The Face of the Enemy during the Korean War


On the occassion of the publication of my very first academic article (yes, some blatant self-promotion on my part here), I would like to focus this week on the way South Korean writers depicted the enemy during the Korean War.
It goes without saying that nationalism and the moral highground on who represented the Korean nation formed one of the important battlefields during the civil war, especially for writers.

As war broke out on the 25th of June 1950, most writers already had a clear idea of what their role in war should be like. They saw wars in the modern period as ‘total wars’, meaning wars between nations, thereby blurring the distinction between soldier and civilian. Propaganda was regarded as being on an equal footing as the actual fighting, and the writer had a unique role to play in this. As was aptly put by children literature author Ch’oe Sangdŏk (1901-1971):

The pen which we carry to fight should, like grenades, field artillery, flame throwers and the atomic bomb, […] become a new weapon.
By taking up our pens we can withstand the enemy and span the divide between the front and the rear by increasing the morale of front-line soldiers and increasing the fighting spirit of the civilians at the rear.


Cover of the first edition of the war poem collection Together with the Foot Soldiers by Yu Ch’ihwan (1951) showing the writer as a soldier with a pen as its weapon

The North Korean Enemy
Literature written during the Korean War therefore needed to have the specific function of keeping morale high of both soldiers and civilians. Evoking hatred towards the enemy is a very common method to create such an effect on readers, and many writers used this strategy in their stories. That their definition of “total war between nations” had to be amended in their stories when it was put to practice in a civil war situation, can be seen in their method of depicting the North Korean enemy.

In many stories a distinction is made between the North Korean politician or army officer and the common North Korean citizen. Kim Song’s Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952) and Ch’oe Sangdŏk’s The Cow that Crossed the 38th Parallel (소가 넘은 38선, 1952) are only two examples where this can be seen. In the stories the writers make clear that the North Korean politicians and army officers have given up all rights to be part of the Korean nation by adhering to their “mistaken” (communist) ideology. Meanwhile the common North Korean citizen is a victim of this group in power and are treated as slaves.

In Kim Song’s novel, for example, this distinction is made clear by the character of Chu Mongil, who is an officer in the North Korean army. Among his evil deeds he rapes the hero’s fiancée and tries hard to establish a fifth column within South Korean territory. When the hero (named Hyŏngch’il) meets a captured North Korean soldier, however, he realizes what hardship the common North Korean people must endure.

It looks like the enemy’s military police tied his feet, so
that he couldn’t retreat at all, and was forced to fight
to the death. But in the face of our marines’ relentless
attack, the enemy’s defensive lines broke down completely
and their military police shot him, so that he
couldn’t flee.
“I wanted to run away and surrender, but because of the
military police’s supervision I ended up like this,” said
the boy, who dropped down on the ground and started
to cry loudly. Even though he was an enemy, from a
human perspective Hyŏngch’il felt pity for him.

The North Korean officers and politicians appearing in Kim Song’s story are generally depicted as cruel, murderous and inhuman, and are frequently associated with creatures that have negative connotations, such as devils, wolves and vermin. For the reader it is immediately clear which character in the story is evil, and who is good. That evilness is even biologically inscribed into a person’s appearance helps a lot in this regard. Chu Mongil, therefore, is described as having the “face of a savage, while his voice is like the howl of a bloodsucking vampire from hell”. throughout the novel, North Koreans are systematically shown in a bad light and denied any human characteristics. What I find interesting is that even in contemporary South Korean movies one can easily find these “evil” features in the way North Korean army officers are depicted, for example in Into the Fire (포화속으로, 2009) and the very recent The Front Line (고지전, 2011).

Into the Fire

The scarred face of Ch´a Seungwon in Into the Fire (who in reality is regarded as very handsome)

However, even in the course of one novel it is not easy to keep the distinction of an easily recognizable enemy intact. As “shadows” come to the house to take Hyŏngch’il’s fiancée’s father away, they are easily recognizable as common North Korean soldiers. This, in combination with the general trend during the Korean War in other South Korean stories to depict all North Koreans as evil, make it difficult for the reader to maintain a sympathethic stance towards the common North Korean citizen/soldier.

