Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.

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That’s Korean Entertainment: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of Non-Summit

By Colin Marshall

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

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But Korea, as I’ve written here before, lags behind the rest of northeast Asia in foreigner integration, especially of the linguistic variety (the only kind of integration a foreigner, especially a Westerner, can really achieve here). A popular television show that features a group of them every week does its part to alleviate that condition, though that very popularity would seem to indicate that Korea, unlike Japan and China, hasn’t quite made it out of the stage where a foreigner can attain celebrity status by competently speaking the language. Dave Spector, known across Japan as “Dave-san,” put down stakes there in 1983; Mark Rowswell became the Chinese public’s beloved “Dashan” when he appeared on a 1988 New Year’s broadcast watched by 550 million people.

Non-Summit has come closest to creating a similar breakout personality in Tyler Rasch, the representative of America during its first two seasons. By background and inclination a quick and thorough language-learner, he seems, just like the mild-mannered Rowswell, to draw resentment from other foreigners as he does admiration from the locals, who invariably describe him as a better Korean speaker than they themselves. “It used to be that people in Korea would praise my Korean abilities. But now that so many foreigners fluent in Korean are appearing on TV, the mood has changed,” writes the film critic and longtime Seoul resident Darcy Paquet. “People may not say it out loud, but I know it’s true: in their heads, everyone is comparing me to Tyler.”

Clearly the smartest guy in the room — and one who certainly didn’t force the editors to cut creatively around his speaking deficiencies — during his time in the American seat, Rasch vacated it in June, leaving viewers to wonder who would hold up the show’s high level of discourse. But it makes me and his other foreigner fans consider a different question: what do you do after Non-Summit? Many non-Koreans here complain of having “hit a wall,” but most of them came to teach English and, having never learned Korean to a high level, can’t find a way out of the industry they never really meant to get into in the first place. Work in Korean media, no matter how acclaimed, may present a similar dead end; scratch the surface of half the foreign-language broadcasters here, and you’ll find something like desperation for a job back “home.”

At least they have endorsement deals. I’ve seen Rasch pop up in language-product ads on the internet, and just about equally famous Ghanian Non-Summit colleague Sam Okyere in ads on the subway. Okyere, who’s also moved on from the show, must also have wielded serious influence behind the scenes, since the producers seemed to allow only him to have a normal-looking hairstyle. Everyone else’s hair juts out and swoops around in all manner of ridiculous angles, the better to complement their flashy suits (often with chasm-like collar gaps) and glowing makeup — the dire aesthetic fate, perhaps, that inspires all those warnings about not submitting to the Korean televisual machine.

Or maybe they refer to the layers and layers of extra text and graphics applied, as in so many Korean television programs, to enliven the proceedings, underscoring slights and embarrassments, intensifying emotions, and hammering on the occasional mispronunciation. They also have a good deal of fun with the icons and traditional costumes of each representative’s country of origin, one of those practices that gets so many foreigners — mostly Westerners, and then mostly Americans — firing off accusations of insensitivity, condescension, racism, and what have you from the moment they arrive. But the show has also made an effort, against expectations, of introducing representatives from nations it could have overlooked, like Egypt, India, Mexico, and Iran.

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It once had a Turk at the table — naturally, given the Turkish-South Korean special bond — but that didn’t work out so well. Over the first twenty or so episodes, Enes Kaya made his name as the show’s conservative loudmouth, referencing at every opportunity his devotion to family, respect for tradition, abstention from alcohol, and so on. An American viewer, witness to the constant disgracing of their own fire-and-brimstone preachers, homophobic politicians, and aggressively wholesome sportsmen, would have known exactly what to respect. But Korean viewers (the society’s dim view of its own sexual morality as revealed in novels and films notwithstanding) still haven’t fully recovered from the shock of revelation at the texts Kaya, already married to a Korean woman, exchanged with his girl (or one of his girls) on the side.

That degree of scrutiny provides another good reason not to go on Korean television, as does the fear of becoming what the expat-in-Asia parlance calls a “performing monkey.” Non-Summit doesn’t exactly downplay its freak-show angle: the Korean title, 비정상 회담, translates as “Abnormal Summit,” and the concept’s basic humor comes out of holding up anyone so patently eccentric as a Korean-speaking foreigner as a “representative” of anything. But I suspect that the success of these shows has less to do with the fascination of watching any particular foreigner than watching other Koreans interact with foreigners. (Non-Summit also brings on a steady supply of pop stars, actors, and other famous Koreans for its representatives to chat with.)

That fascination extends beyond the television screen. As one Korean friend (who happens to run an online Korean-teaching empire) put it, “If you’re a foreigner riding the subway with a Korean, every other Korean onboard is watching to see how that Korean is interacting with you.” Whatever the language of that interaction, the “audience” wants to observe how one of their own engages with, to use the academically fashionable term, the Other. And though you could probably live out your life in Seoul without once having to appeared on television, as for avoiding the subway… well, you’ll sooner learn to speak Korean like Tyler Rasch.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

Among the Korea Vloggers

Why Is Korean So Hard?

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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Where Is Korean Translated Literature?

By Charles Montgomery

Over the next two months, the LARB Korea Blog will feature chapters from a draft of Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress titled The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, an attempt to give a concise history and understanding of Korean literature as represented in translation. Here is the introductory chapter.

Almost every English language reader would immediately recognize the words “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach” as the first line of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, a work that helped define his style and changed literature forever.

Or, quote to an English reader the line “Mother died today,” and they might well immediately recognize it as the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. If they did not recognize it, perhaps one would only need to begin humming “Killing an Arab” by the English band The Cure to make the literary allusion obvious. Though written in French, The Stranger has been translated and not only read, but incorporated into English-language culture in such a way that it can become not just a hit as a piece of literature but a hit in popular music as well.

To go even farther back in time, one can quote the famous line, “The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts,” and the savvy reader will immediately recognize the first line of Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars. Some might even recognize this quote in its original Latin: “Gallia omnis divisa in partes tres est.”

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” That might be a bit more obscure, but it is the first line from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which sold out upon its first day on sale in Japan and has been translated into many languages with first editions published in at least seven countries (Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, and Greece). You could go to your local bookstore and immediately purchase this book, most likely in English, perhaps even in some language other than English or Japanese. 1Q84 has also been translated into Persian, Chinese, and Korean. In Korea, the book sells as a three-volume set, as it originally in Japan, but in Korean literature, it has few if any equivalents.

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An educated person might well recognize “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy’s sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their mind” as the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey, or “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s,” as that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

All of these first sentences cross time, space and language, to achieve immediate recognizability to many English-speaking readers of fiction, whether that reader knows the original language at all, or even that the works come from other languages in the first place.

Yet ask that same reader about the following classic lines from Korean literature in translation:

“Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?”

“Perhaps we ought to begin this investigation into the deviations of his life by evoking the problem of memory.”

“Fighting, adultery, murder, theft, prison — the shanty area outside the Seven Star Gate was a breeding ground for all that is tragic and violent in this world.”

or one of my all-time favorite first lines in Korean literature,

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

It is an almost certainty that the “well-read” reader of translation will not recognize the first line, from Kim Young-ha’s brilliant detective novella Photo Shop Murder. The second line, nearly Nabokovian in nature, comes from Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet, and the third from Kim Dong-in’s translation of the tragic Potatoes. The last sentence is from possibly the most successful translation of Korean literature to date, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and, it is worth noting, a kind of spiritual heir to the first line of The Metamorphosis).

There is, in fact, possibly only one opening line that many readers of Korean fiction might recognize: “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” And yet, ask yourself if you actually did recognize this line from the other candidate for most successful translated work of Korean fiction in history, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom.

Now consider the following plots:

A young, sexually abused hacker takes revenge, with the help of an older male journalist, on her abusers.

A deranged knight on horseback, followed by his loyal companion on burro, tilts ridiculously against windmills.

The adventures, misadventures, and disillusionment of a young man who ends up wanting nothing more than to tend his own garden.

A great, but blocked author visits Venice and finds himself obsessed with an extremely attractive young man. While the writer suffers the pangs of unrequited and unattempted love, he dies of cholera.

To many readers, these plots would be instantly identifiable as those of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Don Quixote, Candide, and Death in Venice. But describe the following story to any English-language reader (or non-Korean speaker): a young boy and a young girl meet while playing by a stream. They meet again and form a kind of friendship. Suddenly, a cloudburst appears out of the sky, forcing the boy and the girl to take shelter in a cramped stack of millet. The story ends with the girl dying, her final request being that she be buried in the same clothes that she always wore when she met the young boy.

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This would most likely ring no bell with a non-Korean reader, even though it comes from Sonagi (“Cloudburst”), among the most famous stories in Korean fiction. In fact, until quite recently one would have been hard-pressed to come up with any plot description of a Korean story that a non-Korean would recognize.

When I presented at conferences in Korea, I would always begin with a thought experiment. Imagine someone at a cocktail party in any intellectual city in the English-speaking world. The topic might well turn to literature, at which point the question might arise: “Who is your favorite author from (insert any country here)?” It is easy to imagine a partygoer with quick and easy answers for many countries: Japan, Asia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, China, and so on. But faced with the question of “Who is your favorite Korean author?” our hypothetical partygoer may feel the immediate need to go refresh their drink.

And this is the unfortunate position in which translated Korean literature now finds itself, despite yeoman’s work from translators, publishers, the Language Translation Institute of Korea, and others. Despite a few breakthrough works, Korean literature has not succeeded to a level weaves it into the intellectual fabric of the Western world. The good news is that this seems to be slowly changing, and The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation will look at Korean fiction through translation, trace its influences and development, and suggest where an interested non-Korean-speaking reader might begin — in some sense, an “idiot’s guide” to translated Korean fiction.

To understand Korean fiction, we must first discuss some of the historical and social influences that have made it what it is, and to some extent helped keep it off the international literary map. This discussion will occur two posts from now, and chapters from The Explorer’s History will appear here at a pace of about one per month. I would love to hear any feedback that readers of the Korea blog might have on them.

Related Korea Blog posts:

 Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea

By Colin Marshall

Book-length first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have so far come in two waves: one in the 1890s, and another in the 1980s. Or perhaps, given that they produced only a handful of works each, long-form first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have had more like two splashes. But though few in number, these books have held up through the decades: here on the Korea blog, I’ve already written about Percival Lowell’s Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea and Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, both published in the 1980s, both earnest, witty, and by modern standards massively detailed attempts to replicate in text the life and landscape of an obscure and frustrating but ultimately endearing country few of their readers could imagine, let alone visit for themselves.

The second wave, or splash, of Korea books happened in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, an event now regarded as the reconstructed South Korea’s debut on the world stage. Simon Winchester, the writer of popular history and a traveler of British Empire vigor, took the whole country on foot and published his experiences in 1988 as Korea, a Walk Through the Land of Miracles. The journalist Michael Shapiro spent a year here around that same time, chronicling the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1990’s lesser-known The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, which interspersed his high-level political observations with everyday ones about life in the country he briefly called home.

That same year, another American Michael, the poet and playwright Michael Stephens (also professionally known as Michael Gregory or M.G. Stephens) came out with Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. An inversion of Shapiro’s proportion of the political and the personal, the book draws on the New York-born, New York-raised, New York-based Stephens’ marriage to a Korean woman, and five or six of the visits they made, young daughter in tow, back to her homeland in the 70s and 80s. Its fourteen essays, all framed by his interactions with the pseudonymous family Han and their culture, find ways deal with Korea’s history, language, and politics, but also its variety of cultures: commercial, military, shamanistic, drinking.

The marriage put Stephens among a colorful cast of Korean characters, not least his chain-smoking, eyeshadowed opera singer wife, here called Haeja, the only member of her family to have settled in America. She’s spent a full decade away by the time of their first trip to Seoul together, meant in large part to introduce the family their two-year-old daughter Fionna (who, in real life, grew up to become the filmmaker Mora Stephens). A pack of excited relatives comes to pick them up from weary old Gimpo Airport, Korea’s only port of entry by air at that time long before the construction of the perpetually award-winning Incheon International. But soon an air raid drill — just like the one that opens Chil-su and Man-su — has halted all traffic into the capital.

