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.