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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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.

KB - Red Book Room 2

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.”

빨간책방_팟캐스트_아이콘

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.

Hell Joseon map 600

“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.

KB - Korean Los Angeles guide

A Korean Travel Writer Reveals the Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know

By Colin Marshall 

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul in part because I prefer living as a foreigner to living as a native. But I continue to appreciate Los Angeles, and still plan to spend a significant chunk of my future in it, for that same reason: not because I feel like a native there, but because I and everyone else there feel, in one way or another, like foreigners. The city’s role first as a magnet for the rest of America, then as a magnet for the rest of the world, has long since obliterated any assumptions one Angeleno might hold about another. We’re all “foreigners” there, all to some degree outsiders, whether Los Angeles-born-and-raised or immigrants from elsewhere in the country or another country entirely: Mexico, England, Armenia, China, Ethiopia, Korea …

Anna Kim (안나킴, in her Westernized Korean spelling) came to Los Angeles from Korea, not as an immigrant, nor even as a particularly long-term resident. But her older sister who preceded her to Los Angeles did emigrate, establishing a life there first and thus providing Kim with someone to visit and a place to crash. And so, putting a few months of Los Angeles time in here and there, doing different things each time, Kim performed the surely inadvertent as well as deliberate body of research that went into her book LA 도시 산책, which literally means “L.A. City Walk,” but whose cover also bears the English title Los Angeles, Portrait of a City — followed by the Korean subtitle 사람은 도시를 만들고, 도시는 사람을 만들다, which translates to the Churchillian observation that “people make the city, and the city makes people.”

I picked up Portrait of a City on my very first visit to Korea, eagerly following the wise dictum that, when studying a foreign language, you should study materials in that language on subjects that interest you most. Few subjects interest me as much as Los Angeles, and so finding an in-depth volume on the city written in Korean felt to me like happening on a sacred object, especially given the Korean publishing industry’s respectable design standards for travel essay books. Given the lower level of my Korean skills at the time — and Kim’s distinctive writing style, which a Korean friend described to me, with a slight sneer on her face, as an odd mixture of the too-elevated and the too-casual — actually understanding the thing proved a bit of a struggle from page one, but sheer fascination carried me through the years of off-and-on reading it took to get through.

Before Portrait of a City, Kim wrote a book on that other American metropolis called 뉴요커도 모르는 뉴욕, or The New York Even New Yorkers Don’t Know. Given the potential to market as a series, it actually surprises me that she didn’t call her Los Angeles book The Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know. It certainly reflects the content, since the author’s regular but temporary presence in the city galvanizes her to explore farther and wider and participate in a range of cultural activities than even some who live in Los Angeles for decades do.

The book organizes its essays into geographic sections, each fronted by a nifty isometric map of the area in question with a red line delineating the maximally interesting walking route through it. This comes without the posturing I too often see in writings about Los Angeles that focus on the city as experienced on foot: “They say ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ but they’re wrong. I walk in L.A., and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too,” that sort of thing. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that Missing Persons never blew up here.) Kim not only assumes from the outset that her readers will walk in the city, she specifically selects places to write about for their accessibility by bus and train.

Not for her, then, the comforts of the exurbs, or even that quintessentially Los Angeles territory: the technically-urban neighborhood within the city limits that nonetheless feels like an exurb. She does begin with a nod to greater Los Angeles’ internationally brand-namiest places with sections on Beverly Hills (the book’s first essay titled “Beverly Hills Is Not Really Los Angeles”), Hollywood, and — reflecting South Korea’s intense interest in higher education and the best-known institutions thereof — USC and UCLA. But the journey gets deeper thereafter with sections on Bunker Hill, Downtown’s historic core, Koreatown, the Pueblo, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach.

Korean travel writers often focus on observing, say, the deliciousness of lattes sipped in the boulevard cafés of various world capitals, but Kim, apparently a bred-in-the-bone history buff, displays a more rigorous interest in the city. This manifests especially in an architectural consciousness stimulated almost everywhere she goes: she pays attention, of course, to the likes of Capitol Records Building, the Bradbury Building, Disney Concert Hall, and Union Station, but also to the whimsically exaggerated (and only faintly sinister) cottages of Beverly Hills, the Herald-Examiner Building (which leads her to consider architect Julia Morgan’s entire career as a precedent of the late Zaha Hadid’s), the football-themed gargoyles perched around the USC campus, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters, at which she marvels as the Civic Center’s Taj Mahal. (Weirdly, the symbolic and eminently tour-able Watts Towers gets the short shrift, just a few sentences alongside a small photo.)

