The Redemptive Realism of Korean Minjung Literature
The Redemptive Realism of Korean Minjung Literature
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at the Korean minjung literature and the work of Hwang Sŏk-yŏng as a response to dictator Park Chung Hee’s prescriptions for national productivity and growth. It reviews Hwang’s short story Longing for the North, a Far and Desolate Place, which gives account of the plight of a young man who tries to fulfill his mother’s dying wish to be buried with his father. Hwang’s story provides understanding of the communal and redemptive nature of minjung and encapsulates the concept of unfulfilled longing or regret. The chapter concludes with an outline of the forms of national infrastructure through which material and ideological debates are staged.
- I think
- I have to stay on one road,
- Though roads are open everywhere
- No more attachments,
- No more sideways.
—kim chi-ha, “No Sideways”
Expressways, Exports, and Park Chung Hee’s New Village Movement
The growth of transport systems and the allure of movement is a powerful metaphor for several reasons, not least being the actual reduction in a nation’s size. All three New Asian City nations, in fact, became unwilling islands between 1949 and 1965. Under the Kuomintang, Taiwan was contentiously severed (again) from the mainland, provoking to this day competing versions of One China and the specter of military attack from Beijing. As we saw in chapter 5, Singapore was disassociated from its hinterland, Malaya, rendering it a city-state, or “a heart without a body” (Lee, Singapore Story, 23) despite its continued practical linkages with the Malaysian peninsula. And the partition of the Korean peninsula, Bruce Cumings has remarked, turned the south into a virtual island and a decades-long antagonist toward its rival in the north.1 Like other ex-colonies, these states contend not just with the distorted industries and societies left behind by colonialism, but also with the haphazard geographies and overly concentrated populations resulting from the process of decolonization. In such precarious and geographically limited contexts, the extraordinary development (p.228) of roads and transport systems integrates the nation space with the demands of international capitalism and compensates for territories cut off from their adjacent regions. With no other way to survive, these nations— and perhaps most enthusiastically the Republic of Korea—chose to promote the free movement of their only available surplus resource: labor power. Focusing on South Korea in this chapter, I again argue that the forms of national infrastructure become the figures through which material and ideological debates are staged. If one of Fanon’s greatest concerns regarding “the pitfalls of national consciousness” was the centralization of postcolonial power in capital cities to the neglect of the rural masses (185), Park Chung Hee’s transportation systems symbolically (if not actually) achieve countrywide inclusion into the national project. Images of the country’s newly built roads, freeways, and bridges both allegorize the future path of the nation and prescribe the correct use of national space.
Like the two previous regimes discussed, the presidency of Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏng-hŭi)—from 1961 until his assassination in 1979—stressed the physical development of postcolonial South Korea in terms of a single national project. Numerous political and economic studies of Park’s rule have traced his authoritarian style to his training in Manchurian, Japanese, and Korean military academies and note his service as a lieutenant in the Japanese Kwantung army. Despite being denounced as a communist in and almost sentenced to death in the military purges of the Syngman Rhee era (1948–60), he took advantage of the disorder that followed the April 19, 1960, student-led protests (sa-il-gu) that ended Rhee’s reign. With his military allies, he staged a successful coup d’état 1961 in and quickly turned to restructuring the country. Park followed the Japanese model of a strong state-business alliance and export-oriented industrialization, but the incredible growth in productivity of the working masses cannot be explained by this strategy alone. Following Kim Hyung-A’s analysis, I argue that Park was most successful in steering the country toward an efficient labor system (Kim, 55) in which the ideas of construction and reconstruction of the nation were mobilized simultaneously at physical, national, and psychic levels.
Kim Hyung-A describes how Park cannily tapped into the liberal public discourse that flourished in the year of civilian rule preceding the coup of 1961. Based on the apparently shameful history of Korean dependence (on (p.229) the Chinese, the Japanese, and now the Americans) and the embarrassment of national division, the reconstruction of a new dynamic Korean nation became paramount. The evident dissatisfaction of the masses with Syngman Rhee’s corrupt and inefficient leadership laid the groundwork for a results-oriented government, just as Singapore’s resourceful People’s Action Party enjoyed enormous success following British rule. Like Lee Kuan Yew, Park rechanneled desires for a new and independent nation into a state-led effort, characterized by both U.S.-backed anticommunism and the singleminded goal of developing Korean exports. Just a few of the achievements of his government’s first years2 include winning President Kennedy’s support through his virulent anticommunist stance; purging the bureaucracy and filling top positions with handpicked technocrats; bringing the private sector under control by arresting illicit profiteers (who would be released on agreement to invest in state-chosen industries); and beginning the first wave of industrial construction based on “cement, synthetic fiber, electricity, fertilizer, and iron and oil refinery” industries (Kim, 82). The beginning of the s consolidated the nation’s successful entry into export production and also saw the intensification of North Korean aggression; Park’s industrial plan consequently shifted to heavy and chemical industries that would include the capability to manufacture weapons and lessen reliance on U.S. forces. Such cold war competition was also based on the fact that, at independence in1945, the Japanese had already partially industrialized the north with coal mining and power stations, while the south remained relatively lacking in industry. The main areas of Park’s industrial push became: “(a) industrial machinery; (b) shipbuilding and transport machinery; (c) iron and steel; (d) chemicals; and (e) electronics” (Kim, 173). We can note the gendered dimensions of such a shift: the symbolic move from light industries centered on shoes and wigs (feminine, bodily accessories) to industries promoting ships, machine tools, and chemicals (masculine, national defense) is perceived as central to the nationalist project. As we saw in chapter 4, at the symbolic level, women are “marginalized in the community of male citizens” (Moon, 51) despite increasing expectations for them to participate in the national export economy as factory workers.
