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Key to answering this question is the flashback that the narrator tells us of how the two men, as boys, caught a crane that they kept and played with. It is only when they fear that this crane will be killed that they let it go and watch as the crane joyfully soars up into the sky:
But the next moment, as another crane from a nearby bush fluttered its wings, the boys' crane stretched its long neck with a whoop and disappeared into the sky. For a long time the boys could not take their eyes away from the blue sky into which their crane had soared.
The crane was an animal that the boys cared about deeply and loved. In the same way, Songsam loves his friend Tokchae deeply, and wants to preserve his life by allowing him to go free and letting him take flight in the same way that they both let the crane go as boys. The cranes therefore symbolise the way in which love and friendship can triumph over ideological differences. They are a celebration of the human ability to let love be the ultimate arbiter in the decisions we make in life.
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