History of Korean Literature: IX War and Separation Era

(As usual, I welcome disagreements and corrections^^)

I) Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa
II) Sijo & Kasa
III) Classical Fiction
IV) Pansori
V) Introduction to Modern Literature
VI: Enlightenment
VII: Background to Colonial Lit
VIII: The History of Korean Modern Literature
VIII: Themes & Approaches to Fiction

VIIII: The Colonial Era

Several themes developed, or continued, in Korean literature after the Korean War. The splitting of country and families, as well as the fratricidal struggle between true-believers on separate sides of the ideological gulf, were among the most common. Woven in with these themes were some themes that had been developing since the Enlightenment including tension between age-old traditions that dated back to the early years of the Joseon Dynasty and the modern world being ushered in both willingly by some Koreans, and also imposed by external forces, first Japan and then the United States. Emerging capitalism and the late introduction of Christianity, were among the powerful new forces that began to emerge at this time, and would continue to shape Korean literature far beyond the strict era of pundan munhak. Pundan munhak, of course, while a theme that developed during this era, is a theme that continues to be written about, even today.

Most of the writers in the fifties were a younger generation who had been born in the 20s and 30s. After the brief hope of a thaw in Korea, with its dream of freedom and peace, the civil war dashed all hope. In this sense, the works written between 1945 and 1950 could be assessed as the last works from the previous literary reality in a period that now, incredibly, seemed structured and predictable.

In a new environment of political, social and ethical collapse, and one that featured incredible amounts of violence, both military and political, a great deal of literature focused on the death, devastation and pain that the war and its aftermath delivered to average people. Other themes included the implosion of Korea’s traditional value systems, and during this period literature considering the issues of national division also began to appear. Translated authors who addressed these issues were numerous. Partly, this was a result of the fact that most authors, if not all, had been participants in the war.

Literary Critic and Professor Kim Chi-su notes several main themes of the fiction of the time: First, ideological struggle, particularly that of the communist ideology against landowners; Second, the utter destruction of humanity that the war sometimes created; Third the destruction of family particularly for the young, and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that this caused; Fourth the abandonment of children that the war caused, and how these children did or didn’t overcome it; Fifth, the power of love, particularly as expressed by women, as they sacrificed themselves for their families, and; Sixth, the refugee experience in general.

Ch’ae Mansik, who we discussed earlier in the context of the colonial period, was one of the more amusing writers of this era, after having undergone a conversion to collaboration and then back. In Constable Maeng (1946) Ch’ae, through the eyes of a constable, gives a snapshot of Korean history just after the Japanese colonization has ended. As serious work written in a light-hearted tone (just check out the constables’ definition of what it means to be a non-corrupt policeman!), it is marred only by a rather didactic final paragraph, the hammering of which destroys some of the light tone that has preceded it.

Kapitan Ri (1962), by Chon Kwangyong, is a remarkably cheery portrayal of collaboration. Dr. Yi Inguk is a collaborator with a “can-do” attitude extending to everyone except Koreans. He is exuberantly proud of past collaborations and the story is partly of his accepting his new collaborators from the United States. Yi reminisces on the fruits of collaboration with the Japanese, recounts how he came to terms with the Soviets, and realizes that the American “big-noses” are another such opportunity despite his discomfort that his daughter is marrying one.

But most works of pundan munhak were far less satirical and focused instead on the costs of a nation sundered. Hwang Sun-won’s Descendants of Cain (1953-54), Lim Chul Woo’s With Her Oil Lamp on that Night, and later, Yi Beomson’s Obaltan (1958), were all works exploring the various costs of separation. Other works, including Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment With My Brother explored the later manifestations of separation, and as late as 2010, Drifting House, written by Korean-American (to stretch the definition of translated Korean fiction!) Krys Lee, was considering some of the same fractured terrain.

