The Square

  • onJuly 21, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byChoi In-hun
The Square
Tr. Kim Seong-Kon


“Mankind cannot live in a closed room. Mankind belongs to the Square. Politics is the most unredeemed place in the Square of mankind. In Western countries, Christian churches assume a role like holy water purifying politics, absolving it of its sins. No matter how much political filth and scum pours out, Christianity swallows it up and carries it off. Metaphorically speaking, the political arena of Western countries has an excellent sewage system. In human society, man cannot live without processing daily excrement. That is why we build purifying tanks. The same thing goes for politics. However, there are neither purifying tanks nor sewage systems to lap the garbage up. Especially in Korea’s political Square, excrement and garbage have just piled up. Things that should be everyone’s are selfishly taken for personal benefit. Roadside flowers are picked from the ground and put in flowerpots at home, public faucets are extracted only to be put in the bathroom of a private home, or a pavement is dug up to be used as a kitchen floor. When Korean politicians come into the political Square, they bring a sack, a hatchet, a shovel, and a mask to hide their faces. Without a doubt, their intent is sinister. If a good person tries to dissuade them from doing this, wicked gangs who were watching from afar will emerge from their sunken alleys and finish him off with one stab. In return, they receive their share from the thief. With these wages, they buy the company of women until their money runs out. Once that happens, they’ll again come to the Square, wielding daggers. They do this because it is their job, and work always awaits them there. This is how the dark sun rises and sets in the deprived and bloodstained desolate Square. It’s the Square of foul nights—the Square of greed, betrayal, and murder. Is this not the predicament of the Korean political Square?

“A virtuous citizen will lock his door and close his windows. With no other way to escape starvation, he then must open his door and go to the market. He goes to buy a handful of rice and bunch of dried radish leaves. This market is the Square of economics. But this place is overflowing with stolen goods. There is a bag of potatoes, which was taken from a farmer who had his thin wrist cut off with a hatchet when he refused to give the bag up. There is a head of cabbage stained with blood on the bottom. There hangs a dress, torn and stained with semen, which was stripped from the body of a raped woman. No one believes in the myth that if you work hard and save pennies, you will be rich some day. Even capitalists’ cunning ethics, which claim to control greed on the basis of conscience, do not exist there. The sellers intimidate the buyers. In the Korean economic Square, one can see fireworks of threats and intimidation amidst the thick fog of fraud. On the horizon, one can also spy the advertising balloon of vanity floating in the sky.

“And the cultural Square? There, the deadly poisonous flowers are in full blossom and people are intoxicated by their opium-like effect. Men secretly and brashly indulge in their sexual fantasies with their female dancing partners at the cabarets. There are two ways of learning the technique of seducing through dance: private lessons and popular training courses. Those who growl at one another in the political Square offer each other drinks, like accomplices in bars and cabarets located in seedy alleys. Dishonestly obtained money is scattered indiscreetly, and bundles of paper money are thrown in the face of a servile artist playing his violin in the doorway. Female dancers grab the money thrown at them each time they lift their skirts and carefully put the money away in their handbags. The weight of the handbag is the barometer of the dancer’s popularity. They have forgotten their shame long ago because they know they have no other choice.

“Poets abuse their words to the extreme, almost sadistically, to feel catharsis. They do that because they are so poor that they cannot buy women, the real object of this catharsis. The critics ask writers, ‘Do you really claim to have gone through the same experience as Kafka? You’re telling lies, so you are a fake.’ With this, they harass and condemn the Korean Kafka until he is completely ruined. A critic is merely a nickname for a madman obsessed with the delusion that he is superior to writers. The only feeling people have toward these kinds of Squares is distrust.

“Therefore, the most valued thing to them is their own private chamber. They want to at least have this personal space, their last shelter, in which they can take refuge. While people take sanctuary here, there is still the matter of the public Square. There is a riddle that is told: There was the daughter of a corrupt politician who appropriated national funds. However, she has always said how kind he has been to her. Is the man a good father or a bad representative of the people? There is only the selfish individual, no public figure. Only private chambers abound and the Square has died. Each room is set up according to its owner’s social status because, like ants, the owners carry materials in their mouth to furnish them.

“The good father who sent you to France to study! The evil school superintendent who fired a hard-working teacher! The answer to the riddle is a paradox. It is that the good father and the bad public figure are the same person. No one remains in the Square. When the necessary plundering and fraud end, the Square is empty. The Square is dead. Is this not South Korea?”

