By Oh Yong-su
Translated by Lee Kyung-sik
The original Korean-language version of this prize-winning English story was written by the famed late Korean Novelist, O Yeong-su, and was translated into English by Lee Kyung-sik (Yi Kyung-sik) and published by The Korea Times in Seoul on Nov. 1, 1973. Lee is now the publisher-chairman of The Korea Post media publisher of 3 English and 2 Korean-language news publications.—Ed.
Tomorrow. Sometimes we exist only for tomorrow. As long as there is hope for tomorrow and we dwell only on tomorrow, we will have no despair, for there will be a tomorrow. One of the endless tomorrows, we may see the riddle of our story unravelled.
Two months or so before the armistice was signed I was assigned to a north Korean army platoon which was deployed on a mountain in the central sector near the 38th parallel. Fourteen of us, the last reinforcement group, had left the recruit training camp near Chasan, about twenty miles southeast of Wonsan.
It was late spring.
We hid and slept in the woods during the day and moved on foot at night. On our twelfth night from the training camp, we reached the headquarters of a north Korean army company somewhere in the Odae-san Mountains. The following night, Comrade Pak and I were assigned to B platoon. I called him a comrade, but actually he was old enough to be my father. Two hand grenades and a couple of cups of millet and kaoliang in a bag were given to each of us, and with just this we began to traverse one mountain ridge after another. moving on and on, travelling by night, and hiding in the bushed by day.
We needed sleep. But Comrade Pak untied his bag, stuffed a handful of uncooked kaoliang in to his mouth, and started munching it. "Wild boar! That's what we are!" Comrade Pak spat out at me. He was right; but I purposefully ignored his comment and thought of us chewing raw grain and hiding during the day like the wild boar. Resting under the maze of vines with my head resting securely in the clasp of my hands, I gazed up at the sky that was broken into pieces and listened to the chirping of the willow-warbler that was swept away by the breeze.
Pak kept chewing the raw grain. Suddenly he nudged me in the ribs and asked, "Comrade, how is the war going?" I had the same question but this was the sort of question that should neither be asked nor answered in the north Korean army. One had to be careful at all times, and I had a hunch that Pak might have some secret orders to watch me.
"That's a good question," I told him. "But I have no good answer." Pak said nothing and gazed at the mountain valley absent-mindedly.
"Stupid azalea! It's everywhere!" Pak growled.
"You haven't seen azalea before?" I asked.
"Yes, we have plenty of them at home, and we got much, much more."
Again Pak was right. The bombs and shells had miserably scarred the mountain, scratching the surface, charring the trees, and killing so many lives, but the azalea blossomed in bunches. Flowers covered the ridge and flooded the valley below.
"I am going to find some bellflower or some root to chew; I have got to have something. This raw grain is beginning to nauseate me," Pak complained gruffly to himself. He started to stand up, but I grabbed the leg of his trousers and told him, "We are going to get there tonight and I think we should have some sleep while we can."
Pak made no effort to free himself and lay down again.
I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep. My body was tired like a wet stick of toffee in the rainy season in summer, but I could not relax. Memories of dangerous assignments rose before me like a motion picture, one hair's breadth escape from death following another formed into a vision and then faded into nothing.
"Young man!" Pak called me out of my reverie.
I turned my head.
"You know what?" he drawled with remorse. "About this time of the year, the buckwheat noodles are best back in our village." Pak gulped down his saliva.
I turned back and closed my eyes. He went on, "Put the needles in the juice of winter kimchi from the jar under the ground. Can you feel the taste on your tongue?"
I said nothing. Silence followed. And I thought Pak had fallen asleep.
"Young man," Pak called me again. "Where do you come from?" Suspicions of Pak flowed into my mind. Obviously he had been assigned to watch me. Why? Did my superiors think I needed more Communist brainwashing and political indoctrination? The thought frightened me for my experiences over the years taught me what happened when one was suspected. Comrades had been taken away to Siberia, and others just disappeared overnight. I thought of how careful I must be with Pak.
"I said, where do you come from?" Pak demanded.
"I am front the other side,"
I replied reluctantly.
"I know, but what area?"
"I thought you were from Seoul."
"I went to school there," I told him.
