The haunted battlefield

Issue: 110
Posted: 6 April 06

Owen Miller

A review of Hwang Sok-yong, The Guest (Seven Stories Press, 2005), $27.95

‘The moment he uttered Ch’ansaemgol, Yosop realised that some 40 years had passed since he’d last mentioned the name of his hometown. Ch’ansaemgol. The word started out with the scent of a mountain berry, lingering at the tip of one’s tongue—but then the fragrance suddenly turned into the stench of rotting fish. It was as if a blob of black paint had been dumped on a watercolour filled with tender, pale-green leaves, the darkness slowly seeping outward towards the edges’.1

Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong’s recently translated novel The Guest concerns the Korean War (1950-53), one of the 20th
century’s less remembered wars. The narrative is also a dizzying kaleidoscope of Korea’s modern history, taking in everything from the General Sherman incident of 1866 (when an American ship attempting to open trade with Choson Korea was burnt by the residents of Pyongyang) to the petty humiliations of Japanese occupation, the class upheavals of the post-liberation period, and the present-day Korean-American experience.

The narrative of The Guest circles around the dreadful events at the heart of the story, not daring to approach them head-on until
the cathartic climax, the shamanistic exorcism of the protagonists’ guilt and horror—and by extension of the pain and guilt of Korea’s modern history. It is an attempt to recover humanity from the most inhuman of events.

Reverend Ryu Yosop, a Korean Protestant living in New York, decides to take the opportunity to return to his hometown in North Korea. He intends to lay to rest some demons from his family’s past, but along the way he encounters a whole new set of more tangible ghosts who gradually reveal to him what really happened in his hometown of Ch’ansaemgol, Hwanghae Province, during the autumn and winter months of 1950.

Once in the North, Ryu is taken to ‘The American Imperialist Massacre Remembrance Museum’, where he learns the official North Korean version of the Sinch’on massacre that is said to have
claimed the lives of some 35,000 men, women and children during the early, most fluid period of the Korean War. According
to the exhibits at the museum and the testimony that he hears from survivors, this was a clear-cut case of a civilian massacre perpetrated by the Americans as they swept back up the peninsula following their landing at Inch’on on 15 September. But as Reverend Ryu meets his surviving family members—and encounters many of his dead ones too—we learn, in a flurry of competing, jostling narratives, how it was actually neighbours who had long lived side by side who came to slaughter one another in a 52-day frenzy of bloodletting and revenge.

Hwang Sok-yong’s life itself tells the story of the second half of Korea’s turbulent 20th century. He was born in Manchuria in 1943. His parents, like many other Koreans at the time, had migrated to the area north of the Korean peninsula. After liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 they moved to Pyongyang, at that time occupied by the Soviet army. But before the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 his family moved once again, this time to Seoul in South Korea, where his father had a new job. Spending his formative years under the successive dictatorships of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, Hwang became part of the ‘April Generation’ that overthrew Rhee in the Students’ Revolution of April 1960 and later struggled against Park’s military
regime during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the generation that set in motion the movements for democracy that were only to realise their goal in the late 1980s.

In the late 1960s Hwang was drafted into the South Korean army to join the country’s 30,000-strong contingent in Vietnam. The deployment signalled Park Chung-hee’s loyalty to the US and South Korea’s ‘gratitude’ for US protection. But, as Hwang points out, to his generation being drafted to fight America’s war seemed little different to the experience of their fathers’ generation, drafted by the Japanese to fight in their imperialist wars in Asia.2

During the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong came to be recognised as one of the leading writers of his generation, in particular with the serialisation of his ten-volume historical novel Chang Kilsan between 1974 and 1984. He was also an outspoken advocate for the workers who created the ‘Korean miracle’ with their blood and sweat, both in his activism and his literary work. In 1989 Hwang’s life took another dramatic turn when he accepted an invitation to
visit North Korea from the country’s Writers’ and Artists’ Union. After this unauthorised visit to the North, Hwang knew he could not return to South Korea, and spent a number of years in exile in
Germany and the US before returning to the South in 1993. There he was tried for violating the country’s infamous National Security Law and sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail he carried out numerous hunger strikes before being pardoned and released by the newly elected president, Kim Dae-jung, in 1998.