Chung was listening quietly. He did not agree or retort the entire time Myong-jun had worked himself to a steady fervor. He understood.

He took a cigarette from his silver case, placed it in his mouth, and then offered one to Myong-jun. As he leaned forward to light his cigarette, Myong-jun couldn’t help but notice Chung’s hand holding the lighter. It was trembling slightly.

Geoje Island, which was located in the south of the peninsula, was also like a coffin. It was the coffin where dead soldiers labeled as prisoners of war lay down and fell asleep every night, like sardines in a can. In the prison camp on Geoje Island, Myong-jun was simply one of the helpless fish tied up in a pack. Inside his body, lay coffins within coffins. Nestled in the infinite depths was the mummy’s coffin he saw at Chung’s house. Beyond the emptiness of the mummy’s coffin was yet another coffin—the one in the deepest place in his mind. Suddenly, he realized the empty casing was his. Was this bleak coffin the final destination of my life? He wondered.

This was not a nightmare. This was not a dream, either. Rather, this was a dream from which one could not awake. But was there any difference between a man who was dreaming and a man who was recollecting his dream? Wasn’t it true that when you recollected your dream, you were already floating into the dream itself? In a coffin tied up with barbed wire that floated in the southern sea, Myong-jun tried to piece his life together through a desperate search for his friends in empty houses in desolate Seoul. In his memory, he met his friends and conversed with them. Was the dialogue real or was it the invention of his imagination? He was not so sure. Clinging to his dreams and his memories of dreams, Myong-jun gazed at the southern sea as it bobbed his coffin in the steady current. Every day, he saw a cargo ship gliding on the sea, which resembled blue oil, and embarked at the pier where supply warehouses were located.

Lying flat on his back at the POW camp, Myong-jun was thinking again. He was trying to reach out for his memories of his dreams in his mind’s eye. He remembered flinging one door open after another, from one empty house to the next. The sense of abandonment was rife in communist-occupied Seoul, he recalled. Even as dreams and reality blurred together in his mind, at least his feelings remained steadfastly the same. Yet when he tried to assume responsibility for what happened in his dreams, it was like trying to catch sand in his fingers. It was like the moment when he encountered Eun-hye at the Nakdong River War Front Headquarters. It was like the moment of waking up from his dream—the moment of confusion, disillusionment, and nihilism. He knew what happened at the S police station with Tae-sik and Yun-ae was nothing but his dream. Remembering how vivid the experience was, he was not proud of what he had done. Knowing that he cheated responsibility because it was a dream, he felt relieved and a little guilty. He was a prisoner of his memories. In the POW camp located by the southern sea, he suddenly felt dizzy. He dreamed a dream from which he could not wake.

On the captain’s desk was a rolled-up chart and the compass. The captain himself was not there.

As the ship drew closer to Macau each day, the released POWs once again urged Myong-jun to persuade the captain to let them go ashore. This time, he completely ignored them. He was not shaken at all, even by the discontent and hostility appearing on their faces. He was so fed up from the accumulated stress that he did not want to talk to anyone.

It was at that moment that he remembered the day when the release of the POWs abruptly began. When he heard he could choose a third country, he thought it surely was the right path for him. He didn’t realize at the time how the road would be littered with so many potholes and rocks.

When he heard of the armistice, he felt like falling into a deep quagmire. He did not want to go back to the North. He did not know of his father’s whereabouts during the war. Even when he discovered that his father was alive and well in the North, it was not enough reason for him to go. His father would have had his own way to survive, and the reality was too gloomy and bleak to think of filial piety. It was of no consequence, for the term “family” did not mean much in North Korea. For Myong-jun, there was nobody in North Korea. Even Eun-hye was no longer there. When one belonged to a society, one had a relationship with someone in that society. If there was no one to relate to, that person did not belong in the society anymore. Even worse, Myong-jun had lost faith in North Korean society and thus was afraid of standing in that political Square. The communists he met in the North were not the idealists he had imagined them to be before leaving South Korea. He once thought that communists were miraculous beings and the last guardians of idealism at a time when nothing was left to believe. In his standard-issue notebook, he scribbled down the juxtaposition of Stalinism and Christianity, particularly Catholicism.


Christian Church:

The Garden of Eden


Humans in Original Sin

History of Humans in the Old Testament

Jesus Christ

The Cross


The Pope

The Vatican

The Millennium



Primitive Commune

Private Property System

Humans in Class Society

History of Slavery, Feudal, and Capitalist Society

Karl Marx

Sickle and Hammer



The Kremlin

Communist Paradise


From the memo, Myong-jun found striking similarities between the two. It was undeniable to him that they were twins, in essence.