"You ought to be still in school. Why come over here and join all this trouble?"
I did not want to answer, but he would think that I agreed with him if I kept silent, and this could cause me trouble.
"It is no trouble, Comrade Pak," I said. "Have you forgotten that we are fighting for a great cause under our heroic leader, Comrade Kim Il-sung?"
"Do all the other young comrades from that side come for the same reason?" asked Pak.
"Of course, they do!"
They never did.
After the war broke out, I trusted the radio broadcasts which said we should not leave Seoul, and missed my only chance to flee south, I was hiding in my boarding house when a soldier with a Russian-made submachine gun came to the house with the headman of the neighborhood and ordered me out of my room. They escorted me to a school parade ground, where a crowd of young people listened to a speaker. A man next to me nudged me in the side and started clapping his hands, indicating that I should do likewise. I clapped with all the others, but did not hear what the speaker was shouting, for I was intently searching through the throng of students for just one familiar face. When the speech was over, someone cried out, "Let's go, comrades, to Kim Il-sung University!"
We then linked arms. I was bewildered, and followed blindly to "Kim Il-sung University," which turned out to be a recruit training camp near Wonsan. Here we underwent recruit training and thorough brainwashing.
During the training camp and after, I had learned well that telling the truth was like asking to be shot. The only way to survive was to keep telling the lies we were told and to keep our true feelings behind a mask.
"They did? Then why have other comrades gone over to that side?" asked Pak.
"Oh that? Well, er, because they all are reactionaries," I told him.
Pak said no more, and soon I fell asleep.
Pak was up first. There still was a ray of sun, but the mountain cast a long, dark shadow over us.
We started moving again along a valley path. Pak was much better than I at hiking through the mountains.
We arrived at B platoon at down.
I could not determine where we were. The platoon occupied some odd-shaped slit trenches about halfway up a hill.
The first thing for us to do was to dig a trench, These were not temporary trenches but semi-permanent ones in which we could sleep and live. We also dug communication trenches linking one trench to another. Digging only at night, it took us two nights to finish our trenches. We covered the tops of our trenches with sod and planted young pine trees in the roof.
A soldier suggested we plant azalea trees. As I turned around, I saw that every trench had some azalea trees and each azalea was graced with beautiful flowers, Inside the trench, thin twigs and dry grass were spread at the bottom so that we could sit and sleep on them. After the trench digging, there was not much to do. During the day we either had naps or wove rain capes and shoes using arrowroot vines.
At night we crawled out of the trench for fresh air, and sometimes, we crept down the hill and foraged in faraway farmhouses looking for something to eat.
The platoon leader assigned me to handle the entire administrative workload of the platoon. This should not have happened, and the appointment confused me. Even if he had been fully convinced that I was sufficiently brainwashed, it was hardly conceivable that a man like me would be entrusted with this important responsibility. All I could think of was that this must be a trap. Again I was frightened.
The platoon leader's selection was not altogether without justification. There was no one in the entire platoon with enough education to handle the administrative work, as the men of this platoon were either illiterate farmers or mine laborers in their forties from the various mountain regions of Hamgyong Province.
I strained my nerves every time I wrote a message or platoon journal lest the Communists should find it not to their taste. I could not ease my mind even when I was alone in my trench. I felt that I was being constantly watched by an invisible eye everywhere I went.
Each night the platoon leader called me to his hutch and although he appeared to be nice to me, I thought he was testing my loyalty to the Communists.
"I see you are an intellectual, Comrade," said the platoon leader one night as he offered me a cigarette. My heart stopped.
Was it appropriate to call a man an intellectual because he had had one year in college? They could call me what they wanted, but this status which had been the primary cause of troubles I had to go through while under the ever-present invisible surveillance of the Communists. Here on this side of the world, a man's intelligence was subjected to the harshest treatment.
"Th--thank you, Comrade Platoon Leader!" I stuttered. My hand trembled as I reached out to take the cigarette.
"How was the situation in the rear?" asked the platoon leader.
I did not know how to answer this one. I actually did not know anything about the situation back in the rear, so I gave him the cliche, which I thought was the only thing I could safely say. "The people in the rear are continuing their heroic struggle to give us all the support we needed."
