Korea: A House Divided
Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas’ legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis
Driving northeast from seoul, I follow the course of the sinuous Han River, past harvested rice fields, up into steep, forested hills. Forty minutes outside the thriving South Korean capital, the Seoul Studio Complex looms like a fortress. Its vast screening and postproduction facilities are burrowed into a mountainside, seemingly impregnable to any bombardment from North Korean positions not far away. Atourist mecca, the complex advertises itself as the largest film-studio center in Asia, with sets familiar to South Korean movie audiences.
First stop for the busloads of visitors is usually the Panmunjom set, a near-perfect replica of the real Panmunjom, the village on the border of North and South Korea where officials of the two nations have met periodically for largely sterile discussions ever since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed there on July 27, 1953. Tourists, crowding into a barracks-like structure, press their faces against the windows of a mock conference room, staring at the dark line that bisects the replica negotiating table. The line, if extended, would run the full 151-mile length of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula. “As kids, we were taught that each side would push its little flag an inch or two over the line that divides the real conference table and the country,” says Jean Noh, 27, the government film commission executive who is guiding me around the Panmunjom set. “Here, people can cross back and forth over the line.” As if on cue, a middle-aged couple request that Noh photograph them standing in “North Korea.” Then they ask her to aim the camera at them in front of the pagoda-shaped gateway to “South Korea,” a portal festooned with a sign reading “House of Freedom.”
It’s not surprising that many South Koreans prefer to contemplate their relationship with the North through the virtual reality of a movie set. The actuality is too complex and terrifying. Fifty years after the war, some 700,000 North Korean soldiers with thousands of artillery pieces are arrayed along the DMZ, capable of devastating Seoul, only 25 miles away.
“The scariest place on earth,” President Bill Clinton called the fenced and heavily guarded DMZ even before he toured it in 1993. Standing at this same border in February 2002, President George Bush called for a Korea “one day united in commerce and cooperation, instead of divided by barbed wire and fear.” Today, tensions have escalated ominously as North Korea asserts it has already processed 8,000 spent nuclear rods from a power plant into material that could be used in a nuclear bomb.
Even a scenario some South Koreans and Westerners would welcome—the political and economic collapse of the North (already suffering from severe food and fuel shortages) followed by a reuniting of the two Koreas—presents a sobering prospect. One global investment bank recently estimated that a sudden reunification would cost the South up to three trillion dollars over the first decade. “This would be far more expensive than the reunification of Germany,” says Sunghyun Henry Kim, a South Korean economist at TuftsUniversity. “Our economy could not possibly afford it.”
Nonetheless, the urge to unite with their northern brethren—to step across the real DMZ—is deeply rooted in the South. “This country was unified for 13 centuries before 1945, when it was divided as an expedient by the United States to prevent it from being entirely taken over by the Soviet Union,” says Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Koreas. In the waning days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and occupied Korea, annexed by Japan in 1910. Under a hasty agreement, Korea was partitioned at the 38th parallel: the northern part of the peninsula came under Soviet control; the southern region, including Seoul, came under the aegis of the United States.
The Soviets and Americans withdrew by 1950, leaving behind two bitterly opposed regimes: the Communist North led by Kim Il Sung, a young guerrilla leader who had fought the Japanese, and the southern peninsula, under an aging, U.S.-backed patrician, Syngman Rhee, who had been elected president by an assembly.
Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean tanks and troops poured across the 38th parallel, capturing Seoul within three days. President Harry Truman appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hero of the war against Japan (and Allied commander of the seven-year occupation of Japan that followed its defeat), as commander of a U.S.-led force of United Nations troops, to roll back the North Korean invasion. In a spectacular counterattack in September, MacArthur’s forces staged an amphibious landing at Inchon, on the western coast not far from Seoul. By October, the North Korean Army was routed and Pyongyang taken. But when U.N. forces neared the YaluRiver, marking the Korea-China border, Chinese troops unleashed a massive offensive, conquering northern Korea and, by January 1951, Seoul. In April, after acrimonious disputes over military strategy, Truman fired MacArthur, who wanted the option of using nuclear bombs against China, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway. The war continued without either side gaining decisive advantage.