Kim also devotes a substantial essay to the downtown campus of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, well known to many Angelenos and architecture buffs everywhere simply as SCI-Arc. Her nose for buildings also takes her to the Bonaventure Hotel, for my money one of the most fascinating structures in Los Angeles, an occasion to tell the story of how her sister — the one who settled in the city — received her marriage proposal in its top-floor revolving lounge, but had to wait two hours alone for her now-husband, who’d descended to the parking garage to collect the ring and bouquet from the car, to find his way back up through the hotel’s notoriously bewildering interior.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when Kim inevitably gets around to writing about the Church of Scientology, she writes about their penchant for buying, preserving, occupying, and iconifying old buildings. But in introducing that controversial and high-profile religious organization, she describes it as a profit-driven cult whose members “believe that the human soul is a reincarnation of an alien,” words whose starkness might shock a Korean-speaking Westerner used to reading those of an American media that, fearing Scientology’s legal and economic wrath, hew to such comparatively diplomatic terms as “controversial and high-profile religious organization.”

Kim grapples with LA’s diversity throughout the book. She calls to schedule personal training sessions at a Koreatown gym and soon after meets her trainer: “a brawny black man standing like a mountain range with his arms folded.” Flustered, she breaks into a sweat and he face turns red. “Don’t be scared of me,” he says to her in Korean, turning out to be the son of an American G.I. and a Korean woman who spent the first 20 years of his life in his mother’s homeland. Elsewhere in Koreatown, she passes the Gaylord Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard and, interpreting its grand sign as literally meaning “Lord of the Gays,” shruggingly imagines it as a luxury residential complex for upper-class homosexuals.

Kim no doubt wouldn’t imagine such a place in Korea, a country with a long way to go in terms of officially accepting, or even acknowledging, the full range of human sexuality. But as with most everything else she writes about in Portrait of a City, she neither judges the concept, nor, as would accord with the dismissively observational tradition first established by visitors from the east coast, does she write it off as just one more act in the circus that is Los Angeles. She regards the city as a challenge to be navigated, understood, and with sufficient persistence mastered, even during such trying times as when she discovers the searchable online geographical database of California sex offenders and falls into a paranoia about how many of them could live just doors away.

She reserves more of her instinctive judgment for people from her own side of the world, as when a Japanese tour guide through little Tokyo starts tearing up while talking about World War II. Kim at first has little sympathy, finding this behavior typical of “a war-criminal country that tries to cry away its sins.” But then they reach the Go for Broke Monument, where she learns, and finds herself moved by, the story of whom it memorializes: the Japanese Americans, including a relative of the tour guides’s, who turned against Japan in order to protect their families.

On another tour, this one through Union Station, she learns of the ruins of the old Chinatown, hastily vacated in the late 1930s to make way for the grand new railway terminal, through their artistic incorporation into the building itself:

Suddenly the tour guide spoke in the tone of an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist. “But take a look here. So far I’ve figured out the meaning of every symbol in this station, but with this strange one, I just don’t know. Maybe someone here does?”

At a glance, it looked like a round form of the Chinese character 車. What, this, some kind of mysterious ancient Egyptian hieroglyph? “It’s a Chinese character that means ‘coach’ or ‘car,’” I answered, chuckling. The elderly whites in the group all stared at me, wide-eyed.

Sheesh. He’s led this tour for the Los Angeles Conservancy for something like ten years, with at least a few dozen participants each week. How regrettable that all this time, there hasn’t been one Asian who could read that character. Isn’t this Los Angeles, the American city so well-known for its large Asian population? I mean, 車 is a simple, common character that any Chinese, Korean, or Japanese could read.

The first generation of immigrants were busy making a living, and the second-generation kids don’t have any special interest in this kind of thing. The first generation has a strong tendency to keep to themselves, so one doesn’t see them in mostly-white meetings like this. Second-generation Asians are so fully assimilated into American culture that they’re lucky to understand the language of their parents’ country, let alone its writing.

