On My Twentieth-Century Trilogy

I was born in 1943 in Changchun, Manchuriaan area that was occupied by imperial Japan at the time. Around the time of my birth, the fascist powers-that-be had been driven out by the strategic cooperation of the socialist and capitalist camps. Throughout the world, the nations that had favored direct rule and the tenets of imperialism gave every sign of backing off. In point of fact, however, these countries remained chained, militarily speaking, to the politics and economy of their former suzerain states.

     In our country, America took the position that had formerly been held by Japan. As was already the case in many countries in Latin America and Asia, revolution, the Cold War, military dictatorship, poverty, civil war, and oppression came to represent life for much of the Second and Third Worlds during this time. Upon Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, my family was living in the North, in the city of Pyongyang. It was only when the political administration that favored the division of North and South came into power that my father was given a job and we all moved down south. As soon as I entered elementary school, the Korean War erupted around us and with it, the skeleton of the Cold War infrastructure that Europe imposed upon Asia finally reached completion.

     The administration of the South, having set forth anti-communism and pro-Americanism as its most basic ideology, soon metamorphosed into a military dictatorship following the onset and resolution of several crises. The first show of resistance to this regime came in the form of the “Student Revolution”on April 19th, 1960. I, too, participated in this

demonstration. My generation became the first to grow up hidden behind the backs of adults, peeking out at the horror of a race of people bent on killing one another. We were the first to reach adolescence and find ourselves ready to take the establishment head-on. We were called the “April 19 Generation,” and, at times, the “Korean Generation,” a testament to our role as the first generation to be educated in our native tongue after liberation from the Japanese. Our generation was also the first of the modern age to have grown up with the goal of achieving a universal democratic state and overthrowing the Cold War-imposed division of North and South as an intrinsic facet of our very identity.

     During my college years I fought against the military regime over issues such as the Korean-Japanese Summit of 1965, and when I was called upon to serve my term of mandatory military service, I found myself dragged off to fight in the Vietnam War. As to the real difference between the generation of our fathersrecruited and drafted into service by the Japanese to further their aspirations of Asian dominanceand our generation, packed off to Vietnam to help realize America’s Cold War dreams of instituting a Pax-Americana in Southeast Asia? We ourselves have no idea.

     Upon my return from Vietnam and my discharge from military service, I reentered the Korean literary community and found myself face to face with the effects of the military regime. Working in factories and rural communities, I began to actively take part in the nation-wide popular movements, which led to my participation in the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. This incident was soon followed by similar popular movements for democratization in countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia: in essence, what the sixties were to the West, the eighties were for Asia.

     In the aftermath of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, I left Korea to attend “The Third World Cultural Festival,” which was held in Berlin. I then began to work towards founding a cultural organization for Koreans living abroad, visiting countries like Germany, America, and Japan. During the course of these activities I met a number of Korean political figures in exile. As a part of this process, I had the occasion to visit North Korea. For this, I was to experience exile and imprisonment.

     More than sixty years have now passed since the Korean War, and even after two meetings of the South-North Summit, we are still unable to identify the exact nature of this war. This is because we remain divided, maintaining what is not peace but a truce.


The Shadow of Arms

It was in the eighties, in the midst of this maelstrom of change, that I published the work that would mark the end of the first half of my literary career: The Shadow of Arms.

Unlike Hollywood films and novels that deal with the Vietnam War, The Shadow of Arms has nothing to offer to the genre of struggling with life and death on the battlefield; its pages contain no humanitarian conflict, no ideological protest against the war. Nor is it a mix of colonialism and Orientalism in the tradition of Apocalypse Now, presenting a detached but darkly emotional condemnation of war itself. The Shadow of Arms is a cold-hearted novel that deals instead with the business aspects of what was an intrinsically capitalistic war.

     War is nothing more than a fiercely violent reaction to a conflict between different races, nations, and/or classes that is guaranteed to either solve or exponentially aggravate the issue at hand. Without question, war results in the appearance of a hell on earth, full of destruction and slaughter. On the other hand, this hell is accompanied by the emergence and activation of an extremely dispassionate, precise mechanism of political and economical logic. The Shadow of Arms is an attempt to reveal both the surface appearance and inner workings of this very phenomenon. America’s “intervention” in Vietnam, which came on the heels of their activities in the Philippines, was simply a move calculated to expand America’s imperialistic market control to include the rest of Southeast Asia, and war was considered to be the quickest, most efficient means of achieving this end: in essence, a business conducted on a rather grandiose scale.

