A new Cold War: Hwang Sok-yong on a divided Korea

Hwang Sok-yong has been silenced through censorship, exile & prison walls, yet his voice is widely considered the most important in Korean literature. As Familiar Things publishes in translation, he talks about his life, his writing and his divided nation

Article by Alan Bett | 12 Jun 2017

Hwang Sok-yong’s is a life less ordinary. The Korean writer, by his own account, has been a refugee, vagabond, war veteran, exile and prisoner. However, he is currently considered the country’s most renowned author, whose name is generally raised in conversation when the Nobel Prize for literature comes around. While the South Korean government has awarded him its highest literary honours, in 1993 it also handed him a seven-year prison sentence for an unauthorised trip to the North (of which he served five).

He has not only seen his own peninsula divided in two after a civil war marked by atrocity, but was himself sucked into the Vietnam War – his job to clean up massacres and bury the dead – where again a battle of political ideologies erupted into unspeakable brutality on the ground. All these experiences bleed into a vital yet contemplative body of work. Hwang Sok-yong has been an activist from his time as a student to the present day, age 74 – working in the hope of a peace between North and South Korea. It is a task which seems critical at this current moment, when increasingly warlike rhetoric between the North and the US is being amplified across the globe.  

The Skinny: Considering all that you have witnessed in your life, what was it that ignited your need to write and document, and what are the grand themes you hope your body of work contributes to?

Hwang Sok-yong: Someone once asked me about what I would consider the beginning of my writing career. I would say that it was the day that I lost my home. I started out as a vagabond, a refugee child drifting from Manchuria to Pyongyang and finally settling in Seoul. 

One of your earliest stories, Homecoming Day – about the relationship between North and South Korea – was written in your fourth year of primary school and won a national prize. Do you still feel art and literature can reach across the 38th Parallel? 

South Korea was ruled by military dictatorships for decades after the Korean War. Artists had to grapple with the double task of creating and fighting for the freedom of expression. My own struggle against censorship was how I became involved in the democratisation movement. In 1989, towards the end of our last dictatorship, I accompanied Rev. Moon Ik-hwan on a visit to North Korea. It was a protest against the government trying to clamp down on the democratisation movement for ‘security reasons,’ always citing North Korea as a threat, and to raise public awareness about reunification.

I was forcibly removed from Korean society after that, first in exile for five years and then in prison for five years when I came back to South Korea [sentenced under a controversial National Security law that Amnesty International campaigned against]. So starting from 1985 I spent about fifteen years as an activist rather than a writer, but I like to think I lived the kind of life that I would have written about if I could… One foreign writer once said to me, “I envy your being born in a country with so many stories,” and I replied, “I envy your freedom.”

As you mention, you endured exile and were imprisoned for what seems a genuine gesture towards unification, but also a controversial one in Korea. How then were you treated by guards and fellow prisoners? And how did you use your time behind the prison walls? 

What my five years in prison taught me was routine. A survival routine, I should say. If I wanted a knife to eat some fruit or vegetables, for example, I would need a stealth plan. I would go out during exercise break and search for any scraps of metal I could find; empty cans or pieces of stovepipe. Or I would arrange a swap with some of the prisoners on cleaning duty. Once I got an empty can, I would cut it up and smuggle it into my cell under the sole of my shoe. Then I would grind it against the concrete walls of my cell in secret until I had fashioned a blade. I would hide it under the floorboards, which was my secret hiding place, or stick it in a Bible. Ten days could go by that way.

There’s no one to talk to in solitary confinement and your daily exchange with the prison guards is over in a few sentences. So, you start to forget speech, and nouns are the first to go. I remember struggling for a week to remember the name, ‘Antigone.’ Further along you start talking to yourself. I would take a Korean dictionary out of the prison library and read the entries out loud, following each word with my finger. You start to realise that reading in prison isn’t actually reading in the proper sense. Because you need to talk about what you read with others to make it your own. The books I read in prison became columns of ideas looming in front of the prison walls.

I sensed this was not doing me any good so I stopped reading, stopped thinking of myself as a political prisoner or an intellectual and started hanging out with the other prisoners, making jokes, breaking rules, trying to become one of them, to make the details of their life my own. After I was released, I got over solitary confinement in about a month – I’ve heard it can take up to years.

You are one of the few writers read in both North and South Korea. This seems a privileged and powerful position to be in. How have you escaped the censors and what do you think it is about your work that connects with readers on both sides?