 “Haeja, Fionna, and I climb out after the Hans,” Stephens writes. “The siren whines and whines incessantly, and I half expect that we’ll all be diving for cover under the cars, hands over our heads, waiting for an incoming artillery from the lunatic communist horde.” Fear soon gives way to fantasy: “I’m already composing the copy to be smuggled out of the city at dusk via medivac helicopter to an American military base in Japan, where it’ll be wired to the New York Times — which will of course run it on the front page under my byline.” Passages like this, and others on the U.S. as well as the protest-bashing local military presence in the streets, capture the martial tone of South Korean life that lingers to this day, though (the occasional unexplained siren aside) the air raids have long since ceased, the tear gas he smelled in the streets has dispersed, the American soldiers seldom stray far off base, and the Korean ones look younger and more harmless by the year.

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 Even in the late 1970s, the regimentation of the postwar period had begun to loosen up, though the book opens with Stephens in a South Korea still run by developmentalist strongman Park Chung-hee. “Any day,” he reflects while making his way through busy market alleyways and factory-thickened air, “this nation will slough off that label ‘third world.’” In the only scene of his and Haeja’s life in New York, he gets home after day his university job to the news of Park’s assassination by his own security chief. Grimly fascinated, he can’t stop himself from asking questions about the event on his next visit to Korea, even as he dines on pseudo-French cuisine high up in the newly built Lotte Hotel — albeit early, “in order to have a full evening on the town before curfew,” adhering to the terms of the martial law then in effect.

By the final chapters, with the Olympics looming, the Koreans around Stephens have begun to speak of democracy in non-hushed tones, even at as staid a gathering as his mother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday party. He describes the event, which celebrates the most important age milestone one can pass in Korean culture, as “like those gala balls found in nineteenth-century Russian novels.” Indeed, Seoul itself “reminds me of Moscow a century earlier, or should I say, it reminds me of that city I think I know from Russian literature of a century ago.” That may reflect his elevated coterie: Haeja’s family, though not, strictly speaking, aristocratic, maintains powerful government and business connections, and most of its members live in a large, servant-staffed traditional Korean courtyard house, renovated by Haeja’s architect-scion stepfather and located right next to the residence of the president.

 That, combined with the very title Lost in Seoul, leads one to expect a standard memoir of the coddled, uncurious, and often hired American abroad. Standing at a deliberately uncomprehending distance, they grind out interminable pages of futile struggle with laughable foreign customs, unappetizing foreign food, and incomprehensible foreign language — the sort of thing, in other words, that hit its intellectual apex with Dave Barry Does Japan. But in many ways, Stephens has written the opposite of that, the story of his ever-deepening relationship with, especially at the time, a poorly understood and little-respected culture.

 “I grew up with bitter old men cursing the Korean peninsula because they fought a dirty war there,” he writes, scraping together whatever impressions of the country could have preceded his marriage to one of its people. “Their minds were filled with images of rubble, gutted landscapes, biting chill, Chinese hordes, napalm, claymore mines, frozen ghosts.” Whether meeting Haeja drained these frightening second-hand memories of their power or sparked a latent interest in Korea he doesn’t say; in fact, he says nothing of the courtship at all, though he does make several connections, explicitly and implicitly, between his wife’s heritage and his own.

 “Her crazy face reminds me of a redheaded Irish aunt with a bottle of whiskey in her,” he writes of a Korean spirit medium deep in the throes of exorcism. “The Irish of Asia,” once the standard shorthand description of the Korean people, evokes hard work, binding family ties, and, not unrelatedly, hard drink. But like many Westerners in Asia, even those married into the society, Stephens enjoys a certain degree of freedom from societal expectations, and even faux pas — smoking in front of his elders, giving too-colorful ties as gifts — stay off his permanent record. Not so Haeja, who immediately upon stepping onto Korean soil again becomes, in an official sense, “a wife and mother, two important roles to add to her repertoire in this familial world, where she is already daughter, sister, and aunt, each with its own complex decorum.”

 Despite the comforts of the Han household and its accommodations (including but not limited to an order given to its servants to replicate a daily “American breakfast” as best they can), Stephens eventually chafes against it as well. Hence the titular state, which he finds “sometimes the only way for me to experience Korea away from the overprotectiveness of Haeja’s family. When they are not too carefully watching out for my well-being, they are often too caught up in the pride of being Korean, in wanting to show their Western relative an airbrushed, charming side of Seoul.” Not a scene in the book takes place in, say, the subway (the Hans keep a driver, or drivers, always prompt with the pick-up), or in one of the lookalike tower blocks already on the way to becoming the standard form of Korean housing in the 1960s.

 Yet Stephens develops a keen eye for the city, then as now “a hodgepodge where the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor live side by side.” The concentration of wealth in what this book refers to as New Seoul, now far better known in the West as Gangnam, has since introduced more segregation into the cityscape, but visitors from other countries still quickly take notice of the relative proximity of the seemingly disparate, from social classes to architectural styles. Nor does its distinctive religious iconography escape them, as it doesn’t Stephens, who takes early note of a mountaintop atop which “a huge neon cross proclaims JESUS SAVES!” — and, in another direction, a Buddhist temple. “My eyes freeze,” he writes, “on a swastika painted just under the rooftop.”

 His attempts to get a handle on the distinctive morality and philosophy underlying Korean society lead Stephens to pronounce its people “Confucians socially, Buddhists when times are difficult, but they are animists nearly always.” The dynamic between the sexes, in which “men flaunt power” while “women finesse theirs,” comes explained to him mostly by the men in Haeja’s family, or at least those who willingly bring him into the Korea’s closed masculine circles. Much of it comes from the expansive, gregarious, aspirational (and also English-speaking) Uncle Mo, would-be quasi-royalty severed from the benefits of his pedigree by his illegitimacy. “Write about the women,” goes his advice to Stephens about his book in progress, “but always remember that Korea is a great country for men.”

 And just a few pages later: “If you are going to write about Korea, forget about the men. The women are the real story because everything about them is so subtle, nothing is what it appears to be.” He says this during the same driving range coffee-shop conversation in which he describes himself as a feminist and during which — “it is difficult for me to act like anything but a man in public” — he gruffly orders around and leers animalistically at their waitress, neatly demonstrating what might look to a Westerner like the unhealthy contradictions of Korean gender relations. “For most men, romance comes outside the home,” says another middle-aged Korean man, providing a clarifying addendum to another lecture of Uncle Mo’s, delivered in the locker room of another golf course. “’This is so,’ agrees a businessman, toweling himself off.”

 One personality has more vividness on the page than Uncle Mo: the diminutive, foulmouthed, Grandma Oh, long-widowed and with nothing to do but drink, smoke, and issue various complaints and pronouncements — to “be herself,” in other words, “as irascible and unhappy as that self may be, and accept everyone’s esteem for her. Americans would have sent her to a nursing home long ago. In a Korean household, she is not just tolerated, she is venerated as the great elder of the family.” Then as now, Koreans tend to regard those past the age of about eighty, coarsened, stiffened, and stunted by the sheer difficulty of their lives, as living totems of their country’s hardships. As, in a way, does Stephens: “I feel that if I can explicate the furrows, the cracks, the wrinkles, the deep lines on her cheeks and her brow, in her chin and along the bridge or her nose, I would understand all there is to know about modern Korea.”

 Sometimes, these bent and cranky senior citizens also become unlikely fonts of progressivism, Grandma Oh being no exception: “There’s nothing wrong with a good woman marrying twice,” she declares more than once. “Nothing at all. This is a new era.” Haeja’s mother, after the death of her own first husband, remarried herself, doing so in an era when such an act would have put her decidedly on the vanguard. Despite having been born in 1896 (just a year after “the great matriarch Queen Min had been assassinated by Japanese gangsters,” an era-ending death recounted in detail by Isabella Bird Bishop), Grandma Oh understands the changes sweeping South Korea better than the younger people who supposedly represent them, from the foreign-educated relatives with their surly demands for justifications for every tradition to the teenage Korean-Americans shipped in ostensibly for cultural enrichment. “I imagine that Korean parents driving by probably point them out to their children as examples of what will happen to them if they’re not good,” Stephens says of one such group, dyed of hair and theatrically irreverent of manner, hanging out on a street corner.

 A Seoul city block can change unrecognizably in a matter of months, or even weeks, a pace already set when Stephens first arrived on a background where “about every third building, there is an excavation,” to a soundtrack of “jackhammers, honking horns, whistles, shouts and combustion.” It must owe, then to his sense of the timeless that the neighborhoods through which he describes wandering (when not chauffeured), despite thirty or more intervening years, remain recognizable in the text today. Seoul, as he puts it late in the book, “is where I gather myself, where I put myself back together” on each trip he, Haeja, and the teenage Fionna (fast growing, in Stephens’ description, into of those increasingly alien Korean-Americans herself) eventually make each rainy summer season during the university break.

 Lost in Seoul‘s editor at Random House certainly demonstrated foresight in shepherding the book to publication — maybe too much foresight. Korea had, for the first time since the war, become a big subject in America in the late 1980s, albeit not quite big enough to eclipse the even more astonishing, and thus more anxiety-inducing, rise of Japan, its larger, outwardly sexier neighbor as well as former colonizer. (This opened a river of first-person Westerner’s narratives of Japan, not just by Dave Barry, that still hasn’t quite run dry.) But more than fifteen years of economic stagnation having since neutralized the Japanese threat, the Land of the Rising Sun has lost some ground to the Land of the Morning Calm as an Eastern site of Western cultural interest. It helps that Korea now wields “soft power” in the form of pop music, films, television dramas, and even literature, whereas in the 70s and 80s it seemed to offer practically nothing of potential international interest — in other words, nothing cool.

 But Stephens, a self-described rumpled academic who first brought to Korea little more than his knowledge of “basketball, open-form American poetry, western drama, Buster Keaton, I Love Lucy, and Thelonious Monk,” has little concern for the cool. But his interest in poetry provides him a lighted tunnel into the deep culture of Korea, a place where it holds popularly acknowledged primacy over all other literary forms. My copy of Lost in Seoul came, seemingly untouched, straight from the estate of a Pacific Northwest poetic luminary. Inside I found a letter written to her by Stephens himself: “As the enclosed book is as much about language, and specifically poetry, as it is about Korea,” it begins, “I thought it might interest you.”

 Stephens incorporates his own translations of Korean poetry in the text, and references to the Western variety appear with some frequency. (He titles the third chapter “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.”) But the interest in the Korean language itself sets him apart, to my mind, from his contemporaries, not just in the endeavor of writing about Korea, but in the endeavor of joining and understanding, to the extent possible, a Korean family. (Most of the first Korean-married countrymen I met, in the late 1990s, didn’t just know little of Korea but insisted on calling their wives by their comically bland “American” names.) He devotes much of another referentially titled chapter, “Politics and the Korean Language,” to the complications of speaking it in the particular way properly suited to one’s age, status, and origin. He even develops a certain ungrammatical, drink-lubricated fluency in the language himself, which is more than many long-term expatriates here can say for themselves.

 In the letter paperclipped into my copy of the book, Stephens also mentions that it “has not yet received too many reviews” despite several months on the market. Now based in London, he seems not to have written much about Korea since, and though Lost in Seoul remains reasonably easy to come by at the better libraries (I first read it at the Koreatown, branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, when I lived in the neighborhood), I have yet to meet anyone, in America or in Korea, who recognizes the title. Ironically, this long-out-of-print book now has more relevance than ever given the West’s rising Korea-consciousness, as well as the incomparably more thorough integration of Koreans into the outside world.

 Back in the era of air raid drills and political assassinations, a Western family member was still a novelty; now at least half of my American friends have married someone from Asia. The only one of them who’s yet read this book on my recommendation happened to marry a Korean woman himself: he has, forty years after Stephens’ experiences, his own Haeja, his own regularly South Korea-stamped passport from visits to his own Hans, and as of this year his own Fionna. Whether he’ll take the next logical step and write his own Lost in Seoul remains to be seen, but I sense that the time has in any case come for the book-length first-person narrative by Westerners in Korea, whether in another splash or that long-awaited wave, to return.