Front Line

Another example of evilness being easily recognizable in The Front Line

Some instances in which the wartime (propaganda) stories unintentionally read like humor stories can be found in Yu Chuhyŏn’s Woman’s Song (여인의 노래, 1952) and Pak Yŏnhŭi’s Weapons and Humanity (무기와 인간, 1953) and the way they depict the Chinese enemy soldiers. In both stories the Chinese are depicted as evil by their physical shortcomings, and their animalistic acts. As true animals their normal behaviour is to kill and rape women. What makes their stories funny, is the fact that the Chinese soldier’s sexual lust wins out over their survival skills, when in both stories the Chinese soldiers die when they are trying to rape a (needless to say,  Korean) woman, while bombs are flying around and a major assault is launched on their hillside.
After the Korean War, the animalistic sexual lust of the enemy seems to have remained a popular theme in anti-communist literature as can be seen by the cover of a comic book entitled Kim Il Sung’s Secret Bedroom (김일성의 침실).

Kim Il Sung

Cover of the anti-communist comic book Kim Il Sung's Secret Bedroom showing a lustful Kim Il Sung


The tragic deaths of Chŏn Bongnae and Chŏng Unsam


It goes without saying that the Korean War period was a severe and tragic time for Koreans, and writers and poets were not spared. For two young poets the wartime hardships they experienced proved to be too much, and both decided to commit suicide.

Chŏn Bongnae (born March 3, 1923 – died February 16, 1951)  was an up and coming poet who made his debut in 1950 through the Literary Arts (文藝) magazine. During the liberation period he had moved to the south together with his brother and spent most of his time in several cafe’s enjoying Bach’s music or reading the poetry of Paul Valéry.
When war broke out he and his brother were unable to flee Seoul and spent three months in hiding during the occupation by the North Korean army. After Seoul was recaptured his brother was drafted into the army, while Chŏn Bongnae moved to Pusan.
Without food and a home, he soon saw no other way but to take his own life even though he had a desire to keep on living as he attested in his suicide note. After drinking poison while seated in cafe Star, he wrote the following last words:

 I just drank phenobarbital. That was 30 seconds ago. Nothing happens.
2 minutes, 3 minutes have passed. Still nothing.
10 minutes have passed. My eyelids are feeling heavy.
I did not want to leave this world and this brilliant century. But in order to live correctly and honestly
I will go to my death with a smile.
Bach’s music is flowing around.

To the people I miss,

February 16th.

Haedong Kongnon
Cover of the 1949 magazine Haedong Kongnon (Korean Debates) containing Chŏng Unsam’s poem ‘In a Moonlit Night’

 Chŏng Unsam (born 1925 – died January 8, 1953) had published his first few romantic poems in Whiteclothed People (白民) magazine in 1949 and also was a promising new poet on the literary scene. During the war he had fled to Pusan, where he obtained a job as a teacher at Sukmyŏng Girls High School.
The day he commited suicide did not seem any different from his other regular visits to Cafe Mildawŏn. However next to his pent up frustrations due to the war, he had just experienced a painful heartbreak. This led him to his decision. In his suicide note he wrote:

After a long time it has really become clear to me.
Now, in the rolling waves of the sea, I can see the face of my lover sending me a smile.
Now I see before me that almost all of my beloved friends have gathered.
I don’t want to lengthen my life any longer in this time and place where they have taken care of me.
Be well. People I miss.

January 8, 1953   Chŏng Unsam

The deaths of these two promising young poets created a big shock among writers, and some of them wrote about this in their works. For example Kim Song inserted a reference to Chŏn Bongnae’s suicide in his novel Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952), when the main female protagonist of the story contemplates suicide and writes in her diary that she was thinking of committing suicide by drinking phenobarbital while listening to Bach’s music.
Kim Dongni wrote about the hardships that the writers had to endure in his famous 1955 novel The Period in Mildawŏn (밀다원 시대), and gives a glimpse of the reasons why these young poets came to their decision to end their lives so soon.