Dwight Eisenhower broke the bloody stalemate. Elected president in November 1952 after making a campaign pledge to “go to Korea,” Ike indeed went there, before his inauguration. Bundled up in a heavy jacket, fur-lined hat and thermal boots, “Eisenhower did what he had done so often during World War II,” wrote biographer Stephen Ambrose. “He studied an artillery duel with his binoculars, chatted with the troops, ate outdoor meals from a mess kit. . . . ” Eisenhower decided the war was unwinnable and should be quickly ended on honorable terms. He recognized that North Korea would exist as a separate nation and called for an armistice.
Losses on either side of the newly drawn DMZ were appalling. An estimated 1,000,000 Chinese and 600,000 North Korean soldiers had been killed or wounded. The figure for U.N. troops was about 300,000, more than two-thirds of them South Koreans. Some 37,000 Americans were killed or missing, and another 103,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were even higher. About four million Koreans, nearly one-tenth of the whole peninsula’s population, were killed or wounded, and another five million turned into refugees.
in the half-century since the end of the war that left Seoul in ruins, that city’s population has multiplied ten-fold, to 9.6 million inhabitants, or one-fifth of the nation’s population. In South Korea, per capita annual income has mushroomed 100-fold to $10,000. Other cities in the world have grown as fast, but none has done so while simultaneously shedding poverty for middle-class affluence. I try to imagine how visitors and North Korean defectors and refugees react upon first arriving in Seoul. Are they awed by the phalanxes of skyscrapers sheathed in flashing video advertisements? Do they stand paralyzed at street corners witnessing the endless traffic jams of new automobiles?
Most likely, they share my own culture shock upon encountering Seoul’s marketplaces. Some are bazaars that stretch over a hundred square blocks, their street stalls fusing into shops and multistoried arcades. The shopping frenzy continues even below street level. It’s possible to walk an hour through underground malls without retracing one’s steps.
My own exploration of the city’s commercial center begins at Dongdaemun, or Great East Gate Market, named for an immense stone archway with curving tiled eaves, a monument erected in 1869. (There has been a city gate on this site for six centuries.) Open round the clock, Dongdaemun consists of 29 shopping malls and 30,000 retailers—a vast, crowded maze of shops offering items from shoes to electronic goods (lipstick-size MP3 players, calculators that flash psychedelically, cell phones so tiny they hang from necklaces), from army surplus and camping equipment to chandeliers, from neon lighting fixtures to restaurant refrigerators.
I arrive at Dongdaemun shortly after midnight, when the wholesale clothing market is in full swing. Bus caravans disgorge shoppers and shop owners from around the country and abroad who are here to purchase knockoff Armani suits and the billowing traditional Korean dresses called hanbok, cashmere sweaters and rough-cotton NFL jerseys, satin slacks and faded blue jeans. I’m on constant guard against overloaded scooters and pushcarts. Most dangerous of all are the squads of ajumma—“aunties”—wielding sharp elbows as they hustle their booty back to waiting vans.
Even in this crush, Katya Morozova and Olga Lavrentieva stand out. Tall, blonde Russians in their 20s, they travel to Seoul several times a year to buy coats, jackets and dresses for resale at street fairs in Moscow. In broken Korean and improvised sign language, they bargain with a middle-aged male vendor at the PyeonghwaFashionPlaza, a five-story clothing emporium. “Olma imnikka?”—“How much?” asks Morozova, pointing to a knee-length leather overcoat. She gets a steep discount after agreeing to double her order to 20 coats and pay in cash.
A porter hoists their purchases onto a wooden A-frame, which he straps to his back. With a cane to keep his balance and a shrill voice to warn shoppers out of the way, he leads us back to the Russians’ hotel. I follow Morozova and Lavrentieva on several more buying forays, until dawn reddens the craggy mountain peaks on Seoul’s outskirts. As plaintive Korean ballads blare from unseen disc players, we hover around street food stands for a breakfast of skewered meats, fried minnows, vegetable omelettes, kimchi (garlicky, scorchingly spicy pickled cabbage) and pungent, chewy bundegi, or silkworm larvae, which are definitely an acquired taste.