 Related Korea Blog posts:

 Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Gwangju Uprising as Remembered by The Vegetarian Author Han Kang and Other Korean Novelists

By Charles Montgomery

Previously I discussed William Amos’ The Seed of Joy, which I described as a rare work of fiction on the Gwangju Uprising by a non-Korean author. For an event so critical to South Korea, the Gwangju Uprising has generated surprisingly little fiction in translation, but there are a handful of excellent books by Korean authors that deal with it. The first thing a reader will notice is that while Amos’ work focused on the actual nuts and bolts of the Uprising, the Korean works tend to focus on the aftermath of the events.

These Korean authors rarely focus on the government created in response to the Democratic Movement, nor the culpability of that government in the events of the Uprising. Along those lines, it is also interesting that little mention is ever made of the role, or lack thereof, of the United States in the Uprising, yet several studies indicate that the Gwangju Uprising was the beginning of a powerful switch in public sentiment against the United States, which many believed was either implicitly or complicity involved in the Uprising’s quashing.

Considering how critical the Gwangju Uprising was to South Korea’s Democracy Movement, the translations of these works have been rare. Comparisons are not exact, but think about how much French literature has been written about the barricades of Paris, or U.S. literature about student revolt in the 1960s and 70s. Why has Korean literature been so restrained? The literary critic Chʻoe Chŏng-un, using the kind of logic that his colleagues worldwide might use, posits, “the uprising was like fiction, with a clear beginning and end, teeming with unimaginable incidents. In other words, it would be difficult to write fiction on a bizarre story.” But this hardly seems sensible, as many equally bizarre historical stories have been written, and more obvious reasons exist.

The first apparent reason not much fiction was written about the Gwangju Uprising was purely political and practical: to write about the Uprising was to invite extremely uncomfortable government attention. From the time of the event until 1987, the Korean government zealously guarded the meaning of the Gwangju Uprising to the point of attempting to control the vocabulary used when discussing it. “Murder” by policemen was quickly morphed into a “riot” by citizens, according to Chʻoe, and when the Uprising was mentioned, it was portrayed as the result of “impure” elements in Korean society who were prone to “incite,” “riot,” form a “mob,” and tend toward “anarchy.”

In fact, the government even attempted to rename the Uprising and denature it to an “incident.” Simply put, writing about the Gwangju Uprising invited imprisonment, torture, and perhaps even death. In Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards, the author’s biography notes, “the society of the 1980s was a regulated one, where social criticism, not to mention that of Gwangju of May, was absolutely forbidden to be expressed.” Even after the dictatorship was scraped, it was often dangerous for writers to produce anything that could be seen as pro-North or anti-government. As we shall see, however, clever writers could sometimes skirt this prohibition.

More recently, there has been a changing of the guard in Korean society to a younger generation that simply cannot connect with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Korea exists in such a constant state of future shock that looking backwards seems quaint at best and unproductive at worst. Ch’oe Yun, who we shall shortly discuss, notes that “since the latter half of the 1980s, Korean society has changed. I admit that to some degree the actual events of the past have become an abstract concept in our history.”

Ch’oe adds that this is most likely a survival tactic for Koreans. “This does not mean that I simply want to criticize younger Korean readers for being oblivious to the past. I even wonder if it was forgetfulness of the extremity of the past events that actually helped Koreans to move without fear into the future and build their modern nation. Also, I can only speculate about whether being oblivious in this way was in itself a positive source of energy in a uniquely Korean way.” Not surprisingly, a majority of those who did write on the Gwangju Uprising were involved in it, were members of the Democracy Movement, were from Jeolla Province, or sometimes all three. Among this number are Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, and Lim Chulwoo.

One of the groundbreaking works on Gwangju, however, was written by a resident of Seoul. Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent into and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The girl is utterly traumatized, prone to seizures, and follows her abuser around under the mistaken notion that he is her dead brother. All the characters are damaged. Even the abuser is afraid that “the girl would end up just like those coins, slipping through his fingers, trampled by countless feet, covered with earth, and forgotten for all time.” This idea of death and forgetfulness will be revisited in Human Acts by The Vegetarian author Han Kang.

Ch’oe’s girl is an obvious symbol of Gwangju, and her state a reflection of what Gwangju itself underwent after the Uprising was crushed. As Han does in Human Acts, Ch’oe contemplates the role of memory: the desire to both remember and forget. Ch’oe’s girl desperately tries to construct a “curtain” with which to hide herself from her past. Yet even as she does this, she remains conscious of the fact that memory is all that is needed to tear the curtain down, and even that defensive curtain is unreal. Memory is an obsession, curse, and perhaps a kind of gift. As is the case with characters in Human Acts, the girl communicates with the dead in order to keep memory alive, saying, “Don’t put your hand over your ears while I’m talking. If you do, I’ll turn to dust. Now that I think about it, I’ve died and come back to life again and again.”

Ch’oe’s multiple narrators parallel the often fractured language, imagery, and telling (particularly by the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work partly owes to the fact that, while it is clearly about the Gwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where its own atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre. This was likely also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time. “When dealing with a brutal and desperate reality, reality can actually become an anti-literary environment for the writing of reality,” he notes in an interview with Japan Focus. “This is because the momentary utility of literature is always situated in conflict with a more universalizing, literary sense of time which seeks to leap beyond the limited, representational time which literature possesses. I believe that it is from the dilemma of the two temporalities, the two objectives – the writing of reality and the creation of reality through writing – that in fact all genuine literature which writes reality has been born.” It is amazing to note that the stunning There a Petal Silently Falls was Ch’oe’s debut work. The book was also made into a Korean movie titled Petal, for those who prefer their literature in a visual form.

Han’s Human Acts begins with the completely average scene of a schoolboy worrying about the rain for the completely unusual reason that he is afraid that it will speed up the decay of some corpses he is attending. The bodies belong to the victims of the Gwangju massacre. The story quickly turns, as did that of There a Petal Silently Falls, to issues of death and remembrance. “There is no way back to the world before the torture,” one character notes. “No way back to the world before the massacre.” Han lived in Gwangju but moved to a suburb of Seoul at age nine, just before the Uprising. As a result, she is very interested in the idea of a “way back to the world” that has been left behind, an issue that she addresses directly in her final chapter.

Human Acts comes hot on the heels of the award winning The Vegetarian, and packs every bit as much punch as it’s predecessor. Originally titled The Boy Comes (소년이 온다), Human Acts is told in a collection of linked chapters, almost a yŏnjak sosŏl, meaning a “linked novel” or collection of separately published short stories. Only the first two chapters are set at the time of the Uprising — the former in the immediate aftermath told by the living, the latter narrated from the perspective of the dead soul of a young boy on a charnel heap. In chapter three, the book leaps forward to 1985 where it explores the ongoing governmental efforts to dominate the national discourse.

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This control is, of course, exactly what forced authors of the time into indirectness or inspecificity when writing about the Uprising. Chapter Four flashes back to the torture visited upon survivors of the Uprising, managing to present it as horrible and quotidian at the same time. Chapter Six is the “traditional” end of the book with the mother of the dead boy giving a monologue to him on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Surprisingly, Han concludes the book in with a first-person memoir of the real story that underlies the book and her own experience coming to write it. This section gives a very real historical heft to the work, strange as it might seem to find in a novel.

Han’s writing is much more visceral than in many of the other books, as she presents a modern version of Coleridge’s nightmare life in death. “Just before you step outside, you turn and look back over your shoulder,” she writes. “There are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink.” Han is unsparing, and while her virtuoso second chapter featuring the dead boy could have become ghoulish or camp, she carefully plays it straight. She frequently uses the kind of second-person narrative voice heard in Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, but in this much more serious book, the effect is also much more serious, and the “you” seems to alternate between a standard second-person narrative and a direct appeal to the reader, forming part of the most comprehensive treatment of the Gwangju Uprising with its scenes from the actual massacre right up to the writing of the book.

Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards is nothing if not anguished. Lim was a student at the time of the Gwangju Uprising, attending Chonnam University, the original center of the demonstrations, and he lived through all the events of the Uprising. Not surprisingly, this informs much of his writing. The novella indirectly focuses on the massacre the national attempt to overcome it — or pretend it never happened. That indirection comes from Lim’s having written the story in the 1980s, that time at which publicly attacking the government, or even discussing dissent and oppression, was extremely risky.

Lim drops the reader directly into the life of an ex-cartoonist directly addressing a doctor. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the narrator has been dropped off at the hospital by detectives who have been torturing him, and that their return, though without a particular timetable, is likely inevitable. In flashbacks, the narrator reveals that he once led a quite ordinary life as a cartoonist, but fatefully drew a cartoon that aroused the attention of the authorities. While never revealed to the reader, it causes the cartoonist to be taken in for questioning, complete with a semi-concealed threat by the police that they remember” his uncle, clearly a political dissident who went into some kind of exile or died in hiding. This threat, and the recognition it brings to the narrator that he is powerless and entirely observable, opens the floodgates in his mind.

The narrator is then overtaken by hallucinations, all barely concealed flashbacks to the Gwangju massacre. Lim uses symbols brilliantly, including the two in the title and at least two more brilliant ones during the course of the story. The lack of control that the title symbols express in the book is almost palpable: breath is squeezed and political lines brutally delineated. Lim fleshes the story out with enough family and social background information to both expand on the history (at least one other character lives in the grasp of Gwangju massacre-induced mental illness), and he does a good job of counterposing these characters against the others, including the cartoonist’s pregnant wife, who are apparently willing to forget the past and simply try to live through the present.

With these three sets of characters — the banal day-to-day survivors, the threatening agents of repression, and those who cannot forget and therefore suffer — Lim builds a pressure cooker. As the hallucinations grow and tighten around the cartoonist, he begins to cartoon again, unofficially, and this leads him back out into the public eye and the novella to its “conclusion.” The book is well written and clear enough that specific knowledge of Korea is not necessary to enjoy it. The interrogation scenes have the scent of Kafka, and the descent of the narrator is reminiscent of familiar stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or George Orwell’s 1984, while also exposing a thick slice of Korea and its culture.

Lim has previously been translated in the three-novella collection Red Room, which takes its title from his contribution, and it, too, seems to make clear reference to the Gwangju Uprising and its results. Lim’s short story “The Red Room” features dual and dueling narrator-protagonists. The first is a mild-mannered everyman/salaryman O Ki-sop whose casual act of kindness many years before and slightly suspect family background combine to draw the attention of the Korean state security apparatus. The second is Detective Ch’oe Tal-shik, who can say, like Macbeth, “I am in blood, / Stepp’d so far, that should I wade no more, / returning were a tedious as go o’er.” The story tells of Ch’oe’s attempts to break O down.

Not only does “The Red Room” feature dual narrators, but Detective Ch’oe also has his own internal narrators that represent the voice of his traumas (one from his domestic life, the other from his distant past). This internal narration gives him a sometimes-problematic inner dialogue: he is a man of contradictions, perhaps more contradictions than one character can conveniently contain. It is not that it is unlikely that a man of high standing in his church could also be a torturer (cf. the Inquisition), rather that such a character should also have such clear inner awareness of the sources of his own trauma, be so able to connect those traumas to his existence in his daily life and aware of their outcomes, but then to draw no conclusions from them.

Despite this slightly puzzling aspect, the inner voice is terrifying, telling visceral tales of terror (the internal narration is italicized): “Look, Tal-Shik! He shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing at the bloody corpses. You have to see this. Those sons of bitches are Reds.” The Detective’s position is clear: he relentlessly relives his trauma, it cycles around in his head, and consequently he cannot relieve himself of it. Ch’oe’s internal retelling of his trauma is intense and relentless; he cannot make it cease and in fact draws a perverse kind of justification from it. O’s writing is clear and direct, as befits a tale this blunt. A clever reader will spot a graceful nod to George Orwell in its conclusion that mankind is haunted by fear itself.

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma: the cycle is burned in too deeply and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion, Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinary image: “A blood-colored sea filled the room … As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room.” Even O Ki-sop, the mild everyman, becomes a vessel of hatred. As he finally wanders home in a daze, he accosts a stranger: “Something is rising inside me, something hot and burning. It’s spreading hot throughout me, building an enormous heat – It’s my rage.” So the trauma continues.

