediate recognition of Loh’s identity, promptly stand contrary to generalized stereotypes of the North Korean refugee.
Cho’s refusal to write her character into stereotypes is furthered with the way she has Loh describe North Korea. Cho writes, “He stopped going altogether after the sermon in which the minister described North Korea as pure hell, insisting that the poor lambs there must be rescued immediately... What is hell, he wanted to ask. If poverty is hell, then hell exists throughout capitalism” (40). Here, Cho almost seems to be addressing the audience, asking readers to confront the issues in their own countries and question the narratives they’ve held onto as truth for so long. Loh’s experience with extreme poverty and hunger in Brussels makes the reader question, how much better are Western countries, really? Cho raises the question here of whether the reader’s experience has been marked by liberty, not because of the freedom of the government they live under, but because of their economic privilege. The narrator, Kim jakka, reveals her own internal struggle, when she states, “I read about the conditions in North Korea in postings on the campus bulletin board... I lingered before the postings but casually passed by the donation boxes” (Cho 56). The reader is forced to consider whether they’ve stopped to give coins to the person begging on the street corner, whether they’ve passed by a donation box without putting in cash, whether they’ve ignored the suffering of others. How many times has the reader, the book seems to be asking, done the same exact thing in a similar position?
It’s not only the individual who bears responsibility, Cho seems to be saying, it’s also governmental bodies. “During this time, now called the Arduous March, two to three million North Koreans were reported to have starved to death. Those who wanted the regime to collapse—the United States, the West, South Korea—withheld food aid during the height of the starvation, and the regime feared the demise of what it boasted to the outside was a ‘paradise on Earth’” (Cho 55). This quote indicates the culpability of Western countries and South Korea in exacerbating famines in North Korea through sanctions, a means of political control that ultimately hit hardest on the populations that were already vulnerable.
Even when Loh is within Brussels, this supposed safe haven for refugees, the embassy is of no help. “The embassy staff explained the policy: With no evidence that Loh had escaped North Korea, they cannot help him apply for refugee status... Loh was momentarily baffled at the cold words” (Cho 49). It seems that Cho purposefully draws a parallel, of a starving Loh in North Korea and of a starving Loh in Brussels, of an incompetent or uncaring government in both countries—or at least one where bureaucracy makes offering help implausible— to push her point further. Loh escapes North Korea to escape starvation, forcing the reader to grapple with the fact that despite all the sacrifices and suffering he’s faced on his journey to Brussels, he’s facing the same issue of starvation in Europe.
Yet, at the same time, Cho avoids drawing any easy villains and also points out the North Korean government’s own responsibility for the suffering of its citizens. Loh thinks, “For those who did not learn resistance, poverty grew so familiar and pervasive... The realization that no one had taken responsibility for that long wait for a resurgent utopia tortured Loh as he watched the protest in Brussels” (Cho 41). Watching the political freedom of those in Belgium, Loh “began to register tiny fractures in his belief system” (Cho 41). This reveals the layers of complexity of the situation. Just because South Korea and the West bear more responsibility than one might think, doesn’t mean North Korea is void of guilt. By showing the failings of all involved, Cho brings in so much nuance to this conversation. Ultimately, by letting Loh reach these conclusions and critique the role of all of the countries involved, Cho allows him to reclaim his agency and be the antithesis of a political pawn.
Essentially, Cho Haejin uses the character of Loh Kiwan to make both an inherently nonpolitical yet political statement. Cho’s humanization of Loh’s character, at its root, extends beyond political anchors. Outside the scope of politicization, she seems to be saying, can’t readers see that Loh is a human being whose life matters? Yet, at the same time, this nonpolitical stance, this humanization of Loh’s character becomes a proxy for Cho to critique the lack of nuance surrounding the conversation about North Korea and North Korean refugees. Cho seems to be encouraging readers to reckon with their own role and their country’s role in the geopolitical circumstances that have led North Korean refugees to the desperation and suffering they face today.
I Met Loh Kiwan: The Ethics of Representation and Authorial Voice
By Sierra Sanders
Cho Haejin’s I Met Loh Kiwan jumped outside of the prescribed parameters when it comes to telling a story about a North Korean refugee. This novella lacked the typical politically-charged elements one would typically find when exploring a topic such as the North Korean refugee crisis. Instead, Cho took a humanistic and nearly anthropological approach in depicting what most think of when pondering the journey of a North Korean defector: How did they go on? The novel is told from the perspective of a writer who already had her fair share of exploiting the sufferings of others, and was now on a journey to discover why these people who endured great suffering continued forth. While this theme of exploring human suffering was in the forefront of the novella’s purpose, the overarching message behind this novella was one concerning ethics. As a writer, how can one accurately tell a story involving suffering they haven’t experienced without tainting the story with an insincere authorial voice? Just as actors sometimes complete method acting training in order to better portray their role, what can a writer do except try to put themselves in the shoes of their main character?