North Korea published two of my works, the epic Jang Gilsan and The Shadow of Arms that depicts the Vietnam War critically. They have been extremely critical of my other works, however, for example The Guest [recounting the bloodletting and carnage brought on by the ideologies of Communism and Christianity at their fanatical heights during the Korean War] or Princess Bari [the story of a North Korean refugee, forced to flee her country when a relative defects to the south].

The other South Korean works they published were poetry by democratic activist poets such as Kim Chi-ha, Pak Kyongni’s epic Land and some short stories by young writers from the 70s and 80s. That was all. It was their response to South Korea lifting the ban on all North Korean literature in 1987. It seems that the North Korean counterpart was not about giving the general public access to South Korean literature, but mostly limited to universities or specialists.

You have experienced major traumatic events in your life and lived through significant historic periods. How have these moulded the way you record the world in writing? 

The realism of my earlier works followed a Western writing style and structure. They were objective, written with short sentences in the third person, and used adjectives sparingly and without emotion. After my time in exile and in prison, I began to write about the reality of the world using Korean formats and narrative styles. I wrote down some of my thoughts about that in a notebook that I kept around the time when the Berlin Wall came down. Here’s what I wrote:

The literary realism of the past needs to be broken down and reconstructed into a bolder, richer style. The moments we let slip by and the traces of those moments that have accumulated sometimes take part in history itself, and sometimes, like a dream, they drift away in our daily lives. I believe that history and individual dreamlike day-to-day existence have to be linked together as valid aspects of reality. Subjectivity and objectivity should not be separated from each other, and the narrator should not be limited to the perspective of the first, the second, or the third person. A narrative voice that moves between the perspectives of each of the characters interacting with each other is likely to be more effective at conveying the essence of reality.

Even with one character and one event, the diverse thoughts and perspectives of all the other characters could be employed to illustrate the scene in a way akin to an elaborate piece of embroidery employing many different colors of thread. An objective narrative voice can give a plausible depiction of events, but it is impossible to reproduce a slice of life in all its reality. Even though prose is unable to reproduce life as it actually is, might it nevertheless be possible to write prose in a way that brings it closer to the real flow of life? This is my main concern about form.

The title of your book The Guest is the slang term Koreans used for the arrival of smallpox – used here as a euphemism for the imported ideologies of Marxism and Christianity. Do you despair about the way that cultural hegemonies still forcibly export both politics and religion around the world?

On the Korean peninsula, communism and Protestantism have become two irreconcilable poles since the division of the country. South Korea kept a lot of its past as a feudal society, but not North Korea: after the end of the last dynasty, Christianity and Marxism became the two pillars of modernity in the Japanese colonial period. My book focuses on how Communists and Protestants living in a village called Shinchon set out to kill each other during the Korean War. This doesn’t mean that Marxism or Christianity did only harm, but that it takes time and maturity to be able to fully make someone else’s ideas your own. This kind of fundamentalist thinking was what I saw during George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and I grieved with everyone during the London 2005 bombings as a foreigner living there at the time.

You introduced ghosts into the narratives of newly translated novel Familiar Things, and also The Guest. Does this derive from broad cultural roots, or is it a narrative device personal to you?

The Guest took on the form of a shamanistic ritual, with the writer playing the role of the shaman and summoning the dead and the living, so there was no question about those ghosts existing in reality. When historical trauma, trauma from a certain period appears in the individual, that trauma takes the form of a ghost.

The ‘uncanny spirits’ in Familiar Things are called Dokkaebi in Korean as opposed to ghosts. Dokkaebi are different from ghosts and from Western fairies as well. Dokkaebi are really the spirits of memories attached to objects. In my recent works you can see elements of Korean shamanism or folklore...

Familiar Things is both tragic and heartrending, reflecting a community who live on a landfill site, and from the scraps society leaves behind. What inspired you to document this left behind section of society?

I wrote Familiar Things because I wanted to think about the most fundamental problems of capitalism. It’s an allegory about the relationship between people and things. It’s part of my more recent literary efforts to find our own formats and narrative style with which to write about the current state of the world. 

