War and Memory; The Testimony of History and the Healing of Wounds

  • onOctober 28, 2014
  • Vol.2 Winter 2008
  • byPark Kyung-Ri

The Korean War has served as a source of writing for many novelists. Numerous writers including Park Wansuh, Park Kyung-Ri, Choi In-hun, Jo Jung-Rae, Yi Mun-yol, and Kim Won Il, developed their fiction by using the Korean War as a motif. The war has been characterized as a “tragic fratricidal war,” a “war of national liberation,” and as a “proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” depending on one’s political stance. For Korean writers, however, the war was not a complete memory that could be represented merely by a certain political position. While the war was long over, for the writers, its memory has been an everlasting experience in the present.

In The Market And Battlefield, Park Kyung-Ri, the author of Land, describes the psychology of someone who has survived the ruins of war as follows: “Until now, no one had publicly criticized the Korean army or the Republic of Korea. The refugees silently witnessed the battles, during which they did not offer any opinions because they were wise.” For those who did not truly support either side, the goal of survival determined their choice for, since the tide of war could turn at any moment, they didn’t know to whom they might end up begging for food. For so many they had no choice but to vacillate between the two sides depending on the tide of the war; war was not an ideological battle but a battle for survival.

In a scene from her novel Near Buddha, Park Wansuh depicts the birth of literature on the battlefield for survival. The first-person narrator, who has experienced the death of her brother, describes the war as the source of her writing: “The death I have endured still lay in the center of my interior, and interferes with my daily life like an extra weight or a migraine. The desire to tell this story drove me crazy. How could I make sure that they would listen to my story till the end? How could I entertain them? How could I earn their sympathy? In my free time, I put together every aspect of my story, even adapting it to the surmised tastes of my audience. Before I knew it, I was turning my story into a novel. I writhed in agony as if I were vomiting, feeling relieved as if I’d vomited.” Not even a day has passed since the brother’s death, but the narrator’s family takes his corpse out of the house simply because they are concerned it might rot. The same family wolfs down all the remaining red bean porridge only because they are concerned that it might spoil; the memory of this incident turns into a lingering indigestion that plagues the author, and the pain eventually transforms into a novel that pours out like vomit.

In A House with a Deep Yard, the memory of being forced into becoming the head of a fatherless family in the ruins of war takes shape in the hands of the author Kim Won Il. The mother of the novel’s protagonist, however, makes no effort to console her oldest son who has had to drop out of school to sell newspapers on the streets. The narrator said, “As I walked into the house shivering like a little mouse, my mother saw me but didn’t say anything. Though I have dropped out of school unlike other kids – I mean, my own sister and brother still go to school – how could Mother not try to offer me any solace? As I muttered these thoughts to myself, my eyes grew moist with grief.” As the son’s toils grow worse, his mother continues to push and discipline him even more harshly into becoming a decent human being. For Kim, the war was a memory of violence that forced a boy into becoming the head of a household before his time. It was a process of enduring “the absence of a father” and an occasion for self-negation, which prompted him to question whether he was his mother’s biological son.


1 The Heroic Age
Yi Mun-yol, Minumsa, 2000, 386pp., ISBN 89-374-0036-7 03810
2 Taebaek Mountain Range
Jo Jung-Rae, Hainaim Publishing Co., Ltd. 2008, 342pp., ISBN 978-89-7337-794-7
3 Land
Park Kyung-Ri, Nanam Publishing House. 2002, 419pp., ISBN 89-300-0701-5
4 The Square
Choi In-hun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2003, 342pp., ISBN 89-320-0848-5
5 A House with a Deep Yard
Kim Won Il, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. 2007, 292pp, ISBN 89-320-1012-9


The perversion of the maternal in the absence of the father is also featured in Yi Mun-yol’s novels. Yi’s family, who suffered for decades after his father crossed over into North Korea, never experienced the ordinary every day. His autobiographical novel The Heroic Age portrays the sharp ideological conflict and tension of battlefields. Although his novel presents fundamental human conflicts behind the choice between “here” and “there,” he was welcome neither “here” nor “there.” Even 50 years after the end of the war, Yi still has not forgotten the pain he suffered because of The Heroic Age. Yi said “Our time was not a time when it was possible to remain neutral. The way to do so was to side with both ideologies; that possibility was decisively convoluted beginning with The Heroic Age. I suffered abuse from both sides. When the novel was first printed, the Defense Security Command censors kept it from being sold for two months. Through the intervention of some acquaintances, the book was eventually released. Four years later, however, it was banned by political activists. From then on, I couldn’t really continue avoiding the situation any more, so I tried to voice both sides but it didn’t go over well.” (Sisa Journal, 20 August 2008).