Park’s prioritization of industrial development was presented as one with the project of national reconstruction. The system of chaebol (“conglomerate”) investment, often funded by large U.S. and Japanese loans, fortuitously (p.230) obscured the foreign nature of this development. The mediator between the domestic and international terms of his project was the total modernization of the built environment, which could be held up as an emblem of national progress. His New Village Movement, or Saemaŭl Undong, begun in 1972, was a perfect encapsulation of the belief that with hard work and basic building materials, a physically and spiritually new Korea could be achieved.3 The New Village Movement was, in essence, a program of rural industrialization in which the government provided villages with quantities of cement and reinforcing bar and encouraged them to construct roads, bridges, and riverbanks. The ostensible aim was to “directly or indirectly contribute to increasing village income” (Park, 110). By 1973, this had become part of the broader Yusin (“revitalizing”) reforms, a nationwide program of self-improvement built on Park’s twin tenets of anticommunism and economic nationalism. Under these reforms, Park increased his power to that of a dictator: “The National Assembly became a mere rubber stamp; unions, universities, churches, and the media were put under surveillance by the Korean CIA, the riot police were used to control the students, and a network of spies infiltrated the population to control public opinion” (Standish, 68). Meanwhile, the many government slogans of the period stressed national unity and hard work, such as “construction on the one hand and national defense on the other” (“ilmyŏn kŏnsŏl, ilmyŏn kukbang”) and “our national land with our strength” (“uri ŭi kukt’o nŭn uri ŭi him ŭ ro”; Kim, 111). The national spirit was thus assumed to lie in the very acts of construction, which would build the economic and military viability of the country. In a 1972 speech, “The Saemaŭl Undong, A New Mind Movement,” Park explicitly equates the modernization of houses and roads with the reconstruction of the Korean spirit:
I think that the Saemaŭl Undong should begin, above all, with a fresh spirit.
As the old straw roofs of our farmhouses are replaced, so should our hearts be renewed with a fresh community spirit of diligence, independence and cooperation.
As our narrow country roads are expanded and repaired, so should our hearts be filled with a new determination to pave a smoother future for our own families and for our nation.
(p.231) The Saemaŭl Undong is a spiritual revolutionary movement intended to cure the malaise of idleness and complacency which sprouts under the shade of stability, and tofferadicate luxury and extravagance which spread in the name of growth.
The Saemaŭl Undong will provide impetus to achieve a consistent national consensus, which is required for the modernization of our fatherland. (Park, 175–76)
Underpinning this verbosity is the single most important metaphor for Park: the development of roads as the “future path for our families and our nation.” As in Singapore and Taiwan’s modernization, we witness something like the Le Corbusian desire to effect revolutionary social change through a change in the built environment. For Park, national defense was the other side of the coin to national industrialization. In another speech urging a “second liberation” (the first being from the Japanese in 1945), he directly links the maintenance of peace with “national power” in an equation where “peace can be maintained only when national power is nurtured; and the prospect of unification becomes brighter when peace is maintained” (53). Glossing over the exact logic of how military buildup leads to peace, Park concentrates on the concrete evidence of this power:
Having expedited our progress in growth and construction thus far, we have just entered the stage of heavy and chemical industries. Functioning as the main artery linking all industrial complexes throughout the country, the expressways—symbol of our expanding national strength—are continuously pouring vitality into our effort for greater prosperity and development. (53)
In Park’s logic, peace is not just a function of national strength but is also encouraged by a grand nationalized transport system as the country’s “main artery.”
Park’s vision of a modernized Korea that “will be able to emerge as a great nation-state and a final victor, to join the main currents of world history” (51) thus does more than merge economic development with national destiny. It is predicated on the overlaying of national space with a complete transportation grid, a circulatory system for the national body facilitating the efficient combination of goods, materials, labor, and finished (p.232) commodities to their final destination on the world market. While the development of transportation technology has usually signified increased movement and the modern freedoms or cosmopolitanism that accompanies it,4 here, as in the Taiwanese migrations we saw in chapter, they signal a freedom of movement intended not for humans but for things. In one astonishing speech, Park predicts a glorious future in which “our products and our technical knowhow travel to the six continents across the five oceans” (86). In Park’s fantasy, it is Korea’s exports, rather than Koreans themselves, that allow for the nation “to join the main currents of world history,” and their movement depends on the industrialization of villages and construction of roads. Indeed, Kim Hyung-A reports that “between 1967 and 1977, Korea constructed nine expressways throughout the country, while percent of national roads were paved by 1975” (210). This construction frenzy complemented Park’s heavy and chemical industrial push of the 1970s, incorporating the major Korean industries into the effective megafirm of “Korea Inc.” (Kim, 208). In this sense, Park was both the nation’s CEO and its on-site construction manager who urged ever greater productivity and higher export targets.5 As basic infrastructure necessary for the nation’s new massive industrial zones—such as the 39,900 hectares at Ch’angwŏn—expressways, state roads (kukdo), and ports functioned just as the elevators, forklifts, and loading bays do in any large factory.
Meanwhile, the extraction of disciplined labor for national reconstruction was achieved by levying production targets in the name of national competition for prosperity; Park openly invited North Korea to “participat[e] in a competition—a bona fide competition in development, in construction and creativity” (17). As noted in the first Transition, funding for Korea’s military and much of its infrastructure was acquired through the looming presence of the communist north. Cumings points out that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were all advantaged by the cold war; they bene-fited “in the s [from] a rare breathing space, an incubation period allowed to few other peoples in the world” (68).6 Military buildup also added to the domestic economic capability of Korea by underwriting those powerful symbols of national strength: the expressways. Of the total $13 billion in U.S. economic and military aid received by South Korea between 1945 and 1979 (Cumings, 67), mention must be made of the South Korea– U.S. agreement that sent 300,000 Koreans to fight in the Vietnam War. (p.233) After Park initially agreed to send a light division in 1967, President Johnson countered with a deal pledging assistance for national security and the construction of the Seoul-to-Pusan (Kyŏngbu) expressway. In assuring Park of his support for the security and development of Korea, Johnson writes in a 1967 letter: “I am prepared to provide a special program … to assist you in the construction of … a major modern highway between … Seoul and Pusan” (Johnson qtd. in Kim, 104). The deal clearly equates U.S. infrastructural aid with Korean military troops in Vietnam; in other words, anticommunism is actualized in accelerated material development. The result is that Korea’s role in the cold war “firmly placed it on the path of capitalist development, with all alternative possibilities written out of the decolonization bargains” (Namhee Lee, 3). Under Park’s brutal modernization program, questions over the nature of postcolonial development are silenced by the unarguable logic of the president’s oft-quoted mantra: “Let’s get rich first.” We could say, then, that in Park’s Korea, the externalized forms of industrial development—Cheah’s techne—have gone so far as to define and direct the nation’s essence. In his Yusin measures, it is industry and infrastructure, after all, that require revitalization rather than the people, who may merely be reproduced biologically.
