[VIEWPOINT]A demilitarized zone of the heart“Dear sir, I bought a new pair of shoes. I ate Chinese noodles. My shoes are very nice. My wish has come true. My grandma said it’s all thanks to you. Thank you, rich sir!”
This is part of a letter from In-ho, a third grader to whom I give 10,000 won ($8.30) every month through an organization to help him with living expenses. He is orphaned and lives in Wonju in Gangwon province with his grandmother, who snips off thread ends from clothes at a garment factory to earn 100,000 won per month. I don’t know how In-ho managed to buy a pair of shoes and paid for Chinese noodles with 10,000 won, but it is miraculously huge money to him that “makes his wish come true.” So every time he writes to me, he calls me “rich sir.”
I turned the radio on and a religious broadcaster was interviewing a needy mother. Her husband lost his job during the IMF bailout of Korea and came down with a mental illness, and she now has to support her family all alone. According to her, there is a small hamburger place at the corner of an alley leading to her house, and her heart breaks whenever she has to pass the place. Her fifth-grader and third-grader know to pretend not to see the place, but her youngest, a first-grader, always fixes his eyes on the fast-food place.
On a recent day, the report went on, they were walking by the place and her youngest child stopped again in front of it. The child looked into the store for a while and then called to her, “Mommy!” At this, her heart sank because she couldn’t afford to buy even a 1,500-won hamburger. But her child said, “Mommy, let’s buy that laaaaater, shall we?” She said she had felt a pang in her heart reading her child’s hopes in the long, drawn-out word.
Last Children’s Day, a TV news program had a report from a rich neighborhood where people lavished money on their children. For those people, the reporter said, it was nothing special to buy expensive foreign-made infant formula and diapers, 200,000-won clothes or even a million-won toy for their children. In one reported incident, a child brought a million-won bank check to the store by himself. When the shopkeeper called the child’s mother, she said in an annoyed voice, “What’s the big deal with a mere million won?”
Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist who went on to become a British prime minister, subtitled his novel “Sybil” (1845), “The Two Nations.” He pointed out that the biggest task for England, fraught with political and social problems, was to narrow the wide gap between the haves and have-nots.
The division of Korea between the rich and the poor is perhaps more serious for us than the partition between North and South Korea. Alth-ough we live in the same country, rich Koreans spend more lavishly than even people in the world’s wealthiest countries can imagine while poor Ko-reans lead no better lives than people in the poorest countries.
As if we are using currency of different units, 10,000 won could be a meager amount to the rich, while the same amount could be a huge amount to the poor. In a way, this is sadder than the division on the Korean Peninsula. The geographical division occurred against our will; and despite the physical separation, our hearts are united as one. But the hearts of rich Koreans and poor Koreans are divided. The rich ignore the existence of the poor while the poor hate the rich.
The relationship between the North and the South becomes closer little by little, but the distance between rich and poor Koreans is becoming wider and wider.
* The writer is a professor of English literature at Sogang University.
by Chang Young-hee