Actually, the young Chinese lady who’d led my tour through Chinatown was like that. She said her mother immigrated with her when she was a toddler. She was a rare model student in having such a strong interest in her roots that she led English-language tours of Chinatown, but when I asked her what a character on a sign meant, she flinched. “I can’t read Chinese,” she answered timidly. For heaven’s sake, a Chinese Chinatown tour guide who can’t read Chinese — to someone like me, born and raised in a Chinese character-based culture, that’s preposterous.

A book like this underscores, for a student of Korean such as myself, the extent to which anything written in the Korean language begins with the understandable assumption of a Korean readership. Would a Korean reader better understand why Kim, when she decides to finally give one of Cole’s famous French dip sandwiches a try, freaks out at the cut and color of the meat and eats only the crust of the bun dipped in au jus? In any case, they’ll certainly appreciate the fact that she writes up pieces of Korean Los Angeles wherever she can find them, such as the home of independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho transplanted whole to the USC campus, his actor son Philip’s tucked-away star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Korean saint featured on a tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Kim also finds, here and there, points where Los Angeles could do well to Koreanize further. Spending an evening at the Chapman Market, the ornate drive-through grocery store restored by Korean owners into a popular bar and restaurant complex, she envisions a day when its central parking lot will become a setting for more outdoor cooking, eating, and drinking, the kind of public social life visible in almost every neighborhood here in Seoul. That day still hasn’t quite come in Los Angeles, a city slow to realize the potential of its public and quasi-public spaces, but these kinds of observations make me wish Portrait of a City would come out in an English translation accessible to more of the people making the city (and getting made by it) today.

Even in the original Korean, non-Korean-speakers with an interest in Los Angeles will find things to enjoy in this guidebook to the city superior to pretty much any published in English in the past couple of decades: they can still follow Kim’s suggested walks, for instance, and seek out the places she photographs, some of which they may not know no matter how thoroughly they’ve explored.

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

By Charles Montgomery

In my years in Korea, I never met an author humbler or nicer than Han Kang: she was always willing to answer emails, give an interview, or do a public appearance. Which is why it is pleasant to note that last week, in a “stop the presses” (or perhaps “restart the presses”) moment for Korean literature, she won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her harrowing and brilliant The Vegetarian.

Mention should also be made of Kang’s excellent translator Deborah Smith, whose prose is both literary and readable, and who shared in the prize. Kang’s achievement immediately became the biggest “win” in Korean translated literature, surpassing that of Kyung-Sook Shin’s 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom. It comes at the same time in Korea that four of the last six winners of the prestigious Hyundai Munhak Award for Literature (2010-15) and four of the last six Yi Sang Awards (2010-15) were given to female writers.

These victories are the tangible residue of a surprising change in the world of hanguk munhak, or Korean literature, in which female authors have become dominant in Korea, and doubly so outside Korea in translation. This might seem an unlikely outcome from a country that, just 50 years ago, still referred to female writers as yeoryu jakka, or woman authors, while the men were simply referred to as jakkanim — authors, honorifically.

To understand the magnitude of this change, we need to take a quick ride in the Wayback Machine. Historically, Korean women were essentially barred from being authors. First, there was the problem of language: classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, a language women were not taught. Second, there was the problem of the social order. To become a writer one almost necessarily had to be a yangban (a word that implies scholarly aristocracy as well as administrative and military service), an option not open to women as it was either passed down hereditarily along the male line or awarded by test score to successful, and always male, applicants.

During this period, virtually the only literary work by women was produced by gisaeng (something like geisha) and they tended to produce formulaic laments about not being able to be with the yangban they loved. This began to change, ever so slightly, during the Joseon Dynasty when, officially in 1443 (though it actually took a few years), King Sejong decided to create a native Korean alphabet called hangul, which slowly became the language of literature. (Very slowly, in fact: even today, some Chinese characters, or hanja, remain in use in South Korea.)

