Professor Sôl’s Theory
Excerpt from “Panmunjon” and Other Stories
by Lee Ho-Chul
A man and a woman meet serendipitously at Panmunjôm, the site of the ongoing “Peace Talks” between the “two” Koreas since the “end” of the “conflict.” The man reflects: Two hundred years from now the term “Panmunjôm” will have become an archaism. An encyclopedia published then will contain the following entry:
Panmunjôm: First appeared in 1953. Ceased to exist in 19XX. Formerly located in what is now Kaesông’s Namdan Cultural Center.
The syllable “-jôm” in “Panmunjôm” originally refers to a shop or store. One must look to the era when cottage industry first appeared in order to locate the first occurrence of the term “shop.” This transformation has, of course, been widely discussed in classical economics. As free enterprise began to flourish and small shopkeepers appeared for the first time, the term “shop” began to assume considerable historical significance.
The case of Panmunjôm does not quite fit into this paradigm. Panmunjôm, that is, was a rather special kind of shop: it did not resemble a shop in the traditional sense. An elucidation of the singular character of this store requires an understanding of the contemporaneous geopolitical situation, beginning with the global significance of the Cold War and the fratricidal conflict known as the Korean War. The complexity of this history calls for an explanation beyond the scope of this entry. Panmunjôm was a place where two sides met to engage in negotiations. Both cease-fire and armistice talks similarly require explanations beyond the scope of this entry. Massive tomes containing the complete records of these talks are currently on display at the Kaesông Museum. These records are widely considered one of the most monumental jokes in human history.
The fact that a historian from a certain African republic recently has finished reading through each and every one of these records has drawn considerable media attention. He received a cultural achievement medal from becoming the first person to read these records in their entirety. There were those who publicly called his efforts an utter waste of time, an exercise in futility. One, however, was sparing in their praise of the energy and perseverance — both characteristic of the African people — that he brought to bear on the task. Upon completion of his labors, the African Ph.D. declared the following: ‘It’s a masterpiece! No other way to describe it — it’s a masterpiece.’ There were those who maintained that his conclusion pointed to a certain sarcasm combined with an attempt to console himself for his wasted efforts. Others, however, took a more positive view, asserting that he was marveling at the extent to which humankind could afford to invest time and energy in such an unbelievably preposterous project.
Panmunjôm was located in Korea near the 38th parallel. It could be considered a monstrous conglomeration of impure elements. In other words, if Korea is thought of as a person, Panmunjôm was a boil located somewhere in the chest area. For a boil, it wasn’t very painful. This was no doubt due to the fact that the person was something of a simpleton, not quite up to par, somewhat numb in both mind and body. The person did seem aware of the extent to which it was quite miserable to have such a boil. Nevertheless, there didn’t seem to be anything that could be done about it. The person wanted everyone to share equal responsibility for the occurrence of this boil. Indeed, an examination of the period under questions reveals, that, to a certain extent, objective grounds for this exist. It was, however, utterly impossible to have others accept any responsibility for what had happened. The person was simply considered a little slow, a little insensitive to pain, a little foolish. The person decided just to let things go. As time went by, the person even began to go around displaying the boil; “What do you think? Isn’t this boil quite miraculous, a real curiosity?’ People who considered themselves thoughtful and cultured came to have a look, pointing their fingers at it, sympathetic looks appearing on their faces. They offered diagnoses, wrote out prescriptions, suggested explanations as to what was responsible for its occurrence. The person in question, however, would either merely laugh them off or pay them no need whatsoever. Eventually, these purportedly well-intentioned, thoughtful people gave up trying to do anything about the problem. They came to the commonsensical conclusion that in the end it was only natural that the diseased person would know better than anyone else what to do.
Years passed, and the boil expanded to a monstrous size. Things eventually reached the point where it became a tourist attraction. This place called Panmunjôm became a shop like no other in the entire world. As the term “Panmunjôm,” “a shop with wooden doors,” implies, it indeed had two doors made of wood, one facing south, the other north. These doors would rattle around in their frames every time they were opened or shut. This shop consisted of a long, single-story building with a low ceiling. Inside the spacious room with its wooden floor resembled an elementary school classroom of two hundred years ago. It was perfectly acceptable to enter and exit the building without taking one’s shoes off. Two doors — one to the South, the other to the North. Both made of wood. There was, moreover, a tacit understanding that one should assume a properly dignified, melancholic expression when entering the room through these doors. The southern door was reserved solely for the use of those from the South; likewise, the northern door was to be used only by those from the North. A line was drawn across the center of the room, dividing it into half. Six metal tables had been placed in the center of the room, three on either side of the line.
Metal chairs had been placed behind these tables. Several smaller tables, more chairs, and an array of microphones and loudspeakers had been placed further back in the room. The wooden doors were used two to three times a month. A little before ten o’clock in the morning, cars and buses would pull in from both sides. North and South. Members from the opposed delegations would walk up and down for a bit in an agitated fashion, as if they were thirsting for blood. The northern and southern doors would bang open and the respective parties would stream into the room ready to tackle the issues at hand. They would bustle about settling themselves into their proper chairs. Then they would pull out their pencils and a few blank sheets of paper. Periodically one of them would lean over and whisper something to the person sitting next to him. Finally the leader of the delegation form the South would enter the room — an American of towering stature. The members of the South’s delegation would all rise to pay their respects to him. The metal chairs grating against the floor of the room would create quite a din. Shortly thereafter the leader of the North’s delegation would appear. The members of the North’s delegation would follow suit in rising to acknowledge his entrance. Finally the members of both delegations would take their seats. An appropriately long moment of silence would ensue. It was at this point that the white line dividing the tables would stand out in relief, taking on the weightiness appropriate to a boundary line. The line would, at this moment, be invested with a sense of objective legitimacy. The preliminaries dispensed with, the meeting would officially commence. Three languages would be used — Korean, English and Chinese.