Finally, Hwang Sok-yong ‘s The Old Garden (2000) casts a bleak eye on the Gwangju Uprising’s aftermath. The two main characters are in the student movement, but the book spends almost no time on the movement itself. In a clever narrative trick, the bulk of movement descriptions are attained through political pamphlets distributed by one of the characters. When the activists meet at a new cemetery, they are unimpressed and discover that the city itself has altered beyond recognition.

In fact, the political shift of 1987 has paradoxically resulted in a city that no longer seems to care about the issues that drove the Gwangju Uprising, instead treating its history as a “tourist attraction.” Hwang builds a bridge between the disillusion following the eventual ephemeral “success” of democracy in Korea and the “Hell Joseon” that was to come in which social relations are defined purely by wealth, hypocrisy, and opportunism, and all the noble ideals of the Democratic Movement have been buried under an avalanche of consumerism. Hwang sees the Gwangju Uprising as a movement betrayed.

None of these works are particularly cheery, and most of them are downright gruesome. In addition, they are all well-served by a bit of understanding of their historical background, as the authors prior to Han and Hwang had to make an effort to veil the historical event about which they were writing. Still, for a reader interested in Korean modern history, and particularly its sometimes harsh struggles towards democracy, these books are key literary texts outlining the impact of struggle, death, and memory on the creation of the modern Korean state.

Related Korea Blog posts:

The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Watching Madame Freedom, the Movie that Scandalized Postwar Korea, Fifty Years Later

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here. Previously featured movies include Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su (1988) and Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (1975).

“Yasujiro Ozu,” writes critic Donald Richie in his study of the prolific and influential midcentury Japanese filmmaker, “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” The best-known of his many domestic dramas like Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Good Morning dramatize that dissolution of the Japanese family as vividly as they capture its context – those decades after the second world war when Japan seemed to turn more modern, and look more Western, by the day. Korea underwent a similarly heady period of reconstruction and development in the 20th century, but the Korean family – as many Koreans can tell you – remains a relatively robust institution even now.

Then again, Korea’s modernization got started later and had less to work with in the first place.  While Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its colonial rule over Korea, the problems of the newly divided Koreas had only just begun. Five years later, the North attacked the South, sparking the Korean War that would leave much of the peninsula in ruins by the time it stalemated in 1953. On the very first day of the very next year, in a South Korea still struggling to get on its feet, Jeong Bi-seok’s serialized novel Madame Freedom (자류부인) began its 215-part run in the Seoul Daily News, quickly drawing a huge readership by telling a story of romantic intrigue tied up with the trends of the day, from the emergence of underground dance clubs to the craze for luxury goods to the entrance of women into the workforce.

All of those are presented in Han Heyong-mo’s 1956 screen adaptation of the novel, dubbed “the most controversial film in Korean cinematic history,” as phenomena of essentially foreign origin. Throughout Japan’s longer history of engagement with the outside world, it could exercise some discretion about what to pick and choose how it wanted to assimilate into the local culture. South Korea, though, had to take it all in more or less at once, as it was presided over by a highly Westernized new president, relied on American funds for the initial phases of its reconstruction, and was keen to implement any societal model under which people would no longer go hungry.

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Thus, much Korean cinema of the 1950s and 60s deals with the disorientation that results when new ways displace old ones, and a deeply-rooted culture struggles to keep up with changing attitudes — or futilely attempts to stifle them. Ozu’s films did that for Japan, but displayed as much emotional restraint as Korean films displayed (what often strikes foreign audiences as) emotional excess. Jeong’s novel provides the movie prime material for melodrama: accepting the household’s need for some extra money, Professor Jang Tae-yeon grants his wife Seon-yeong the freedom to take a job behind the counter at a boutique, a choice that before long leads her into the arms of other men — the collegiate playboy next door, the husband of the boutique’s owner — as well as complicity in the smuggling operation run by a member of her alumni club.

Where Ozu might look on all this with a sigh of resignation at the bittersweetness of inevitable change, Madame Freedom slaps Seon-yeong down hard, ending with her denied passage through the gate of her own home, tearfully begging her husband and young son for forgiveness out on the street. (Things end even more grimly for her old college friend.) “If you were Professor Jang Tae-yeon, what decision would you make regarding your wife?” asked the movie posters at the time. Though, perhaps under modernity’s sway himself, Professor Jang Tae-yeon does get awfully close to one of his former students who asks him to teach grammar to her and several other young ladies, all of them employed as typists at the local office of a Western company. But whether out of morality or cowardice, he rejects her advances; his wife, by contrast, goes so far as to kiss a potential paramour — the first act of its kind ever shown on a Korean screen.

This shock of the new has, despite what many modern viewers will see as an unsubtle dramatic style and implicit endorsement of patriarchal assumptions, kept the film fresh. It routinely screens in retrospectives of and courses on Korean cinema, and DJ Spooky once even re-scored the film live, drawing samples from music old and new, Korean and American. He once described Madame Freedom as Korea’s first postwar jazz movie, a category it might fall into, among other reasons, for its dancehall set piece in which a jazz orchestra plays a mambo while a dancer writhes in front of them, surely a scandalously brazen display by the standards of the time — the standards prevailing in movie theaters, anyway, if not in such cutting-edge (and police raid-subject) venues themselves.

Everyone in that scene wears Western attire, from the dancer in her comparatively revealing dress, of course, to the jazz men with their matching suits to that boy next door, whom Seon-yeong has surreptitiously met there, his patter inflated with Western loanwords (such as the “Madame” of the English title, which he calls Seon-yeong) and, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the hopeless Chil-su of Chil-su and Man-su, talks of his plans to go to America. Everyone, that is, but Seon-yeong herself, who still wears a traditional Korean dress. But that soon changes; from then on, her Westernization of her appearance indicates the extent of her downfall.

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Some of the film’s morality-play qualities owe to an appeasement of the strict censorship then in force. As Han explained, “If the audience saw any scenes of deviation, they will accept it as a lesson, which means this film could be a good, enlightening film.” The question of whether the wife of a professor ought to work no longer occasions so much hand-wringing, and rightfully so, but some of the other concerns the films raises remain concerns today: to what extent, for instance, must modernization mean Westernization? To the extent that this movie issued a warning about how the uncritical embrace of things foreign can turn into a deforming fetish, Korea — a land now continually swept by consumer fads for Norwegian strollers, Birkenstock sandals, churros, and so on — arguably didn’t heed it.

But this Westernization-wary substance comes packaged in a distinctly Western cinematic form. Madame Freedom made Korean cinema history with not just what it dared to depict, but the techniques used to depict it: along with Korea’s first on-screen kiss came its first domestic use of such filmmaking tools as the crane and dolly (Han used his industrial connections to get them custom-built) as well as sound design elements essential for a story in which music plays such an important role but heretofore unheard, or at least underused, in domestic films. The combination of envelope-pushing content, lavish production, and an adaptation of foreign storytelling to Korean concerns continues today, especially in the work of Park Chan-wook, whose grim, transgressive, and Japanese comic book-based Oldboy kicked Korean cinema up to a new level of international recognition in the early 2000s.

Just this year, Park drew much acclaim, and no small volume of tut-tutting, with The Handmaiden, a transposition of Sarah Waters’ novel The Fingersmith from Victorian England into colonial-era Korea. Its wince-inducing torture scenes, and even more so its frank and enthusiastic depictions of lesbian love, have understandably drawn most of the attention. But look deeper and you find it deals with some of the very same issues as Madame Freedom: deception, female empowerment, the fraught engagement of Korea with the world outside it. The lovers at the center of The Handmaiden (아가씨), a wealthy heiress and the young thief who takes the titular role at first to swindle her, also attempt to break away from the societal structures that bind them — but unlike the hapless Seon-yeong in her movie of half a century earlier, they get away with it.

Related Korea Blog Posts:

The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s Chil-su and Man-su

Between Boring Heaven and Exciting Hell: Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

 

By Charles Montgomery

When I first came to Korea, I was under the strong guiding hand of my best friend Ed and his wife. She was from Gwangju, and so it was that many of my first experiences in Korea occurred there, the city where I met my first “Korean family” with whom I set out to tour the region. They quickly whisked me to the Gwangju 5-18 Memorial Park, which sprawls across over 200,000 square meters and contains a library, cultural center, education center, the Daedong Plaza and Owoldae Tower, and a variety of memorials, sculptures and monuments. Laced with footpaths, the park also contains the Mugaksa Temple — a Buddhist temple for the military, oddly enough.

The park is a vast and solemn memorial to a tragic incident in modern Korean history. The Gwangju Democratization Movement (also known by UNESCO as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, in honor of the day it began) took place seven months after the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea since 1961. In the political confusion that followed, the local democratic movement in support of democracy rode on the back of a nationwide one, growing to such an extent that, in mid-May, the new President Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law across all of Korea.

In South Jeolla-do, of which Gwangju is the capital, this law involved the jailing of 26 politicians, including eventual Nobel Prize Winner and president of Korea Kim Dae-jung. Gwangju had a tenuous relationship with Seoul in the best of times and was also a historical nexus of political revolt, so even inside Korea it was one of the locations least likely to be happy with these actions by Chun’s government. In response, students began to mass at the closed gates of Chonnam National University. 200 students and 30 paratroopers initially clashed there, but the violence soon increased and quickly spread downtown.

When the protests became too much for the police to handle, over 500 more paratroopers were called in. They quelled the initial protests using tactics including clubbing and bayonetting; one Gwangju resident was clubbed to death during the battle. Events intensified over the next two days, with the army killing more civilians and residents burning down a radio station which had been broadcasting pro-government versions of the local events. May 20th saw the famous “taxi uprising,” in which infuriated taxi drivers led a pro-democracy parade, ferried wounded to hospitals, and used their cabs themselves as both barricades and weapons.

Just after noon on the 21st, the army fired on protestors again, and protestors ransacked local police stations and armories. Protestors acquired two light machine guns at the height of the battle, and eventually the military retreated from central Gwangju. From the 22nd to the 25th, Gwangju was “liberated,” and set up local governments and negotiating committees. At the same time, upon news of the events in Gwangju, local uprisings flared up and died down in other regions. On May 26th the army had been reinforced and was ready to re-enter the city. Democracy supporters prepared for one last stand, but on the 27th were decisively defeated in a 90-minute battle which began at about 4:00 a.m.

The Gwangju Democratization Movement was over, but its effects linger in the Korean psyche to this day, and as is traditional in Korea, what is made of the movement is largely depends on one’s political stance. That even affects casualty estimates, which, according to the BBC, the government put at 200 and other sources between 1,000 and 2,000. A few brilliant pieces of translated Korean literature centered on the Democratic Movement have been published, and we will discuss them here in two weeks. But as far as I know, only one non-Korean author has written a piece of fiction about this event: William Amos, whose book The Seed of Joy has recently been released on Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.

“Paul Harkin, a US Peace Corps Volunteer from Indiana, comes to Korea on his first trip away from home.” says the book’s Google blurb. “The Peace Corps gives him more than he ever bargained for — from a comically inept public health official, to violent political strife in the cities, to a hard winter in a leper colony. But when he falls in love with Han Mi Jin, a troubled, politically active schoolteacher, he defies the Peace Corps, the United States government, and the Korean martial law authorities to take up her cause. Caught up in the bloodshed of the Gwangju Uprising of May, 1980, he wrestles with love and loss, freedom and responsibility.”

If anything, that description undersells how well the book deals with the actual details of the uprising. Intrigued by how a U.S. citizen would know about this event and why they would write an entire novel about it, I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Amos online and discover he is nearly a next-door neighbor, as he and his Korean-born wife now live in Boise, Idaho. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea a year after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon his return, he attended Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, during which time he clerked for a Korean lawyer in Chicago. In the years since graduation from law school, he has worked as a federal investigator, a technical writer, a project manager, and a medical writer. He lives in Boise with his Korean-born wife. We sent a few messages back and forth, and he graciously consented to this interview.