Throughout I Met Loh Kiwan, the narrator, Kim, is highly aware of what it means to not understand the suffering of the person she intends to write about, a North Korean defector named Loh Kiwan. To effectively prove the narrator’s hesitation, we learn of her own wrongdoings and how she intends to right those wrongs by following in the footsteps of Loh Kiwan’s actions when he first came to Brussels, Belgium. Very early on in the novella, Kim knows she probably is not worthy to write Loh Kiwan’s story. This is because of how she took advantage of an orphan cancer patient, Yunju, who she was working with for her television show that essentially was “sensationalizing personal tragedy” (27). Through writing scripts for this program, Kim realized the power of authorial voice and the inhumanity of embellishing human suffering for consumption. In fact, in order to atone for these violations, Kim set out to try to understand great suffering without enduring it. The reader quickly feels the desperation and pointlessness of this task, since one can imagine only so far the suffering a North Korean defector would feel starving, without a home, and attempting to fend as an illegal resident in a country where he cannot speak the language and has not a single soul to help him. Kim also understands her previous transgressions early on as she says, “I have yet to convince myself I am entitled to write about Loh Kiwan” (12).
Kim came to Belgium in order to get Loh Kiwan’s full story about true human suffering and how a person continues on despite that trauma. All the while, she is running away from understanding the suffering of Yunju who she abandoned in Seoul only weeks before a major surgery. She came to understand that blasting Yunju’s suffering all over television for ratings was a severe violation of ethics as a writer. After coming to Belgium, Kim met Pak, a retired doctor who also had walked the line of ethics in his own practice after offering his dying wife euthanasia. These two met because of the elusive Loh Kiwan, whomst Kim now had to learn about through a hand-written journal documenting his sufferings when he first arrived in Belgium three years prior. Cho lets Kim, a writer not convinced she is worthy of writing a novel about this man, read for herself what suffering means without hearing the words aloud. For Kim, while it is powerful, a journal alone is not enough. She did not want this to be a repeat of the past in which “the pain of the person featured would be conveyed for maximum effect, not for fidelity to truth (27). In order to grow closer to Loh Kiwan and his story while not knowing him physically, Kim retraces Loh’s steps in Belgium, day by day, like a wandering ghost.
A key point in this journey is when Kim realizes that retracing Loh’s footsteps would still not comfort her and would not entitle her with the authorial voice she’s chasing after. As she goes forth attempting to understand Loh’s stint of staving off starvation, Kim reports: “I loathe my body’s incapacity to stomach Loh’s experience and truly confront the misery he endured” (57).
As a reader, most would also squirm at the thought of mimicking such living conditions. However, in order to feel authorized to write Loh’s story and to get to the bottom of what it’s like to suffer, Kim continues to try. Injecting her writing with these heavy emotions and nearly unanswerable questions, Cho effectively forces the reader to marinate in the storyline, just as the narrator does.
Throughout the novella, Cho gives us small bits of Kim’s backstory and what she left behind in Seoul: a romantic interest who tugged at her to follow him down the path of realization in her violations of ethics, and the young Yunju who was awaiting a major surgery without any word from her designated noona (older sister). These elements are weaved into the story appropriately to highlight that this is not the narrator’s first rodeo in witnessing human suffering. By going to Belgium, Kim is determined to figure out what it means to suffer from someone she, at first, is not already intricately connected to. It’s almost as if she wanted a fresh slate in Belgium to try again with portraying someone’s misery through writing. Still, through these flashbacks and eventual phone calls back to Seoul, the readers know that these sins Kim feels she’s committed cannot be escaped so easily. In order to feel like she deserves to write about Loh Kiwan, Kim comes to understand that she cannot only try to emulate his own journey, but reconnect with those she did wrong to. This is an important cycle-back in the plot, one that Cho employs to effectively weave together all the varying characters of the novella.
As Kim comes to the end of her time in Belgium, before she can meet Loh Kiwan, who has given her enlightenment, she makes the call to the cancer patient Yunju in order to vow that “I now dedicate my life to helping her” (102). This novella traverses what it means to take advantage of a human who is suffering and therefore exploitable. The narrator realizes over time that protecting that person and their truth should take precedence over attempting to invoke pity. Cho truly has created a masterpiece concerning authorial voice, the ethics of representation, and even weaving in topics of euthanasia, poverty, and refugeeship. In order to do this, readers take the hard road and experience coming closer to answers with Kim by having to truly contemplate these complicated topics. In regards to a novel that considers all of these topics mentioned, Cho’s I Met Loh Kiwan is certainly impressive in it’s metamessage, use of characters and plot, word choice and overall writing style.
