People: A Beautiful Country Is a Community of the Imagination

One of the great challenges that Korean literature faces in the postmodern period is how to invent a meaningful community of imagination that can satisfy the following equation: people = state (or capital). This paradigm is deeply related to the fact that Korean history in the postmodern era progressed under the people ≠ state (or capital) model. Around the time that Korea was independently forming the idea that people = state (= capital), the Japanese Empire forced Korea to pursue the people ≠ state paradigm. Even after Korea's liberation, this paradigm continued unchanged, with the Cold War unavoidably perpetuating it, leading to the division of the peninsula under two different nations and political ideologies. Another problem, however, was that the people ≠ state model caused Koreans to become obsessed with the people = state paradigm as an absolute good, which they espoused and idealized.

Therefore the people ≠ state paradigm has been the biggest cause of unhappiness in modern Korea. That is why literature, which has the power to reconstruct new worlds in a manner different from that of politics, had to conceive of a people = state paradigm completely different from political incarnations of this idea. As a result, Korean literature has been unable to put to rest its interest in what form the people = state paradigm should take.

The first representative work of Korean fiction that focused on a sincere reflection of the sense of a meaningful community was Park Kyung-Ri's novel, Land. This novel focused on Koreans' hardships from the country's colonization to liberation. However Land didn't focus solely on the ordeals of the people who learned through bitter experience what the people ≠ empire paradigm entailed. Park's novel reconstructed and reproduced the miserable people ≠ empire model from history, while at the same time uncovered a meaningful form of coexistence between the people, the state, and capital while also offering ideological roots to support this harmonious condition.

According to Land, premodern Korean history was characterized by han, or “unresolved regret.” Before the people ≠ state paradigm emerged, Korea had been a hereditary class-based society. Each person's life was predetermined at birth, leaving only three kinds of lives to choose from: a life of greed, led by a powerful superego whose desires could control Korea’s class-based society; a life of denial of the superego's desires in favor of personal ones; or a life of built-up despair and anger caused by being able to neither give in to the superego's desires nor reject them. In the novel, most premodern Koreans chose the third kind of life, so they were people with a lot of han. Of course, people strove to become free souls. Just before Korea's modern efforts to implement people = state paradigm could bear fruit, Korea was colonized. Suddenly relegated to colonial status, Korea became a society yielding to the individual along the lines of 'to hell with everything as long as I survive.' In this way, the pent-up han of the pre-modern era degenerated into deep resentment and revenge. Thus began countless dramas involving endless greed and betrayal. The sudden rise of an absurd paradigm in which people ≠ state ≠ capital fundamentally blocked any opportunity for han to be sublimated through individual free will. This is the view of the Korean colonial period espoused in Park’s Land.

Yet this novel also contains a message of hope which arises amidst the crisis of the people ≠ state paradigm. The author believed that a powerful commitment to implement the people = state paradigm would inevitably be distorted into imperialism or totalitarianism. Therefore he urgently called for another form of this paradigm, namely one based on life affirmation, as depicted in Land. In order to overcome lives filled with unresolved regret, Koreans have had to recognize the need to get along with other creatures, people, and nations, all of which are precious living things. Simply put, the onslaught of Japanese imperialism brought utter misery to Koreans through the people ≠ state model, but instead of seeking vengeance, Park’s book urges them to forgive their transgressors. Only then can world peace and a future of promise become possible. The desire to take revenge for unresolved regret evokes the present-day world filled with cannon smoke, suggesting that Land may offer meaning to the current era as well.

Even after Korean liberation from Japanese colonization, however, the status quo could not be replaced by the people = state paradigm. The Cold War following WWII essentially made Koreans themselves forgo the road to a new model of governance. After liberation, Korea was divided into three spheres of influence: two of these groups consisted of Koreans who supported the American or Soviet sides during the Cold War, while the third group sought to ensure Korean people's self-respect and survival amidst foreign influences. Due to the impregnability of the Cold War order, however, the Korean people became divided into two countries under the people ≠ state model after liberation. Furthermore, in its early days, the Cold War impasse was quite contentious, giving differing political groups the opportunity to jockey for power. This excessive conformity to the new order eventually led to the Korean War.

Jo Jung-Rae's Taebaek Mountain Range focused precisely on these historical circumstances, fictionalizing the most decisive trend in modern Korean history. Amidst the vivid backdrop of the town of Beolgyo (in South Jeolla province...