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.)
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.