Unhappy with the effective illiteracy of Koreans uneducated in the Chinese language, King Sejong pushed to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, by imagining a new set of letters: natively Korean, easy to learn, based on the position of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables. “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings,” declared the ruler himself. “Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

Because hangul could be quickly learned and was suited to the Korean language, it could be taught to all: even to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, Hangul was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (a dismissive description used partly by yangban in an effort to marginalize the alphabet), or the language of the domain of women. Hangul entered use humbly enough, primarily in diaries. Many Confucian scholars and some kings were not proponents of hangul, considering hanja the proper language of literature, and its official usage and acceptance varied over the centuries. It did, however, give a textual voice to all those who could never before write their thoughts down.

As the Joseon Dynasty waned in the late-19th century, Korean literature went through a brief period of so-called “enlightenment” before falling to colonial Japan. At the start of this era, there was a window for female authors, due in part to a “modern” emphasis on “free love” (not “free love” as we’ve known it since the 60s, but the right to choose your spouse) and education for women. After Japan’s defeat in World War II closed the colonial era, literature reverted almost wholly to an all-male endeavor. Then, of course, came the defining issue for the remainder of the century: the Korean War, which dominated the country’s discourse in most fields, literature being no exception.

In the second half of the 20th century, women remained on the periphery of Korean literature by nature of the subject matter considered appropriate. The division of the country, both physically and psychologically, became the primary issue, which meant that most fiction centered on political struggle, ideological separation, and national bifurcation. But as the Korean economy and society changed, often incredibly quickly, so did the national estimate of Korean “problems.” The war receded, Korea modernized, industrialized, and internationalized, and this brought women to the front and center of Korean society, with many of them finding themselves at writing desks.

Park Wansuh began by writing on themes that roughly fit into “division literature”: mothers and daughters left abandoned by husbands, fathers killed or disappeared during the ear. In Who Ate Up All the Shinga, perhaps her most representative work on these themes, she tells the semi-autobiographical story of deciding to become a writer. Later in her career, Park began to pivot to a new theme, one that would shortly become central to many female writers who arrive on the scene shortly after her: the alienation and spiritual dispossession of women in the newly industrialized and modernized Korea.

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This kind of fiction can be found in Park’s Identical Apartments (included in the recent collection The Future of Silence: Fiction By Korean Women) and Dalkey Archive’s book of her short works, Lonesome You. Once Park became popular — and she was one of Korea’s most beloved writers — the walls began to crumble, and a new woman’s fiction emerged from the pens of such writers as Eun Hee-kyung (Poor Man’s Wife), Ch’oe Yun (There a Petal Silently Falls), Shin Kyung-Sook, Bae Suah (Nowhere to Be Found), and others.

As this process occurred in Korea, important changes were taking place in the greater spheres of publishing and reading. A recent study, for instance, reveals that translated fiction sales have doubled in the United Kingdom since the turn of the century while general fiction sales have dropped. The numbers have been particularly impressive in Korean literature, which went from selling 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015. Alongside this increase, and to some extent pushed by it, the nature of what was translated has changed from a tightly gate-kept “representational” literature to a wider range of stories which are much more accessible to non-Korean readers.

To put it rather bluntly, the older more traditional critics who used to control Korean literature have been to some extent pushed aside, and publishing, thankfully, has been moved to overseas locations. The Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) has been at the forefront of this effort, but it has also been spurred on by the efforts such individual translators working both alone and in concert with the LTI  as Deborah Smith, Sora Kim-Russell, and Kim Chi-Young — mostly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, women.

At least six elements converged to bring women to the forefront of Korean literature translated into English (or indeed French, Polish, Spanish, etc.). First, the creation of hangul made writing possible for women. Second, Korea’s modernization brought at least the idea of equality to the table. Third, industrialization created a new class of autonomous “economic woman” who theoretically has access to the same avenues of expression that men always had. This began during the colonial period but primarily took place during and after the economic boom under the military rule of president Park Chung-Hee. Fourth, internationalization raised awareness of new models from the overseas lands in which women were perceived to enjoy all forms of expression.

Fifth, as economic and social changes occurred across Korea in the late 20th century, women lost their traditional positions. Women felt a new and distinctive form of alienation, having lost the diminished but understood traditional role of eomma, or mother. Shin Kyung-Sook’s Please Look After Mom is one of the works that directly addresses this loss and the nostalgia it creates for the “good old days” while others focused on the anomie that resulted.

