The reunification of Germany has long been a topic of interest among South Koreans invested in relations with the North. When the Berlin Wall fell, Hwang Sok-yong was one of the few such South Koreans actually there to witness it. Though known primarily as a novelist, Hwang split his energies between writing and political agitation in the early decades of his now more than half-century-long literary career. He often failed to strike an ideal balance between the two, as he admits in his memoir The Prisoner (수인), recently published by Verso in Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell’s English translation. This German sojourn comes early in the book, whose 624 pages (condensed from the two-volume original) ultimately constitute a full autobiography, albeit a chronologically shuffled one. Through these episodes of his life he interweaves the titular narrative, that of his half-decade’s political imprisonment by the South Korean government.
It bears repeating that this is a memoir not of captivity in North Korea, a genre in which the US publishing industry has shown an insatiable interest, but of captivity in the South. Nevertheless, it is also in part a travelogue of North Korea, Hwang’s trip to which brought down his prison sentence in the first place. He took it in 1989, the year international travel opened up to ordinary South Koreans, though by that time he already possessed the rare distinction of experience abroad. The then-West Germany had invited him in 1985, and his time there plunged him into uncertainty about his very identity. “Who was I? I was forty-two. I had written four novellas and a volume of plays and had just published the tenth volume of my popular novel Jang Gil-san, which I had serialized since 1974. My work, however, did not exist outside of Korea.”
“A country bumpkin on his first overseas trip,” Hwang decided that in Germany he “wouldn’t even bother mentioning literature: I would only talk to as many people as possible about the plight of the citizens of Gwangju and our democracy movement.” The nine-day long violent conflict between protestors and the military in that South Korean city — now called the Gwangju Uprising, or by some the Gwangju Massacre — had occurred just five years earlier. That Hwang had been living there at the time would align with his uncanny knack for finding himself in the way of historic events, but other organizing commitments called him up to Seoul before the fighting broke out. “It always weighed on me that I was not there to stand with the people of Gwangju in their hour of need,” he admits, a guilt he first sought to alleviate through writing.
The fallout from Hwang’s work on a clandestinely published narrative of the troubles in Gwangju, assembled according to the testimony of surviving protestors and their supporters, motivated his first visit to Germany. Interrogated after a week in jail, he was informed that he could avoid charges of “rumormongering” if he left Korea for a while. When he did so, he met with reunification-minded groups in not just Europe but Japan and the United States as well, which got him arrested and questioned again upon his return to his homeland. The authorities’ concern seems to have been potential violation of the National Security Act. “Unilaterally legislated by the ruling party after the formation of separate North and South governments in 1948,” that law was “built on the premise that North Korea is not a sovereign nation but an ‘anti-governmental’ or terrorist organization” — one whose sympathizers should be dealt with accordingly.
Despite South Korea’s simultaneous entry into the United Nations with the North in 1991, among other implicit acknowledgments of nationhood, the National Security Act “was never struck down and remains the law of the land to this day. Even the most vaguely positive-sounding mention of the North Korean regime can be construed as a crime of ‘praising’ terrorists.” Giving a talk in Japan, Hwang deals with an audience member whose hostile questions spur him to contemplate more brazen action: “Was it enough, to avoid ‘praising’ the North Korean regime, to say that communism was evil and that we had to destroy the communists if we wanted reunification? I thought of the people who had died in both North and South during the Korean War, the people who had broken the taboo of this border and were imprisoned or executed, and all the people in Gwangju who died while demanding democracy.”
“If I did not try to cross this border myself,” Hwang describes himself as concluding, “then I was not a writer. I wasn’t anything.” In fact he’d already crossed the 38th parallel once, in childhood, during his family’s harrowing escape south with national division underway. Insofar as that family was from the half of the peninsula now called North Korea, Hwang is North Korean himself, though he was actually born in Manchuria, which like Korea was still a Japanese colony in the early 1940s. They returned to Korea after the end of World War II, and history would keep him on the move throughout his formative years. The Korean War displaced him more than once — he retains vivid memories of playing with neighborhood friends amid the smoldering ruins of Seoul — eventually forcing his family to resettle for a time in the southern city of Daegu.
This sets the precedent for a certain peripateticism in Hwang’s life, both within Korea and without. His autodidactic tendencies encouraged by his mother, the young Hwang displays little patience with educational institutions, at one point running away to spend his days reading books in a cave, and at another going so far as to become an apprentice Buddhist monk. After a few months his mother turns up to extract him from the monastic life; years later, when he’s been sent to fight in the Vietnam War, she arranges his transfer out of what turns out to have been immediate danger. By then he’s already had nearer-death experiences than that in Vietnam, and indeed in Korea; on the whole, the number of close scrapes he recalls would approach implausibility in a work of fiction, as would his number of direct encounters with people, places, and events important in modern Korean history.
Throughout The Prisoner Hwang draws connections to his own stories and novels, never hesitating to name his real-life sources of inspiration. While reading it, the work of fiction that came to my mind wasn’t one of Hwang’s, but rather Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 film Ode to My Father (국제시장). A Forrest Gump-style historical blockbuster that tells the story of South Korea through the life of one man of Hwang’s generation, it, too, depicts wartime chaos, struggles in a poverty economy, and marches through the booby trap-laden Vietnamese jungle. But while Ode to My Father might be called a lighthearted tearjerker (surely a Korean speciality genre) and has been criticized as a conservative romanticization of a more authoritarian time, The Prisoner takes the opposite tack, avoiding opportunities for sentimentality and seizing opportunities to criticize the Republic of Korea, especially as it was at its height of developmentalism.