The platoon leader grinned and indignantly sucked at his cigarette several times in succession.
"What do you think of this war, Comrade?" asked the platoon leader.
I remembered Pak who sat with me under the vines the other day. Pak had asked the same thing. I know my answer to the platoon leader must be consistent with the one I had given Pak.
"Sir, I see this war as a heroic struggle to drive out of our country the U.S. imperialists, their puppets, and the reactionaries," I told him. The platoon leader made a cynical smile and the said, "You, too, surely have had a thorough indoctrination."
Back in my trench, I mused on what the platoon leader had said that night. There was only monotony and boredom at the front. It could be that he was bored to death with no one intelligent enough to talk to. Probably, as a pastime, he called me to his room and tested me to see if I was fully brainwashed. I thought Pak was the platoon leader's spy and he would have told him everything on me. It was only natural because I carried the label of an "intellectual." I told myself that when the platoon leader told me I was fully indoctrinated he meant that I had a mask on but he saw through it.
The mere thought of Pak spying on me made me shudder, and apprehensions were driving me crazy. I wished for the thrill of combat. Then I could run about like a madman, up the ridges and down the valleys, raving and yelling to my heart's content. I was like a condemned criminal, wanting to die now rather than painfully wait for the day of execution.
The next evening, again I sat face to face with the platoon leader. It was worse that torture. The platoon leader sat in silence for a while. He then suggested that he and I go out for a breath of fresh air. He walked up the hill toward the ridge and I followed after him. It was a misty moonlit night, and I heard sounds of Chinese clarinets form way down the sharp front. They must have come from some Communist Chinese units.
Leaning against a tree and looking up at the halo around the moon, the platoon leader asked, "Comrade, don't you long for home?"
I thought that for a leading question it was a stupid one.
"Never, Comrade Platoon Leader!"
"Do you say it is only natural that we should not think of our home?"
"Yes, sir," I answered. "I have forsaken my home until we have accomplished our great task!"
"Ha! What kind of a humbug is this?" he muttered as if to himself. He picked up a piece of wood and threw it down into the valley.
"Please, Comrade Platoon Leader, I am speaking the truth."
"Truth? What truth? I presume there is a society somewhere in the world where they speak truth," said the platoon leader. Then he turned and walked down the hill.
He sees through my mind, I told myself. His distrust in my background is immovable. Suspicion of one's background is like a death sentence in communist society. There were only two ways open. One was to desert. To do this, however, I was too ignorant of the geography of the area, and I was sure the tight security would stop me. I did not think it was time yet for me to attempt anything so risky.
This left me with only the other choice--report on the platoon leader. The platoon leader had made outrageously reactionary remarks. They were not proper for an officer even though he might have said them to test my loyalty. But this might not work because of the wide gap between his position and mine. Furthermore, he could be a party member. Should it fail, the outcome could be much more harmful than an attempted desertion. I must give it prudent thought and look for an opportunity, I thought, I told myself that I would closely watch every word of the platoon leader.
I strolled about the platoon area. The men were all out of their trenches chewing arrowroots. Only Private Hwang remained lying in the trench, suffering from edema, I could hear the hard breathing of Hwang coming from inside his trench, I put my head into the pit entrance and suggested Hwang come out for some fresh air. Hwang said that he had a better idea and asked me to come into the trench.
As I went near him, Hwang gasped for breath and asked me if I would write a letter to his wife. I told him yes. Hwang talked randomly of things he wanted to say:
"How is I-tae (his son) and Myoung-sun (his daughter)? Are they all right? Has Su-won-ne (his son-in-law) come home? Don't wait for me but seed the millet farm. The potatoes must have eyes by now. So manure the field with ox and horse droppings."
I wrote the letter but I never mailed it. Hwang died two days before the platoon moved to the rear. We buried him in the trench where he had been lying ill.
Three soldiers returned at dawn from a night raid into the village. They brought back an alien knapsack and a rifle, and the following report:
They could not tell exactly where, but they had walked about ten miles when they came upon a village consisting of a few farmhouses in a valley. As they approached the farmhouses, they saw a strange figure moving. They challenged, "Who goes there!" The moving figure answered "ta, ta, ta," which they did not understand.
