[VIEWPOINT]Wishes on a mountainEleven years ago, I was staying at the city of Yanji in China. That summer, I climbed Mount Baekdu with some Korean-Chinese I’d made friends with. The fickle weather at the mountain top, which is said to show the four different seasons all in one day, usually makes it difficult to enjoy a clear view from the mountain, but we were lucky enough to see the mountain’s crater lake, Cheonji.
I was awestruck by the beauty and majesty of the scenery that lay before my eyes. At the same time, I felt a sense of sorrow that we couldn’t see the lake from the North Korean side of the mountain. Tears welled in my eyes at the thought of my parents who had climbed the mountain two years ago to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday.
My parents hadn’t climbed to see the mountain. They had climbed to the top of the mountain to stand for hours, craning their necks to get a view of the land that lay beyond the border.
My parents are both from the province of North Hamgyeong. When they married, they settled in the south where my father worked. And they never got to return to their homeland. My parents never expressed homesickness or longing for their family members back in North Korea to us. I’d just thought that was because they were such cheerful people by nature. I was too young to understand that the more one spoke about certain things, the more painful they became. They were fond of traveling and when they announced that they were visiting Mount Baekdu, I’d thought it was just a part of their itinerary in China.
But when I told them that I’d be staying in Yanji for a year, my father wrote the names of his seven siblings on a piece of paper. His hand was shaking when he wrote the names. He also wrote all the names of his nieces and nephews that he could remember. As Yanji was not far from the border, perhaps I could meet someone who had news about his siblings and their families, he had hoped.
That hope seemed to give a new life to his already weak and frail body. I gazed at his face in wonder, amazed that this was the same man I’d always known as my father.
It was, however, only as I climbed Mount Baekdu and looked beyond the mountain peaks that I understood the sorrow of my parents. Yet there was nothing I could do. Both my parents died a few years after that.
A few days ago, I was finally able to climb Mount Baekdu from the North Korean side. An aid group supporting North Korean children of which I was a sponsor was to open a children’s hospital in Pyeongyang, and I had the fortune to be included in the delegation.
The flight from Incheon International Airport to Pyeongyang took only 56 minutes. It was even shorter than the trip from my house to the Incheon Airport. When the announcement that we would be landing shortly came before I had finished my in-flight meal, I felt more empty than emotional.
On the fourth day, we flew on a North Korean plane to Samjiyeon Airport. This flight, too, seemed to take about an hour. (I completely lost my sense of time and space in the five days that I spent in the North. Even now, I feel like I could have been visiting a movie set instead of the real Pyeongyang.) From the airport, we rode a small bus for two hours to reach the top of Mount Baekdu.
I’d finally achieved my wish of standing on the other side of the mountain that I’d done when I was standing on the Chinese side 11 years ago. Is 11 years a long or a short time? I really couldn’t tell.
How trifling and light my wish was compared to the desperate dream that my parents held silently in their hearts all their lives. I couldn’t help pondering on the cruelty or folly of human life as I gazed down on the blue waters below the hot sun that would be shining down on Seoul as well.
Someone from the group took out a large piece of paper for the members to write their thoughts. As I stood there hesitating with a pen in my hand, I heard someone say the most obvious comment is sometimes the most expressive. So I wrote the most obvious. Human lives are short, but Cheonji lake is forever.
* The writer is a scholar in women’s studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Hye-ran