A World History of Second Sons
- onJune 20, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byLee Kiho
- A World History of Second Sons
Tr. Jae Won Chung 2014310pp.
Here’s a story from the era of General Chun Doo-hwan—one of the more preposterous dictators to have ruled our land.
Thirty odd years have passed since these events transpired. Yet as the fate of our protagonist-hero demonstrably shows, sometimes it makes no difference at all that entire decades have gone by. Today he’s still a wanted man, just as he was then. His name: Na Bogmahn. Na was twenty-nine when the order came down for his arrest. If he’s alive somewhere, he’s got to be over sixty by now. He was chased through his thirties. He spent his forties trying to shake his foes. In his fifties, he always had to watch his back. This is how the years passed him by, with his shoulders hunched forward, as if preparing to confront a violent gust of wind in an alleyway. Later, even when he’s seventy or eighty, he’ll be living out his years as a wanted man. Now that I think about it, maybe the real protagonist of this story isn’t Na Bogmahn, but what it means to be “a wanted man.” What I mean is, if these unfortunate incidents that befell Na Bogmahn had happened to you or me over so many decades (you, me, or any one of us really), we would’ve had no choice but to become another Na Bogmahn. Even if it had happened to General Chun himself . . . Thirty years later I can tell you that much still hasn’t changed.
That’s the story I’m here to tell.
Now listen to this.
Five days after General Chun Doo-hwan was elected president in Jangchung Gymnasium in Seoul on August 27, 1980 (the votes were not cast directly, but through delegates. He received 2,524 out of 2,525 votes. The remaining vote was a case of abstention), he took office as the eleventh president of the Republic of Korea on September 1 (the inauguration ceremony was held in Jamsil Gymnasium. The general did have an unusual passion for physical discipline). He was forty-nine years old with four children.
A year prior, General Chun had been just another run-of-the-mill major. How on earth, then, did he wind up on the path to dictatorship? This was because, unbeknownst to himself, Chun had been turned into the hero of a noir. He was really without precedent in world history: a detective in the middle of conducting an investigation who was inaugurated as president. The case he’d been put in charge of investigating was none other than the shooting death of another dictator: Park Chung-hee. Chun devoted himself to the case with his heart and soul, as if he himself had been directly victimized by the incident (maybe because the case involved the very president who had pinned all those precious stars and medals to his chest). His devotion was of such magnitude that he wound up rounding up all of his immediate superiors who had nothing to do with the case and detaining them. Still, his eagerness to see the job through was undiminished because he concluded the investigation by assuming the office of the victim (an investigator should always examine a case through the mentality of the victim. Only then can he understand the case properly). That is why he became president. What is the core tenet of a noir narrative? Isn’t the very skeleton of the noir genre a situation in which a man, who, by some accident, is entangled in some unforeseeable event, ends up losing his self and station? General Chun was investigating the murder of a dictator and ended up a dictator himself. (A few days before taking office, the general shared his sentiment in a New York Times interview: “I will not evade my destiny.” Noir protagonists have a knack for spouting these memorable lines in a subdued voice before drawing their guns.) If he’d investigated the murder of a CEO, he would’ve probably become that same firm’s CEO. If the case had been about the killing of a homeless person, Chun might’ve ended up homeless himself (he wouldn’t have evaded his destiny).
He was an investigator trapped in noir.
Listen very carefully.
What was hard to wrap your head around was the US’s response to these events. When everyone was thinking that we could finally breathe a little easier now that the dictator who’d seized power for eighteen years had keeled over, some baldy investigator we’d never seen before ends up assuming the last guy’s position (Chun’s lack of hair, by the way, is the sole point of discrepancy when comparing him to other heroes of noir. It was as if Mini-Me from the Austin Powers series ended up playing the role of the detective). It was only natural that the citizens would be up in arms. In one city in the southern part of the peninsula, the people occupied the police departments and public offices so that Chun’s commands could no longer be carried out (the people were chanting from dawn to nightfall, “Chun Doo-hwan, be gone!”). So our hero had no choice but to deploy an army to round up the citizens (detectives always make the arrest first; the proof of guilt comes after). There was one problem. The operational command of the South Korean military did not belong to the president of ROK at the time. The power lay with the commander of the US military stationed in South Korea after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 (even in the present day—2014—operational command still lies with the commander of US military stationed in the ROK). This meant that any matter regarding the mobilization and maneuvering of the South Korean military requires approval by US command. When our noir hero requested the airborne troops to suppress the rebellion, John Wickam, the commanding officer of the US Armed Forces in South Korea, gave his approval, or decided to look the other way (still, you don’t actually believe a decision like this would be left to Wickam himself, do you?) and as a result, Wickam ended up playing a direct and indirect role in a catastrophe in which, according to official records, 191 people were murdered (non-official accounts show up to eight times that number) and 852 others were injured. What did this all mean? What kind of signal did this give to the people of Republic of Korea? Indeed, the noir genre must have a special place in the heart of the United States, our eternal ally, and President Carter must really have a thing for investigators. After all, not long before that, an installment of the 007 franchise had been released (The Spy Who Loved Me). Since then, all of South Korea reverted to recognizing our noir protagonist as our leader (what choice did we have? Otherwise we’d have the South Korean army pounding on our doors). That’s how we ended up with these strangely memorable election results—2,524 out of 2,525 voting in favor—the kind that makes you wonder why they even bothered holding the election in the first place. As soon as General Chun was elected, President Carter sent a congratulatory message in a spirit of encouragement, and our dictator, ever so moved by this gesture, personally wrote a card congratulating Carter’s fifty-sixth birthday, displaying their shared affection for the whole world to see. Not having seen the card personally, I can’t say for sure, but it probably said something along the lines of:
Thanks, Big Brother! And keep those Bond flicks coming.