     As such, The Shadow of Arms uses the back-alley black markets of the Vietnam War as its stage, a market that turns into a setting more fitting than any jungle to discover and explore the core of the war. The more we learn about the system that was used to circulate US Army munitions, the closer we can come to understanding the true nature of the war. Because achieving this understanding became my overarching goal, it was necessary for the perspective of the story itself to be multilateral. In this novel, we see the perspective of the US government and soldiers, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the South Vietnamese under American rule, and the “psychological refugees” who refuse to intervene and become a part of the war, searching endlessly for an escape route instead. Lastly, we have the perspective that overlaps with that of the author: the dazed ROK soldier who has somehow become involved in this foul war.

     In the preface to the first publication of The Shadow of Arms, I wrote that I would “never indulge in the depiction of an individual who was scarred”by the Vietnam experience. This was a manifestation of the obstinate self-consciousness that is controlled by the guilt we Koreans feel in our treatment of the Vietnamese, a substantial limitation that was difficult to overcome with only the perspective of an irresponsible outsider.

     Truly, if there is one thing that must make a deeper impression upon the hearts of the Vietnamese than the victorious outcome of their war for independence, it can be nothing other than the painful memories of all they lost in order to achieve that very victory.


The Old Garden

For five years I drifted around Berlin and New York. Upon my return to Korea, I was arrested for violating the National Security Law and spent the next five years of my life in prison. Those ten years given over to wandering and imprisonment, from my late forties through my early fifties, changed me; the world I once knew changed as well.

     Through my numerous visits to the North during my exile, I was able to witness a face of the country’s division that was as different as the far side of the moon. As the downfall of socialism led to the reorganization of the capitalist world order, I was wandering about Germany and America. It was during the five years of confinement that followed that I was able to ruminate over and come to terms with the experience as a whole. And with that, I was reborn as a“different author.”

     The Old Garden is a title I obtained from ancient Eastern legends that refer to a beautiful garden nestled within a hidden valley and a dreamlike island paradise. In actuality, however, the title is meant less as a positive literary allusion and more as a kind of utopian paradox. Watching the changing world from Berlin, my home in exile, I whispered to myself: “The revolution is over. It’s a new beginning.”

     Since 1998, the year I was released from prison, the end of the century during which I wrote this novel, the world of today has reached a point where we must face bitter disillusionment.

     Even now, the environment is being mercilessly destroyed, local and civil wars are waged according to religion and race, and anti-terrorism, like terrorism, has become a banner under which we can justify sweeping across the world in order to attain hegemony. The so-called Second and Third Worlds still suffer through the cycle of dictatorship, resistance, and despair, constantly struggling with fearsome enemies such as poverty and hunger. Since the fall of socialism, the world’s capitalist infrastructure has had the stage to itself; now, as common sense begins to reveal symptoms of an uneasy end, we find ourselves investing our expectations in an uncertain future.

     In divided Korea, the resistance against the military regime in the South and, more specifically, the democratization movements of the seventies and eighties did succeed in making some changes, at least for the time being. Despite this, however, the fact remains that the onset of the nineties brought with it the inevitable conflict between the passionate beliefs of the past and the daily life of the metamorphosed present. In whatever form, this conflict tore at the body and soul of those involved. The danger here only deepened with the extinction of ideology th...

Hwang Sok-yong was born in Changchun, Manchuria in 1943. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, he moved to his mother’s hometown Pyongyang, where he lived with his mother’s side of the family. In 1947, his family moved to the South and he grew up in Yeongdeungpo. Hwang left Kyungbok High School in 1962 and left home to wander the southern provinces. He returned home in October, and in November of that year he won the New Author Literary Prize from the magazine Sasanggye for his short story, “Near the Marking Stone.” Hwang lived life as a drifter, taking up manual labor and temple jobs until 1970 when his short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest and he began his writing career in earnest. He also participated in the Vietnam War.

     Throughout the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong published a continuous stream of works that became well known such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,”“The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” becoming a foremost author in the Korean literary world. For the duration of the seventies, he went undercover working at the Guro Industrial Complex and took part in the resistance movement through his membership in the Association of Writers for Actualized Freedom while penning his epic novel, Jang Gilsan.

     In the 1980s, Hwang completed his full-length novel, The Shadow of Arms, which shines light on the capitalistic world system during the Vietnam War. He did this all while working tirelessly to organize the fight to spread the truth about the Gwangju Democratization Movement as well as a variety of other resistance movements. After visiting North Korea in March 1989, Hwang was unable to return to South Korea and took refuge as an invited author at the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1991, he continued his exile in New York. After returning to South Korea in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1998 after serving five of those years. Following this, he has shown year after year that his creative spirit will not die with the publication of The Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shim Cheong (2003), Princess Bari (2007), Hesperus (2008), Gangnam Dream (2010), A Familiar World (2011), The Sound of the Shallow Water (2012), and Dusk (2015). He has been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award, among others. Hwang’s major works have been translated and published around the world in countries such as France, the US, Italy, and Sweden.