It was during his time in exile that Hwang was inspired to write The Guest, having heard first-hand from Koreans living in the US about the atrocities that Koreans had visited upon one another in the early part of the Korean War. To grapple with the forbidden and multi-layered nature of his subject matter he decided that simple realism would not be appropriate to the task. To create a reality more convincing than realism, Hwang settled on a complex,
shifting narrative, writing in his notebook during his time in Berlin:

‘It is the moments we let slip by and the traces of those moments that have accumulated that take part in history itself and, like a dream, drift past in our daily lives. History and the individual dreamlike day to day existence are joined; I believe they must be linked together in the realm of reality. Subjectivity and objectivity should not be separated from each other, and the
narrator should not be limited to one perspective, not to the first, second or third person. A narrative voice that travels between the perspectives of each of the characters, intersecting each other, is likely to be more effective at conveying the essence of reality’.3

This style of narrative and the structure of the story, based on the 12 parts of a Korean shaman exorcism, can make the book a
disorientating one to read, but ultimately all the more immersive.

Hwang writes in his preface that The Guest is a story of the conflict between two ideologies, Christianity and Marxism—the two ‘guests’ that were imported to Korea from the West.4 But the author does not neglect the social story that lay behind the tragic events of 1950. The land reforms of spring 1946 were undoubtedly a shrewd move on the part of the nascent North Korean regime. They gave the tenant farmers of the North the thing they most wanted—their own land—and brought a new sense of self-worth to people who had been downtrodden for generations:

‘According to mother, on the day he took our father, Ichiro just walked right into our house, bold as you please, wearing his people’s uniform and an armband that said “Rural Village Committee Chairman”. He called out for father. When father came
out and asked what was going on, Ichiro whipped out a piece of paper and waved it in his face. “The Land Reform Order has come down from the provisional People’s Committee,” he said, “and I am here to execute it.” He asked father if he was willing to donate his land for fair distribution or if he’d rather subject himself to blind confiscation. Assuming that the bastard was illiterate, father said his vision was too weak to read the document and asked Ichiro to read it aloud. Ichiro held it up and began to read it slowly. Father yelled at him to stop, snatched the paper away from him, and tore it to pieces. In that same instant, lights burst before his eyes—you see, Ichiro punched him right in the face’.5

A type of class struggle had clearly broken out in North Korea during the postliberation years, but it is also apparent that it was being carefully controlled and channelled by the North’s new Soviet-friendly ruling class. Beneath the surface of the novel’s bloody confrontation between the god-fearing Christian ‘crusaders’ and the newly empowered ‘red’ peasants lie the hatreds stirred by this struggle. It is because of this attempt to get at the events of the Korean War in all their horrific complexity that when The Guest was first published Hwang was attacked by Korean nationalists of both left and right wing persuasions.

If there is a dimension of the war that we do not encounter in this story, it is that of the developing imperialist confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.

Hwang consciously sets out to depict the conflict in Hwanghae Province as one element of a civil war, a brutal internecine
bloodletting. In this sense he is intervening in one of the important debates of modern Korean historiography. While official discourse in the North has always claimed that the Korean War was one of American imperialist aggression, successive governments in the South have, somewhat predictably, called it a war against Communist tyranny.

Since the early 1980s many in South Korea have come to be influenced by the work of American historian Bruce Cumings, whose two-volume work The Origins of the Korean War emphasised the ‘civil and revolutionary’ character of the war. More
recently, though, newly opened archives have revealed Stalin’s hand in the origins of the war, and a new generation of internationalist socialists in South Korea have identified the Korean War as a conflict between two imperialisms—US and Soviet.6 It may sound facile, but there must be some truth in both of these positions. The war was no doubt a result of interimperialist rivalry in one of the most strategically important corners of the world—the first hot war of the Cold War era. But the post-liberation period also stirred powerful social forces that inevitably shaped the war itself, as The Guest so disturbingly

As well as The Guest, US publisher Seven Stories plans to translate and publish a series of Hwang Sok-yong’s recent novels in English, including his Vietnam War novel The Shadow of Arms, currently being made into a film in South Korea. These are writings concerning a part of the 20th century human experience about which most people know far less than they do about, say,
Latin America. Hopefully Hwang’s writing will receive the interest and recognition in the English-speaking world that it has already garnered in France, Germany, Japan and, of course, Korea itself.

1: Hwang Sok-yong, The Guest (Seven Stories Press, 2005), p15.
2: Hwang Sok-yong, ‘On My Most Recent Works’, 2005.
3: As above.
4: The Guest, as above, p7.
5: As above, pp125-126.
6: See Jeong Seong-jin, ‘Capitalism and Stalinism in South Korea: A Marxist Critique’, p4. Available at