Your Republic Is Calling You
- onNovember 10, 2014
- Vol.8 Summer 2010
- byKim Young-ha
- Your Republic is Calling You
Tr. Chi-Young Kim 2010326pp.
Your Republic Is Calling You tells the story of a spy who receives a mysterious calling to return back “home” to the North. He has 24-hours to gather up the loose ends of his bourgeois life in the South.
In the 1980s, when Ki-yong was in college, South Korea was closer to North Korea than it was to today’s South. Jobs were guaranteed for life and college students never worried about their futures. The banks and conglomerates, with their lobbies of imported marble, seemed indestructible. Adult children took care of their parents and respected them. The president was chosen by a huge margin, through indirect election, and the opposition party existed only in name. Most people weren’t too interested in the world beyond South Korea’s borders. The North’s motto, “Let’s Live Our Way,” described South Korea during the 1980s. In redistributing resources, the government’s whim was more powerful than market principles, so government employees were severely corrupted by rampant bribes and fraudulent dealings, just like in the North. All students, whether they were in high school or college, were in the government-controlled students’ national defense corps, heading to school a few times a week in drill uniforms. And once a month the entire citizenry would participate in civil defense drills. The capitals of both countries would turn pitch black once every few months for the mandatory blackout drills, initiated to better prepare for possible air raids.
The South today is nothing like the South of the 1980s. Today’s South is actually a completely different country, one that morphed organically into something different from the North. Now it’s probably more like Singapore or France. Married couples don’t feel the need to have children, the per capita income is around twenty thousand dollars, the futures of banks and large conglomerates aren’t set in stone, tens of thousands of foreigners arrive every year to marry Koreans and to obtain jobs, and elementary school students fly out of Inchon International Airport daily to study English abroad. Russian guns are sold in Pusan, sex partners are found online, people watch live broadcasts of the Winter Olympics on their cell phones, San Franciscan Ecstasy is transported in FedEx boxes, and half the Korean population invests in mutual funds. The president, humorless and unable to laugh off satire, is the target of jeers, and a party representing the workers was elected to the National Assembly for the first time after liberation from the Japanese occupation. If Ki-yong had predicted that the South would change like this in twenty years, he would have been treated like he was crazy.
Sitting on a red plastic Lotteria chair in Chongno -o-ga, Ki-yong thinks about the three countries he’s lived in. North Korea, the South of the 1980s and 1990s, and the South of the twenty-first century. One is already a relic of history. He is standing at a fork in the road of his life. Which should he choose, the North or the South? For the first time in his life, he wants to kneel in front of someone and ask: What would you do? No, he would just ask, What do you think I should do? For the past twenty years, he’s believed that he was working a job that was a little more dangerous than your average one. In a world filled with large-scale layoffs and series of bankruptcies, collapses of department stores and bridges and fires in the subways, he didn’t think that his life as a forgotten spy was that perilous. But he forgot about his destiny, which hadn’t forgotten about him, just like Paul Bourget’s poem that stated, “One must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived.”
The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Your Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.