Kim Chin-myŏng’s alternative historical novel “The Mugunghwa blossoms” (1993)


Some months ago I was reading Kim Chinmyŏng’s bestseller The Mugunghwa blossoms(무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다, 1993). When this alternative historical novel came out it quickly sold around 4 million copies. And indeed, for Koreans the story must be an entertaining read.

Mugunghwa book cover

The book cover of The Mugunghwa Blossoms

Journalist Kwŏn Sunbŏm is asked by a prosecutor friend to investigate the mysterious death of a famous nuclear scientist called Yi Yonghu. In 1978 this scientist got into a car accident, while he was working together with president Park Chunghee on forming a nuclear program. By investigating this matter, Sunbŏm uncovers a plot and starts to believe that Yi Yonghu’s death was not a mere accident.

As he gets closer to the truth his friends and he himself start being hunted by a secret and powerful organization. He manages to uncover many important aspects of Yi Yonghu’s life and work, and when he even finds out that he had secretly imported a good amount of uranium into the country, he informs the president of his results. This leads to the South Korean government seeking help from North Koreain assembling a nuclear weapon and even brings about Korea’s unification.

Meanwhile Japan is trying hard to keep Korea from unifying, since they feel threatened by the vast economic power Korea might then become. In the end Japan sees no other way but to destroy Korea’s economic facilities and start a war.

How the story ends is for an interested reader to discover. Or, if plowing through 900 pages is not your thing, you could maybe get a hold of the movie that came out in 1995. Unlike the book, however, the movie was a big failure, even with the then record budget of 4 billion wŏn that was spent on it.

Mugunghwa movie poster

The movie poster of the 1995 film The Mugunghwa Blossoms

The story itself was based on the life of scientist Yi Hwiso who indeed died because of a car accident in 1977. A huge debate arose between the writer and family members of Yi Hwiso on the way his life was depicted in the book. In the novel Yi was working together with Park Chunghee on establishing a Korean nuclear program, however in reality Yi was very critical of Park’s dictatorship rule. This argument heated up as years went by and even lead to a libel case against Kim Chinmyŏng. A KBS documentary from 2010 deals with these differing views and tried to establish the real facts around Yi Hwiso’s life. It also contains an interview with the writer.

What I found interesting when reading the book was the way in which women were depicted (or should I say used?). Mostly they are seen as victims of male power and in need of protection. This is especially obvious in the way the ‘evilness’ of the Japanese is described in their attempts to kidnap Korean women to force them into prostitution.
I find this interesting for the reason that in my research on literature written during the Korean War this same strategy is used by writers: Women are mostly victims of a larger (political) reality in which they have no choice of their own.

Also the way North Korea is depicted is noteworthy: Kim Il Sung agrees wholeheartedly with the South Koreans’ viewpoints, always sees their virtues, and is very willing to work together towards a “shared” (South) Korean goal. The character of Kim Il Sung is not developed at all, and when he does get to speak in the story, it is mostly short sentences in agreement with the South’s wishes.

These points were for me interesting discoveries, but the story itself did not really strike a nerve.

Where are the origins of Korea’s Modern Literature? (Part 3)


In this final installment we finally turn to what is considered to be Korea’s first “modern novel”: Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950)’s The Heartless (Mujŏng 1917). By many scholars this literary work is regarded as the culmination of developments that started around 1905 with the growth of newspapers, which in turn stimulated the production of the first attempts of modern literature. Writers Yi Injik and Yi Haejo are regarded as the frontrunners in this period. Later their works were categorized as “New Novels” (Shinsosŏl), a genre seen as a transitional stage between classical and modern literature. The vernacular that was used in these novels had not been standardized yet, and the plots resembled the good-versus-evil approach of traditional literature. Also they made more use of allegories, so that it could not be regarded as “realistic” fiction.

After the annexation of Koreaby Japanin 1910, many newspapers were shutdown and the literature that was being written reverted back to the more traditional melodramas and pulp fiction that it had seen earlier. Only Ch’oe Namsŏn (1890-1957), the founder of the influential journal Boys (Sonyŏn 1908-1911) and Youth (Ch’ŏngch’un 1914-1918), attempted to keep publishing “New Novels” in this period (which for the severe repression of the media is usually called the Dark Period (암흑기)).
It was in these journals that Yi Kwangsu published his early experiments with the new literature that he envisioned.

