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.