What we owe to each other: how I met Loh Kiwan reveals the meaning of empathy
By Hannah Katinsky
I Met Loh Kiwan is an exceptional example of modern literature. Cho Haejin’s grasp of emotive writing completely immerses the reader in the story, which can be exhausting in its intensity, but ultimately provides the reader with a sense of closure. It also subtly teaches them an important lesson: that human connection is formed through shared emotional experience. This message is something that everyone knows instinctively within themself, but often goes unrealized and undiscussed. Cho masterfully leads her reader to realize this without ever stating it outright, telling us that the most special bonds that humans form with each other are not products of physical or temporal location. They happen when people experience the same emotions– “...two strangers, worlds apart and unaware of each other’s existence, may nonetheless be bound by a deep, inconsolable sorrow” (50).
The voice for Cho’s message is a perfectly crafted narrator: one with enough backstory to reveal relevant trauma, but not enough detail to distinguish her as a separate person in the reader’s mind. She doesn’t even have a first name. While this may seem like a sign of oversight, it’s actually a brilliant way to immerse the reader in the story. The reader can take the shell of the narrator and fill it with fragments of their own memory. They can form a connection with the narrator and, in doing so, experience the kind of emotional bond Cho is teaching them about.
When a person is faced with outward sources of discomfort, they often look within themself to find the solution to their problems. In I Met Loh Kiwan, the entire plot is set against the backdrop of this kind of discomfort, which prompts introspection from both the narrator and the reader. This atmosphere comes from both the emotional and physical state of the narrators. Cho’s choice of location for the story is a literary masterstroke–the city itself acts as a character.
Similar to a mansion in a Gothic novel, Cho’s Brussels is unforgiving and imposing, its superficial beauty a stark contrast to the misery contained within its inhabitants. A foreign city is a strange paradox. People might surround the traveler on all sides, but a strict unspoken line is drawn between the tourist and the native in all new places. As Loh himself states in his diary “‘I feel like I’m on a different planet’”(19). Grieving people understand this feeling, for they might as well be in a different country; every interaction with another person will feel strange, foreign, incorrect. In this way, the story’s setting serves as a metaphor for the grief felt by the protagonists: their foreign location is a physical manifestation of their emotional state.
The relationship between Pak and our narrator is an excellent demonstration of the relationship between physical and emotional location. Pak is not only another Korean in Brussels, but someone who can empathize with the emotional trauma that comes from the loss of a loved one. The relationship Pak had with his wife is a twisted mirror of our narrator’s with Yunju: both have actively and consciously contributed to the pain of someone they love. While the details of the relationships might be different, what is important is that the emotional fallout from the events is the same. Pak and our narrator can connect with each other through a very unique sort of miserable empathy. They can validate each other’s pain through shared emotional experiences: “A French Philosopher once wrote that the act of crying in the presence of a loved one proves that one’s pain is not a fantasy” (51).
Unfortunately, not everyone is allowed the privilege of connection through compassion. Cho knows this, and poses the question “What is the nature of pity? What is it made of, and how does it grow and then diminish? For it to be sincere, what aspects of nature must it recognize and what must it reject?” (25). Pity is a complicated emotion for grieving people. Sometimes loss is so painful that it can be felt physically, but there is no immediate external indication. This lack of external signs is one of the most disturbing parts of the grieving process, so those experiencing it seek connection, validation, and empathy from those around them. This kind of validation is incredibly difficult to obtain, as is proven throughout the story. People seek to alleviate each other’s suffering, but sometimes they are unable to provide each other with true compassion. When loss becomes visible to others, but remains unvalidated, then pity is produced: a guilty realization that as human beings, we owe each other kindness, but we are unable to provide it.
Our narrator shows us throughout her journey that pity is easy to find and hard to lose. Her relationships with Loh, with Yunju, even with herself, are based in pity. But, she is able to eventually move on from pity to true empathy–a harrowing experience only possible through her desire to break the mold. She states “I resolve to distinguish and balance genuine compassion and my own excruciating remorse...” (30), and fully embraces her internal discomfort. This, combined with her access to Loh’s journal, and therefore his mind, is what allows her to obtain genuine compassion for others. Through this medium, the reader is also able to move through pity and obtain genuine empathy.
The mental journey that our narrator undergoes is strenuous. The subject matter is dark, and the intensity of the writing creates a completely immersive process for the reader. But, like all great literature, I Met Loh Kiwan is rewarding and fulfilling. The progression of the story is similar to a spiritual cleanse: the characters learn to look past selfishness and pity, forgive themselves and others, and find true human connection through empathy. When a person’s grief is twisting around inside of them, they can read I met Loh Kiwan and they, too, can follow the path of the narrator. They can grieve for the characters on the pages and understand that they are grieving for themself. They can find compassion for the characters and find compassion for themself. They can find closure for the characters and find closure for themself.