* * *

Without spoiling anything, tell us about your book.

The Seed of Joy is a fictional account of a US Peace Corps volunteer who lives in South Korea during the turbulent years of 1979 and 1980. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee and the Gwangju Uprising serve as the historical events that bracket the story. The main character, a naive young man from Indiana, falls in love with a Korean woman who violently opposes the Park — and forthcoming — regimes; through her, he is drawn into the student democracy movement and takes part in the tragic Gwangju Uprising. Many of the details of life as an expat in Korea come from my own experiences in Peace Corps/Korea, as I was a volunteer there at the time the story takes place. My life as a volunteer was far less dramatic, though. Aside from getting stuck in a major demonstration and riot in Seoul, it was the smaller things that struck me: the dearth of news, the arrests in public of college-aged men and women, and the tanks and armed troops that were stationed on city streets, to name a few.

Have you read any of the Korean books about Gwangju? 

No, I haven’t. I wrote most of The Seed of Joy while hardly anything was being written in Korea about the Gwangju Uprising, much less in English translation. One of my first dates with my wife, who is Korean, was showing her an early documentary from Korea about Gwangju and having her interpret it for me ten years after the fact; she was horrified at what she saw. The first popular depiction of the Uprising that I saw was the Korean drama Sandglass, in the 90s. That program gave me some vivid suggestions of what the Uprising looked like — the beginnings of a visual vocabulary, if you will.

The Chun government really clamped down on information about Gwangju. How much did you have at the time and where did you get it?

We volunteers had very little information while it was going on. No news came out of Gwangju through the Korean media. Even AFKN (the US Armed Forces Korea Network) couldn’t tell us anything. We knew something was happening, and that it was huge, because we’d seen demonstrations — some violent — elsewhere in the country. A lot of the information came out after the fact. Volunteers who were in Gwangju during the Uprising came back up to Seoul and told other volunteers what they’d seen and done.

Articles from Time and Newsweek — which were ripped out of local editions — were brought in from outside the country and copies posted in the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Of course, the local media showed exactly what the Chun government wanted them to show. I went to a movie after the Uprising and saw a newsreel of happy young people sweeping up the “mess” that the rioters had made in Gwangju. By that time I knew that it was all nonsense.

The Peace Corps story is really interesting particularly the tension between your Korean handlers and Western staff and the notion that you were not to be involved in anything political or controversial. How much of this is real and how did it play out?

Peace Corps volunteers have to be completely neutral on any point of political controversy. We were forbidden to play any role in protests or act in such a way that could be construed as taking sides, especially with those who opposed the government. We could talk about politics privately with our Korean friends as long as we made it clear that we were speaking for ourselves, not for the United States government. Some volunteers did break the rules. One got involved with some dissident friends and their activities, and was sent home. For the rest of us, we were frustrated at seeing oppression going on openly all around us while being unable to say or do anything about it.

The Western characters play semi-heroic roles in your book. Is any of this history, or is it a literary way of getting them to the center of the story?

It’s both. Several of the volunteers I’ve spoken with really did rise to the occasion in Gwangju. Many of them helped bring the wounded to hospitals and served as the West’s eyes and ears to events that were poorly understood at home. And that’s really what I wanted my characters to be: witnesses and interpreters for a mainly Western audience who otherwise would know little about Korea or the Peace Corps experience. This influenced how I worked out the plot of the novel: I made a timeline of major historical events and then worked on getting the characters to the right places at the right times. This often involved putting them right in the thick of the action.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did, as part of the second wave of Westerners in the Peace Corps. How different was Korea then, both from the U.S. at the time and Korea now (if you have much knowledge of that)?

We all were affected by culture shock in a big, though somewhat unexpected way. By the time I served there, in 1979, Korea was no longer a third-world country, for the most part. The Peace Corps/Korea program was at least ten years old by that point, and the challenges experienced by previous volunteers had abated somewhat by then. For example, I worked in the tuberculosis control program at a municipal public health center. All my coworkers were public health professionals — nurses, doctors, and the like. I was the least experienced person there.

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So we were living in a culture that was very modern on the outside, but still steeped in tradition on the inside. I loved the transportation system — it was easy to get just about anywhere by bus or train — and and I admired the Koreans’ spirit of self-sacrifice and hard work. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was blown away by the changes. Some of it was sad — Korea seems to have succumbed to the Western ideal of personal automobile ownership, for example, and the traffic everywhere is horrendous. On the other hand, the standard of living is much higher, and the country is now governed by a vibrant, messy, effective democracy.

And now the question you must have known you were going to get: were you really naked when you heard the news of Park’s assassination? Inquiring minds want to know.

Yes, I was! Houses didn’t have hot running water back then. If you wanted to take a bath, you went to a bathhouse, where you could get squeaky-clean using all the hot water you wanted. I had come up to Seoul on the evening of Park’s assassination and, of course, nobody knew about it until the next day. I went to a bathhouse near the Peace Corps office that morning, and, just as written in the book, I heard the news from a fellow volunteer while I was lounging in the tub. I felt doubly naked.

Coming out of the bathhouse, I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: Korean flags hanging everywhere and a shocked quiet among the people. Even the traffic seemed less bustling than normal. And, like the character in the book, I went out straight away to gawk at all the tanks on the street corners and the funeral shrine being built on the grounds of the capitol building.

How long were you in Korea?

My time in the Peace Corps was fifteen months, which is well short of the customary two years. I was sent home early for medical reasons. Years later, I went back for a few weeks in 1987 and for just over a week in 2010.

What were your overarching feelings/impressions of Korea?

It was the contrast between Korea and my home in the States that shaped most of my impressions. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the countryside. Coming from Wisconsin, where the landscape is relatively flat, I was enthralled with the wooded mountains that just seemed to pop out of the ground everywhere. The hillsides covered in pink flowers in the spring and the gorgeous reds and yellows of the leaves in autumn astounded me.

The people were amazing — generous, friendly, hard-working. I was taken aback by the lack of personal space, something the Peace Corps trainers had warned us about in advance. It wasn’t just the crowded cities that took some getting used to; it was also the tendency of Korean men — friends and strangers alike — to plop themselves down just inches away when talking to me. I became accustomed to it eventually, of course, and was fine with it, but it was quite an adjustment at first.

The strictly hierarchical social order threw me for a loop, too. I quickly learned when to bow, and to whom, among other things, but I was pleased to see that, despite the stodginess of the system, my Korean friends were easy to connect with. Overall, I still look at my time there as the best, most interesting months of my life.

* * *

As someone who came to the Gwangju Uprising and its history through friends, history, and literature, it was impressive to me to learn that Mr. Amos was only in Korea for slightly over a year. The Seed of Joy not only seems to catch the history and spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Movement, it also captures subtleties of Korean culture and the interaction between Korean culture and so-called “foreigners” with a roving and intelligent eye.

The book is not without its minor flaws (the framing structure and a sometimes obvious foreshadowing come primarily to mind), but those are insubstantial in the face of the much larger picture that Mr. Amos draws: one that catches both the joy and tragedy of a critical ten-day period in Korean history, one that paints a detailed picture of several loving but doomed relationships, and one that manages to capture an entire social system trapped in amber of its own production.

For a book from a completely unknown author, The Seed of Joy has a decent list of reviews on Amazon, many from Peace Corps volunteers of that era who boggle at how well Mr. Amos has caught the tenor of that time. It is good book for fans of recent history, romance, battles, and good storytelling in general, and one very interesting for me to read, particularly in light of the Korean fiction about this event that has been translated. And that is what we will turn to in two weeks, with a look at how Korean authors have weighed in on Gwangju.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Writing About Korea, in Korea, for Koreans — as an American: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Korea scholar Matt VanVolkenburg writes one of my favorite blogs on Korean society and culture, Gusts of Popular Feeling. It takes its unusual name from a quote from the 19th-century writer Isabella Bird Bishop, who in her book Korea and Her Neighbors (which you can download free, in a variety of formats, at the Internet Archive) observed that “gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists are known only in Seoul.”  What can she have meant by that memorable if cryptic phrase?

“She was referring specifically to newspapers, what we consider modern public opinion as created through newspapers, through media,” VanVolkenburg told me when I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. “But ‘gusts of popular feeling’ — Koreans will sometimes ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I’ll be like, ‘naembi munhwa,’” a phrase often used to describe the national temperament. “A naembi is a pot that heats up very quickly and cools down equally quickly” — munhwa means culture — “and I just thought that was a very poetic way of describing it.”

The coiner of that poetic phrase turns out to have led a colorful life indeed. The daughter of a reverend educated at home due to poor childhood health, Bishop published her first written work, a pamphlet on the arguments for free trade versus protectionism, at the age of sixteen. She first went abroad to the United States six years later, sending home letters that would become the material for her first book, the 1856 travelogue An Englishwoman in America. Over the next four decades, volumes on Scotland, Hawaii, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, the Middle East, and Tibet followed, and in 1898, in her late sixties and a few years widowed, she would publish Korea and Her Neighbors, a thorough examination of a then-barely known land.

“Over three years, she made several visits,” said VanVolkenburg. “At first she didn’t really like it, but then on a return visit, she noted that Seoul had cleaned up quite a bit. She got to meet quite a few Korean people, and it definitely grew on her.” She made those visits between 1894 and 1897, “a very small window of time” during which Korea, having recently submitted to Japanese colonial rule, went through a big transformation. By 1904, the year of Bishop’s death, the capital “had streetcars, limited electricity, telephone, telegraph, waterworks were being installed — there were changes like that happening reasonably quickly.”

But the Korea on which she first set foot, a country more than half a century away from division into North and South and only just emerging from a long period in China’s shadow (which left Korea “but a feeble reflection of her powerful neighbor”), didn’t start from a high developmental baseline. “I thought it the foulest city on earth till I saw Peking,” she writes of her first impression of Seoul, “and its smells the most odious, till I encountered those of Shao-shing.” She considers its “palaces and its slums, its unspeakable meanness and faded splendors, its purposeless crowds, its mediaeval processions, which for barbaric splendor cannot be matched on earth, the filth of its crowded alleys, and its pitiful attempt to retain its manners, customs, and identity as the capital of an ancient monarchy in face of the host of disintegrating influences.”

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Though she brands the city as “the Korean Mecca,” she remarks that “the monotony of Seoul is something remarkable. Brown mountains ‘picked out’ in black, brown mud walls, brown roofs, brown roadways, whether mud or dust, while humanity is in black and white.” And though “to the Korean it is the place in which alone life is worth living” — a view quite possibly as widely held now as then — most any part of it bears a dispiritingly close resemblance to any other settlement in the country: “Take a mean alley in it with its mud-walled hovels, deep-eaved brown roofs, and malodorous ditches with their foulness and green slime, and it may serve as an example of the street of every village and provincial town.”

Yet she reserves even more revolting descriptions for the conditions in those villages and provincial towns where her treks around Korea require her to spend days, even weeks, staying in and traveling between by land and water. Of lodgings she finds in one such place north of Seoul, she writes that “the family room which I occupied, only 8 feet 6 inches by 6 feet, was heated up to 85 degrees, was poisoned with the smell of cakes of rotting beans, and was so alive with vermin of every description that I was obliged to suspend a curtain over my bed to prevent them from falling upon it.” She finds better classes of quarters elsewhere, but even they “would not at home be considered fit for the housing of a better-class cow.”

“As I sat amidst the dirt, squalor, rubbish, and odd and end-ism of the inn yard,” she writes, recalling a low moment, “surrounded by an apathetic, dirty, vacant-looking, open-mouthed crowd steeped in poverty, I felt Korea to be hopeless, helpless, pitiable, piteous, a mere shuttlecock of certain great powers, and that there is no hope for her population of twelve or fourteen millions, unless it is taken in hand by Russia, under whose rule, giving security for the gains of industry as well as light taxation, I had seen Koreans in hundreds transformed into energetic, thriving, peasant farmers in Eastern Siberia,” a time which, along with a stretch in Manchuria, makes up one of this long book’s interludes among the “neighbors.”