Finally, changes in the publishing market resulted in better books being chosen for translation, smoother language in the translations themselves, and an increased interest in Korean literature overseas at the same time female writers were coming to dominate the Korean domestic market. Taken all together, these historical trends have resulted in a riches of Korean fiction by women eager to dig into meaty, contemporary issues related to sexism, commodification, and the role (or non-role) of the individual in Korean society and the world at large.

Increasingly, these writers are focusing on individual, character-driven fiction that resonates with Western readers. This represents a strong break with mainstream Korean fiction, so often driven by vast historical and social forces beyond the control of its characters. These forces remain quite evident in the fiction mentioned here, but its focus has shifted to the psychological and practical responses of particular individuals in the face of these overwhelming influences.

Fortunately, much of this fiction seems to be finding a home in English. The happy result of this for readers looks like a new “Korean wave” of literature driven by women. It would be unfair to say male writers are not doing some of the work, but at this point in time it seems that the bulk of this work is being done by women.

And where to dip in to these newly open waters? Interested readers could profitably begin with any of the novelists named above, or collections like the aforementioned  The Future of Silence or Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women Writers. These works, all quite literary and based on solid, comprehensible plots, even as they often veer into the surreal, may eventually lead you down a wormhole, but you’ll surely enjoy the ride.

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. He currently lives in Oregon. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

*Lede (photo source: LTI Korea Han Kang interview).

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

By Colin Marshall 

Robert J. Fouser first lived in Korea in the mid-1980s, going on to become a professor at Seoul National University and a high-profile commentator on Korean society, culture, and urban issues, especially the preservation of traditional the Korean houses known as hanok, one of which he purchased and restored himself. Later he lived in Japan, teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students.

Now based again in his American hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fouser has returned to Korea for a few months to promote two newly published books he wrote in Korean: Conditions for Citizenship in the Future: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건) and Seochon-holic (서촌홀릭). I previously wrote about him on the Korea Blog when he led the Royal Asiatic Society on a deep Seoul walk. We sat town to talk about Korea today at Cafemoon, my coffee spot of choice by Seoul Station.

How do you describe these two books to someone unfamiliar with Korea?

Conditions for Citizenship in the Future is basically, “What is democracy? What is citizenship? How does that relate to what’s going on in Korea today?” The younger generation in Korea has lots of complaints about society. They think society is stagnant, not changing in the way they want. What the book argues they should do is participate in the democratic process, to stand up as citizens. It’s a call for younger people in Korea to take a more proactive stance in their politics. Seochon-holic is a collection of essays on things I’ve felt in Korea, my perspective on Korea. About half of it is related to urban issues, mainly preservation versus development, because I was involved in hanok preservation.

How much do you credit the younger generation’s idea of Korea as “Hell Joseon?” Is it a legitimate complaint?

From an objective perspective, it might not be, because no society can guarantee people a job, happiness, or anything like that. If you look at how younger Koreans perceive the world — that they have to be perfect, that they have to have all these accomplishments, they have to look a certain way, this pressure to promote yourself, to package yourself, to market yourself — it’s very real. That’s what’s driving the complaint: they’re expected to have all these things, but some of them take money, and there’s a feeling of not being able to get ahead.

But the Korean War left the country in a state of total material want. How did it go from that to such high material expectations?

In the ’50s, right after the war, there was stagnation, but in the ’60s, [South Korean president from 1961-1979] Park Chung-hee created the concept of “the Korean dream”: focus on industrialization and turn Korea modern, in a way into a semi-Japan. Park was familiar with the Japanese mass-scale development model because he had been a military officer in Manchuria. So he created this idea that “we all work hard, the country grows, and you get a piece of the growing pie.” For most Koreans, that turned out to be true. It actually worked. The standard of living rose dramatically as the economy developed.

You had this 30-year boom — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, all the way to the ’90s — when the Korean dream was working for the mass of Koreans. When I first taught in 1986 in a military school, I met people my age who would tell me they didn’t have electricity at home until they were thirteen — or plumbing, heating, all these material things. So there was a hope life would improve, which started to fade after the “IMF crisis.” The country recovered after that, but the world economy didn’t really recover after 9/11, and Japan was already in the dumps. The problem now is that the older generation still has an expectation of continuous improvement, but that’s not happening. They have to come to terms with that.