Some, but surprisingly few, of the works focused on the war itself. In general, these stories were of a small scale, often featuring a handful of soldiers in an isolated location. Non-Koreans who read Korean war-time stories in translation often note that the stories are not about the war, or even battles, but rather vignettes of participants. O Sang-won’s ironically titled A Respite is this kind of story, telling the short and tragic tale of a captured South Korean soldier waiting to be executed, and re-living the last moments of his life as an active soldier. Similarly, Hwang Sun-won’s Time For You And Me Alone, tells the story of soldiers well separated from the war itself, focusing on their struggles to survive and with each other. Lim Chul Woo’s With Her Oil Lamp On, That Night opens with a soldier, in a dwindling company of rebels, in the hills outside the town he grew up in. The town has been emptied by government decree, but he suddenly sees a light there. As his internal dialogue suggests, that light is lit by his mother, who come back to town on the anniversary of her husband’s death, and secretly hoping to see her son. While in her home, she prepares an offering for her dead husband. While she is distracted a crazy pregnant woman breaks in and begins eating the offering.

In the meantime, the government has become aware the mother/widow is in town, and has set up an ambush in case any rebels should try to enter the town. Every character has a backstory of death and loss, and the final image is optimistic if a bit hackneyed.

Some authors struggled to suggest that reconciliation could be found. Hwang Sun-won’s Cranes (1953) was an early example. Published in 1953, it was set near the thirty-eighth parallel and featured the reunion of two childhood friend, Tokchae a former vice-chairman of the communist Peasant’s League and his friend/captor Songsam, a South Korean police officer. Tokchae is to be taken away and shot. At one point as Songsam chaperones Tokchae to his fate, he is reminded of their shared experiences, including sharing chestnuts and freeing a crane that the duo had bound. In the end, in a burst of natural lyricism, Songsam performs an act of a mercy that suggests that, perhaps, all home of mercy is not lost. Other works were not quite as positive. Ch’oe In-hun’s The Plaza (1960) attempted to explain separation in terms of ideological symbols. Remarkably, Ch’oe wrote this work while only twenty-four years old, and partly in response to the political relaxation which followed the April 19th student rebellion in 1960. Myong-jun, the ‘hero’ of The Plaza, is unable to find an ideological home. Ch’oe separates South and North Korea into the closet and the plaza, respectively. He can find happiness in neither, and when he decides he can only live outside of the Koreas, it is a decision with massive personal repercussions.

At the same time, Western Modernism increasingly affect Korean fictions. While division literature continued to be popular and the ideas of division and diaspora are always present in Korean fiction, new themes emerged as Korea began to emerge from the shadows of its civil war. In the 1960’s, as the next chapter will demonstrate, entirely new kinds of fiction emerged based on economic, then political development which can loosely be characterized as The Miracle on the Han, but it did little to staunch the flow of separation literature. A good example of late-era separation literature is Kim Won-Il’s Evening Glow, the story of a businessman, Kim Kapsu, returning to his countryside home for a funeral and re-connecting with and re-assessing the complicated strands of his previous life, one lived in the turbulent period of Korean civil war. The story is based on fact, revolving around a brief but violent communist uprising in Kyongsang
The story begins with Kapsu the son of a butcher (a problematic social status at that time, something akin to being an untouchable in the Indian caste system) returning to his hometown and remembering the events of the past. Kapsu is a sickly and clever lad; half the story is told from his vantage point as a child, and the other half told from his adult perspective as a successful businessman. In a flashback we see his father the butcher becoming a strong North Korean partisan and leading a local, and doomed, rebellion against the post-war status in his village. Kim Won-il presents the butcher as a cruel and capricious character, but does not explicitly judge him. The butcher, it is clear, has his own experiences and reasons for what he chooses, and Kim refuses the Korean authorial tendency to be didactic, instead allowing the butcher to die on something like his own terms, and with his belief intact.

As the title suggests, the story begins and ends with two sunsets (“evening glow”), although sunsets that are described entirely differently. The first sunset is blood-red, emblematic of the blood that flows freely in this novel, and undifferentiated, “The color of dry blood, the evening glow picked up the end of the thread of flickering memories.” (3) The final sunset is much more complicated: You could not say the sunset was simply red. Close examination would reveal an exquisite mixture of colours, but people say an evening glow is red. Dark yellow, pale blue, even gray were mixed with it. Was it because people liked to lump things together that they called it “red?” (258) This symbolic change, of course, is meant to represent a change in Kapsu’s understanding of his own history and how it impacts his present; a message, obviously, that Kim intends/hopes to apply to the greater Korean society.