There were no houses worth mentioning to be found in the vicinity of Panmunjôm, only a few auxiliary buildings scattered here and there. Wide fields stretched out in front of the place, while behind was a gently sloping hill. The road presently leading to Kaesông City passes by what used to be the front of Panmunjôm; the current annex to the Kaesông Cultural Center is located behind the former Panmunjôm. It bears mentioning how utterly ludicrous the activities that took place there were, the extent to which the nation’s energy was needlessly wasted. Lamentable, simply, lamentable. One need only imagine our ancestors engaging in such behavior. To add insult to injury, they brought in a foreigner to play the lead role. Imagine the way in which they assumed those dignified, melancholic expressions as they passed through the doors. Perhaps at the time it all passed as ordinary behavior, but it is difficult for us today to see how this could have been considered a state of normalcy.
The rest room of the Cultural Center now sits precisely on the place where the boundary line dividing the room in half was drawn. The whole matter becomes even more absurd when we recall that, according to the eminent historian Professor Sôl, it is the toilet that now sits upon the former border. In the future, perhaps those who find themselves somewhat bored as they sit upon this toilet can ponder the significance of this fact. We must not, however, that Professor Sôl’s theory remains controversial in the academic world. Some maintain that it is not the toilet that rests upon the former boundary line but the door to the toilet. In any event, it is a fascinating debate, one that certainly has drawn considerable attention.
This debate, moreover, allows us to discern the nature of the age in which we currently live. Two hundred years ago such a argument would have been considered mindless, utterly preposterous. From this in turn, we can gain considerable insight regarding the psychological condition that prevails when basic human needs are not being met. Our society has reached a state in which an abundance of leisure time has led consumers to demand ever more personalized and diverse forms of entertainment. It is this that has brought about the recent reliance upon shock value and the increasing turn to the sensational.
(Lee Ho-Chul, Theodore Hughes, Translator, 2005, Eastbridge, Norwalk CT)
Profile: Lee Ho-Chul
By Lauren W. Deutsch
Like other contemporary Korean writers, Lee Ho-Chul’s words hold a place in history for the ongoing events that have made an indelible mark on the people and the land. Unlike most, however, Lee’s mind can fly like a bird through the seamless sky across time and space to project the implications of actions undertaken in the name of reunification. He is an excellent guide to the DMZ, the “place” and the “mind state”.
Born in the northern province of Kangwon-do, Lee was conscripted into the North Korean army at the age of 18 shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War. He was captured by the UN and was released in 1950 in the South. In 1980 he became a leading dissident in the pro-democracy movement and was incarcerated in 1974 and 1980 as a result of his outspoken opposition to authoritarianism. He remains a free man and true to his convictions today, while others still remain prisoners of conscience in South Korean jails. His literary genius has been recognized in Korea and now world-wide including by the PEN writers group. He was appointed director of Korea’s Writer’s Alliance for the Promotion of Freedom in 1985 and in 1992 was inducted into the National Academy of Arts, the highest award given to artists in South Korea. Maybe there is hope.
Unique to Lee’s voice, as the excerpt from his “Panmunjôm” illustrates, is a view of how to honor memory and to go on living. Two volumes of English translations, one of short stories and the other a novel, speak to this: Panmunjôm and other Stories, and Southerners, Northerners. This year both have been published by Eastbridge Press.
In sentiments evocative of Kafka, Sartre and Japan’s recent and second Nobel Lit Laureate Oe, Lee crafts palpable life in the midst of desperation. He counts among his literary influences the Russians Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, and the Americans Poe and Faulkner.
Like other authors’ works written during and about the Korean War years, as well as the Japanese colonial period and totalitarian military dictatorship, there are images of people fleeing thatched-roof homes and being branded as a Communist. Desperate men and women seek scarce employment and lost family members. Self-confidence is all but destroyed.
Lee’s respect of village life gives him license to celebrate the “natural self-governing order” as well as the “laughter, affections and petty jealousies,” states Theodore Hughes, the Columbia University professor who translated of most of the works in the short story collection. “His characters reject class pretensions and societal restraints to come to a spontaneous, mutual understanding of each other.”
Lee is convinced that reunification cannot be achieved by making the all-too-frequent turn to competing ideological frameworks.
“If we complicate matters by agonizing over all the particulars of how to achieve reunification, the problem becomes incredibly complex and difficult; but if we decide to cut to the chase and consider the issue in the simplest manner possible, nothing could be easier.
“People from North and South must meet frequently, become acquainted, build mutual trust, understanding and affection,” he explains. We need to be “pragmatic, to bridge the divide on a han saram, han saram (person to person) level. Gradually, a feeling of commonality will emerge, a sense of han sot bap, sharing the same rice pot as one household. We’ll develop jeong, mutual affection.”
He has experienced this as one of the few lucky Koreans living in the south who supported the delegation of 100 to visit relatives in Pyongyang, meeting his sister for the first time after 50 years of separation in 2000.
“If we go through this process, don’t you think we’ll find one day that without our even knowing it reunification will have arrived right beside us? Indeed, it won’t be that reunification is beside us, but that we’ll have entered ever so naturally into this thing called reunification, we’ll be sitting down together in the midst of it.”