Before it became a landfill site, Flower Island, the setting of this novel, was the playground of my dreams in my childhood. I lived on the other side of the Han River and grew up within sight of the dense trees and flowering grasses over on Flower Island. As the city of Seoul grew, the entire island was requisitioned to serve as a trash dump for the city’s burgeoning population, and the residents of the island were forced to move. As the everyday trash and industrial waste piled up, the traces of what the original residents remembered became goblins. Cast away outside the city like trash, the children of the marginalised poor communicate with the spirits of those memories.

The scenes presented in this novel are familiar sights on the outskirts of many cities around the world. Producing more and consuming more have become goals of life, and to achieve them, people squander all their capabilities and dreams. What is buried in the Flower Island landfill is the greed of a past generation, but on top of that huge grave of toxic substances grow grasses and flowers that cover up and soothe the emptiness and transience of those desires.

At this precise moment, the situation is especially precarious between North Korea and the US. As somebody who has long campaigned for peaceful strategies, what is your reaction to this?

Seventy years after the liberation from Japan, the peninsula is still divided. We went through the Korean War, which was both a civil war and an international conflict, and Europe, the Far East, indeed the whole world devolved into a state of Cold War… Currently, the United States, through a security policy involving three-way relations with South Korea and Japan, is trying to create a new Cold War in Northeast Asia… I am taking part in a peace forum for East Asia along with intellectuals and literati of Japan and China. I believe it is vital for us to work to quickly change the status on the Peninsula from one of armistice to one of permanent peace lest we find ourselves in yet another war.

Korean writing is becoming increasingly popular in the West, with Han Kang winning the International Booker Prize. Do you hope that collectively this can shine light on the complexity of the situation between the North and South and the lives of real people both sides of the 38th Parallel?

Fragments of Korean literature, including my own, may shine a few spots of light here and there but that is from an outsider’s perspective. Within Korea, the plight of Korean literature is considered dire indeed. Huge swathes of readership have been eliminated thanks to the internet and the rise of social media; the young are more concerned with finding a job than reading a book in today’s tough job market and difficult economy, they don’t have the space to read. If you read these days you’re treated as either extremely naïve or pretentious… Looking back, however, there was never a time that Korean literature was not under threat, although that has never stopped writers from writing.

…When I released The Guest, I was vehemently attacked by nationalists from both the North and the South. Also, in preparation for writing Princess Bari, I spent a month traveling around the border area between North Korea and China and interviewed Chinese authorities and others concerned, as well as defectors. The materials and photographs that the Chinese showed me at the time were a terrible sight to see.

I realised that there was no doubt that North Korea was committing human rights abuses. The descriptions in Princess Bari are probably just the tip of the iceberg. The [South Korean] media of the extreme right carried stories from the memoirs of defectors and their testimony about the concentration camps, and the scattering of leaflets into the North and broadcasts across the border became everyday occurrences.

Furthermore, a U.S. government agency working for regime change in North Korea budgeted three million dollars annually for donations to defector groups, and there were reports that this would be increased to ten million. Now our wounded humanity has devolved to the status of a tool of propaganda in a new Cold War. I have clearly said that the North Korean leaders are primarily responsible for the tragic deaths of their people, but I’ve also maintained that the U.S. is just as responsible, if not more so, because of its thorough blockade of the North for so many decades.

I’m no longer inclined to make excuses for the North by saying that the defectors have exaggerated their testimony. If we look at the past record of modern nations, we find all manner of evil deeds and grievous abuses. In cases to which we have closer access, we’ve seen the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, so we can guess what sorts of acts the North Korean authorities have committed covertly. When I heard about the novel written under the pen name Bandi [The Accusation, an acclaimed collection of fiction smuggled out of North Korea and recently translated] and that it had been published by extreme-rightist media, I suspected that it was just propaganda produced because of the mood on the Korean Peninsula these days.

On top of that, the manuscript was brought to light by a North Korean defector group. Later, having gotten a copy of the book and read it, I decided that it could indeed be by some North Korean who had actually seen the aspects of daily life in the North that are described in the book… we should not allow a book of this sort to be used as a political tool of separatism and Cold War. At the same time, it has again become clear that in the context of the dismal reality of division, in which the threat of crisis on the Korean Peninsula is getting ever greater, even South Korean writers are not truly free. The recently impeached Park government was revealed to have kept a blacklist of 10,000 artists.  

Familiar Things is out 8 June, published by Scribe, RRP £12.99

Hwang Sok-yong & Ever Dundas: Outlaws and Exiles, Edinburgh Book Festival, 15 Aug, 7pm