Sirens begin to wail throughout the city, signaling the monthly civil defense drill against a possible North Korean surprise attack. Residents are supposed to head to the nearest shelter and await the all-clear signal 20 minutes later. I happen to be underground in COEX, one of the largest subterranean malls. I’m exploring the world of PC bangs—computer-game rooms. There are more than 25,000 PC bangs in the city, some with hundreds of candy-colored computer terminals, at which youths spend hours besieging fortresses, playing virtual basketball against anonymous opponents, and flirting on-line with strangers.
According to Oh Yong Tae, a producer for a television network that specializes in on-line games, PC bangs (bang means “room”) have flourished because open space is so hard to find. “There’s not enough space for everybody to play soccer or basketball or just hang out,” says Oh. “So we developed a ‘bang culture’—karaoke bangs to get together and sing, DVD bangs to watch videos with friends, and PC bangs to play games.” To accommodate demand, South Korea has built a high-speed, broadband Internet system that is unparalleled in the world. More than half of the country’s households have broadband connections, compared with 16 percent in the United States.
With 400 computer terminals, Megawebstation, located deep in the COEX mall, is one of the largest PC bangs. It is also the site of tournament matches for Starcraft, an on-line game. Oh’s cable station broadcasts the matches to a nationwide audience of millions. Why in the world, I wonder, would so many people watch televised games they could play themselves? “For the same reason people watch championship golf,” says Oh. “They want to see the best athletes and maybe pick up techniques to improve their own game.”
The premier players are objects of adulation (and endorsement contracts). Kang Do-kyung, a top-ranked Starcraft player, is surrounded by teenage fans pleading for an autograph shortly before a televised match at Megawebstation. “When I was young, I played video games at the arcades five or six hours a day,” says Kang, 20. “I could see I was blessed with a special talent.” His parents didn’t think so. But by 17, Kang was accomplished enough at Starcraft to play in lucrative (prize money can amount to $100,000 annually) national tournaments. His parents stopped objecting.
Today, dressed in white-and-gold gladiator tunics, Kang and his challenger emerge through a dry-ice fog to wild cheers from several hundred spectators crammed into a crescent-shaped arena. The contestants sit at facing computers. An oversize screen displays the progress of the game, which is a variation on cyber warfare. Two analysts on TV explain the players’ strategies and highlight spectacular moves. In less than 30 minutes, Kang routs his opponent, who surrenders by flashing “GG”—for “Good Game”—on his computer screen.
At PC bangs, men outnumber women by at least four to one. Oh suggests that the medieval warrior themes are less appealing to women than to men. “Or maybe women are too smart to spend all that time in front of a computer playing a game,” he says.
But many young women inhabit their own cyber fantasy world. In a computer room at KyungwonUniversity, on a break from her interior design class, Lee Sun-young goes online to show me her personal “avatar,” a cartoon character that serves as her on-line alter ego. Hers is a skateboarder named Sonya, with long dark hair and flamboyant sunglasses. “She’s the type of person I’d like to be—very extravagant and wild,” says Lee, who seems reserved herself, with short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Lee uses her avatar when communicating on-line with friends, each of whom has her own avatar.
Although men and women often meet in on-line chat rooms, South Korea remains a deeply conservative society in which about half of all marriages are arranged with the help of professional matchmakers.
Through friends, I am introduced to Mrs. Yang, a matchmaker, and one of her current clients, Ms. Kim, a 30-year-old sculptor. (Citing the need for discretion, both women insist they be identified only by their family names.) We meet in the coffee shop of a luxury hotel. Yang, who appears to be about 80, wears a sensible blue wool suit and turquoise silk scarf, and carries a large, leather 1950s-style handbag. Many years ago, she was a kindergarten teacher and sang in a church choir. “I met lots of young people in the choir who were looking for marriage partners, and for ten years, I helped such people out for free,” she says. What makes for a good matchmaker? “Taking notes,” she says. “Whenever I hear about somebody eligible, I begin keeping a record on the person and add to it constantly.” When I ask Kim about her experiences with the matchmaker, she says Yang has introduced her to an engineer, an accountant and a lawyer. The first two candidates didn’t last beyond the arranged coffee shop rendezvous. The lawyer became Kim’s boyfriend for several months and wanted to marry her. “But I decided he wasn’t for me,” she says. Yang is sure that in time she will come up with a bridegroom for Kim. “It’s just a matter of destiny,” says the matchmaker. “I have somebody in mind for her at this very moment—a dentist, 34 years old.” Kim winces, evidently thinking her destiny lies elsewhere.
