Nothing grows in frozen soil.
Address Unknown concerns the tragic lives of teenagers and their parents living in Pyongtaek, a small town in Korea that has long been dominated by a U.S. Army base. The title refers to a Korean woman’s unanswered letters to a U.S. serviceman (the father of her son) which are always returned to Korea stamped “Address Unknown.”
At the center of the story are three teenagers. Chang-Guk, the bastard child of a Korean prostitute and a black GI, lives on the outskirts of town in a converted red American school bus with his mother. Ji-Hum is the son of a disabled Korean War veteran and works as a painter’s assistant in a portrait shop. The third is Eun-Ok, a guarded schoolgirl who lost her father in the war and an eye to her brother’s childhood war games. Although none of them realizes it, they are all disabled veterans of the Korean War, the military conflict that supposedly ended fifty years ago.
On the face of it, their problems are those of average teenagers. Chang-Guk wants to get a better job. The shy Ji-Hum carries a torch for Eun-Ok and is often bullied by two neighborhood crooks. Eun-Ok is deeply introverted and lavishes all her love and attention on her puppy. And yet these typical teen concerns are caught up in a reality that is violent, cruel and tragic.
Chang-Guk supports himself and his mother with a detested job as assistant to a dog butcher, the only man in town who will give the mixed-race boy a chance. When he manages to get a laboring job in a grain factory, he is first ignored and then unjustly accused of theft – simply because he is such an easy target for suspicion and prejudice. Ji-Hum’s crush on Eun-Ok is entirely innocent, but he has to watch as she is raped by the bullies and then as she starts dating the American soldier who pays for her vital eye surgery. At first Ji-Hum passively accepts the bullying and disappointment, but even this sensitive boy eventually resorts to violence. And Eun-Ok, the insecure schoolgirl, finally becomes a “western princess” – a whore for foreigners, just like Chang-Guk’s mother and so many others – and an easy lay for a U.S. serviceman who takes her innocence in exchange for a small gift of kindness.
In modern times, Korea has been wracked repeatedly by stormy global forces. After surviving colonization and attempted cultural annihilation by the Japanese, Korea became the first war zone for the dueling ideologies of the Cold War. The legacy of war remains today as Korea is still divided by the world’s most heavily fortified ‘demilitarized zone’. Chang-Guk, Ji-Hum and Eun-Ok are figures in this uniquely Korean landscape, unable to escape the withering pull of historic tragedy. As the story unfolds, one comes to understand how all of the characters have been indelibly branded by Korea’s modern history, which quashes their struggles to achieve individual freedom and dignity.
The story’s protagonists all confront utter despair. Their attempts to be true to their mothers, friends, and lovers all end in destruction, unable to blossom on the frozen ground. Chang-Guk’s mother finally receives an answer to her letters to the United States, but symbolically no-one has survived to read this message of redemption.