Beyond Ideology: The Poetry of Separation in South Korea

By Hannah Garrard

I’m looking across the 4 kilometer green belt of land that separates South Korea from North Korea. Left virtually untouched for sixty years, red cranes and wild deer live here, gently picking their way around thousands of landmines scattered amidst the ginseng, diamond bluebell, Russian iris, and clematis. The scene is hushed and still. The so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ) is the most dangerous nature reserve in the world, and symbolic of one of the oldest, and still active, ideological splits in history.

Through binoculars, I count the silvery peaks of mountains that break the sky, and signify North Korean territory. I’m acutely aware of the magnitude of the division of an entire nation, whose collective history stretches back three thousand years—disunion that is marked by grim, bloody civil war. The time my five hundred Won allots me is up, and the view blinks out. I must make way for the one hundred and fifty other tourists behind me, eager to clamber onto the viewing platform and inhale its awful beauty.

The haunting parallels of separation and unification that a visit to the DMZ conjure sit heavy for tourists. But for many Koreans, the DMZ is a grim reminder of a deep and personal loss. This starkness is echoed by the modernist poet Hahm Dong-Seon’s  work, the  very literature of separation. Hahm’s poetry has captured the essence of loss, love, and a desire to return home for as long as the armistice has been in existence.

The hurt of missing is in distant places. —When the Dogwood Blooms

Korean poetry is not widely accessible to English language audiences, but Hahm Dong-Seon is a national icon in South Korea, and a rare public voice that comes from life on both sides of the demilitarized border. Readers are offered a glimpse into the national psyche through Hahm’s lyrics—and his boldness to speak of his country’s ‘one ness’ in spite of its ideological division.

I’m a butterfly again. / searching for the one who lost her heart/ to the tum tum tum of the drum. —When the Dogwood Blooms 

Hahm does not take sides, neither does he sit on the fence, but instead insinuates that it was in the interests of others that the peninsular was split along the 38th parallel: America and Russia who, “threw the owners out”.

The legacy of great powers/…lives on in history/ as the armistice line the demilitarized zone —Tunnel No. 3

Hahm was born in 1930, twenty years after the annexation of Korea by Japan, and fifteen years before sovereignty was returned. He lived throughout the civil war that ravaged the country between 1950 and 1953.  When the peninsular was split along the 38th parallel, Hahm’s hometown, Yonbaek in the Hwangae province, became North Korean territory by just a few kilometers.  His family was forced to leave Yonbaek during the fighting, and after the border was drawn and the DMZ declared, he was powerless to return.

Hahm was fortunate to have narrowly escaped a lifetime under the Kim Il Sung legacy, but it is easy to forget that life was lived on the peninsular long before cold war politics put it onto the global stage.

In 1938, the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was banned in schools under an erroneous act of ‘cultural assimilation’; it was during this period, throughout his middle and high school education, that Hahm began writing poetry. Despite the prohibition of his mother tongue, he still bloomed into the scholar and wordsmith who helped posit the Korean struggle within 20th century literature. He earned a PhD in Korean Literature, and was later awarded the Modern Poet’s prize in 1979. Hahm still teaches creative writing at Jeju College of Literature, and is a member of numerous writers’ associations and societies in Korea. His prolific works and essays have earned him the title “creator of modern Korean literature” in literary circles.

Hahm’s roots are in the province of Hwangae, which incorporates the enormous factory compound Kaesong International Complex. The compound is both an economically lucrative district and ‘problem area’ for North and South Korea. In fact, since 2002, it has been the only site where the capitalist South has had any affiliation with the communist North. A variety of South Korean companies have set up manufacturing facilities in the KIC, and employ around 50,000 North Korean workers to make products that are then transported to the South. On a clear day, security tour visitors can see across to the ‘industrial village’ that houses the district’s North Korean employees. The KIC is a geopolitical point of pride for South Koreans, who see it as a symbol of cooperation and goodwill towards the North, who are desperately in need of economic favors.