When I meet with Kim for dinner the following evening, she tells me that she is secretly involved with a professor of economics and wants to give the relationship time to grow. She has agreed to the matchmaking charade only to appease her parents.
make what you will of young South Koreans’ obsession with cyberwarfare and the search for the perfect partner, but these pursuits occur against a backdrop of unrelenting crisis. Tensions with North Korea escalated in 1993, not long after President Clinton’s visit to the DMZ.
Through aerial and satellite photography, the United States discovered in 1989 that North Korea had built a secret reprocessing facility that could turn spent fuel from a nuclear power station into weapons-grade plutonium. The North Koreans turned away international inspection teams from suspected nuclear waste sites at Yongbyon, and then, in 1993, threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1994, Clinton ordered the Pentagon to explore a military option against the North Korean nuclear program. “We were dead earnest in the Defense Department both about a strike on Yongbyon and a wider war plan,” recalls Ashton Carter, former assistant secretary of defense. Then, in July 1994, North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, died of a heart attack at age 82. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, then 53, a movie-loving playboy turned despot who is thought to have played a leading role in the secret Yongbyon nuclear program. By October of that year, the United States and North Korea, concluding a series of tortuous negotiations, reached a settlement. Under this socalled Agreed Framework, North Korea would shut down the Yongbyon facilities and stop construction of a nuclearplant at another location. In return, the United States would help the Pyongyang regime build two nuclear power stations for domestic energy production with light-water reactors (whose fuel cannot easily be converted to weapons production). Moreover, Washington also agreed to donate 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually to North Korea until the first lightwater reactor became operational.
Behind North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship was a growing economic despair. Despite an ideology of self-reliance, or juche, as Kim Il Sung called it, North Korea had remained heavily dependent on outside aid, principally from the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, from China. As part of juche, the Pyongyang regime aimed for food self-sufficiency. To compensate for a lack of fertile land, the North Koreans spent heavily on pesticides, fertilizers and electrified irrigation. “They were pursuing an irrational, extremely input-intensive form of agriculture,” says Marcus Noland, an economist and author of Avoiding the Apocalypse:The Future of the Two Koreas.
By the early 1990s, North Korea was in dire economic straits. With the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, aid and exports to North Korea shriveled. The country could no longer finance its agricultural practices. Severe floods in 1995 devastated crops, deepening a famine. Estimates of North Koreans who died of starvation in the last years of the 20th century range as high as two million, more than were killed in the Korean War.
So, Pyongyang used its nuclear facilities as a bargaining chip. “Basically, we had to bribe them with food and oil in order to get them to negotiate over their nuclear weapons program,” says Noland. Under the Agreed Framework, the United States, Japan and South Korea funneled rice and other foodstuffs to North Korea, which relies on outside humanitarian aid to provide as much as one-quarter of the food it consumes.
As it happened, the near outbreak of hostilities between the United States and North Korea in 1994 coincided with a movement in South Korea to promote a more conciliatory relationship between the two Koreas. “For the young, the war and poverty of their parents’ generation are very abstract concepts,” says Yoon Tae-hee, president of Seoul University of Foreign Studies. “Many kids don’t feel any gratitude to the United States and don’t view the American troops here as protectors.” They rallied behind a new president, Kim Dae Jung, who after winning election in December 1997, launched a “Sunshine Policy” to engage the North peacefully. In 2000, President Kim traveled to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il. Agreements followed, with the South pledging economic assistance and the North permitting some citizens to meet with relatives in South Korea for the first time since the Korean War. The unstated hope in the South was that peaceful co-existence and renewed economic growth in the North would eventually lead to unification. In the meantime, “the great majority of South Koreans would prefer to have the North stagger along, allowing more family visits, maybe improvements in human rights,” says Stephen Bosworth, who was U.S. ambassador in Seoul during the early stages of the Sunshine Policy.
