People: A Beautiful Country Is a Community of the Imagination

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byPark Kyung-Ri

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), Jo describes the period in history from the Yeosun Incident (1948 rebellion in Yeosu and Suncheon against the Syngman Rhee government) up to the Korean War. Among the three forces mentioned earlier, Jo chose to focus on Korean nationalists fighting against “cold warriors” opposed to the implementation of the people = state model. His protagonists, in seeking to create a true people = state system, reevaluated all of Korean history in order to invent a Cold War counter-ideology. There were also the Americans and Soviets who aimed to make Korean national division permanent, as well as their proxies who, in a quest to grab power in Korea, played the role of loyal agents. Both the Cold War and those forces complicit with this new order soon become quite secure, without gaps in their proverbial armor. The forces in favor of pushing forward with the people = state paradigm came up against the powerful Cold War order which had embedded itself throughout the world. Although Korean nationalists tragically struggled against it, their gambit against fate failed.


  1. Land
Park Kyung-Ri, Secolo Verlag, 2000

2. 太白山脈
Jo Jung-Rae, Shueisha, 1999

3. されど
Hong Sung-won, Honnoizumi, 2010

Ultimately, however, Taebaek Mountain Range was not exclusively despondent about the Cold War order and the proxies responsible for the division of Korea, as it maintained a ray of hope. The novel clearly showed that there were chinks in the armor of national division. By prying open and entering these gaps, human emotions could discover moral facets able to break the stranglehold of national division. The world assumes that people must be sacrificed to drive global capitalism, with capital itself personified by its mandate to further expand and reproduce itself. The characters in the novel suffer endlessly under the heel of foreign powers, capitalists, and landowners. Despite their alienation, they learn to realize the ego through caring for others. Jo suggests building a new community with such people at the core. Taebaek Mountain Range asserts that these humans must be the center of any people = state paradigm and serve as a blueprint for the future of humanity. In short, Jo's novel proposes a structure for post-capitalist globalism while also containing precious wisdom for creating a peaceful world.

Hong Sung-won's However recounts the life and times of a contradictory character who spends the first half of his life in determined resistance to the Japanese Empire, but, tempted by love in the second half of his life, ends up betraying his comrades. The novel is written from the point of view of a well-known Korean independence fighter's biographer, who begins to write about the events from the great patriot's life. While gathering materials about his subject’s life, the biographer encounters a succession of unexpected events as he begins his investigation. He learns that the first half of the hero's life was spent in Korea, where he was clearly one of its most upstanding patriots. However, the latter part of his life was veiled in secrecy, with many deeds that were a far cry from his previous heroics. The biographer belatedly discovers that the patriot fell victim to the wiles of a Japanese woman who incited him not only to betray his comrades, but to also betray the Korean people. The one-time patriot fell in love with his treacherous mistress, who bore him a son and daughter. While digging into the patriot's later life, the biographer meets the hero's son living in China and his daughter living in Japan. The biographer becomes friends with them, even falls in love, and comes to some realizations from this string of experiences.

Namely, that while the patriot answered the call of his country, he also pursued his personal desires. The hero was a free and mobile spirit, a Korean, and a world citizen all at the same time. From this point of view, the biographer reflects on past events and decides to acknowledge the parts which must be acknowledged, and to understand the parts which must be understood. The patriot of However embodies the differences between nations and also encourages Koreans not to return the hurt and pain of invasion with more of the same. The novel proposes a practical morality that can contribute to world peace while also attempting to find a better form of the people = state model.

"I want my country to be the most beautiful in the world, not the most wealthy or powerful. As my heart aches from the wounds of invasion, I don't want my country to invade others... Therefore I want the people to create true peace in Korea that will also be realized throughout the world." These were the words of Korean patriot Kim Gu. Although he suffered horribly from foreign invasion, he urged forgiveness from a heart of magnanimity, calling for the establishment of a beautiful country that could contribute to world peace.

Seen from this perspective, Land, Taebaek Mountain Range, and However have successfully restored Kim Gu's revolutionary idea of building a beautiful country, an idea which had almost floated into historical oblivion. Perhaps this is a better way to see things: only through the great literary achievements of these three novels was Kim Gu's idea able to be seen in a context of genuine historical philosophy. In any case, despite the cruel suffering of Koreans under the people ≠ state paradigm and the temptation to fall into the people = state model, Korea's grand tradition of continually seeking truth is alive and well.