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We’ve also seen news story after news story about the end of the American dream. You’re from Michigan, one of the states often written about as particularly hard-hit. Do you see a similarity in the situations there and here?

The difference, of course, is that the US is still a much bigger country. The cost of housing is cheaper — outside the coasts. But yes, in essence, it’s a similar problem. To go to college you now have to take out a loan, so there’s this same perception in the U.S. that it’s hard to get ahead — not just to get ahead, but even to establish yourself. That’s driving Bernie Sanders. The young people support him. A Korean Bernie Sanders would be very possible, but who that would be, I don’t know. He came from “left field,” so to speak.

You first came to a pre-democratic Korea in the ’80s. What was it like?

It was booming at the time because of the preparation for Seoul’s 1988 Olympics. I had been to Korea for a week in 1982, but then I came for a year in 1983 and 1984, and that was when it really started to boom. Subway line number two opened while I was here, and then three and four opened. The mood of the country was “build, build, build” — but they had a dictatorship. The idea of a “good country” was not just wealth or economics, but also democracy. What is an advanced country? To a lot of Koreans in the eighties, that was a wealthy democratic society. They were on track to become wealthy, but they were dissatisfied with a lack of democracy, and that drove the democracy movement in the eighties.

South Korea has a tradition of looking for and then imitating what they consider “good countries.” It sounds a little like the South Pacific island “cargo cults” who supposedly built their own wooden imitations of runways and air traffic control towers in the hopes of bringing back the American airplanes that delivered supplies during World War II. But to an extent, it worked?

Still, the definition of a “good country” is a wealthy democratic society, that’s clear, but wealthy democratic societies also have problems. Europe has its share: the aging society thing is common there and Japan and even in the US. How do these countries deal with that? How do you make a social welfare system for an aging population? Korea is having trouble finding its own solution to these issues, whereas before the route to becoming a “good country” was very clear: instead of an appointed president, for instance, you have an election. Now they have to maintain that status and deal with other issues, which Japan is having trouble doing because of its long economic slump.

Why would Koreans want to hear a foreigner such as yourself talk about their politics and economics?

I don’t know. My editor proposed the book, and I never really asked why. From 2008 to 2014 I was a professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. I was very unhappy there, but I didn’t tell people until recently, but that’s a long story. During those six years, I was active in hanok preservation, talking about city issues. My basic point was that “preservation versus development” is really an issue where you need a consensus about public good and private purpose: preserving something like a historic site or neighborhood for future generations versus “I own the land and want to make money off it.”

Both should be respected, and there needs to be a compromise, but I felt during my work in preservation that things were skewed toward private purpose, not so much public good. It classified me a bit as a lefty, which wasn’t necessarily my intention. That led to writing the book about politics, because people thought my perspective not as a foreigner, but from having been involved in hanok preservation, might be interesting.

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Seochon, the area of Seoul referenced in the title of Seochon-holic (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You’d think Koreans would be the ones preserving their old houses, and Westerners would be the ones coming in saying, “No, no, this is all backward. We’ve got to modernize this place.” But why is the reverse true, to an extent?

There are lots of Koreans who have renovated hanok; very few foreigners have renovated a house. But Koreans may feel uncomfortable speaking out. A lot of hanok are in what are called “redevelopment districts,” which are always sensitive to speak out about. Younger Koreans especially are interested in preservation, but they might not be comfortable talking about it. My activism started around 2009, and before that, very few Koreans were interested in hanok preservation, but after that it started to change.

What’s so good about hanok?

They’re impractical from an urban-planning point of view because they’re only one floor. It’s harder to have a city with layers of tile-roofed, one-floor houses. From that point of view, they’re inefficient. But most of the hanok have been destroyed already, so I’m talking about the few that are left. They need to be preserved because they are part of the historic fabric of Seoul. There are only around 3,500 left, and that’s a very small number of houses out of the total population, so I think those houses can be preserved without affecting the density or efficient use of urban land. Some hanok are in fairly good condition and some are in terrible condition. If you have one in fairly good condition you can just renovate it, but if you have one in bad condition — really bad condition — it’s best to knock it down and rebuild another hanok in its place.