A sign of the relaxing of the South’s wariness of the North was the 1999 movie Shiri, which chronicles the experiences of an elite team of North Korean commandos who infiltrate Seoul, trying to provoke another war in the misguided hope that it will precipitate unification and end famine in the North. The film broke all box-office records. “I wrote the script trying to imagine myself living in a neutral country, not emotionally involved with either side,” the film’s director, Kang Je-gyu, had told me in an interview a few days before.
But the new policy hasn’t made the Pyongyang regime any less erratic. It suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again such symbolic gestures as family reunions, and connected North-South rail systems. Far more frightening, the North has precipitated a full-blown security crisis, again involving a nuclear threat.
In January 2002, President Bush, in a speech to Congress, categorized North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil.” The showdown intensified last October, when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang to present evidence, gathered mainly by spy satellites, that North Korea was secretly engaged in a nuclear arms program and also in testing long-range missiles, in clear violation of the 1994 Framework. The North Koreans shocked the Americans by admitting the existence of a weapons program on which they had been working even before Bush came to office.
When the United States decided to suspend the fuel-oil shipments a month after Kelly visited Pyongyang, the crisis gathered steam. In December, North Korea announced it was reactivating a nuclear-power plant that had been shut down in 1994. In January, the regime pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Since then, North Korean officials have claimed that they are reprocessing plutoniumladen spent-fuel rods into enough weapons-grade material to build several bombs a year. And in a brief negotiating session sponsored by the Chinese in Beijing in April, the North Koreans warned the Americans that unless the United States was prepared to offer a nonaggression pact and massive economic aid, Pyongyang reserved the right to test, deploy and perhaps even export part of its nuclear arsenal. President Bush has called the North Korean position tantamount to blackmail. And State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the United States will not “pay for the elimination of nuclear-weapons programs that never should have been there in the first place.”
Meanwhile, Washington’s relations with Seoul have been strained. A new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, won election this past December riding a wave of anti-Americanism. Many voters, especially younger constituents, are determined to see their country take charge of its foreign policy and emerge from America’s shadow. Last year, two South Korean girls in the town of Uijeongbu were fatally crushed by an American armored vehicle, and the crew was later exonerated by a U.S. military tribunal. The incident prompted speculation that the new government would ask the United States to relocate many of the 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
More recently—since coalition forces removed Saddam Hussein from power and President Roh visited Washington—tensions between Washington and Seoul seem to be easing; the North Koreans and Americans have for the time being opted to negotiate an end to the nuclear crisis. But enthusiasm for the Sunshine Policy has waned. South Koreans have been dismayed by charges that former president Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for launching the Sunshine Policy, authorized the secret payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Kim Jong Il to arrange their 2000 summit in Pyongyang. “Kim Dae Jung has fallen into disgrace; no doubt about it,” says Yoon Tae-hee, the university president. Many South Koreans no longer trust Kim Jong Il over the nuclear issue, despite his regime’s avowals that any atomic arsenal would be entirely directed at security threats from the United States. “People find it harder to believe that he would never use nuclear weapons on his fellow Koreans in the South,” says Yoon. “After all, he hasn’t demonstrated much concern about millions of his citizens dying of starvation.”
Still, many South Koreans seem committed to using their nation’s resources to induce a more accommodating attitude in Pyongyang and prevent the North’s collapse. “North Korea is very definitely facing famine again,” says economist Noland. By contrast, South Korea, after four decades of miraculous growth, is on the verge of becoming one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
The basic ingredients of the South’s economic miracle have long been in place: a strong emphasis on education, the creation of export-oriented industries and the concentration of economic power in a few large conglomerates. More recently, after an Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, South Korea has opened up its markets to foreign investors, removed barriers to imports and, most notably, says Tufts economist Kim, “encouraged a huge jump in consumer spending.”