As a student of philosophy, he could trace it back to Hegel, the mentor of Karl Marx. From the Bible, for example, Hegel undressed the historical clothes, erased the Jewish ethnic color, and extracted a universal formula from it. That is to say, Hegel’s philosophy was like the translation of the Bible into Esperanto. A universal formula, when it is superior, is easy to imitate. Marx re-dressed the naked body Hegel formulated with the clothes of economics and idealism.

As it was difficult to find the pure passion and flawless faith of the early days of Christianity in the modern church, it was equally difficult to find the same passion and faith of the early glory days of communism in modern communism. To the European mind, the Hegelian philosophy was a sweet morphine and poison without an antidote. Likewise, to Myong-jun, his experience in the Stalinist society left him with an indelible scar. He witnessed the hollow mockery of communism. He clearly saw how they worshiped a specter while practicing the rituals of shamanic exorcism. It was a land of shackles and chains, not of brotherhood and community spirit. It was a land of hate and revenge, not of love and forgiveness. It was nothing but a country of the czar that chose Marxism instead of the Bible.

Unfortunately, there had been no Martin Luther in Stalinism. There had been no man rallying the people to reform by defiantly driving the nail into the wooden door of dogma. Those who stood against the Kremlin were all executed, just like those who opposed the Vatican had been burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Their static regimes were still strong. In the Christian church, the second coming of Jesus Christ had been postponed for 2,000 years. In communist countries, the advent of socialist paradise has been postponed for more than 100 years. This was the end of the cliff he could discern. He could not jump over the cliff, nor could he do something about it to solve the problems. In North Korea, it was impossible to discuss this matter with anyone. He knew this even before the war. Thus, he was ready to endure it. He could not give up his life, simply because he could not find the magic spell to unravel the mystery of history. He was going to grit his teeth and find a path, one step at a time.

Then the war broke out and he was taken prisoner. Thinking about the future of ex-POWs in North Korea, Myong-jun lamented his ill fate. In a communist society, he knew it would be impossible for someone who was released from a South Korean POW camp to live the rest of his life peacefully as an ordinary citizen. As someone who came back with imperialist germs, he would be frequently summoned for self-denunciation, whenever necessary. If he would be treated as a leper in the village, what could he do?

This was why he could not go back to the North. Yet, on the other hand, could he bring himself to choose South Korea? In the eyes of Myong-jun, South Korea was nothing but a Square for the people who did not exist, borrowing from Kierkegaard. The fanatical belief in the North was terrifying. But the total absence of faith in the South was equally hollow. Compared to North Korea, one merit of the Square of the South was that it allowed one the freedom to be corrupt and the freedom to be lazy. Indeed, it was the village of freedom. Communism, of late, declined in popularity because it could not define and point to the enemy clearly. Unlike the age of Marx, nowadays it was quite uncertain who the enemy of the people was. Wandering in the labyrinth of the complex social structure, searching for those who were responsible for social evil and poverty, one could not help but give up and go to a fortune-teller instead. In a modern complex society, corrupt people and corporations were so inconspicuous that even experts could not identify them. Yet in North Korea, ordinary people blamed and criticized each other daily. In North Korea, there was no freedom at all. Even the freedom to be idle was not allowed.

Meanwhile in South Korea, politicians were geniuses at making money by giving out numerous permits to breweries, so people could be drunk and intoxicated by alcohol. They turned a deaf ear to the demand from feminist institutions to pass the bill to prohibit prostitution. Their political philosophy was quite sly. They knew what people would do if they were not allowed to release their stress through lecherous ways. Paradoxically, they wanted their children to go to church and study abroad, to become the upright citizens that they were groomed to be. He did not want to go to such a country, either.

Yet he had to make a choice. He heard that Comrade Park Hon-young was arrested. This bad news struck him in the chest. Myong-jun felt like an animal that had been hopelessly cornered. It was precisely at that moment when another option appeared, almost magically, in front of him. A neutral country. It appeared before his eyes like a life-saving rope descending from the sky, ready to be pulled. He still remembered that joyous moment at Panmunjom, when he proudly declared, “A neutral country!” in front of the persuaders.

The persuaders were sitting on the slightly higher platform. The prisoners entered from the left side and exited to the right. Myong-jun entered the room and stood in front of four North Korean army officers and a Chinese official in the people’s uniform. One of the officers gestured to Myong-jun, offering a reassuring smile.

