Reflections of Korea’s East and Central Asian Neighbors

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byLee Jangwook

Located in East Asia, Korea has constantly influenced and been influenced by other countries in the region. In fact, to say that these countries have exchanged influences is not enough to describe the complex relationship they have had. Korea’s relationship with the Ming and Qing dynasties of China was servile for a long time. In the 13th century, Korea was ruled by the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongols and was colonized by Japan in the 20th century. Koreans, who began moving to the Russian Maritime Territory from the end of the 19th century, were relocated to Central Asia by Stalin’s policy of forced migration. The works introduced in the following are recent Korean literary works that have been set in Japan, China, Mongolia, and Central Asia.


Lee Jangwook, “Tokyo Boy," King of Confession

Lee Jangwook began his writing career as a poet in 1994 and is currently active as a writer and a critic. “Tokyo Boy” is the first story in his collection of short stories, King of Confession. Members of a mystery book club travel to Japan to trace the steps of a mystery writer who lived in the Taisho period. Their journey ends without much success but their return flight gets delayed due to a sudden storm. They end up spending the night in a shabby hotel in a back alley of Tokyo. As they sit in the hotel lobby that is wet due to a downpour, one member suddenly murmurs: “Is my Yuki really dead?”

The club member begins to talk about a woman named Yuki who was born to a Japanese father and Korean mother. Yuki’s hometown was Yokohama. She moved around the world with her family, following her father’s job, and met the club member in Korea. After her parents met a tragic death, Yuki came to Japan with him to look for the memories of her childhood. Together they traveled to Kyoto and then to Nara, only to learn that her grandmother has passed away. He says that her existence slowly began to fade away after that, and then he finally confesses that he strangled her to death in room 102 of that very hotel. However, the club members and the hotel owner cannot find any traces of Yuki in the hotel and are at a loss for words at hearing such an absurd story.

It is not clear whether Watanabe Pou, the Japanese mystery writer who appears in this story, really did exist. It may also be that the woman named Yuki the man remembers exists only in his fantasy. We all fade away like a “cloud on a grey day” unless we are remembered by someone. Using mystery, “Tokyo Boy” explores how people’s desires are crippled today because they cannot care for other people despite wanting to be recognized by others. The setting of a hotel in the back alleys of Tokyo during heavy rains intensifies the dream-like atmosphere of the story.


Pyun Hye-Young, Ashes and Red

Pyun Hye-Young’s Ashes and Red begins with a quarantine officer grimacing after checking his temperature. The main character of the novel is famously skilled in catching rats and is dispatched to a country called C. An epidemic has spread across the country C and to make matters worse, people are living in fear of an impending earthquake. After arriving in C, the protagonist is suspected of killing his wife and has to go on the run. He falls from the fourth floor of an apartment building to the bottom of the underground sewage system, and eventually goes back to work as a professional quarantine officer.

This novel is based on a social atmosphere where a great fear of new types of contagious diseases like the avian flu, the swine flu, and mad cow disease has gripped the entire world. As more and more complicated and difficult medical terms are used to describe the situation, ordinary people, who lack accurate information and have to rely on the government and the media, become more anxious.

Though the country where the novel is set is simply called C, Pyun has already revealed in various interviews that this country is in fact Japan. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 and the subsequent explosion at the nuclear power plant resemble the world governed by fear as it appears in the novel. The way Japan has relied on nuclear power despite their terrible trauma caused by nuclear bombs shows, symbolically and tragically, how people today live their lives in daily fear and anxiety. Pyun named the country C, a universally anonymous name, to say that such fear and anxiety is not limited to any specific country but exists everywhere.


Kim Yeonsu, The Night Is Singing

Kim Yeonsu’s The Night Is Singing is based on the Minsaengdan Incident that took place in the Chinese region of Jiandao in the 1930s. A few Koreans who had been living in the Jiandao area formed a pro-Japanese political group called Minsaengdan. The group was small and after a short while, it dispersed. However, the Communist Party of China decided that Korean members within the party were linked to this group, and framed many members as spies, arresting and killing them. It is estimated that some 500 people were killed as a result of this incident. Most of the sacrificed had resisted Japanese imperialism in Korea, moved Jiandao, and turned to Communist ideology, which was in vogue at the time. What ended their lives was not Japanese imperialism but doubt and misunderstanding from their own comrades.

Kim Yeonsu narrates this historical incident through the interwoven lives of seven characters: four young men Bak Do-man, Choe Do-sik, An Se-hun, and Bak Gil-lyong; their friend a modern woman named Yi Jeong-hui; railway surveyor Kim Hae-yeon who was in love with Yi Jeong-hui; and Yeo-ok who worked at a photo studio in Longjing. Yi Jeong-hui was secretly collecting information on the Japanese army that had been stationed in Jiandao. When her activities are discovered, she takes her own life after leaving a message to Kim Hae-yeon to flee. Kim Hae-yeon is arrested and interrogated. After he is released, he wanders around in shock and ends up working at a photo studio in Longjing where he meets a girl named Yeo-ok. The photo studio is also linked to a revolutionary group where Yeo-ok has been working as a contact person for the group. Kim Hae-yeon and Yeo-ok try to leave to Seoul but they are attacked by a punitive expedition. As a result, Yeo-ok loses her right leg and Kim Hae-yeon barely manages to save himself. Kim Hae-yeon then leaves to inform the revolutionary group about the punitive expedition but is suspected of working for Minsaengdan and is arrested. As a result, he is once again thrown into the turmoil of tragic history.