"Password!" they shouted at him, whereupon the stranger pointed his rifle at them. Comrade Kim, closest to the stranger, quickly moved around to his side, caught him by the neck, and brought him down hard on the ground. The other two quickly leaped upon him, pinned him down, and ended him in silence. They then picked up his rifle and knapsack and brought them back.
In the alien knapsack were a bag of kaoliang and a canteen of soju liquor which was about half full. Judging from these and sundry other things in the knapsack, I could tell the man was a communist Chinese soldier.
That night, the platoon leader drank the soju liquor and offered me a glass. I told him that I drank no liquor, but he said it was an order.
I swallowed down a few drops as if they were bitter medicine. The platoon leader's eyes were hazy with the liquor, but I was afraid that maybe he was feigning drunkenness.
"My friend," called the platoon leader. "You are an intellectual. Just between us two, let's have a frank talk." The platoon leader then gulped down the soju in enormous swallows.
"What do you think of this war?" he asked. "Let us lay our hearts open to each other."
This was the third time he had asked this question, but if he asked me the question ten times, I would give him the same old answer: "We are fighting a heroic war to drive out of our country the U.S imperialists, their lackeyes, and reactionary elements."
"Wait a minute," the platoon leader interrupted sarcastically. "You mean that in order to drive out the U.S. imperialists they have brought the Communist Chinese and Russian troops into the country?"
I had no answer.
"So you think you are going to win this war?" he asked.
"Yes sir, we will definitely win this war. It is our sacred duty and we must carry it out at all cost. Victory is on the side of the righteous ones and . . ."
"Stop talking like a dog," he roared. "What kind of duty? You are a rat! You say you have attended a university and all you can give me is the rubbish!"
Again I had nothing to say. The platoon leader was furious. He continued, "What do you mean by 'righteous ones'? Do the 'righteous ones' point their gun at their own mother and father?"
I did not know what to make of him. If he was wearing a mask, he was going too far. His reactionary remarks were just too much and could bring disaster upon himself. It was a horrible thing to imagine. I pulled myself together and thought I must be much more careful. I made mental notes of all he said and replied, "Comrade Platoon Leader, please calm down."
He shouted, "You stupid dog! Tell me on whose side are the 'righteous ones'? Whom are we fighting for?"
"It is of course for the sake of our heroic leader, Comrade Kim Il-sung."
I had barely finished when he roared, "You stupid dog, are you really going to keep it like this?" He glared at me and his lips twitched spasmodically.
"Comrade Platoon Leader, please,” I pleaded. "I am speaking the truth. I speak from the bottom of my heart. I am loyal to Comrade Kim Il-sung."
He was angry now. He growled, "Stop flattering! What is truth? Comrade Kim what? Get this, you louse!" He threw the soju canteen at me, striking my forehead which started bleeding at once. Blood ran down the face and into my mouth bringing a salty taste.
I sat still. He staggered toward me and cried out, "I am a reactionary! Go back and write up a report on me ... to the Political Security Department. I will write one, too. I will praise you as my best subordinate, the most loyal to Comrade Kim Il-sung." He then broke into a loud laughter and lay down on his side.
I came back to my trench, put a bandage on my forehead, and lay down. I was puzzled. What was happening? One thing I was sure of -- the platoon leader saw through me and knew the secret in my heart.
The next night, the platoon leader asked me how the wound was. He said he did not remember anything. I smiled and told him that he drank a little too much. He said he remembered drinking with me. He asked me, "So why did I smash your head?"
"Comrade Platoon Leader, you were suspecting my background," I told him.
"It is partly true," he said. "Do you know anything about my own background? We all act like monkeys."
"I am speaking the truth, Comrade Platoon Leader," I told him.
"Show me the proof", he said mockingly. "You can't make it unless you have at least reported on your own father and had him deported to a concentration camp in Siberia."
He then turned and walked up the hill towards the ridge. I followed behind him. He looked back at me and said, "There are rumors of an armistice."
My heart started pounding at the news and could hardly control it. I forced composure and said "How regretful!"
"Regretful indeed!" he said, "It is regretful. Now what is your regret in the armistice?"
"I regret it because we have not achieved our great task." I told him.
"Does that also come from your heart?" he teased.