If we have discussed the national inscription of a transport system, what was actually occurring in individual towns and villages, where “old straw roofs of … farmhouses are replaced” (Park, 175–76)? While undoubtedly raising productive levels and incomes, the program of village reconstruction had the further effect of inculcating capitalist ideology. Kim notes how the “sink or swim” attitude that was used with business-government deals (involving protection, loans, and support for chaebols that had shown that they could meet production targets) was echoed at the village level. He describes how the Saemaŭl Undong “was shaped into a strictly goaloriented top-down rural development program” (134). Villages were ranked according to three categories of basic villages, self-helping villages, and selfsufficient villages, where only the latter two were rewarded with further government assistance, and the former implicitly cast as lazy. The Saemaŭl Undong movement thus allowed for greater government control over rural management and actually widened instead of reduced the income gap (Kim, 136). Development was thus a double-edged sword and, in Namhee Lee’s words, “brought feelings of immense achievement and of alienation among Koreans at large, giving rise to severe feelings of disconnectedness between past and present, between city and countryside, and between the emerging working and middle classes” (5).
A short story by Yi Mungu, perhaps Korea’s best-known rural writer, succinctly represents the ambivalence and disconnectedness of the village industrialization program. His Essays on Kwanch’on (Kwanch’on sup’il, 1977), eight stories based on his native village in south Ch’ungch’ŏng-do province, give a sustained portrayal of rural change and dispossession. The “Ballad of Kalmŏri” concerns the predicament of a dull-witted farmer, Yong-mo, who is wrongfully arrested and charged with killing a pheasant, an animal now considered protected wildlife under the new rationalized logic of the government. The narrative shows what Park’s rhetoric of New Village modernization does not: how small rural villages and their farmers are actually faring under the nation’s big industrial push. The opening description of the town railway station is especially revealing: once the center of village activity, it is now a cold remnant of its former self from which the narrator is only too eager to depart. Even though the town is now full of the modern architecture, amenities, and bustling scenes that officially signify progress, the station building and accompanying square are home only to the ghosts of living labor that once animated them.
(p.235) In one and a half decades a lot of things had been modernized as the town grew. This modernization was not prompted to develop the traditional virtues…. This place simply had adapted to the method of concrete construction and thereby undergone a metamorphosis of concrete. The outdoor waiting “room” on the wide paved square, the blaring public address system, the bus terminal opposite the taxi pool, the pay latrine, the shoeshine stall next to it, and the unbecoming clock tower built by the Rotary Club. The station had grown to a complex consisting of a six-story hotel furnished with a barbershop in the basement, a public bath, a coffee shop, and a teahouse; around it there were also five other separate teahouses, twelve houses, and nine inns all crammed in side by side.
But whatever gaudy, modern components had been thrown in, the station did not look right. There was something incongruous. It was not only that the natives had been pushed out by the outsiders who had proceeded to entrench themselves, but the whole thing seemed somehow sorrowful and barren [ŏssŏlp’ŭgo ssŏllŏnghan ggol] even to my native eyes. (369–70, translation modified)
We learn that Yong-mo’s family is among those “natives” (wŏnjumin) pushed aside by the forces of agricultural modernization: their home and land fall prey to a new reservoir necessary for one of the government’s land reclamation projects. With their meager compensation, they are forced to live in remote and impoverished Slow Village (“Nŭrŭmsae”) where, at least, “life was bearable because no petty officials ever annoyed them” (376).
In such a narrative, we see the familiar dialectic between change and tradition mapped on to the new and old village forms: the loss of a native, organic, rural lifestyle is wiped out by development. (Although as a result of the Japanese rail system, the village had already been integrated into a larger, colonial economy and is not quite the repository of untouched traditional virtues.) On another level, however, the object of critique is the resulting sink-or-swim social effect arising from the uneven spread of modernizing logic. Narratively, both critiques are lucidly rendered in the mere description of the station complex, even before any action or drama begins. The station building is now fitted out with those generically modern amenities—the hotel, public bath, barber shop, teahouse, and inns—yet nevertheless is presented as desolate and unpopulated: “the whole thing (p.236) seemed somehow sorrowful and barren.” Park’s simple logic of village growth through industrialization produces, in the end, something much less than the human labor that went into its construction. Again, we can think of Fanon’s image of the bridge “parachuted down from above” (201), where industrial technology is used less for correcting imbalances in the underdeveloped country than for exacerbating them. For those who can “adapt to the method of concrete construction”—capitalist logic and “revitalized” village life—the shift to agribusiness and export industries becomes their ticket to prosperity. For a substantial segment of the population, however, it means being squeezed out of land and livelihood and relocating to places excluded from development like Slow Village. In the story’s aesthetic logic, the catalyst for Yong-mo’s material expropriation is precisely the “metamorphosis of concrete,” the metonymic and symbolic indication of Yusin-mandated material development.
The Minjung Movement and Redemptive Realism
There is much more to be said about the literary forms that take up Park’s extreme developmental logic. Broadly, the interpretive context through which to view them is the major oppositional movement, the minjung undong, which arose in response to the industrialization program and the division of the peninsula. The word minjung has been variously translated as “the people,” “masses,” “working classes,” “folk,” and “common people” and contains something of all these connotations. In Namhee Lee’s exhaustive study of the subject, the minjung are most typically conceived as factory workers and farmers, but in the 1970s and 1980s, it came to include a broader alliance of workers, intellectuals, students, and artists. Minjung “was not conceived as a primordial opposition to modernity and modernization,” but its practices “were seen as potential antidotes to the brutal pace and deleterious side effects of development. Minjung was thus the site of intense longing for a ‘utopian horizon’ by intellectuals and university students and of contestation with the state” (Namhee Lee, 6). Choi Hyun-moo writes of minjung’s opposing view to government ideologies: “One is an official, formal nationalism based on anticommunist ideology; the other, an antiestablishment nationalism that arose under dictatorship and the process of industrialization. The gap between the two steadily became wider and wider” (169). In short, the minjung “came to signify those (p.237) who are oppressed in the sociopolitical system but who are capable of rising up against it” (Namhee Lee, 5). In cultural histories of the minjung of the s and s, the emphasis is decidedly dual, on the one side class struggle—pertaining to accelerated industrial development—and on the other the national question—pertaining to anxiety over the divided Korean nation.7 Choi concedes that minjung literature differs from “people-oriented or proletarian literature of the West” precisely in its “nationalistic character” (172). Korean minjung nationalist ideology emerges as single counternarrative to both statist internal development and the geopolitical division of North and South Korea. We thus see how postcolonial nationalism can operate simultaneously in multiple configurations: that of ethnonationalism (to unite North and South Korea) and proletarianism (critiquing state-led industrialization and exploitation); antiauthoritarianism and prodemocracy (opposing Park’s regime); and neocolonialism (protesting the division of the peninsular by superpowers Russia and the United States).