On her third visit to Korea, in 1897, Bishop finds much of Seoul, “literally not recognizable. Streets, with a minimum width of 55 feet, with deep stone-lined channels on both sides, bridged by stone slabs, had replaced the foul alleys, which were breeding-grounds of cholera. Narrow lanes had been widened, slimy runlets had been paved, roadways were no longer ‘free coups’ for refuse, bicyclists ‘scorched’ along broad, level streets, ‘express wagons’ were looming in the near future, preparations were being made for the building of a French hotel in a fine situation, shops with glass fronts had been erected in numbers, an order forbidding the throwing of refuse into the streets was enforced.” Seoul, she marveled, “from having been the foulest is now on its way to being the cleanest city of the Far East!”

Even then, Bishop describes a Korea in most ways not recognizable to the Westerners who arrive in Seoul today, marveling as they do at its outwardly greater development than that of the countries they came from. (They tend especially to like downtown’s restored Cheonggyecheon Stream, which Bishop describes, in its un-restored condition, as “a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed.”) But the ones who stick around tone down their marveling sooner or later, and the complaints they start to make have a way of echoing Bishop’s first displeased reactions to what had struck her as “the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in.”

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But Bishop, far from being a mere complainer — or in the parlance of her homeland, always more nuanced on the subject of negativity, a moaner — lived as one of the most accomplished members of one of the most accomplished generations of English travel writers, who remain, in the words of Christopher Tayler reviewing Colin Thubron’s last book, “one of the last types of writer on earth with a license to trade openly in the strange and beautiful.” At 459 pages plus index, appendices, and photographs (Bishop went nowhere in Korea without camera and tripod), Korea and Her Neighbors contains plenty of the strange and beautiful. It also spares few details of any other kind, assured that even the most adventurous of its 19th-century readership (who nevertheless require no further description of kimchi than as “an elaborate sort of  ‘sour kraut’”) needed all the help they could to imagine this remote country, would likely never see another image of it, and almost certainly wouldn’t even consider taking the trouble to go there themselves.

If the heyday of English travel writing mandated the duty of describing places vividly through a sheer volume of information, it also mandated the duty of evaluating them, of making as fair as possible an assessment as a representative of the world’s most proudly “civilized” nation. Bishop’s frankness in this undertaking, and indeed the perspective from which she performs it, render a book like this terribly unfashionable today: she writes up front of her “plan of study of the leading characteristics of the Mongolian races,” later of “the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness,” and later still of the superstition that “holds the uneducated masses and the women of all classes in complete bondage.”

Yet having invested an amount of time, effort, and endurance in Korea that any modern travel writer would consider well beyond their job description (let alone their pay scale), Bishop also places herself well to see the good in the country. Her position as a path-breaking female traveler, and one not only in a land with few foreigners but that did its utmost to keep even its own women behind closed doors, let her perceive clearly the relative safety that remains a real point of appeal today: “It says something for the security of Korea that a foreign lady could safely live in a dwelling up a lonely alley in the heart of a big city, with no attendant but a Korean soldier knowing not a word of English, who, had he been so minded, might have cut my throat and decamped with my money, of which he knew the whereabouts, neither my door nor the compound having any fastening!”

She also grasps Korea’s potential at a time when few others did. “With a splendid climate, an abundant, but not superabundant, rainfall, a fertile soil, a measure of freedom from civil war and robber bands,” she figures, “the Koreans ought to be a happy and fairly prosperous people.” She puts their deficiency of happiness and prosperity down to capricious law enforcement and taxation, as well as the economic “squeezing” of nearly the entire population by the country’s powerful classes of corrupt officials and ostensible scholar-aristocrats. She anticipates a time when, “with improved roads, railroads, and enlightenment, together with security for the earnings of labor from official and patrician exactions, the Korean will have no further occasion for protecting himself by an appearance of squalid poverty, and when he will become on a largely increased scale a consumer as well as a producer, and will surround himself with comforts and luxuries of foreign manufacture,” essentially the situation of the Korean middle class Korean today.

Alas, the heyday of English travel writing came during the longer heyday of British imperialism, and Bishop’s sympathies with that project — though in many ways a woman ahead of her time, she was unavoidably of her time in others — will bother more than a few 21st-century readers. She credits what improvements she saw Korea make to Japan, an imperial power with resemblances to Britain: “The Japanese claimed that their purpose was to reform the administration of Korea as we had done that of Egypt,” she writes, “and I believe they would have done it had they been allowed a free hand.” But they did not, and she ultimately finds that Japan “was too inexperienced in the role which she undertook (and I believe honestly) to play, to produce a harmonious working scheme of reform.”

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“Failure in tact was,” as she sees it, “was one great fault of the Japanese.” In Korea, Japan “irritated the people by meddlesomeness in small matters and suggested interferences with national habits, giving the impression, which I found prevailing everywhere, that her object is to denationalize the Koreans for purposes of her own.” That, more or less, has become the official view in South Korea today, though it ascribes much graver faults to the Japanese than those of tact. Bishop’s lack of direct condemnation for the occupation itself puts her on the wrong side of the history books here, as does her revelation of the squalor and misery of the chaotic final days of an era much romanticized by historical films and television dramas.

She does convey the senselessness and brutality of the murder by Japanese agents of Empress Myeongseong, whom she knew personally (if not quite liked) as Queen Min, which occurred one night between her stays in Korea. I happened to read the chapter of Korea and Her Neighbors covering that grisly event in the cafeteria of the IKEA opened in a couple years ago just outside Seoul, perhaps the most incongruously modern and peaceful setting imaginable, one in which you can’t help but reflect on how much the country had changed. It made me wonder what Bishop, who didn’t live to see the Great War, let alone the Korean one, and who in a moment of optimism guessed that the whole peninsula “could support double its present population,” would think of the almost unfathomable developmental progress of the land she referred to as “southern Korea,” its population alone exceeding 50 million, has made over the past 120 years.

There are now plenty of newspapers, and though those gusts of popular feeling have gained force mainly on the internet, they still do blow through Seoul. While Bishop would recognize almost nothing about the city itself — its historic buildings tend to be 20th- or even 21st-century recreations — she would certainly recognize the attitudes of Westerners here. Korea and Her Neighbors documents how, as gradually as it may have done so, the country finally captured her imagination. Though many new arrivals these days go through a pre-complaint period of blind rapture over the amenities, the nightlife, and the the pop culture (none of which, apart from the ubiquitous underfloor heating, existed in the 1890s), it still holds true that “Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long to overcome the feeling of distaste which at first it undoubtedly inspires.”

In this sense, even more so than the American astronomer Percival Lowell, whose own book-length travelogue Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm came out in 1885, Isabella Bird Bishop stands as the prototypical long-term Westerner in Korea, for whom antipathy turns to fascination, and fascination turns to attachment, and attachment renders bittersweet the seemingly inevitable departure. “The distaste I felt for the country at first passed into an interest which is almost affection,” she writes near the book’s end, “and on no previous journey have I made dearer and kinder friends, or those from whom I parted more regretfully.” And somehow, at least to this long-term Westerner in Korea, its potential feels at once more fully realized and more untapped than ever.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

By Charles Montgomery

The Korean relationship with big cities, particularly Seoul, mixes love with a strong undercurrent of hate. The love of Seoul is often clear: when I first got a job in Korea, which was in Daejeon, I called my best friend, who is Korean. Happy to hear that I got a job, he told the news to his wife, also Korean. “Where is the job?” he then asked. Woosong University in Daejeon, I replied, which he also dutifully relayed to his wife. In the background I could hear a small commotion, which was shortly interrupted by my best friend’s wife grabbing the phone from his hands and loudly yelling into it, “Why didn’t you get a job in Seoul? You won’t understand Korea unless you live in Seoul!”

Having come from Gwangju (another major city that, for historical reasons, I will talk about in my next piece), she regards Seoul with suspicion, if not contempt, but apparently still regards the capital the heart of Korea. Consider that, if you count the suburbs, Seoul contains nearly half of all South Korean citizens. Most high school students dream that they will someday attend one of the prestigious “SKY” universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, all in Seoul. Of the top ten universities in Korea, seven are in Seoul; of the top five, four are.

Most chaebol, the Korean version of the multinational, have headquarters in Seoul, and when the Korean government tried to move itself to Daejeon, the resulting foot-dragging and lamentation were so powerful that, in the end, only twelve of its offices made the move. Koreans even have a dismissive term for the land that is not in the city, sigol. The first literal meaning of this word is the countryside, but it more or less evokes the “sticks” or “backwoods.” The cities — and again, Seoul in particular — are also strongly associated with modernity, economic progress, and sophistication. Yet Korean modern literature has almost unanimously portrayed cities as uncaring dens of corruption, socially and/or economically destructive, and dangerous in every incarnation.

Yi Kwangsu, whom it is fair call one of the fathers of Korean modern literature, not only wrote extremely modern fiction for his time, but also wrote two extremely influential essays that defined the boundaries of modern literature. He was a proponent of modernization, education, and free love (as in, the ability to choose one’s own romantic partner). Yet in his fiction Seoul is nearly eviscerated, despite its apparent position as urban argument for all that he himself argued. Soil, his most entertaining novel, fully expresses his arguments and themes, strongly affirming the need for social and political change, but unexpectedly emphasizing the importance of the countryside in creating the modern world for Korea. Seoul, conversely, is portrayed as evil. In a close relationship to nature truth and beauty are found, and Seoul represents a turn toward a far worse, more Western world.

Its protagonist Heo Sung returns to his village and falls in love with a local girl whose down-to-earth virtues the story frequently contrasts with the corruption of the city girl whom he finally marries. He may admire the life of the villagers, but still has to return to return periodically to Seoul. The meaning of this is expressed in a concluding passage in the book: “When he got out at Seoul Station, he felt as if he had awakened from a dream. The swarms of fussy taxis, buses like frenzied women, toy-like rickshaws, the crowds of cold people who seemed to spread an iciness around them.” While Yi is a proponent of modernization, he astonishingly locates it in the rustic life of the countryside instead of the bballi-bbali hustle and bustle of Seoul, which only stands for the ruination of the Korean people.

Japanese colonialism and World War II turned Korea’s focus toward bigger and more immediate problems, and the overwhelmingly tragic reality of the Korean War and its bifurcated aftermath determined the course of literature in the 1950s and 60s. But with cessation of hostilities and the beginning of the regularization and modernization of the nation, the issue of the city returned — and the city was almost uniformly cast as the villain.

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Not all literature, of course, portrayed Seoul or other cities as malign. Sometimes it could be neutral, or even charming, as in Park Taewon’s A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, a slice of Kubo’s life in downtown Seoul. In a very modern stream of consciousness, occasionally interspersed with forays back into memory, Kubo takes us on a tour of the city, traveling to Gwanghwamun (the area around the main gate of Geyongbokgung pakace), bars, teahouses, a train station, and even past a row of prostitutes.

Little black and white drawings by the well-known author (and Park’s friend) Yi Sang capture aspects of the vignettes Kubo relates, which make up of a story that lasts part of the day and late into the night. Kubo is looking for “joy” and companionship, though he sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his sometimes agitated mind. As Kubo wanders, mostly as an observer, with poet friends or bargirls, he contemplates his own history, which leads the setting of his final, bargirl-surrounded semi-epiphany in which declares his rededication to writing and the happiness of others.

A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist presents Seoul as a kind of charming backdrop, but in general, the bleak view of the big city dominates. In Sung-ok Kim’s 1965 story “Seoul: 1964, Winter,” three men meet just as atoms might collide, and just as when atoms do collide, they create a short heat before careening apart. These characters are Kim, a 25-year-old-clerk; Ahn, a 25-year-old student; and an unfortunate 30-year-old salesman who has just received payment for selling the corpse of his just-dead wife to a hospital.

Seoul is a randomizer; it can bring people physically together, but it cannot have them bond. The three men never get past idle chitchat, even though the oldest is obviously traumatized and funding their time together. Whereas in the village long-standing relationships would have established the bonds, in Seoul there are no relationships, and therefore no bonds. At the end of the evening, the salesman does all but beg the two younger men to share lodgings with him, but they both opt for private rooms, a substantial breach of protocol on several levels that eventually leads to tragedy. Even though the three men have been brought together by circumstance, they do not have the tools connect.