Yi Kwangsu

Yi Kwangsu in 1941

His vision onKorea’s literature was expressed in an article entitled “What is Literature?” In it he says that “the spirit of the nation that has been transmitted from the time of our ancestors…will be the center of literature.” After stressing that literature should stress and reinforce the nation, he criticizes Confucianism, by saying that this ideology had hampered Chosŏn’s modernization, because of their emphasis of 知 (지, knowledge) and 義 (의, will), while neglecting 情 (정, individual emotions). He continues that “in the West great literature could be produced because they had the freedom to express their thoughts and emotions.” He called for a literature rooted in Western realism and stressed that literature should fulfill human emotions and that it must take its material from daily life. Therefore, In his own literature he tried to make the nation visible to the reader. The task (or function) of literature in his view was to preserve that nation and ensure its continued survival.

Michael Shin, in an article on Yi Kwangsu and his novel Mujŏng titled Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwang-su’s “The Heartless” and the Origins of Modern Literature, focuses on the trope of landscape and the concept of interiority in Yi Kwangsu’s early works in order to decode the secondary narrative that is embedded within his stories. Interiority, he explains, is not the same as identity, but a form of identity: identity as an unchanging essence. Accordingly, the descriptions of landscape therefore can be seen as a metonym for Japan. Thus when the protagonists in Yi Kwangsu’s stories move to a new landscape it can be read as the search for an interiority that expresses an identity different from that of the colonizer’s.
The interesting feature of creating this sense of interiority is by using linguistic effects that are borrowed from the vernacular. It is the “neutral” forms of expression that give the illusion of realism to the stories. For Shin the term minjok (민족, usually translated as nation) in Yi Kwangsu’s novel The Heartless, was the name given to this intangible and mysterious “reality” of interiority. With this theory in mind, Shin analyzes the short stories written by Yi Kwangsu before The Heartless as attempts at finding interiority. He therefore notes that the protagonists in his stories are usually students who feel lonely and who aspire to write, but find themselves in desolate landscapes.

Mujong cover

Cover of Yi Kwangsu's most famous novel The Heartless

The Heartless was serialized in the Maeil Shinbo (매일신보) newspaper beginning January 1, 1917, and was an immediate sensation. People walked for miles to get their daily copy. The story itself is about a love triangle between the schoolteacher Yi Hyŏngshik and two women: Yŏngch’ae who became a Kisaeng and Sŏnhyŏng a daughter of a minister. He eventually marries Sŏnhyŏng, since her father had arranged and expected this from him by allowing him to teach English to his daughter, and also with the hopes that they could both go to theUS for studies. The story is quasi-historical with its setting being just before the formal annexation ofKorea. (Yi Kwangsu himself saw this period, the end of the Russo-Japanese war, as the beginning of modern literature)

The coup the force of the novel (where ‘the nation is made visible’) is in Yŏngch’ae’s story of how she became a Kisaeng. This story serves to awaken Hyŏngshik and Sŏnhyŏng to their interiority. At the end of the story Yŏngch’ae goes to Py’ŏngyang to commit suicide, and Hyŏngshik, after hearing of this plan, pursues her. The novel ends when the three of them meet each other on the train. (Hyŏngshik is then engaged to Sŏnhyŏng, but not in love with her) Here Yŏngch’ae tells of her sad story that stirs them both. A heavy rain forces them to leave the train, after which they find shelter in an inn. Here Hyŏngshik is completely awakened and tells the guests that they all should strive to create a better Chosŏn.
For Shin this aspect of the novel shows that “Yi Kwangsu’s novel is intricately linked to modernity since it enabled readers to visualize an emerging national community.” I find this last argument debatable, however, since more recent studies have argued quite convincingly that a sense of a national (“Korean”) community can be traced back to the Chosŏn period, and even as far back as the Koryŏ period.