Wells’s introduction to a volume on the minjung movement confirms the multivalency of the movement:
A very general understanding emerged that the minjung are Koreans, predominantly workers in agriculture and urban industries, who retained the values and sentiments of the Korean masses in the face of militaristic rule and cultural and economic systems imposed directly or otherwise by foreign governments or interests, along with those among intellectuals, writers, politicians, and professionals who have supported their aspirations. (2)
Such complexity renders the term minjung easier to use as an adjective— “minjung theology, literature, historiography and so on—than as a noun referring to any specific group of Koreans” (1). The flexibility of this adjectival term means that minjung experience and minjung literature cannot be limited to a certain ideal subjectivity (the farmer, for example), nor a particular political issue (dictatorship), but rather connects the diverse and contradictory forces that overdetermine South Korea. As Namhee Lee puts it, “the very abstraction and elasticity of the term required a constant shoring up of the counterimage of the forces considered to be inimical to minjung: the military dictatorship, corporate conglomerates, and foreign powers” (6). Unusually, the concept of minjung connects class-based grievances with (p.238) a larger, deeply rooted idea of ethnic solidarity; it is not merely an oppositional movement but a site of shared suffering and “intense longing” (Namhee Lee, 6). The emphasis on suffering has as its dialectical opposite the restoration or redemption of a common humanity, a tension that will be explored in the literary realism of Hwang Sŏk-yŏng. We should note first, however, that the minjung cultural movement—understood at its broadest as a popular nationalism—was by no means exclusively literary, but consisted of a vast spectrum of social practices including minjung historiography (which sought to trace the minjung as agent of social change since the late nineteenth century), oral traditions, religious practices, student and farmer alliances, people’s folk theater (maddanggŭk), and, of course, the reunification movement. Nevertheless, as in the previous chapter, where I argued for film’s unique role in reimagining Taiwan’s development, in Yusin Korea, it is literature that most clearly articulates an oppositional minjung aesthetic. Hyun-moo Choi writes:
Whereas national identity was the pursuit of the s, consciousness as the creator of a new history and nationalism through literary practice were emphasized in the s. There was a move to formalize, in accordance with literary realism, the essence of the minjung as that which fully experienced the contemporary pervasive historical contradictions. An attempt was also made to understand, comprehensively and cooperatively, in the spirit of Third World literary theory, Korea’s political and economic national realities within the global capital structure. In this way there emerged in literature the analytic endeavor to group the people’s place within the organic interconnections between individual and society, nation and the world. (173)
The problem with the analytic attempt to “group the people’s place” in this nexus of forces is precisely the diffculty of identifying a single minjung “essence” conceived in opposition to the multiple realities of the period. Cho Se-hŭi’s “A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf,” we recall, dealt with the conflict between big business (chaebols) and the individual in the specific struggle of urban renewal. The minjung, by definition, is of a broader conception—a “confederation of classes that hold certain crucial values and objectives in common” or a “cultural commonality” (Wells, 4)— (p.239) and spans the urban and the rural. The question that arises is: what unifies a continuous cultural outlook that incorporates both the struggles of the agricultural sphere and the new forms of exploitation in the urban sector? In other words,
The dilemma for activists desirous of uniting theory with practice is that the rural minjung is where the most indigenous of the “nonofficial” (nonsinicized, nonwesternized, nonelite) Korean sources lie, whereas it is in relation to the urban minjung that issues of dramatic social change, modernity, and the impact of global capitalism arise most sharply. (Wells, 7)
The question might be rephrased as how to unify an opposition movement made up of both Cho’s savvy urban slum dwellers and Slow Village’s hapless Yong-mo. The dilemma points to the unavoidably syncretic nature of popular nationalism within a developmental state. As we saw above, Park Chung Hee invoked national destiny through the country’s exports and expressways—“symbol of our expanding national power.” Such transformation also has the unintended effect of making the nationwide modernizing landscape a common object of minjung experience where even Yi Mungu’s small village is affected. With the idea that the minjung are, above all, sufferers (Wells, 12), the greater the suffering of either urban workers or farmers in these modernizing spaces, the more their status as minjung is confirmed. Thus, as with both Singapore and Taiwan, the production of a popular national consciousness arises not against (or somewhere supposedly outside) the forms and processes of official modernization and its infrastructure, but through them. In the following I discuss Hwang Sŏk-yŏng’s unique redemptive realism, which reveals a social and aesthetic logic comparable to Hou’s sideliner cinema of the previous chapter. Both are alternative narrative modes made possible by the very forms of national development. Where Hou’s films visualize a collective adolescence through the presentation of migration, Hwang uses the concrete material transformations of the nation’s rural sphere as the horizon of communal experience. In comparable ways, both the Taiwanese New Cinema and minjung literature use the landscape as the matrix of a new and fundamentally ambivalent national subject. (p.240)
Hwang Sŏk-yŏng and “The Road to Sampo”
Hwang Sŏk-yŏng’s writings have been identified as one of the anchors of early minjung literature. Yŏm Mu-wung speaks of “70s literature” and “the 70s writer”—catchwords that were used to refer to the zeitgeist of the day—and of the pivotal emerging writers in their thirties, including Yi Mungu, Cho Se-hŭi, Pak Tae-sun, and Yun Hŭng-gil. “In my mind,” Yŏm continues, “it is precisely Hwang Sŏk-yŏng, with his keen sensibility of the typical realities of the period, who most prominently realizes the ’70s writer’” (586, my translation).8 Hwang himself is something of an exceptional figure in Korean letters: born in 1943 in Manchuria, he began publishing in 1962 with the short fiction “Ipsŏk pugŭn” (“Near Ipsŏk”) and started fashioning his unrelenting realist aesthetic (reŏllijŭm mihak). Through his participation in the madanggŭk people’s theater movement, he became known as a minjung cultural activist. In 1989 he visited North Korea—contravening South Korea’s security laws—and was forced to live in exile in the United States and Germany until his return in 1993, when he was promptly jailed. He was released in 1998 only after the liberalization of the country had begun. Namhee Lee gives an account of the reemergence of realism as the preferred style for minjung