I Met Loh Kiwan ~ By Haejin Cho
(University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2015, translation Ji-Eun Lee, ISBN #978-0-8248-8003-3)
Review by Bill Drucker (Fall 2020 issue)
Beautifully written with compassion and thoughtful introspection, this gem of a modern novella is about a marginalized North Korean refugee and how his life moves a journalist to retrace the refugee’s past two years in Europe.
His defection story is told in flashback by the TV journalist, Kim, who narrates the story. The intertwining stories of journalist Kim, refugee Kiwan Loh, cancer patient Yunju, TV producer Jae, and Dr. Pak (a friend of the refugee), set the dynamics for this moving story.
Kim reads an interview in H magazine, a candid confession of a North Korean defector called by the pseudonym “L” (Loh). His sad story stays with her. Two weeks after reading the story, Kim emails the writer of the article.
A subplot is that Kim’s decision to delay the story of Yunju’s illness for several months leads to her being misdiagnosed and to develop late stage cancer. Due to guilt or shame, Kim leaves the show. Her relationship with Jae had already failed. Producer Jae accepts her resignation without saying anything.
Kim decision to trace the story from L’s diary is not an excuse or a substitute for a new job. Going to Brussels to start searching for Loh does not disconnect her from Jae or the sick woman Yunju, who was facing surgery. Three months after the journalist responded to Kim about the refugee interview, Kim is on her way to Belgium. She learns that a Dr. Pak would assist her to find the more recent whereabouts of L.
In Brussels, Kim meets the journalist who introduces her to Dr. Pak, a man in his 60s. Pak informs Kim that the North Korean left Brussels for London about a year ago. Pak, born in Pyongyong, crossed the border with his mother during the Korean War, and had to flee with his wife from a Seoul medical school due to his involvement in a political controversy. Pak completed his medical studies while in France. The couple had two grown children, and his wife had recently died. Kim sensed she was causing the old man pain and torment. Pak offers Kim the use of his city apartment, which he said he seldom used.
Loh defected with money from his mother, and crossed into Yanji China alone. From there, a broker pointed Loh to the South Korean Embassy. After some time, Loh was asked where he would like to go as a final destination. After he chose Belgium, Loh is sent there and in the process, separated from half his funds by greedy brokers. He had found a room in a hostel on Rue Nueve, near a McDonald’s. Loh begins to keep a journal at this point. “I feel like I’m on a different planet,” he begins.
In Seoul, Yunju deals with cancer and chemotherapy. The strained calls she receives from journalist Kim are not comforting nor guilt free. Although the medical bills are being taken care of, Yunju is in a fight for her life. Like the refugee L, she is alone with her suffering.
Kim wonders how defectors and refugees outside the port of entry, face the challenges alone. Stripped of country and citizenship, they are not liked or wanted. The new country treats them like eternal strangers. She wonders what triggers refugees to pick a particular state to be their new home …Germany, France, England or whereever? Was it a roll of the dice or did someone whisper in their yearning ear of this wonderful, new state? From Loh’s narrative, she discovers that the Korean-Chinese broker tells Loh “Go to Belgium.” “Applying for refugee status is easier there.” So that’s how Loh had landed in Brussels.
Kim checks into Room 308, where Loh had lived. The room is small, dark, and spartan. Nothing in the room suggests to Kim the feeling that Loh ever stayed there. The gruff woman at the front desk recalls the little Asian man who had been there.
For Loh, the days had been lonely and cold, and he is empty from hunger. Around Christmas, weak from starvation, he faints on the street. When he wakes up, Loh is in the police station. Due to his small size, the police guessed he was around 13 and either abandoned or a runaway. They take Loh to a suburban orphanage.
At the orphanage, Loh gets clean clothes and a holiday meal. The other children watch the small young man eat non stop. The children do not like this new foreign intruder. During the night, they wrap Loh tightly in a blanket and take turns beating him. Loh accepts the beatings passively until the children get tired of the nightly assaults.
Kim walks around the orphanage where Loh stayed. She meets the director Ellen who remembers him. She tells Kim how surprised she was when Loh told her his refugee story. Ellen had called the South Korean Embassy, which halfheartedly responded. Ellen relates that she then called the Belgian Ministry of the Interior. A representative showed up two days later, and for the first time with official support, Loh submitted an application for refugee status.
Photographed, fingerprinted, and given a health check, Loh obtains asylum in a new country. At the Ministry of Alien Affairs, Loh meets another Korean, Dr. Pak. Neither could have predicted the meeting in a foreign land would forge a special friendship. Both seemed to understand each other’s pain of exile and the loss of loved ones.
Reading the last pages of Loh’s dairy, Kim smiles for Loh’s change of luck. He is given a state stipend, housing, and a temporary resident permit. The two years of despairing exile were over. He was healthier, working in a bakery, learning French, and had developed a close friendship with Dr. Pak. He met a Filipino woman named Layka. He was happy for the first in a long time. The status of his residency in a country not his own was of no consequence. He was content to be here, alive, and in love.
Kim finds some absolution from her own exile from her search for a refugee first known only as L. Her meetings with Dr. Pak were sometimes charged, as both had things to hide. She talks about Yunju, and she surmises that Pak had a role in helping his gravely ill wife to pass peacefully. Both Kim and Pak understood the burden of guilt.
Yunju leaves a phone message for Kim to call her. When Kim calls back, the two talk and forgive one another. Dr. Pak gives Kim one last note about Loh, saying he left Brussels to go to London, where Layka had moved. Kim boards a plane to Heathrow to finally meet L.
Author Haejin Cho was first in the literary spotlight in 2004 and since her writing debut, she has solidified her reputation as an award-winning, modern Korean writer. She has published four novels and three short story collections. I Met Loh Kiwon was a 2013 Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature winner. Translator and author Ji-Eun Lee is associate professor of Korean Language and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.