Korean Odyssey 2000

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Korean Odyssey 2000

After conquering Troy with a wooden horse, Odysseus hurriedly embarks for home. However, he meets with adverse circumstances on his journey after falling out of favor with Poseidon, the God of the Sea. Odysseus finally arrives in his own country after a 20-year adventure through storms, tidal waves and a shipwreck. He had been confined on an island inhabited by cannibals and battled with a one-eyed monster. He had drunk of the Wine of Oblivion and been tempted by siren fairies and loved a witch.

However, Odysseus comes home to a place he does not recognize. His wife Penelope had been courted incessantly by ambitious men who sought to occupy the throne. She eludes them by saying that she will not marry before completing a shroud for her future father-in-law - weaving during the day and undoing her work at night.

Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar to appear within the castle walls - no one recognizes him except for his hound, who manages a waggle of his tail before dying. Even Odysseus’ own childhood nanny who washes his feet does not recognize him until she sees the scar on his thigh.

After exacting revenge, Odysseus reveals himself his true identity but his wife does not believe her eyes. Penelope embraces him only after he tells her the secret of the deep-rooted tree that prevents their bed from being moved.

Now, we come to 20th-century Odysseus stories, which are sometimes more dramatic than the 3,000-year-old original.

Jeong Soon-taek, a graduate of Kyungseong Commercial High School in South Korea, decides to go to the North because of his frustration with the chaotic political situation following the country’s independence.

In North Korea, Jeong welcomes foreign guests and helps with accounting until he is ordered in 1958 to return to the South - aboard a spy ship. He tells his wife, who is four months pregnant, that he is going to Moscow to study. After reaching Seoul, Jeong is captured even before he makes contact with other spies and is sentenced to 31 years in prison.

Though he did no actual harm to our society, Jeong was found guilty and it’s still doubtful whether he should have been punished for a crime he did not commit on his own free will.

I saw his name on the list of long-term prisoners who wish to return to the North. I only hope that he is allowed to conclude his sorrowful journey of 79 years by going home.

Back in 1950, a young woman named Yu Sun-i from Chungwon County in North Chungchong Province does not tell her husband that she is in her third month of pregnancy when he is taken by the North Korean army. The reason being, she is taught as a wife that she should not worry her husband before he leaves home for a long trip. Her husband’s friends who come back alive say that he is probably dead, but she waits for him and raises their son, whose existence is yet unknown to the father. Perhaps her virtue moves God, because she is informed that her husband in the North, whose death certificate was released years ago, is anxiously looking for his family in the South. The 71-year-old woman who still considers herself a 'young wife' can only say, "Now that I can see my husband again, I have no more wishes!" What a life!

Homer's Odyssey ends romantically - reversing the tragic end that is typical of old hero stories. Modern day Odysseys are more cruel. There are no dogs to wag their tails or nannies to wash their feet. There is no way to exact revenge and the secret of the bed is nothing but a lost man’s illusion.

Seo Jeong-joo's poem "Bride" portrays today’s reality more aptly. On the night of the wedding, the bridegroom suddenly feels the need to urinate and tries to sneak out of the bedroom. When his dress is caught on a nail, he mistakes the nail for his bride who is trying to hold him. Believing that she is being overly amorous, the bridegroom runs away. Many decades later, he happens to pass by their house. He drops in out of curiosity to find his bride in her bridal costume still sitting in the pose she was in during their first night together. He feels sorry for her and tries to touch her on her shoulder. The bride, who has turned into ashes, falls to the ground arousing pink and green clouds of dust.

The number of applicants who want to meet their separated families totals 77,000 in the South alone. If 100 applicants meet their families every month, it will take more than sixty years for all of them to have their wishes fulfilled. I hope the leaders of the South and North do what they can to allow separated people to meet their loved ones before they turn into ashes.

by Joseph W. Chung

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