That developmentalism was personified by Park Chung-hee, who took power in a 1961 military coup and ruled as president until his assassination in 1979. During Park’s reign Hwang lived in Haenam, a rural hamlet already losing its traditions “due to the destructive effects of the Saemaul ‘New Village’ Movement that was sweeping the country. Far from being revived, villages were emptying out.” While “today some regard the Saemaul Movement as Park Chung-hee’s jewel in the crown” for its modernization of the countryside, the result Hwang sees is that “the poorer farmers became the urban poor, clinging to the outskirts of towns, or low-income, unskilled laborers.” As for Vietnam, he writes that “to this day, I still cannot freely talk about everything that I witnessed” — which is saying something, given the vividness with which he relates his memories of destroyed villages and other sites of wanton killing.
Mỹ Lai, as Hwang sees it, “was just one of the many acts of cruelty on a mass scale that were perpetrated during the Vietnam War,” including, as one occasionally hears referenced in stories a long way indeed from the pratfalls of Ode to My Father, by Korean troops. “I believe it was the internalized violence from the Korean War and onward, exacerbated by the Vietnam conflict, that enabled the slaughter of civilians in broad daylight several years later during the pro-democracy protests in Gwangju. Korea’s lack of reflection on our role in the Vietnam War is especially shameful in the light of our eagerness to point out Japan’s atrocities.” 21st-century South Korea, in his view, retains something of the hypocrisy of the Park dictatorship, “wearing the fashionable clothes of democracy over one half of a body that remains divided by a militarized border.”
If Hwang’s contrarian streak made him a sufficiently outspoken anti-authoritarian for the South Korean government to peg him as a troublemaker early on, it has also kept him from permanently abandoning his homeland. He could have stayed in Germany, his next stop after his fateful visit to North Korea; he could have stayed in the United States, where he moved his family and which actually granted him residency after strings were pulled at the Department of Defense. He could even have stayed in the DPRK, having received a personal appeal to do in the embrace of Kim Il-sung himself. But he writes of having understood that he was “a product of South Korean history and therefore would never be anything more than a houseguest in North Korea” — and what’s worse, a houseguest whose presence would inevitably be milked by both sides for all the propaganda value it was worth.
Several years in Japan, Europe, and America followed Hwang’s visit to North Korea, but the whole time, he insists, he intended to return to South Korea and accept the punishment awaiting him there. When a German novelist suggests he apply for asylum, Hwang declares that “I have to go back to where they speak my mother tongue” — which is also where his case would become a high-profile illustration of what he saw as the absurdity of the National Security Act. Arrested right off the plane in April 1993, he within months inspired an “international movement led by PEN chapters around the world to free me from jail” (not including PEN Korea, whose tone-deaf intransigence becomes a minor theme). These and other efforts bore no fruit: Hwang received a seven-year sentence, five of which he ultimately served before being pardoned by democratic activist-turned-president Kim Dae Jung.
In North Korea Hwang had been introduced to well-known writers who shared his love of the Korean language. But “the country would fall into real peril a few years later, and from prison I would watch on TV what later became known as the Arduous March,” the famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (and potentially millions) of North Koreans, including two of Hwang’s cousins. Not that Hwang himself was fed particularly well during his imprisonment, especially given the nineteen separate hunger strikes he undertook to demand improvements in conditions. Sometimes he did so for better food, and other times, less successfully, for the mere ability to write: “It was true that I’d been more of an activist than a writer during my four years of exile after visiting North Korea, but they understood very well that preventing a writer from writing was a punishment in itself.”
Despite having had not so much as a pen to keep a diary, Hwang recalls the techniques he employed and adaptations he made to endure these psychological privations and physical discomforts in a remarkably high degree of detail. None of this is without interest, though the same could be said of the other chapters of Hwang’s storied life — mostly retained in equal clarity, which accounts in part for The Prisoner‘s length — some of which must have made prison feel like less of an ordeal by comparison. Enthusiasts of Korean literature and politics will recognize many in the parade of scantily introduced names throughout the book, from novelist Kim Hoon‘s appearance as a “newbie reporter” the late Seoul mayor Park Won-soon’s as a lawyer doing pro bono work on Hwang’s case. The foreign notables are fewer, but include the likes of Ōe Kenzaburō and then-PEN America president Susan Sontag.
“Sontag let out a playful yelp at the sight of the writhing tentacles, her face full of curiosity and amusement, but couldn’t bring herself to take a bite,” Hwang writes of one dining experience during her visit to Korea. Whether or not she had another chance to taste sannakji, she might never have had one to read Hwang’s writing. Almost all English translations of his novels and stories have been published in the 21st century, mostly work he wrote after his release from prison. (Familiar Things and Priness Bari, both translated by Sora Kim-Russell, were reviewed in the LARB.) Still unavailable to English-language readers is Jang Gil-san, the saga of a seventeenth-century bandit with which Hwang made his name — and managed covertly to criticize South Korean politics and society. Nowadays he does it overtly, of course, but also well understands that some ideas are still best conveyed in fiction.
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As Detroit Shows Americans an American Riot, A Taxi Driver Shows Koreans a Korean Massacre
The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation: The Social Tragedies of the “Economic Miracle”
The Korean President’s Artist Blacklist, Product of an Insecure State
On Not Being Interested in North Korea
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.