My parents and grandparents were all born in what is now North Korea. The villages of their birth lay near the North Korean-Chinese-Russian border, which made it difficult for everyone in their families to escape during the war. I’ve never met my grandfather, and my father last saw his father when he was ten years old. We’re not alone: there are an estimated ten million separated families (이산가족, ee-san gajok), including my father’s and mother’s families, divided between North and South. You could fill a whole city with separated families, although this number is dwindling, as the elderly pass away.
‘Notes from Utopia, Inc.’, ‘Searchlight’ and ‘Snowlight’ form part of a sequence exploring the questions of seeing, seeming, saying, interiority and exteriority, in the context of North Korea, where constant surveillance and ‘informing’ mean loyalty to the regime must continually be ‘performed’, every moment spent “watch[ing] them watch you watch them watch each other watching you”. The italicized lines in Section 1 of ‘Notes from Utopia, Inc.’ are quoted from ‘We Have Nothing To Envy in the World’ (세상에부럼없어라: you can see recordings here and here). Kim Il-Sung sang in a church choir as a boy, and his maternal uncle was a Protestant minister, so he thoroughly understood the power of Christian iconography and ideology, and how to use it for his own purposes. For example, he’s still ‘Eternal President’, the only corpse in the world to hold executive office, although he’s been dead for twenty-five years.
After the war, the far north of North Korea – the landscape of ‘Searchlight’ and ‘Snowlight’, where my parents were born, and spent their early childhood – became its Siberia, a region of internal exile for those considered undesirable. Its snowy steppes and crags are cursed with the country’s least arable land and its longest, coldest winters. The borderlands of North Korea, China and Russia, including Dandong and Sinuiju on the Yalu River, called the Amnok River by Koreans, and Namyang, Sanbong, Tumen and Khasan on the Tumen River – are relatively impoverished, compared to the interiors of all three countries. At the same time, these are the places of greatest hybridity, transnational exchange and dialogue. This got me rereading Liu Xiaobo and Bei Dao, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, among others, especially her phrase, “Конец концу!” from ‘Poem of the End’ – “An end to the end!” (trans. Sasha Dugdale), or “the end of the end” (trans. Angela Livingstone), or “the end of ending” (trans. Paul Schmidt). (Polina Barskova may have been thinking of Tsvetaeva in her phrase, “Конца Конца,” from ‘When Someone Dies’ (“the end of the end” (trans. Ilya Kaminsky and Matthew Zapruder). I wrote another poem, ‘Notes from the Demilitarized Zone’, which ends in conversation with theirs: “the end / must also end.” (An early version appears in The New York Times.) ‘Notes from Utopia, Inc.’, however, ends with “no end / to the end.”
Note: with deep gratitude to Sasha and Ilya for their help with the Russian, and the nuances of the phrases in question.
Read Suji’s ‘Notes from Utopia, Inc.’ published in the Summer 2019 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 109, No. 2.