writers and traces the genre back to the proletarian writers of the 1920s and 1930s and KAPF, or Korea Artista Proletaria Federacio (mentioned in chapter). The post-1945“decimation of the labor movement and the subsequent rise of anticommunism obliterated proletariat literature” until the s and the reappearance of the labor novel (nodong sosŏl) (Namhee Lee, 270–71). Lee defines minjung literature proper as novels and stories that deal with labor strikes, student worker activism, and wage struggles, and dates its emergence to the late 1980s, the climax of South Korea’s democratization movement spurred by the 1987 mass protests against the presidential candidacy of General Roh Tae-woo. In the view of one critic of the day, such literature was to portray representative prototypical individuals and situations, achieved when the “author’s subjective choice converged with the present society’s objective needs” (Kim Myŏngin, 1989, qtd. in Namhee Lee 272,). In Lee’s account, the labor novel’s pure form is not recognizable until it exhibits the thematic concerns of the strike or class struggle. In contrast to this definition and periodization, I am interested in Hwang Sŏk-yŏng’s work from the 1970s, the moment when the changing social (p.241) landscape first becomes available to the literary consciousness, provoking the “move to formalize … the essence of the minjung as that which fully experienced the contemporary pervasive historical contradictions” (Choi, 173). The vehicle for this move has most often been theorized along the lines of a social realism. According to Marshall R. Pihl, “Growing numbers of writers, critics, and activists came to conceive of ‘the people’ as the principal element in society, as consumers of literature, and also as a power base. Emerging out of literary nationalism in the 1970s, populism gradually developed into a distinct literary theory with its own theoretical framework” (213).9 Most influential for this “distinct literary theory” was the work of Georg Lukács, whose Marxist validation of realist literature was attractive to Korean writers (as to many other third world writers) attempting to make aesthetic sense of social realities. Pihl notes that “in Korea, his [Lukács’s] concepts of ‘totality,’ ‘typicality,’ and ‘concreteness’ gained currency in the 1970s” (211).
Recall that for Lukács, realism is that objective aesthetic providing “a three-dimensionality, an all-roundness” (Studies, 6) by which authors “inexorably depict the true essence of reality as they see it” (13). What makes Lukács’s theory so appealing is not simply the descriptive power of realism, but the power of the individual story to tap into truths of the social totality. Crucial is the role of “type, a peculiar synthesis which organically binds together the general and the particular both in characters and situations” (6). In the later—often autobiographically inspired—minjung literature depicting labor activism, we can readily delineate the function of these general but particular types. Like Lukács’s account of Balzac’s realism, this fiction relies on “the particular individual traits of each of his characters on the one hand and the traits which are typical of them as representatives of a class on the other” (43). Such a view accords a higher, humanistic purpose to literature, which Lukács confidently describes “could play the leading part … in the democratic rebirth of nations” (19).
Hwang’s fiction certainly incorporates both the typical and concrete conditions of Korean society while detailing a particular experience. Some of Hwang’s work has engaged directly with the major struggles of the day: workers’ rights are center stage in the short story “Far from Home” (“Gaekji”), set on a construction site, while imperialism and the unsavory sources of Korea’s economic buildup are detailed in the Vietnam War saga (p.242) The Shadow of Arms (Mugi ŭi kŭnŭl), a novel populated by such representative types as Vietcong militia members and Korean opportunists. However, the truth content of his fictional representations lies less, I argue, in the Lukácsian presentation of types, totalities, and class struggles than in the profound depiction of individuals in relation to the dynamic forces reshaping Korea’s landscape. A version of Lukács’s “three-dimensionality” or “all-roundess” is achieved not through the exemplarity of the workers’ lives presented, but through the relationships figured in and by the spaces they inhabit. We may think of this in terms of the competing meanings between Lefebvre’s statist, homogenizing abstract space and literature’s polyvalent representational space. Along with the straightforwardly socialist realist works mentioned above, Hwang has written of the less dramatic but profound consequences of national division and industrialization in countless short fictions. Among his many important works, I choose his 1975 “Road to Sampo” (“Samp’o kanŭn kil”) for its realist description not of labor struggles, “representative prototypical individuals,” or capitalist development as a totality, but of the new figures populating and traversing the national landscape.10 In juxtaposing Hwang’s work with the poetic and filmic productions of the previous two chapters, I trace yet another distinct aesthetic construction emerging from the contradictions of developmental nationalism. Reflecting the different political, historical, and material conditions of Korea, however, this formal strategy refigures the developmental landscape in terms of the redeeming and ongoing production of new forms of community, of minjung on the move.
In the 1970s, one of the consequences of Park Chung Hee’s New Village Movement was the creation of a new class of laborers by “foster[ing] a building boom in the provinces. Many of the construction projects depended for manpower on day labor, and once a project was finished the workers had to journey elsewhere for work” (Fulton, “Hwang Sŏk-yŏng, 715”). “The Road to Sampo” is important for its narration of a new minjung subject through the marginal and contingent experience of migrant laborers—those who, like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s protagonists, construct and occupy the new industrializing landscape, yet lack the status of recognizable class or political actors. The story narrates one particularly laborious “journey elsewhere for work.” Yŏngdal, a machinist, has just left his temporary winter job at a chophouse (bapjip) after being caught in bed with his boss’s (p.243) wife. Leaving the village at which he had arrived four months earlier in search of construction work, he meets Chŏng, a slightly older tradesman and probable ex-convict, who plans to return to his hometown after an absence of nearly ten years. Despite complaining that the small island of Sampo would offer little in the way of construction work—“Such an outof-the-way place [byŏkji]. Especially in winter like this” (179)—Yŏngdal decides to join him.11 In this brief narrative, Hwang skillfully weaves together the material, physical, and social aspects of the journey, such that one register implicitly informs the others. In an aesthetic that I call “redemptive realism,” the questions of rural versus urban, authentic minjung or class subjects, are overshadowed by the slowly revealed process of how shared suffering on a journey posits and forges new communal forms.