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (1978) continues along these lines. The work centers on the government-mandated redevelopment of Seoul’s Hangbuk-dong neighborhood during the 1970s. “Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell,” notes a character in the book’s very first paragraph. “But since the five of us lived in hell, we dreamed of heaven… Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost a battle.” The eponymous dwarf is physically handicapped, only 117 centimeters tall and 32 kilograms in weight, and his family — father, mother, siblings Yeong-su, Yeong-ho, and Yeong-hui — stand for the entire Korea working class of the 1970s: oppressed, marginalized, and if need be discarded by the new economic structures of production, consumption, and distribution that the Korean state is avidly building.

The family’s house, built in an unauthorized area, is due to be razed. The government offers a “recompense” for the loss insufficient for the dwarf’s family (or any of the other families displaced) to rent new housing. His family sundered, the dwarf becomes ill and dies in a factory smokestack, most likely in an act of suicide. His children are forced to go to work in soul- as well as body-crushing factories, and the daughter eventually prostitutes herself in order to get the deed to the families’ property back. Every character is in some way reduced, and one gets literally whittled down. (It is worth noting that the kind of forced redevelopment portrayed in The Dwarf continues, albeit on a reduced scale, to this day.)

The Dwarf is an example of yeonjak soseol, a kind of novel form of intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together, as is Yang Kwija’s stunning, well-translated A Distant and Beautiful Place. Its stories were originally published in Korean literary journals between 1985 and 1987 under a rather less interesting title that translates to People of Wonmi-dong.

Situated in Bucheon, south of Seoul, Wonmi-dong sits in the shadow of Wonmi Mountain, and there those who have failed in Seoul and consequently been ejected from it struggle, mostly without notable success, to build lives for themselves and their families. Beginning with a rather obvious symbolic chipping of a prized piece of furniture, one story focuses on the small “chipping” price that such forced departure from Seoul extracts from family members,. It ends ambiguously, and also ominously, with the family safely in place in their new home but watched by an unknown observer who brings an air of creepiness to the conclusion.

No survey of Korean city literature in English would be complete without a consideration of Kyung-sook Shin’s worldwide success Please Look After Mom (2008), translated by Chi-young Kim. Telling the story of a family coming to the realization of what their mother has sacrificed and what she meant to them, this book is so anti-Seoul that NPR titled its review of the book “A Guilt Trip To The Big City.”

“Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house,” one character notes during a sometimes overly nostalgic and romantic reverie of what life was before Seoul intervened and split the family geographically (that old trope of Korean literature). “A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.”

Seoul is presented as a threat to this family unity: “At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, ‘Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.’” And “eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.” The family’s sundering occurs at Seoul Station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there… Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.”

When the daughter returns to find her mother, she is similarly buffeted: “So many people go by, brushing your shoulders, as you make your way to the spot where Mom was last seen. You look down at your watch. Three o’clock. The same time Mom was left behind. People shove past you as you stand on the platform where Mom was wrenched from Father’s grasp. Not a single person apologizes to you. People would have pushed by like that as your mom stood there, not knowing what to do.” In breaking all traditional social relationships, Seoul has broken the family as well, both  physically and psychologically.

Hwang Jung-Eun’s Kong’s Garden (2013), translated by Jeon Seung-hee, offers a glimpse of the experience of the postmodern city for the worker. In this future, the single unnamed female narrator never becomes anything more than that. Though education has historically meant everything in Korea, she comes to realize that this is not true. The recognition of this fact does not surprise her at all: when the narrator does realize that she has been nothing but a worker all her life, in a world of similarly little people working and dying, she displays no particular reaction beyond acceptance.

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This equanimity is particularly dystopian in that this narrator also physically loses her mother during the events of the book. She metaphorically moves from a land of light, a bookstore gloriously lit with 200 light bulbs, to a dingy sub-basement that might be shrinking due to mold, but which also seems to have a mysterious tunnel leading to an even deeper, darker, room. That sub-basement, it is strongly suggested, is tied by another tunnel to an even deeper world, one from which a stench-laden breeze occasionally wafts out. Beneath the darkness of the city lies an even darker underworld.

A larger story draws the narrator in when she refuses to sell cigarettes to Jinju, a young woman in the company of two intimidating men. The young woman immediately goes missing, and it is only this tragedy that makes the narrator important at all, even as it minimizes her. As the police question her about her final interaction with the vanished girl, the narrator realizes that “the more important the questions were, the more often I told them I didn’t know.”

With life little more than a long, boring economic calculation, the narrator’s father plans to die when he feels himself an economic burden. She herself, when not idly searching the internet for evidence of the corpse of the missing Jinju, finds herself — with her romantic options, economic opportunities, and number of relatives dwindling away — agreeing with George Orwell’s suggestion that, in such circumstances, you should “just die poor and with anyone,” an ending to which the book seems to be drawing her.

Another dystopian view, this one of what would happen in Seoul if the continuing trends of family decay and income separation were taken to their full extremes, appears in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Homecoming (2014), translated by Jeon Miseli. The book opens with everyone north of the Han River living as pathetic wards of the state, with a strong market in human organ trafficking a partial result. These so-called “blankets” wait in line to submissively accept abuse and vouchers, which they need for food and other necessities. On the other side of the river live the ten percent of the population who are employed, clasped to the bosoms of conglomerates.

One blanket, the father of a young boy whose mother left home years ago, is indirectly approached about his half-Korean child. Adopted children have become myeongpum, or valuable goods, with a child who appears in good health at a premium. The father attempts to buy drugs for his asthmatic son, but the prices have gone up because “some of the rich are up to tricks,” buying up steroids because of their usefulness against diseases of aging. Driven to despair, the father decides he must sell his son. As a goodbye, he dressed up, puts on a “badge” (proof of being an office worker, which he has luckily found) and goes out for one last grand dinner with his son so they can share at least one last happy memory.

When the bill comes and the father cannot pay, it is suddenly taken care of for by an old man at sitting the bar. The ending, either a surprise or a deus ex machina depending on the reader’s outlook, allows Cheon’s final point: this is the Korean tendency to insist on long work hours taken to its ultimately absurd extreme. “I haven’t been able to come home because I haven’t finished my work yet,” says one character who hasn’t been home in many years. In this vision of Seoul, even the “successful” are not winning.

Korean modern literature has, in some ways, always been reactive, focusing directly on real issues of its era, and so serious literati might naturally choose to take on Seoul, attacking the very concept of the big city. For while Seoul, on one hand, symbolizes the tremendous prosperity Korea has attained, also symbolizes the destruction of the previous social systems that had seen Korean society through times of extreme hardship.

Thus, in the works discussed here, the authors to some extent assume the successes of the city, proceeding from that point on to comment on the failures that have resulted. This means that Korean literature asks particularly strong questions about modernization, economic progress, commodification, and even the creation and status of the financially unstable “precariat” class — which means these books should hold great interest to readers everywhere as the same economic and social trends that have swept over Seoul in last century sweep over us, and will continue to sweep away for the foreseeable future.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Korea, Where Book Podcasts Draw Standing-Room-Only Crowds

By Colin Marshall 

If you want a seat, you’ve got to get there early — really early. Even then, plenty of others will have long since set themselves up in the prime spots, close to the action with food, drink, and reading material close at hand. I myself usually only manage to find a single chair in the back of the room when I arrive, about two hours ahead of showtime as always. I’m glad to get it, though, since I’ll stay there for the next six hours. Is this a concert by a big-name band? Some sort of political rally? Will they be giving away money? No, not quite — it’s a book podcast.

Since 2012, each weekly episode of Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room (이동진의 빨간책방) has offered  from an hour and a half to over three hours of segments including an in-depth discussion of a particular book between the show’s regular panelists, conversations with the authors themselves, readings of prose as well as poetry, and an opening monologue by the host followed by a short chat about the books he’s recently bought. That host, the titular Lee Dong-jin, first made his name as a film critic and remains well known as one, though over the years, and with increasing fame, he’s assumed the role of a prolific and high-profile all-around cultural critic, the likes of which America hasn’t had for a while now.

Lee’s self-confessed workaholism (a term that has settled, transliterated, into the Korean language) makes for certain times when you can’t go long without seeing him on television, hearing him on the radio, or reading him in print. As a member the highly culturally influential Korean generation born in the 1960s — Korea’s Baby Boomers, in a sense — he came of age in the era of mass media and seems to have transitioned without a hitch to the era of niche media, in part by keeping one foot in the old while setting the other in the new, bringing his fans along with him.

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Or at least it seems like they all show up on the nights that Red Book Room does its live tapings, even thought the announcement on the show’s Facebook page happens only a few days beforehand. They show up not to Lee’s basement, nor to the kind of theater where you’d go to watch a taping of, say, A Prairie Home Companion. They come to the Red Book Café (빨간책다방), a hiply designed three-story coffee shop in Seoul’s also-currently-hip neighborhood of Hapjeong (I walk back home through some truly lively streets afterward when the show happens on Friday nights) filled with books available to browse or buy, the selection curated by Lee himself.

In America, this might seem like a pretty unconventional operation, but in Korea, each of its aspects has a precedent. The concept of the “book café,” whether that means a coffee shop lined with shelves of books for sale or just to read with your americano, has so proliferated that even Maxim, Korea’s biggest manufacturer of traditional pre-sweetened instant coffee (also known as 다방커피, or “café coffee”), has opened a book café of their own, the Maxim Mocha Library. And opening a branded coffee shop has, in Korea, looked like a potentially viable extension of the podcasting business model for years now. Even Talk to Me in Korean, the educational podcast that helped me learn Korean, has opened a café that hosts game nights, language exchanges and other such activities.

But the Red Book Café goes a step further by having built into its third floor a full-fledged, wood-paneled recording studio. Through its window (or through the monitor mounted beside it, though it never shows anything but a feed of the host’s visage) the audience — at their tables, in their chairs, and often many, by necessity, standing — eagerly watches the book talk between whichever guest author might show up that night (Kim Young-ha, about whose own book podcast I’ve written here, has made an appearance), regular interlocutors like novelist Kim Jung-hyuk and film journalist Lee Da-hye, and of course, Lee Dong-jin himself, always wearing his trademark red glasses, who enters through a door labeled — get it? — “DJDJ BOOTH.”

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The exact opposite of the stereotypical basement podcast enterprise, both the Red Book Café and Red Book Room itself are productions of the publisher Wisdom House, though the former, with its diversely stocked shelves, hardly feels like a company store. The podcast, apart from a segment with the publisher’s editors, by no means focuses on Wisdom House books alone: Lee and company mix it up with not only books from a variety of publishers, but in a variety of genres both fictional and nonfictional, on a variety of subjects, and originally from a variety of countries.

Some of the Western books discussed on the show include big bestsellers like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point; Andy Weir’s The Martian, basis of the recent Ridley Scott movie; the print counterpart of the The Beatles Anthology; John Williams’ 1965 campus novel Stoner, which even in the West didn’t receive wide acclaim until the 2000s; and books even more popular in Korean than they were in English, like Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There, or much more so Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which nearly every Korean alive seems to have read.

Why spend your entire late afternoon and early evening in a book café when you could just listen to the episode on your iPod in a few days? Some of the appeal has to do with actually seeing who the podcast’s other fans are, though Red Book Room‘s nearly all-female crowd, ranging from their early twenties through middle age, aligns with what you hear about the demographics of book sales everywhere. But there’s interaction as well: at the end of each session, after Lee has recited the closing poem, one of his producers unlocks the mailbox (red, of course) mounted to the wall, pulls out the pile of notes listeners have written throughout the show, and delivers them to Lee to read aloud and respond to in an informal and often laughter-filled Q&A (some of whose jokes I get, and some I don’t).

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When that wraps up around 9 or 10 p.m, Lee emerges from the DJDJ booth with a stack of various books, all up for grabs to members of the audience, first dibs to those whose notes he’d read that night. One lucky attendee, their note chosen by Lee at random out of a shuffle, will get to take home any volume they like from the Red Book Café’s shelves. I’ve often browsed those shelves while awaiting my cappuccino, wondering which book I would pick, though in all the months I’ve been coming to Red Book Room‘s live tapings — and they’ve become a semi-regular event in my life to which I always look forward — I’ve never dropped a single message into the mailbox, let alone had one win me a book of my choice.

