Limjin River—Lee Ho-gun


Limjin River                                                                                           

The river flows down,
caressing and soaking its green riverbanks
on both sides, northern and southern—
Oh, Limjin River! 

What is it that looks so shiny that it hurts my eyes
under this blazing midday sun?
What is it that now soaks and rends my heart
excruciatingly—oh, so, excruciatingly?
Is it the water?
Or is it its vivid color?

No, that’s not it.
It is neither the water,
nor its color.
From this mountaintop, where I stand
in Kwansan village, Limhan-li to the north,
to the foot of Mount Eodun to the south across the river,
the distance is so short that I can almost reach across it by stretching out my arm.
Yet we cannot visit each other on the other side,
since more than half a century…

The crimson rust of the barbed wire
that imprisons this river—
Is it the blood of this river torn apart by the barbed wire?
Or is it the color of bloody tears shed by the families
on both sides of the river,
who are separated and unable to meet each other again? 

Oh, Limjin River, carrying sorrowful resentment!
A river wriggling under enormous animosity!

Thus, in the south,
past Mount Eodun and Mount Simhak,
stands Mount Bukhan, so silently,
and here in the north is the peak of Mount Songak—
mountains like fists
hardened in epochal resentment,
in this epic animosity even heaven and earth would be wrathful toward.
They stand so tall
through and above the clouds.
What hurts us is not the color of the river,
but the knife that slices
every one of our hearts;
the color of that cool knife cuts us.

We will raise you now, Limjin River,
and turn you into the long sword of reunification,
and cut with a single stroke
that barbed wire that binds this mountainside
and those awful separatists who divide us.
We will mow them down,
banishing them forever
from our global village,
and from the history of our times. 

Only then, oh, then, you’ll finally
become again the true river, rather than the knife,
and we will shed tears of joy,
while steering the reunification ferry of our dream,
carrying people from the foot of Mount Eodun in the south—
splash, splash…
soaking its gunwales
soaking our hearts… 




By Kim Chang-gyu (poet, priest, and member of the Writers Association of Korea)

This poem is included in North Korean poet Lee Ho-gun’s collection We Sell Train Tickets to Reunification Here, published in 2005. Every word in it testifies to the Korean people’s pain caused by the division of their country. It is a non-partisan work of sincere yearning for reunification, from the perspective of a speaker overlooking Imjin River on its northern bank. Ideology does not have a place here. The poem only tries to acknowledge our wounds from division. I met Mr. Lee Ho-gun for the first time in the waiting area on the second floor of the Sunan Airport in North Korea in July 2005, when I visited Pyongyang to attend the Inter-Korean Writers Conference. During the five nights and six days of the event, I had several chances to enjoy meals with him and also to occasionally share a Taedonggang beer. He was a good-natured and honest person. It was deeply moving to go on visits with him to Milyong in Mt. Paektu and Lake Chon on the mountain’s summit. He told me that two people who had deeply inspired him were the South Korean activist and politician Lim Su-kyung and South Korean activist and poet Reverend Moon Ik-hwan. Lim Su-kyung had made an unapproved trip to North Korea in 1989 to attend the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, as a representative of the South Korean student organization Jeondaehyop. Moon Ik-hwan had also made an unapproved visit to North Korea in 1989 to discuss the possibility of reunification with North Korean leaders. Both were jailed after their return, because South Korean law bars contact with avowed Communists without prior governmental approval. Mr. Lee told me that he had realized during their visits how genuinely South Koreans also wanted reunification.


Translator : Seung-Hee Jeon
(literary critic and translator, editor of Asia: A Magazine of Asian Literature)



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