After the two men’s initial, slightly awkward meeting, they “turned on to the roadway [ch’ado, literally “vehicle-way”]. It was now easier to walk as the road was covered with gravel and clay” (181). Paralleling the better road conditions, their relationship begins to thaw. As they make their way though the frozen landscape in sparse conversation, their friendship deepens with the concrete descriptions of the physical surroundings. Hwang’s impeccable realism informs us of every detail of the men’s physical relationship to the countryside they traverse, including the very tilt of their bodies—“the uphill road became a downhill road” (187)—the traction of their feet, the feel of the wind. The crossing of a frozen stream is presented in visceral detail: “The ice was rough and not slippery, the water having frozen over several times after repeated freezing and melting. The wind picked up loose bits of ice and slapped them harder into the faces of the two men” (182). In this way, the story connects the physical reality of their journey to the sociality that forms between the characters: the deeper their difficult material, shared experience—and more accurate its description— the stronger their bond.
Making their way to the mountain village of Ch’ansaem, described as an “insignificant appendage” (183) to a fenced-in military station (“ch’ŏlch’aek ŭi kkŭt’e kansinhi maeŏdallyŏ ittnŭn kŏt kat’attda”) (399), they stop for a meager meal at Seoul Restaurant. Inside, the owner and several guests are in disarray over a young bargirl/prostitute who has stolen money and run away that morning. After Chŏng and Yŏngdal mention their own travel plans, the scurrilous owner of the restaurant offers them, won if (p.244) they catch and return the girl. After jokingly agreeing to this, the two return to the road, where they wade through a thick snowstorm that “blanket[s] them with a soft, downy feeling” (187). The snowstorm, rather than a descriptive device to stress nature’s power over the man-made world, allows for even more detailed descriptions of the conditions of the roads and villages they pass. The two travelers stop to tie some old straw rope on their shoes:
Now the two men could walk with surer treads. They turned into the lower road. It soon became narrower but stayed wide enough to let an ox-cart pass. A stream with gravel borders [kaech’ŏn kwa chagalbat] ran by the road. There was a thin sheet of snow on the stream. The two men kept on walking, leaving behind their footpaths in the snow.
They entered a village, and passed among the village children and dogs which were scampering about in the snow-covered fields. The frost was thick on the window of the village shops. People were talking behind the windows. (188–89)
Resisting picturesque depictions of pastoral life in the snow-covered village, the narrative persistently attends to the constructed aspects of the landscape, such that “The Road to Sampo” emphasizes the physical journey in all possible social detail. Rather than dwelling on Chŏng and Yŏngdal’s personal histories and motivations or position them in terms of class analysis, the short, factual sentences do not allow access to the characters’ interior thoughts, but simply and plainly describe their passage through the physical surroundings: “[They] could walk with surer treads”; “They turned”; “The two men kept on walking.” In a sense, the story is less about the two men and their journey and more a narrative that uses the two characters as a device to register each physical, subtle change of the landscape. Note that the stream, like many in Korea, is bordered by gravel beds (chagalbat) and is thus already a product of industrial “improvement” of the landscape. Hwang hints at the substantial transformation of even this remote mountain area through the bar owner’s question to the men, “Are you taking the big road?” (186), and mention of a “newly-constructed road” (sinjakno) linking the villages. Furthermore, the travelers’ brief rest stop at an abandoned, half-collapsed farmhouse indicates local population (p.245) changes: “the farmer and his family must have departed for some other place” (194). If these are quintessential minjung subjects, it is not because they are representative types of their class or have access to a privileged, indigenous Korean folk culture. Rather, the characters shuffle along the country’s modernizing contours such that the realist description of their exhausting journey itself becomes a profound account of the minjung experience.
It is helpful here to briefly compare other notions of realism in relation to the minjung cultural movement. Isolde Standish has written of the New Wave Korean cinema that emerged in the late 1980s and sought—somewhat similarly to Taiwanese New Cinema with regard to nativism—to “represent the shift into mainstream popular culture of the formerly suppressed underground philosophies of the Minjung Movement” (65). Key to her analysis is the way that these films, in an industry only released from political censorship in the 1985 reforms, “placed the working man/woman at the center of the narrative, hence the use of the term ‘new realism’ in describing them” (76). Certainly the 1970s minjung literature on which these films draw was partially defined by the shift in focus to previously unrepresented subjects, locations, and issues: the working classes and dispossessed farmers, factories and slums, labor struggles and urbanization. Standish describes what constitutes the realism of one of the most important films of this genre, Pak Chong-wŏn’s Kuro Arirang (1989, adapted from a short story by Yi Mun-yŏl): “it is often the factory or the dormitory sites, rather than the action of the characters, which demands spectator attention…. the factory and the dormitory in Kuro arirang are accredited with an autonomy of their own outside the narrative, authenticating the film’s claim to realism” (80). Despite the attention to spaces and built form, Standish’s account of minjung realism—here in the cinematic mode—is not the way I conceive of realism in Hwang’s fiction. What I am calling Hwang’s redemptive realism is less about a simple shift of narrative focus to throw light on previously excluded settings or characters than about the way these new environments encrypt a social process that then is the ground for shared experiences and eventually solidarity. In other words, it is not merely their inclusion that is notable, but the careful presentations of roads, streams, and train stations that operate as the matrix of Hwang’s characters’ simultaneous abjection and growing solidarity. As Williams (p.246) has described, realism’s special power is its access to reality “not as static appearance but as the movement of … social or physical forces” (Keywords, 261). We can think of this narrative mode as redemptive not in a religious sense, but in terms of a new sociality that arises in response to material depravity, which redeems not sin or evil but suffering. It is an experience that connects the most downcast of society’s members to each other as well as to its readers. Hwang’s minjung realism is thus produced neither by the formal inclusion of new settings or the centrality of proletarian actors, nor by reference to an ethnos transcending the effects of industrialization, but to the most unflinching experience of its alienating landscape.