The complex aims to raise the standard of living for North Koreans, whilst providing expansion opportunities for South Korean businesses, as well as cheap labor. It is also the only site of daily North/South dialogue that has otherwise reached a stalemate in the last decade, and remains a symbol of the benefits of peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

The border tour then takes visitors to Dora Mountain Station, which was built in 2007 in the hope of transferring materials to the Kaesong district. In 2008, it was closed by the North after a period of undisclosed tension, and since then further ‘hostile’ incidents have prevented the station from being reopened.

The station sits ready and waiting, on tenterhooks for its next passenger, who will one day exit the main building under the sign which says “To Pyongyang”. Its main hall is deserted and unused, save for the tourists who snap happy and marvel at its slick architecture. Footsteps echo as the last tourists exit and the building is once again empty. Watercolor paintings of trains proudly thundering through an imaginary landscape hang on the wall. The atmosphere in the station is naively earnest, its infrastructure built in an excited flurry.

Dotted along the border are six infiltration tunnels (and possibly more) that have been uncovered and opened up to tourists. The direction of the dynamite blasts signifies that North Korea dug the tunnels, yet the country still denies this. The tunnels are celebrated sites of foiled attacks on the South; an Aladdin’s cave of moody detail to sell and package to tourists. Grilled off about half a kilometer in, visitors can relish under an atmosphere of audacious trespassing before they are forced to retreat and make their way back up, thankful for their hard hats under the low, damp ceilings.

In his poem ‘Tunnel No. 3’, Hahm speaks of the suffocating fear which a journey through the tunnel pressed into those who would have used it. Which direction the speaker in the poem is travelling, is ambiguous. Perhaps it is a journey north, home, or a journey south, escape.

Silence creates its own terror/ with every step taken. / It’s dark at the far end;/ the darkness seemingly drawn by a thick brush. —L 11-14

But the darkness is eventually replaced by light, a lifetime of unrest escaping like water through broken floodgates.

I crawl out of the tunnel: forty years/ of refracted unease front my nose. / Sunlight seeps from my nose. —L 17-19

The poem speaks nothing of ideological polarization, but a simple wish of quiet solitude and a modest, traditional burial. Something so many Koreans were denied during the bloodshed.

On the hill where I want to sit/ I see the daisy flea bane – there/ during the war when I peeped into the other world-/they fill the eyes, / blooming with the sound of the funeral bier handle. —L 20-24

Hahm’s poetry of identity and self-reflection is plotted against a uniquely Korean landscape. It is forever haunted by the memory of separation, and a pervasive sense of loss. Nature imagery that is made explicit in Hahm’s poems can be read as implicit themes connecting back to separation and the desire to return home; however, his intensely painful personal experiences are not unique, and are thus elevated to the national level:  pain that was familiar to thousands of his generation and on.

In his poem “My Brother is Always Thirty-Four”, Hahm speaks of the steadfast commitment and loyalty to Korea in the face of persecution administered by those who channeled the communist ideology that drove the country in half:

My brother- despite the bayonet prods of the/ North Korean soldier urgent in retreat-/ bowed to the village shrine, / bowed and bowed again.

And like so many others who were taken and captured—“He never came back.

A profound love of his country, yet absence of sentimentality can be seen through Hahm’s cool, realist perspective. The DMZ is itself a place void of any mawkishness, but DMZ iconography has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. Gone are the images of wolverine-like North Korean soldiers and threadbare civilians. In their place is a desire to educate its visitors on the events that have shaped the DMZ’s history.

Korean tradition and natural beauty are expressed passionately throughout many genres and mediums of Korean art—from the customary materials still used in modern art to its modern poetry. The visceral imagery Hahm portrays—of “low draped clouds” and “tender leaves”—is made all the more real after visiting to the DMZ, where the absence of chaotic urban life allows the land to thrive, as if no one was ever there.

I finally made my visit to the DMZ after eighteen months of living in South Korea, and it was here that the irony struck me: the Korean peninsula can never truly be divided, because of its division: peace on one side defines peace on the other. The future of the two Koreas is unknown, but without an active participation in the dialogue that surrounds the armistice, the gap will only widen, ideological dogma can only prevail.

But through the arts and education, through poetry, we become mindful of the individual and his generation. Hahm represents the innocent victim in the sixty year old disunion—his poems speak beyond the ideology that broke the peninsular, and we can’t help but empathize.

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