I discovered I liked hanok while I lived in one from 1988 to 1989. I liked the scale: it’s kind of small and there are lots of rooms, so you can use one room as a bedroom, one as a study, one as a junk room. Each can be adapted to a purpose. I’m back in Ann Arbor now and I have this big living room; it just terrifies me. How do I fill this monstrous space? I put up a bookcase to divide the living room into two smaller spaces. It isn’t really that big a house, but it feels huge. And of course, hanok have the hot floors, which I like.

Hanok aside, how does Seoul interest you as a city, as opposed to a Tokyo or a Kyoto or a New York or an Ann Arbor?

It’s the hodgepodge, which creates a sense of urban discovery. You have this confusion, but inside the confusion you have urban discovery. Tokyo has a bit of that too — all cities do — but in Seoul that confusion makes the sense of urban discovery a little bit more exciting. Anybody into cities will like that, if they are into cities in that mindset. If they’re into cities as organized spaces, then I can recommend other cities: Washington D.C., Paris.

I was out last Saturday, and I decided I wanted to buy some film, because I take pictures. I went to the film place I would usually go to and they were closed because it was a holiday weekend, so I went to another camera supply shop. They had film, Agfa film: black and white, it’s hard to find, I’m like, wow! This sudden urban discovery made me very happy. In Seoul, you can be in a neighborhood that looks kind of run-down, you want to take a rest, you find a coffee shop, and they have a fabulous cappuccino.

With New York, you go the Met, you go to the MOMA, you go to these high monuments of culture that you consume. At the Met, there’s a room of Rembrandts, ten on the wall. It’s a different phenomenon than Seoul. The museums here for Korean art are very good, but if you want world culture, Seoul is not your city.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did. My only reservation about moving to Korea myself was that, because so many more do it now, many of them come without much investment or interest in the country of the kind that Westerners might have in Japan. You’ve lived in Japan; is it really that different?

It is, but it’s sort of a generational thing. I when I first came, foreigners were limited in what we could do here. You couldn’t buy a house. Park Chung-hee made it illegal for foreigners to own land, and that wasn’t lifted until 1998. The only way would have been to put it in your Korean spouse’s name. There were no foreign tenured professors. If you moved to Korea in the ’80s, you had very few role models of foreigners who spent their lives here, whereas Japan had this long history of Westerners discovering it: the whole zen Buddhist thing; after the war, the Beat people who went to Kyoto; even in the Meiji era they had foreign experts. Sapporo was laid out by an American civil engineer. The foreigner in Japan is part of Japanese history. It always felt easier to establish yourself there.

Nowadays foreigners can buy land here. There’s permanent residency. If somebody’s 29 years old and they compare the two countries, those issues are not there anymore, but when I was 29 years old, Korea really was uri nara [the Korean term often used to refer to Korea, meaning “our country”]. You were here provisionally. But Koreans have done a great job overcoming that. Give credit where credit is due. Now I would say Korea is more open than Japan.

But I still sense that, to a great many Koreans’ frustration, Westerners still like Japan better. Why?

Korea doesn’t feel as exotic. When I talk about national branding, I say to Koreans: architecture, art, music, and food. The four things are very Korean. The music isn’t like Japanese music. The architecture has things in common with other countries, but the floors are unique. There’s old Korean culture that could be appealing to a Westerners, but when you drop in from the airport, you don’t see it.

As you’ve spent more time in Korea, what aspect of the country has come to seem most distinctly non-Western?

The spontaneity of things. People are very spontaneous in Korea, whether meeting friends or anything else. Westerners don’t do that. Japanese don’t do that. You don’t, when you’re a working adult, call your friend and say, “Let’s meet for a beer right now.” I wouldn’t do it in Ann Arbor. It’s related to how people interact with each other; that is where you get Koreanness, a sense of difference.
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Seoul in 1983 (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You wrote these books in Korean. How does your writing change when you write in that language?