As the reader expects, Yŏngdal and Chŏng meet Paekhwa, the escaped bargirl, first spotting her urinating at the edge of some woods. Instead of turning her in, and with no debate, all three simply continue walking together to their common destination—the railway station at Kamch’ŏn. Paekhwa (literally “white flower”) is, after two years of bargirl-prostitute work serving military stations, attempting once again to return to her village and family in the south. The very act of walking with Yŏngdal and Chŏng seems to prompt her to reveal her history to the two men: “The more they walked, the more talkative Paekhwa became; she often fell behind. She talked of her time when she was popular in several cities. But her conclusion was that love in the world of whorehouses, aside from making and spending money, was all mere trickery” (Samp’o kanŭn kil,, my translation). Their winter journey by foot is by no means easy, and while the snow symbolizes the general hardships of their lives, each step— rather than explicit formations of class or national consciousness—contributes to their contingent but growing solidarity. Paekhwa, still wearing her work shoes (high heels), predictably falls into a hole hidden by the snow and twists her ankle. From there on, Yŏngdal carries her on his back, but “far from feeling weighed down with the burden, he felt more light-footed (197; “ŏjjŏnji kappunhan nŭkkimiŏttda,” Samp’o kanŭn kil, 413). At Kamch’ŏn station, Paekhwa waits for the Chŏlla line while Chŏng and Yŏngdal prepare to take the Honam line toward Sampo. Before parting, Yŏngdal uses what is close to his last penny to buy Paekhwa food and a train ticket so she will not have to ride (for free) in the soldiers’ car. In return, she tells them her real name, Yi Chŏmnye. Such intimacy is used sparingly by Hwang, yet we understand the significance of the characters’ (p.247) small but redeeming actions by the way they are indexed to their degree of suffering.
The story reveals how, in a dialectical fashion, the itinerant life of construction and sex workers produces the most unlikely of outcomes: community among strangers who share different struggles, experiences, and goals. Yet Yŏm Mu-wung explains the way this dialectic of material hardship is redeemed through a communion of sorts:
A day laborer looking for work, a vagabond without a hometown to return to, a bargirl fleeing after stealing money—what did the writer see in these characters, characters set adrift in industrial society, from whom nothing more can be taken, and for whom the future holds no hope or security? Through their journey together, they come to realize their fundamental commonality and thereby come to share the noblest humane sympathy and purest solidarity. That is, in this society with its specific realities of lost hometowns, social inequality, merciless competition and severe labor exploitation, they face up to the period’s contradictions and achieve a union through solidarity. (594, my translation)
This “noblest humane sympathy and purest solidarity” are not products of the characters’ virtues or achieved insight, nor the subjective conditions meeting the objective in ideal Lukácsian style. Rather, such qualities simply emerge out of the intimate experience of the landscape, the modernization of which has literally set all three adrift. Thus, the truth content to Hwang’s realism arises from the presentation of, and engagement with, the changing material and social effects of development—effects most keenly experienced on the road that brings the three characters together. And as with Hou’s films, Hwang does not allow Chŏng and Paekhwa’s desire to return home to provide a moral conclusion to the story; he refuses to suggest an original space untouched by the processes of industrialization. Just as we are uncertain about Wan’s future at the end of Dust in the Wind, we doubt Paekhwa’s ability to make it home after her previous failed attempts because for both, it is not simply a matter of returning to an unchanged home. “The Road to Sampo” ultimately tells us that there is no pristine space outside the violent transformations of modernization—those “metamorphoses of concrete,” in Yi Mungu’s phrase. Hwang’s alienated characters (p.248) “from whom nothing more can be taken” are precisely the subjects who hold the redemptive possibilities of minjung experience; they are the ones who most fully experience “the contemporary historical contradictions” (Choi, 173) and whose struggle to survive indicates a surpassing of their objectification. The new lives and connections created on modernization’s road therefore signify a contingent “cultural commonality” (Wells, 4) as well as the double-edged nature of modernity in Park Chung Hee’s Yusin period. People are both objects of the state’s developmentalism and potential subjects of ever-forming oppositional communities.
Waiting at Kamchŏn station for their train, Chŏng chats with an old man and learns, after their long journey, that Sampo is no longer the idyllic, peaceful island of rich soil and good fishing he has described to Yŏngdal. Horrified, Chŏng hears how one of the country’s many land reclamation projects, involving countless trucks “carrying tons and tons of rocks and gravel and dumping them into the sea” (200), has turned Sampo into part of the mainland. His small village is now “full of construction people” who plan to build a tourist hotel and a “road right over the sea” (200). Having joked that Yŏngdal, a nonnative (t’agwan, or “outsider”), wouldn’t be welcome in his hometown, Chŏng is galled to find that his own status as “native” now means nothing with the virtual destruction of his hometown: he himself is “in the same situation [ttok k’at’ŭn ipjang] as Youngdal” (201). Indeed, this same position with regard to the changing industrial landscape is precisely what has been achieved through their shared journey. The final snowy scene of the train pulling out of the station is, like the final scenes in Hou’s films, deeply ambivalent: while the two men are now on their way to certain employment, it has also been a journey of loss for Chŏng. Ultimately, the story suggests that with even the most remote villages transforming and modernizing beyond recognition, the road itself is the place to find community and meaning, however brief and difficult to maintain such relationships might be. As Paekhwa points out on one part of their journey, “When I first went on the road [into prostitution], I too had a life-and-death love” (195). The story therefore reconciles the dilemma of locating the “authentic” Korean, indigenous experience in the rural sphere against the assumption that the greatest political and economic impacts are in the urban: through the distinctive redemptive realism of shared spatial experience, the road is where the two sides come together as the site of minjung experience.
(p.249) What the great variety of minjung narratives—from Sin Kyŏng-nim’s farmer’s poetry, Yi Mungu’s rural tales, and Hwang’s fiction to the New Wave cinema—collectively do is refigure the significance of Park Chung Hee’s New Village movement and Yusin programs. In various ways, they counter the state’s representation of space with imaginative representational space. What is unique to Hwang’s work, however, is that he narrates the unevenness of industrialization’s footprint via the very footsteps of its most marginalized workers, contrasting human and mechanical technologies. The symbolism of Park’s national expressways as glorious arteries of the country, enabling national productivity and defense buildup, is effectively defused by the attention to the raw bodily experience of such a landscape.