It was not until the publication of Jo Jung-Rae’s Taebaek Mountain Range that a great number of people’s stories related to the Korean War attained both generality and exactness. “The country created the Communist Party and the landlord created pinkos” – the phrase spoken by Moon, a character in the novel, represented the voice of the masses at the time. Taebaek Mountain Range, a bestseller that has sold over five million copies, is an enormous book with 16,500 pages of manuscript and over 60 characters; its exquisite sense of balance, untainted by anti-Communist ideology, stirred a great deal of talk. Through Taebaek Mountain Range, the Korean War moved beyond being a “historical scar rife with taboos and distortions” and became a “historical responsibility to be borne by community.” Furthermore, the manifold characters’ diverse life stories, beautiful romances, as well as the charming cadence of the Jeolla-do (province) stirred readers. Above all, Taebaek Mountain Range is engaging and full of suspense, keeping readers on their toes. One of the novel’s monumental accomplishments is its popular appeal, demonstrating that “war literature too, can be enjoyable.”

Choi In-hun’s The Square was one of the leading novels to elevate the tragedy of the Korean War to the level of philosophical reflection. As the critic Kim Hyun once observed in his review: “Without love, only rumors and ideologies remain. Love is the only thing that can allow humans to have authentic experiences.” The Square was also a beautifully tragic love story. The tragedy of ideology, which completely shakes up a young man’s life, is often expressed as a metaphor of love or the body: “Life is the anguish of insatiable desire, like the belly of a woman who has borne many children,” “Doesn’t the truth believed by men take up about the same amount of space as a woman’s body?” and “All idols are born out of human weakness, the inability to believe in things unseen.” The sensual style of these sentences, non-existent in the war literature of the time, drove the readers wild. The death of the character Lee Myeong-jun, who chooses neutrality after having experienced the two ideological extremes, is one of the most beautiful scenes in modern Korean literature.

For these writers, the Korean War was at once a testimony of collective history and a confession of personal memory. Their youth was the process of enduring the ruins of war. For many of them the Korean War was both an obstacle to human growth and food for growth as a writer. Although they were not able to have memories of an ordinary childhood because of the war, it was the war that allowed for their “ineluctable fate to write.” These authors established themselves with works that dealt with the war, but they also continued to enjoy long, popular literary careers. So many of their works have been adapted into movies and television dramas; the Korean War lies across the center of their experiences. Writing for them was both a struggle against the fatal trauma of the Korean War and a process of overcoming it. 



Park Kyung-Ri
1926 – 2008
Born in Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do (province). The roman-fleuve, Land, is the most well-known of her large body of work, which also includes The Curse of Kim's Daughters. On May 5, 2008, she died of lung cancer and a stroke. Immediately after her death, she was posthumously awarded the Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit by the Korean government.

Kim Won Il
1942 –
Born in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do (province), Kim wrote many novels that deal with the problem of the division of the Korean peninsula. His many works include Winter Valley, The House with a Deep Yard, The Soul of Darkness, and The Festival of Fire.
Yi Mun-yol
1948 –
Born in Seoul. Lee wrote his autobiographical novel Our Twisted Hero based on his life of suffering after his father crossed over to North Korea alone. Many of his works, including Our Twisted Hero, Geumsijo, The Winter that Year, and The Poet, have been published abroad in French, Spanish, English, and Japanese.
Jo Jung-Rae
1943 –
Born in Seungju, Jeollanam-do (province). Jo wrote Taebaek Mountain Range and Arirang based on his childhood experiences in the Korean War. His works had a huge influence on the literary world. Jo was embroiled in a controversy over violating national security for 11 years for writing Taebaek Mountain Range, until it was cleared of charges.
Choi In-hun
1936 –
Born in Hoeryeong, Hamgyeongbuk-do (province). In addition to The Square, which was the first novel to criticize the ideologies of both Koreas, Choi’s works also include The Grey Man, and The Question. As a dramatist, he also wrote many excellent plays, including Shoo-oo Shoo Once Upon a Time.