“Sit down, Comrade Lee.”

Myong-jun stiffened and did not move. The officer sighed and began the assessment.

“Which country would you choose, sir?”

“A neutral country.”

The officers’ eyes met in the air. The officer advanced his torso toward Myong-jun and said in a low voice, “Comrade Lee, neutral countries are the same as capitalist countries. Why would you choose a place of hunger and crimes?”

“I want a neutral country.”

“Think again. This is an extremely crucial decision you cannot remake. Why would you give up that important right?”

“A neutral country,” he repeated staunchly.

Another officer tried to persuade him.

“Comrade Lee. The People’s Republic has just passed the bill for veterans’ pension and welfare. You will be given a job above others and be respected as a war hero. The people are waiting for your return. Your hometown will welcome your return as well.”

“A neutral country!” He felt like he could burst into hysterics, delirious from freedom.

The officers gathered and whispered in lukewarm tones. They tried again.

“Look, we fully understand you. We know you’ve been brainwashed by the imperialists in the POW camp. No need to feel guilt, we’re all comrades here. We would not blame you for minor mistakes. Instead, we value your loyalty to your country and people. There will be no retribution at all.”

“A neutral country!” Myong-jun nearly shouted this in his final act of defiance.

The Chinese delegate twisted his face and shouted something that Myong-jun couldn’t understand. The persuading officer stared at Myong-jun in hatred and utter disgust.

“Very well.”

By this time, he was not looking at Myong-jun anymore. His eyes had already landed upon the other prisoner coming in, eager to forget the unpleasantness of what just happened.

Myong-jun walked away feeling slightly lightheaded. He realized the more he said those words to himself, the more free and elated he felt. It was a dizzying high. As he passed a nearby tent for the South Koreans, Myong-jun imagined the shoe on the other foot. He imagined himself standing in front of a different group of men, in a similar situation . . .

“Where are you from, sir?”

Myong-jun would stand in silence.

“Well . . . it says here that you’re from Seoul,” the South Korean officer might say . . . Then, perhaps sensing Myong-jun’s hesitation, he would look up and start his persuasive speech.

“If you want to seek refuge in a neutral country, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s too much of a baseless idea. There is no place like home, you know. All the people who have been abroad say that the best place on earth is your home country. I understand your anger and frustration. Nobody can deny that we are going through difficult times now. But we have freedom in South Korea. Freedom is the most important thing we have now in the South. You’ve been in North Korea and in the POW camp, so you must have realized this, doubly. Human beings were not meant to——”

“A neutral country.”

“We are not forcing you,” the officer would calmly continue. “We just want to give you a piece of advice. I don’t think you realize the consequences of going to a strange new place. On behalf of the 20 million people in South Korea, we urge you to come back home.”

“A neutral country.”

“You’re an intellectual with a higher education. Your country needs you now. Would you forsake your country in times of crisis and leave for another land?”

“A neutral country,” Myong-jun would repeat as a dull echo, his head bent down.

“We understand that intellectuals have more complaints than common folk. But you cannot abandon your body just because there is a tumor. Losing an intellectual like you is worse than losing ten ordinary citizens. There’s so much to be done with our society. And you’re still young! As someone who is older than you, I advise you to return to your homeland and be a cornerstone for your country. I am sure you will be much happier here than going through hardship in a foreign country. Look, I’ll be frank with you. I liked you at first sight. I feel like you’re my brother. If you come to the South, I will personally assist you, how about that?”

At this moment, Myong-jun would lift his chin and look at the ceiling of the tent in silent thought. Finally, he would speak in a low voice as if he were delivering a dramatic monologue.

“A neutral country.”

The persuader would then finally give up and glance at the American GI sitting next to him. The GI would shrug and wink at him, smiling a half-smile. 

pp. 42-44, 136-144


Translated by Kim Seong-Kon
Reprinted with permission from Dalkey Archive Press

Author's Profile

Choi In-hun is one of Korea’s most renowned writers and dramatists. His masterpiece The Square has been translated into eight languages, including English, French, Spanish, and German. He attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1973, and the play he wrote during this time, Once upon a Long Time Ago, became the first Korean play to be staged at the Playhouse Theatre in New York City. He has received the Dongin Literary Award, Baeksang Arts Award, Chungang Culture Grand Prize, and Lee San Literature Prize. English editions of his works include A Grey Man, Reflections on a Mask, The Daily Life of Ku-Poh the Novelist, and House of Idols.