Like so many visitors to Seoul, which can only be described as an over-energized metropolis, I longed for a quiet interlude. Several restored medieval palaces in the city—each a complex of ornate buildings set on expansive grounds—seemed promising retreats. They also offer some of the few examples of traditional Korean architecture in a city whose past has been largely erased. Locals often say that if there is time to see only one palace, it should be Gyeongbokgung. Today’s 19thcentury structure, built on a site dating from 1395, has massive, multitiered roofs of tile and wood. Like other palaces, Gyeongbokgung is divided between buildings that once housed state activities and a residential area with quarters for the king and queen and their entourages.
Adjacent to Gyeongbokgung is the NationalMuseum, with its collection of 240,000 art objects from ancient times through the early 20th century. I’m particularly drawn to the many superb ceramics, among them seventh-century Paekche tiles, depicting supernatural guardians, that were embedded in the walls at palace entrances; early 12th-century celadon wares, beautifully glazed in subtle blue-greens and gray-greens; 14th-century porcelains decorated with bamboo, plum blossom, orchid and chrysanthemum motifs; and elegant white porcelain vases from the Choson dynasty (1392-1910).
But on two visits to the museum, I find myself sandwiched between columns of children on school outings, and solace eludes me. Nearby, the 79-acre Secret Garden of Changdeokgung, another royal palace, built in 1405, is more tranquil. But only group visits are permitted, and the tour guide, while informative, keeps us moving at too brisk a pace to really enjoy the pavilions and ginkgo groves.
Eventually, I repair to a teahouse called Dadamsun, on a narrow, curving street hard by Insadong, a district famous for art galleries and shops selling folkcraft. “Dadamsun” is a contraction of Chinese characters that mean, according to the owner, “Drinking tea encourages poetry and Zen.” Offering only a single room with a table looking out on a tiny garden, Dadamsun provides a perfect setting to enjoy a traditional tea service and quiet conversation—in this case with a friend, Robin Chon, who is an interior designer.
We sit cross-legged on the floor by our table. The paengju, or tea maker, dressed in a long silk robe, offers us a menu of more than 20 varieties of tea. I choose a Chinese tea whose leaves have been allowed to ferment naturally in a bamboo box for 30 years. From an intensely heated stone pot, the paengju ladles boiling water into a small ceramic tea vessel and then pours more steaming water over the outside of the vessel, to keep it near boiling as the tea brews. The first brew is tossed out because it contains dust and other detritus that clung to the tea leaves during the tea’s long fermentation. Over several subsequent brews, we savor the rich, earthy taste of the dark red tea. The heated floor, a tradition in Korean houses, keeps my legs from cramping and adds to the tea’s comforting effect.
Chon was a member of the design team who, in 1994, installed a permanent exhibition on Korean War refugees for the museum at the War Memorial of Korea. She spent months reading histories, periodicals and personal diaries in preparation for the project. “The hardest part was dealing with the exmilitary people who run the museum—they are very bureaucratic,” she tells me. But in the end, the administrators agreed on an installation that would draw attention to the everyday life and suffering of noncombatants, instead of emphasizing battlefield heroism.
Much of the museum space is devoted to weaponry, including tanks and aircraft, exhibitions that attract only a trickle of viewers. Equally empty is an auditorium that continuously screens wartime newsreels describing key battles against the North’s invading army.
Far more popular are the dioramas and life-size wax sculptures, installed by Chon and her team that depict the misery of civilians caught in the conflict 50 years ago. There are shelters made of broken bricks, straw, tin cans, carton boxes and other flotsam of a war-shattered country. There are refugees hovering together over a common pot of gruel . . . an exhausted porter collapsed over his A frame . . . a woman grieving at the news that her husband is dead, while her child looks up at her fearful but uncomprehending.
I follow a troop of wide-eyed 10-year-old Boy Scouts as they tour the exhibit. When I ask their scoutmaster why they seem so much more interested in this part of the museum than in the military displays, he tells me the kids find on-line computer and video games much more riveting than the old war footage. The realistic portrayal of poverty, however, is something they haven’t encountered or thought much about before. Just then, a boy approaches us with a question about an old woman shown scavenging for food. The scoutmaster translates for me: “He wants to know if it’s really possible that his grandmother lived like that.”