The Night Is Singing explores love, betrayal, dreams, and failures among the young people who were members of the Communist revolutionary group in Jiandao, the area between Korea, China, and Japan.


1. Dzud-Poor Saints (2 Vols.)
Kim Hyung-soo
Jaeum & Moeum Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 360p, ISBN 9788957076033 (Vol.1)
2. King of Confession
Lee Jangwook, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2010, 283p, ISBN 9788936437121.
3. Ashes and Red
Pyun Hye-Young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2010, 260p, ISBN 9788936433734


Chun Woon-young, Farewell to the Circus

Farewell to the Circus is Chun Woon-young’s first novel set in Korea and Yanji, China. Yun-ho’s father died when he was young and his mother had to have one foot amputated due to diabetes. His older brother In-ho had an accident when he was trying to show Yun-ho a trick when they were children and as a result, lost his voice and became brain damaged. Yun-ho feels guilty about his brother’s tragedy and also has the responsibility of taking care of him. In order to marry off In-ho, Yun-ho takes him to Yanji in China to meet Lim Hae-hwa, a Korean living there. In-ho and Hae-hwa have a simple wedding in her hometown and come back to Korea.

In Yun-ho’s narration, he says he has come to feel gratitude and even affection toward the woman who has married his brother and is kind to his mother. In Lim Hae-hwa’s narration, she promises herself that she will be happy in South Korea but it becomes clear that she is wary of Yun-ho’s glances.

Once they are back in Korea, Hae-hwa’s struggles to adapt to Korean society and Yun-ho’s concern that his brother might reject him unfold. After their mother passes away, Yun-ho leaves home and goes back and forth between Korea and China to sell smuggled goods. Left in Korea, In-ho is usually nice to his wife but sometimes becomes irrational and abuses her. After enduring continuous violence, Hae-hwa leaves home without any plans. In-ho later goes back to China to find Hae- hwa but failing to find her, jumps off the ship on the way back to Korea.

All three characters love each other in their own way but fail to communicate and create the rapport necessary to be close to one another. Farewell to the Circus portrays the unstable and lonely lives of people that resemble a tightrope walker on a single rope walking high up in the air.


Kim Hyung-soo, Dzud-Poor Saints

Kim Hyung-soo’s Dzud-Poor Saints is about a boy named Temujin who lives in the plains of Mongolia and the nomadic life he leads until he becomes Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Though Genghis Khan is the main character of the novel, the focus is not on the biography of a hero but on the life of nomads in the 13th century.

The title Dzud-Poor Saints is a natural disaster that hits the dry steppes of Mongolia. Dzud is called white dzud caused by heavy snowfall, black dzud caused by draught, snowstorm dzud, and mirror dzud that covers the land with ice. The nomads in the novel adapt themselves to nature while fearing the natural disaster called dzud.

When the tribe leader Yesugei dies, his tribe disperses. Yesugei’s son Temujin and his family are also routed out by the tribe’s second in command and live on the plains struggling against nature. After Temnujin kills his half-brother Behter with an arrow, his life is burdened with guilt. The continuous occurrence of dzud makes life on the plains even harder.

Then a man named Bo’orchu, son of Nakhu Bayan who is the spiritual leader of the nomads, comes to Temujin. Bo’orchu has excellent skills with horses and Temujin comes to feel a brotherhood with him that is stronger than blood. As the two join forces, Temujin decides to follow in his father’s footsteps. He begins to walk the path of an emperor by winning people’s hearts and uniting the tribes.

A Korean writer staying in Mongolia to write about the history of the Mongolian steppes is unusual. Author Kim Hyung-soo says he wanted to portray a history of civilization rather than talk about a specific hero or a country.


Yun Humyong, “The White Boat”
(1995 Yi Sang Literary Award Anthology)

Yun Humyong’s “The White Boat” won the Yi Sang Literature Prize in 1995, Korea’s leading literary prize. At that time it had only been a few years since Central Asian countries achieved independence from the former Soviet Union. With the breakup of the USSR, it was revealed that many Koreans had come to live in Central Asia due to Stalin’s forcible relocation policy in the 1930s. Yun’s story is based on this historical event.

The first-person narrator of “The White Boat” thinks about Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan while sitting under a cypress tree. He receives an article, which was written by a woman named Mun Ryuda from the Korean Education Center in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and he becomes interested in the lives of Koreans living in Central Asia.

The protagonist then plans to visit Central Asia while traveling in Russia. He travels through Almaty and reaches Ushtobe, a small city where Koreans who were forcibly relocated from various places in eastern Russia first arrived in 1937. By accident, he learns that a teacher at the Korean school knows a woman named Ryuda. With the teacher, he goes to Lake Issyk Kul where Ryuda and her older brother Vitali live. Vitali’s friend Mikhail tells him about the novel The White Boat written by a Kyrgystani writer. The story follows a boy who wants to go across the lake in a white boat. When he arrives at Lake Issyk Kul after many complications, the protagonist sees the Tian Shan Mountains covered with snow reflected on the lake and meets Ryuda under the shade of a cypress tree. What he sees there is a white snow-covered mountain and a woman named Ryuda, but he also finds the history of the Korean people who had to live far from home.


1. The Night Is Singing
Kim Yeonsu, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2008, 345p, ISBN 9788932019000

2. Farewell to the Circus
Chun Woon-young
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2011, 290p, ISBN 9788954614399

3. The White Boat
(1995 Yi Sang Literary Award)
Yun Humyong, Munhaksasang Co., Ltd.
1995, 450p, ISBN 9788970121611