The Rainy Spell by Yun Heung-gil (not published until 1972, due to South Korean censorship) is one of those rare “classic” works of Korean separation literature that manages to stand in its own right as a work of literature and despite some rather formidable hurdles on the basis of translation alone. The story was written in 1978 and immediately became a Korean classic. 장마 (Jangma), or in a different English translation Spell of the Monsoon Rain (To be honest, that seems ridiculous from the Korean) focuses on a post-war family with two grandmothers and their shared grandson in the 3rd grade. The grandmothers agree to live together, but when the war comes the maternal grandmother’s son fights for the South while the maternal grandmother’s son fights for the Northern guerrillas who continue to fight on in the South. This fraternal split also splits the grandmothers, although they continue to live under the same roof. The family splits even farther when the “Southern” son is killed by North Korean soldiers. The young grandson, giving in to the lure of chocolate, reveals to secret police that the “Northern” son has been in his grandparents house, and at this point the entire family comes under state suspicion. The surviving (guerrilla) brother is shortly captured. This drives his mother nearly mad and after a visit to a shaman she comes to believe that he will return to the house on a day the shaman has predicted. Instead, a massive snake appears and the paternal grandmother passes out in shock. The maternal grandmother soothes the snake and persuades it to leave. This event fits a shamanistic narrative – that the snake is the spirit of the dead son – and the grandmothers re-unify over this event, although one of them shortly dies. This plot is custom made for Korean readers, with the family bifurcated to directly resemble the national bifurcation, but Yun handles this subtly and you don’t have to know the particulars of Korean history to feel what is happening within the family.

A similar kind of story, though one that deals with the physical halving of the country and the overpowering desire for re-union, is Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment With My Brother. Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment with My Brother is a full-fledged political lecture wrapped in the garb of a short novel. Yi makes no effort to hide the fact that the central discussion is, in many ways, a minor part of the formal plot, although it is also quite clearly the important part of the novel. It is to Yi’s credit that he personalizes his protagonists so well that, even as they (The two step-brothers as well as a businessman who appears in the novel) argue what is essentially predictive political theory, both the story and the argument seem lively and important. The plot is fairly mechanical. The narrator meets with his stepbrother, a child from their father’s second marriage. The father’s second marriage occurred after he defected from South to North Korea. This plot is reminiscent of Yi’s own life, which was substantially complicated, both economically and politically, by the fact that his father defected to North Korea. The meeting takes place in China and the meeting is between stepbrothers because their father, whom the narrator had initially hoped to meet, has died. The meeting between separated brothers is an old trope in Korean modern literature, “In Korean popular discourse, the division of the peninsula into two separate nations after the Korean War is often symbolized as two brothers who, in the shadow of their parents’ death, are tragically separated across an artificially imposed national line.” (Wood 129) Presaged by political discussions between the narrator and, successively a businessman and a professor, when the two brothers meet the conversation becomes a nationalistic one with each brother retreating to the platitudes of his homeland. This leads to some fairly crackling interactions, including one of my favorite passages: “I heard that the traitorous plutocrats have millions of square meters of land, and that all the scenic places are taken up by their deluxe villas where they cavort with young whores.”  That’s some funny writing and also does a good job of relaying the overblown oratory-style the North Koreans sometimes use when discussing the South at the same time it limns the lack of sophistication of the North Korean brother. Other characters have similarly vivid personalities and Yi does an excellent job of weaving them in and out of the story. The brothers struggle to find common ground and in a very “Korean” scene, their differences are bridged by drinking soju, and the brothers perform a joint memorial service for their father. Nationalist sentiments never quite quit intruding, there is an amusing scene in which the brothers argue over the meaning of their offerings to their father, but in the end familial unity is restored and a sort of judgment seems to be reached, when the Northern brother accepts a gift of cash from the Southern one. This action also echoes one of the ongoing political themes of the novel, that re-unification may end up being an economically costly process.

While these separation themes continue to be worked out in Korean literature, other events were also taking place that had substantial impact on Korean literature, and perhaps the greatest of these was the combined economic and political impact of the Miracle on the Han, which is the subject of the next chapter.