"Yes, sir, I speak the truth."
I said nothing.
He then said, "Forget it. I think that there will be very fierce fighting before the armistice."
"We must fight!" I said.
"Fight?" he retorted. "Do you call your platoon men soldiers? They are a bunch of scarecrows. Two hand grenades are all the weapons they have. Look at the men. They have no food and they are sallow and bloated from hunger. How can they fight in that condition? They will just collapse and die."
"They might send us some food and weapons by that time from the headquarters,"
I assured him.
"Do you think they have food and weapons themselves?" he retorted.
"How regretful!" I exclaimed.
"It is indeed. Only my regret is for a different reason," he said. That night, the platoon leader sat down and looked up into the pitch dark sky for a long time. I did not know for sure, but I could sense that the armies were getting ready for an action on the front.
It was on one of such nights that we had an order to move.
Rain was pouring down hard on the hill in the depth of night. I called out all the men and had them on parade before the platoon leader. He spoke: "We are moving in an hour and we have got to find out the enemy situation in our front before we move. Any volunteers for this important mission, step forward!"
Nobody moved. Seeing that there was no volunteer, the platoon leader made his pick and called their names.
It was Comrade Kil, Comrade Chon, and myself. I stepped forward in front of the platoon leader without hesitation.
His orders were to proceed along three separate routes, scout the front and return to the starting point within an hour. I moved first and walked forward. The other two were responsible for areas to my left and right, one on each flank.
Before I started, the platoon leader patted me on the shoulder, shook my hand, and said, "Good. luck, comrade!
"I will fulfill my mission at all cost, sir," I assured him.
"By the way, where is your flashlight?"
"I do not have one, sir." The platoon leader took out his own flashlight and gave it to me. He said it had not been working well so I was to check the inside if it failed. He also told me that I must be very cautious because on a night like this I might encounter patrols from the opposing side.
I started climbing up the hill toward the ridge. It was pitch dark and I could not see more than an inch in front of me. I crawled using my hands as feelers. Having come over the ridge, it occurred to me that I had the chance at last, But the next moment, I shivered with fear at the thought that Kil and Chon probably had the mission to watch me and had followed me.
I crawled down the slope. My hand touched a tree branch. As I moved forward on the strength of the branch, I heard a dull pistol shot coming from over the ridge.
At the same moment I fell and rolled down the slope. It must have been the platoon leader, for only the platoon leader had a pistol. I thought I was losing consciousness. I was taken in at last. I sensed I was dying now. I wondered what it was like to die. Faces of my mother, brothers, and friends flashed past before my eyes.
But I did not died. I recovered my senses and examined my body to see where I was hit. I moved my hands and feet and shook my head. I was soaked in blood. My elbow and shin ached. I turned around and sat down. I picked up my flashlight and pushed the button, but nothing happened. I twisted open the bottom cap and fumbled inside the cylinder. There was a tightly rolled piece of paper. I took out the roll and tried the flashlight. It lighted. I wiped my face with my hand and brought the hand under the light. It was not blood. I only had some scratches on my elbow and shin from hitting the branches and rocks.
I felt strange to be alive. I should have died if the platoon leader had really shot me. But I was still alive. Had he shot Kil or Chon instead? He must have aimed at one of us three. There was no doubt about it. Is this the chance I had been looking for?
I undid the roll of paper with a trembling hand and brought it under the flashlight. It was a map! There were arrows indicating the route of my advance, which meandered and went around an X, I thought the X was presumably a danger sign. The arrow marks moved forward, across the 38th paralled, and to Hantan River at the upper stretch of the Soyang River, which flowed across the arrow-marked route.
The route crossed the river, went through Inje and Hongchon, and reached Seoul, where it finally stopped. I shivered when I realized what the arrows meant and why the shot was fired. I again felt I was losing my senses. The shock was too great. The face of the platoon leader loomed and blocked my vision. For me, there was no longer an enemy or a reactionary. Home and parents, too, no longer mattered. There was a thing much stronger than all of them.
I dashed back up the ridge calling the platoon leader like a madman. The entire platoon had already left the position without having left a trace of the platoon leader or the troops. The streaming downpour and darkness covered up our empty platoon position.