I’ll do it, I really will, but for now I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I do by my very presence, not just as one of the few men in the room, but always as the sole visible Westerner. One night, Lee read out a question a fan had e-mailed in, asking if the show had any foreign listeners, “like Chinese people or Japanese people.” Half the heads in the audience turned toward me, but I just shrugged. Before the taping I last attended, as the studio got ready to light up its “ON AIR” sign, one of the café’s aproned employees approached me. “Excuse me,” she said in halting English as more people came up the stairs to watch and those everyone already around us scooted their chairs closer to the studio window, “this floor closes at six.” When I responded, in Korean, that I thought there was a podcast going on, she backed away apologetically, but clearly still I’ve got a long way to go before I become a regular.

(exterior image source: G.G. Focus)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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“Hell Joseon” and Korean Literature

By Charles Montgomery

On the surface, all is well with Korea: It is among the top economies in the world. Seoul is the epitome of “bright lights, big city.” K-pop and Korean movies seem ever-poised to take over the world. But under this shiny patina lies an emerging reality — or perception — of the country as “Hell Joseon.”

That term, coined by young Koreans primarily in their 20s and 30s to express the mounting impotence they feel in a country they describe as increasingly divided between a small percentage of Koreans living extravagantly and the vast majority of Koreans struggling in the precariat. “Joseon” references the Joseon era, an extremely Confucian and hidebound Korean dynasty which lasted from 1392 to 1897. Korean youth, at least, see modern Korea as a parallel to that time when circumstances of birth, sex, and education entirely determined the fate of every citizen.

How serious is the problem? In a survey on Naver, the most important social website and search engine in Korea, 88% of 21,000 “young people” reported that they disliked South Korea and wished that they could leave, a feeling expressed visually when the map above, with its satirical depiction of some of the society’s perceived issues appeared and begun to shoot around Korean social media.

According to this map, you enter the gates of Hell at birth, and unless you land in one of the “good” areas (“Government,” “Golden Spoons,” etc.), you continue through to less happy destinations like Tapgol Park, a famous hangout for unemployed elders, or the “Forest of Emigration,” which more than a few young Koreans dream of entering. In an extremely Korean touch, the basis of the map is the Hellfire Peninsula from the World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which dates back over a decade and was once quite popular in Korea. (In fact, one of the “unknown” reasons Korea is so awesomely wired is that PC bang, literally “computer rooms” with machines rentable by the hour, had to have instantaneously responsive internet connections for such games to be played competitively.)

Hell Joseon map

But the idea of “Hell Joseon” is no game, and Korean authors have been exploring its modern manifestation for three decades. In literature, there has been a shift away from the problems that come to Korea from the outside world to those inherent in the modern Korean system, a system once seen as the answer to those traumas from without. Korean literature has always focused on various types of Hell, but in the past, Hell was externally imposed. During the colonial period Hell was simply the Japanese; after colonialism, Hell became the state of division, seen as a consequence of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

A host of short stories provide evidence of this: Yi Sang’s seminal “The Wings,” as well as two stories from A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, Hyeon Chin-gon’s “A Society that Drives You to Drink” and the title story “A Ready-Made Life

“The Wings,” Yi’s emblematic story, is an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression as well as a description of colonization’s emasculation of the Korean man. It also represents an existential/Dadaist/surrealist withdrawal from the insanity of the colonial existence. At the time, writing a direct attack on Japanese colonialism was nearly impossible, so part of the joy of this story is unpacking the layers to find the theme at the core. “Ah! There were the marks of my imaginary wings,” says the narrator, describing his position. “Those are the wings that I had lost. I took a fleeting look into my mind to the pages of my dictionary and then, I realized that the ambition and hope had been erased.”

“A Society that Drives You to Drink” and “A Ready-Made Life” also explore the bleak landscape of the colonial era through the hopelessness of educated Korean men. Interestingly, similar to the modern situation, this bleak landscape is illuminated by the glow of false hope. Young Koreans visited Japan during the colonial period, most often to attain a degree. There they were introduced to the idea of modernism, yet with no hope of achieving it, not even any position available for a young scholar, upon their return home.

Education is counterproductive in “A Ready-Made Life,” leading only to dreams that cannot be fulfilled. Unable to find a job, the narrator chooses not to educate his son, a profoundly un-Korean decision. “A Society that Drives You to Drink” adds to this dilemma the institutional inequality between men and women: the frustrate male character, in this case driven to drink as well, has been educated beyond the understanding of his wife, resulting in their emotional estrangement. “The fellow who has his wits about him throws up blood and dies,” he declares. Hell is clearly in Korea, but it came “imported” from Japan.

After the war, the external Hell became the separation, and responsibility for that separation was often externalized or attributed to external philosophies. Three very different representations of this are “The Land of Excrement” by Nam Jun-hyung, “Human Decency” by Gong Ji-Young, and “The Guest” by Hwang Sun-won. “The Land of Excrement” is the story of Hong Mansu, an important name because it combines of a reference to the Korean hero Hong Gildong (to whom Hong Mansu claims a direct relation) and the Korean word for “longevity,” something Hong, hiding on Mount Hyangmi (roughly meaning “looking towards the U.S.”) and about to be pulverized by the artillery and bombs of the United States Army, does not seem to have.

Hong brought on this fate when he attacked the wife of a U.S. serviceman because her husband had misused Hong’s sister as a concubine. Hong is justifiably angry not just about that, but also because in the post-war celebration a GI sexually assaulted Hong’s mother, who subsequently went mad, abusing Hong along the way before finally dying. And so, as the book opens, Hong awaits his own destruction for his extremely limited attempt at revenge. The book also touches on poverty, social striation, and the alienation of the poor, but generally with the view these states had been hegemonically imposed.

“Human Decency” by Gong Ji Young pits a facilely “international” character who has had the nerve to look outside of Korea against a “true Korean hero” who has relentlessly stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. The narrator, a reporter tortured by her abandonment of political purity, brings that angst to her work. In a Manichean construction of the good Korea versus the bad foreigner, she meets the “noble” rebel Gwon Ogyu as well as Yi Minja, who has lived an international life. The narrator both loathes and loves (but mainly loathes) Yi, and in this struggle seems to argue that to accept anything modern is to spurn Korean history and society, and in the end unreservedly embraces Gwon.

Both of these books directly identify the source of Korea trauma as external, but “The Guest” is a more subtle and thus controversial work. “Show me one soul that wasn’t to blame!”: with the slam of a hand and that short sentence, Hwang sums up one of the bloodiest chapters in modern Korean history, a series of atrocities in northern Korea that, while originally blamed on U.S. troops, was actually internecine fighting of the worst sort when people once friends, separated by Christianity and Marxism (each one a “guest,” in the title’s term), butchered each other.

Although both of these forces are in some ways as alien to Korea as the United States Army itself, Hwang’s book caused a firestorm of criticism from both North and South Korea, both of whom preferred to claim that all evil in these events was done by outsiders. While “The Guest” is the rare book that identifies the Hell of the Korean War as partly internally generated, the violent reaction against it demonstrates that the idea was not well received at home.

Today’s “Hell Joseon,” however, is almost uniformly seen to be a native Korean phenomenon. No longer are the boilers of Hell from England, its coal from Pennsylvania, its fireworks from China, its patent leather cloven loafers from Japan, its red satin capes from India. This Hell, a triumph of economic development, could be slapped with a “100 percent Made in Korea” sticker and placed in the gigantic shopping marts, in even bigger malls, in the bustling heart of Seoul. And this stance is almost entirely new to Korean modern literature. The works available in translation seem to be written largely by women, who suffer the normal indignities of society as well as the additional burden of sexism.

Bae Su-ah’s “Highway With Green Apples” is a melancholic tale with a narrator essentially unmoved by love, sex, or anything having to do with the future, except perhaps — and it is a “perhaps” — the idea of stepping entirely outside the rat race she lives in. Almost completely jaded, she explains herself as follows: “I am one week away from my 25th birthday. I hate being that age. That age is neither as fresh and full of life as 15 years nor as jaded as the afternoon of 35 years.”

She has just broken up with a boyfriend after a trip on which they bought green apples from a woman selling them on the roadside. Her mind, both consciously as well as through actions and seemingly unrelated thoughts, compares the simplicity of that roadside vending life to the complication and confusion, both essentially meaningless, of that of the “888,800 generation,” the number referring to the amount of Korean won earned full-time on minimum wage.

Bae’s narrator is a dropout, estranged from her family, and apparently without any strong personal relationships, and her story is about limitations, clearly symbolized by Bae’s repeated emphasis on the small living spaces of many of the characters and how their jobs and lives end up completely trapping them. The condition is a bit reminiscent of of stories like “Apartments” by the venerated Park Wan-suh,Christmas Specials” by Kim Ae-ran, or Eun Heekyung’s “My Wife’s Boxes” in Unspoken Voices.

“Identical Apartments” Pak Wan-suh, featured in Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women, is one of the first stories of the “Hell Joseon” family, one told through the eyes of a married daughter of an extended family living in one large apartment. When they do move into their own apartment, the wife befriends the woman across the way and copies her style and cooking. As time goes by, the wife comes to understand that even then she has no individuality, that she is not much different from an insect in its colony, trapped in conformist amber and profoundly unhappy.

“Christmas Specials” begins with a lyrical scene of a man in a snowstorm, but quickly turns to themes of fecundity and space (represented by sperm and inns). The man still lives with his sister, but this evening is Christmas Eve, and with a packet of ramen under his arm he contemplates going back home and being able to enjoy the room alone. It will be the first time he has really had a space to himself since he had a rooftop room (a type of shabby little rooms tacked onto the flat top of residential buildings, brutally subject to the heat of summer and cold of winter, and often seen in Korea).

The next scene shows his sister and her boyfriend trying to find a “room of their own” on Christmas Eve for some romantic time together. They have set this night aside as one on which to just go out and have fun, carve out their own space, and do what they want to do, not what economics demand. The story alternates between the brother with his modern toys of separation (the computer, boring pornography) and the couple’s search for a romantic private setting. Nothing works out as it should, and events progress not as a tragedy but a gray, plodding, process of grinding down, a bleak depiction of the plight of young minimum-wage workers in modern Korea.

“My Wife’s Boxes,” in Unspoken Voices, is Eun Heekyung’s take on the country’s hellish sexual politics. This chilling story is slightly reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in its representation of woman being smothered by an ostensibly well-meaning husband and a room that becomes a “tomb.” Compared to Gilman’s work, however, it has an uncertain narrative center in its husband whose wife has been institutionalized. As the story goes on, the underlying trauma of the marriage is revealed and works towards a tragic but in some ways logical conclusion based upon the premise that there is no real love in a modern relationship.

These stories do not find it necessary to allude to anything outside of Korean society to explain the tortured existences of their characters. Love is a lie, all relationships are commodified, and the world is divided into two groups: the largely unseen rich, and the much lower class to which these characters belong. Admittedly, Korean literature goes far beyond the terrain described here, but this terrain, originally mapped in the late twentieth century, is very different from that which preceded it, all its influences and consequences entirely Korean. As the late twentieth and early twenty-first century unspooled, Korean literature described a kind of Hell, the “Hell Joseon” yet to be named by the young Koreans of the last few years.

It is worth noting that the allure of an overseas life and the “failure” of Korean life seems tempered in those who have lived outside Korea. In my experience with my students, those who had lived overseas seemed more cognizant of the flaws of other countries. Korean media has created several interview segments showing the very measured view internationally experienced Korean youth have of the advantages and disadvantages of living outside their homeland. They seem to have adopted a “Hell World” outlook, which does help them understand Korea a bit more fully.

However, until the current Korean sense of economic hopelessness goes away, until the glass ceiling for women goes away, and until the fact changes that that the rich become richer while ordinary people remain relegated to the precariat, it is unlikely that the situation in society or literature will change. I am not qualified to judge what it means for those who live in it, but it makes for some interesting reading.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University.