To close this chapter, I want to make brief mention of another of Hwang’s short stories, “Longing for the North, a Far and Desolate Place” (“Pungmang, mŏlgodo kojŏkhan kot”) from. Here, Hwang describes with gloomy precision the plight of a young man who tries to fulfill his mother’s dying wish to be buried with his father. After he arrives unannounced in a small, desolate village, his goal is to find an elderly man who had been a friend of his parents. Using an extreme form of gritty realism, Hwang provides the bare bones of a narrative in which much remains unsaid. We surmise that the young man’s parents had moved down from the north and his father was captured and killed in ambiguous circumstances by “the ones who had guns” during or immediately after the Korean War. While his mother fled with her infant son (the protagonist), his parents’ friend managed to hurriedly bury the father in a nearby mountain valley. While the village setting seems like another economically excluded Slow Village, on closer examination, the desolation is actually a legacy of the three-year civil war. Presumably located near the border of North and South Korea, the village was all but devastated in the fighting and turned into a mere sukbat, or “wasteland.” After tracking down the old man who had assisted his parents, the two spend an evening and day together. Looking across at the still-scarred valley, the old man comments, “You just can’t cut a mountain’s vein like that” (299, my translation).
After a harrowing episode in which they exhume the father’s stilldecomposing corpse and move it to a dryer, more suitable location, we discover that the ramen box the youth has been carrying on his back all along (p.250) in fact contains the remains of his mother. At length, the father’s and mother’s bodies are combined in a new grave so that “soon you couldn’t distinguish the white bone in amongst the black bone” (305). Having fulfilled his mother’s dying wish and performed the filial mortuary rights (sŏngmyo), the exhausted youth and the old man sit next to the freshly covered grave.
Staring piercingly at something, the old man mumbled:
“Do you know, young man, what this is? It is that thing called han…. If it had a color, it would have exactly this appearance.”
The youth raised his head and looked across. With the clear blue sky as background, the ridge that ran along the opposite side had been cut off obliquely by a landslide. Like a mouthful of red peach, the light from the cli shone all the more intensely. (, my translation)
This story perfectly encapsulates the concept of han—a Korean term meaning “unfulfilled longing,” “regret,” or “pain”—and is another way of understanding the communal and redemptive nature of minjung.12 Despite such grim subject matter of poverty, the legacy of war, the inability to go home, dead bodies, and burials, han is both the painful recognition of this common suffering and the desire for the intense, peach-flavored light. Note that nowhere in the story is North Korea mentioned except for in the title; the “Longing for the North” is thus an unstated affect implied only, perhaps, by the relocation of the father’s grave. Yet by foregrounding the material landscape, Hwang’s story again describes a specific minjung experience, one that counters Park Chung Hee’s interpretation of national division: not simply the impetus for economic competition and anticommunist defense, it is the historical precondition of that development written into the very landscape, as well as a continued cause of shared suffering. “Longing for the North” highlights the way the battle scars of a war twenty years prior constitute the material and psychical background to the heady days of the South Korean miracle. Landscapes—both man-made and natural, war-ravaged and developmental—
(1.) Cumings made this point at a lecture at Duke University in the early 2000s.
(2.) For the first few years, Park operated under the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction before running as a civilian in the 1963 presidential elections—and winning. While many have claimed these elections to be rigged, Kim Hyung-A’s scholarship reports that it was probably not.
(3.) The idea came to him when visiting some flood-damaged areas of Kyŏngsangnam province, where one village caught Park’s attention: “Despite the flood, this village had not only recovered from the devastation, but had also constructed a noticeably better standard of infra-structure and living conditions. There were wider roads and each house had a tidy roof and walls. Park learned that the villages had achieved this outcome mainly by volunteering their time and labor for the community” (Kim Hyung-A, 134).
(4.) For background, see Stephen Kern for multiple studies on how the invention of each new technology—from the electric bulb to the bicycle to the automobile—brought with it new modes of experiencing, thinking, and producing art.
(5.) A former engineer of the Seoul-Pusan (Kyŏngbu) expressway recalled his experience of Park as literal on-site superintendent: “Mr Park is not an easy man at the best of times, and he certainly was far from that during our project. But after a while, I found myself thinking of him as a sort of conductor of an orchestra—with a helicopter as his baton. Up and down he would go, this time with a team of geologists to figure out what was wrong with some mountainside that had crumbled on our tunnel-makers, the next time with a couple of United Nations hydrologists to figure out how our surveyors had got some water table wrong. If he didn’t have the answer on Tuesday, Mr Park was back with it on Thursday” (qtd. in Kim, 156).
(6.) We should also not forget that Singapore achieved major economic acceleration during the Vietnam War, through supplying the U.S. military.
(7.) The term minjung should be distinguished from minjok, which translates more directly as “nation” (and minjokjuŭi as “nationalism”) and can include a racial or ethnic meaning.
(8.) In choosing just one of the important 1970s writers to focus on, I am inevitably omitting the centrality of works by Yi Mungu and the others, as well as the influential poets Sin Kyŏng-nim (Nongmu or Farmers Dance) and Kim Chiha (Five Thieves, or Ojok). While these are important evocations of the changing minjung rural experience, I chose Hwang Sŏk-yŏng for his more focused literary examination of the new person inhabiting the industrializing rural landscape.
(9.) Note that Pihl translates minjungnon (literally, “theory of minjung”) as “populism.”
(10.) This story was also immediately made into a feature film of the same title by Lee Man-hŭi in the same year, 1975. Unlike the story, however, the film version is highly melodramatic.
(11.) Unless otherwise noted, all English translations refer to Kim Uchang’s translation.
(12.) Rob Wilson has attributed the melodramatic tendency in s Korean film to two factors, one being the colonial factor resulting from a “subaltern history” under Japanese colonialism, division, civil war and neo-colonialism, and the other being the “han factor” (99–100). The latter he describes, quoting Ahn Byung-sup, as a “sensibility of resentment, longing, envy, spite or a ‘frame of mnd characterized by a sorrowful lament’ and sense of tragic resignation that has long been associated with the Korean national character by Koreans themselves” (99). Standish more simply describes han as a “bitter feeling,” “hatred,” and “unsatisfied desire”—primarily a result of Korea’s numerous invasions and tyrannies (86–87n3). The term is important in the minjung context because the concept includes both the logic of collectively experienced suffering and ethnonationalism and a historical sensibility of its contingency. (p.276)