Because Korean’s a foreign language, it’s a bit like a fog. I focus on, “Is my message clear?” It’s actually something to focus on when writing in your native language too. In your native language, sometimes you want to play with a sentence, make it more colorful. You start to think about style issues, and there’s the idea of being judged. “Do I have a good hook? Is it exciting? Does it hold together? Is there momentum? Do I have enough quotes?” With Korean, it’s “Does this make sense?” I focus on getting my message across, clearly, which is really what writers should focus on anyway. I lose track of that in English.

Why is Korean an interesting language?

I first studied Japanese, so when I studied Korean, I had that comparison. Later, the other interesting things were, from a linguistic point of view, speech levels, different ways of saying things, that kind of thing. The real difficulty for non-native speakers is knowing how to manage the speech levels, and within the speech levels knowing how to manage the verbal endings.

I’ve noticed people falling into a rut, using verbal endings without understanding their meanings. I had a Japanese student who thought the Korean ending -했는데요 meant the Japanese ending -ですが — which it does, but it doesn’t. She once left a note to me when she wanted to meet but I was a little late for the appointment and wrote “기다렸는데요” [literally, “I waited, but…”], a very antagonistic message to a professor which a Korean student would never write. But she thought it was polite.

The rules of grammar only do so much for you. That’s where you get the sociolinguistic issues. In linguistics, there’s thing thing called “markedness,” meaning using a non-neutral form, but every sentence in Korean is, in a sense, marked. There are no neutral sentences. In even in the most basic sentence — “This is a cup,” for example — I’m making decisions about who you are and who I am. That’s where a lot of non-native speakers end up in trouble.

Having acted as a linguistic intermediary between Korean and Japan while teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students, what’s something you learned about both cultures?

That was a great experience; I always got a buzz after class, which I didn’t get when I was teaching English. One group of students heard Korean was easy and just wanted to get the credits. Another group was the sort of “Korean wave” culture group, and another was interested in something else about Korea — it could’ve been anything. All the issues between Korea and Japan weren’t a big problem. Nobody was mad about Dokdo. They don’t hate each other. I found the Japanese students I taught very open and receptive.

What did you think as that “Korean wave” of pop music and television drama started to wash across Asia, considering your long history with the country?

I was pleasantly surprised. In a way, I thought it might happen. From 1996 to 2002 I wrote a weekly column for the Korea Herald where I would present different topics about Korea, especially the efforts Korea was making to recover from the I.M.F. Information technology was one positive, interesting story, and the other was this pop culture stuff. A lot of K-pop was very visual, and also free; that’s where the technology comes in. Americans or Japanese would have trouble with the idea of giving something out for free. It’s not a factor here so much. Korea almost foreshadowed the rise of the sharing economy.

What would you say to a foreigner looking for a way to live in Korea and experience it to its fullest? How to engage with Korea today, in a real way?

Always remember that the pace of change in Korea is so fast. Understand that the older generation has a very different experience than the younger generation. I went back to the house where I was born in Ann Arbor, and it’s not much different from the house I live in now: the fan heating system is the same, the thermometer is the same, the layout of the kitchen is the same. The paradigm of my life is physically the same as when I grew up. It’s not the same here.

Separate the institution you are working with from Korea itself. I found that out when I was at Seoul National University and not so happy there; some of the unhappiness was Seoul National, not Korea. Your workplace is your workplace, not Korea. Koreans hate institutions too. Try not to make that jump, which is where a lot of foreigners get into trouble. And learn the language.

In many ways, Korea is what you would expect from the geography: a place between China and Japan. How is it most different from those neighbors?

Korea is Latin — it has a Latin character, a Latin feeling, whereas China does not. That’s related to the spontaneity, and maybe to the popularity of the K-pop and dramas, where emotions are high. Japanese women watched [the 2002 hit Korean drama] Winter Sonata (겨울연가) because it reminded them of Japan years ago, when people were more emotional, had more of a sense of community, that sort of thing.

What message do you want to make sure Korea hears from you?

Democratization is a long process. It reached a crescendo in 1987, and after that concentrated on establishing local autonomy. The push extended to greater openness, more acceptance of people. That has nothing to do with foreigners; that was a Korean desire. Do not view that in the past tense. Your accomplishment should be viewed in the present tense. This is related now to openness not just to foreigners but to other kinds of Koreans, and later to reunification, if that happens. How will this society accept the former North Koreans? The push toward democracy is still going on.

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