At daybreak the following morning, I crossed the 38th parallel and then the upper course of the Soyang River.
Short Story Winner:
Suitable Selection of Work Difficult
By Yi Kyung-sik
There have been volumes written by critics, professors, linguists, and writers on the difficulties of translating literature, and I now hope to add the opinion of a translator to the vast well of observations.
The most difficult task of a translator is selecting the correct work to work with. Once this is accomplished, which often takes as much time as the final translation, the work must be read as an American or English reader would read it.
Many excellent Korean works are not suitable for translation because they have scenes which would not be palatable to the occidental conscience. We are indeed unfortunate that we do not have a sufficient understanding between our cultures to make all of our great literary works acceptable to our English
Scenes in typical Korean stories often have descriptions of the characters blowing their nose or easing themselves in an open field, which is too minutely described for the Western taste.
I can vividly remember Englishmen who were fighting on the battle front in 1951 grimmace when shown a commic strip with the droppings of a seagull landing on the face of a small girl as she gazed into the sky counting the flying birds. Other scenes show women being beaten and children mistreated for reasons that Westerners do not understand.
Some stories are just too long to manage although they are excellently written, and there are other stories which have too much misery. In these, the heroine is usually subjected to one misery, hardship, or adversity after another and remains a victim to the end of the tale.
Humorous stories, too, are difficult to translate. Too often the humor lies in puns, witty conversation, or stylized writing, which is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accurately translate while still retaining the humor. Even our standard commical situations that always produce laughter in Korean may be quietly passed by the Western reader.
Good translations also need to conform to the taste of the reader. The translator must bear in mind the tendency of the American and English readers to dislike Koreans using abusive or slang English expressions.
Kimchi, hot pepper sauce, garlic, and dried squid are foods which most Koreans would find hard to live without, but even if canned and labeled by the best American food companies, these foods would not sell in the super markets. Still there are Korean foods like pulgogi, bean sprouts and curds which foreigners find delicious.
The same is true of our literature. There are some works that could never please the Western reader no matter how well translated, while others will have tremendous appeal if prepared properly, Stories written by the most prominent Korean literary figures, like Yi Kwang-su whom many have declared the Korean Shakespeare, are loved by most Korean readers, yet have little appeal for the English reading public.
Popularity is also poor guide for choosing stories for translation. Chunhangjon, or Story of Chunhyang, is perhaps the most widely known story among Koreans. Will an average American or English reader like the story as well as most Koreans do? I doubt it
Contemporary Korean writings are not very tempting because they often lack the uniqueness of Korea, and this uniqueness is the quality that we translators should never lose. Translation should never become Americanization. As translators we are dedicated to presenting the riches of our literature, not transforming our heritage into a multi-cultured collage.
Another pitfall in choosing the proper work is choosing by author instead of by Work. A welcome reception of one story by the English reading public does not mean that all of that author's works are suitable for translating.
I have persued an anthology of one author's stories searching for a story that will be as successful a translation as a previous one, only to find that there was no such story. The author had written several great literal pieces, but only one would make a good translation.
Two years ago today, I won a Commendation Award in the second year of this project of The Korea Times to introduce the English-speaking peoples of the world to Korean literature.
At that time I said I would try to turn out a full-length novel in English. Unfortunately time did not permit this adventuresome project, yet again I will boldly make the same promise, only this time with reservations. I must forced discover an attractive original work, which I hope I have shown is a formidable task for all translators.
Yi Kyong-sik (AKA Lee Kyung-sik) was born in Seoul in 1932. The Korean War broke out in 1950 in his first year in college, so he quit and took a job with the 1st British Division as an interpreter-translator. He enrolled in the ROK Army in 1955 for military service and stayed there for three and half years. Following his discharge from the service, he returned to the translating job, this time with the Eighth U.S. Army, where he worked as a language technician.
In 1971, he won a Commendation Award in the Korea-Times-sponsored Modern Korean Literature Translation Contest for his translation of Pak Ki-won’s short story “Tenacity of Love.” His other published works include: “Korea Chronology 1901-60” (Transactions Vol. XLVIII 1973 published by the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society) and English translation of short story “The Long Rain” (by Han Mal-suk) published in 1973 by The Korea Times.