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.
Now listen very carefully.
Our dictator couldn’t shake his shitty habits when he became president, and went on investigating and rounding up people so he could keep ruling over the country. From August of 1980 to January of 1981, he arrested 60,755 people without a warrant. (First you make the arrests.) Of these, 3,252 were submitted for trial. (Then you fabricate guilt.) Then 39,742 were sent without trial to Samcheong Re-Education Camp, a facility specializing in “carpentry” and “gymnastics.” (Then you make them internalize their guilt as theirs.) Our dictator reserved a particular loathing for university students (he thought they talked shit about him any chance they could get). From 1981 to 1983, he disenrolled a little over 1,400 students from their universities. In one instance, he set an unprecedented record of arresting every single one of the 1,525 student protestors occupying a college building (he ended up detaining 1,259 of them). He became a pioneer in cutting-edge investigatory techniques, such as planting moles and plain-clothes officers in university campuses, promoting a climate of suspicion, betrayal, hostility, and backstabbing between students, students and professors, and even among professors. Every year, a number of students took their own lives or were committed to mental institutions. The prosecutors, the police, and the National Security Agency seemed to be competing to rack up case files and arrest counts, so much so that the detention centers and prisons were always filled to capacity. The overworked prison guards kept watch over the jail cells with blood-shot eyes. All the while, our dictator continued scribbling congratulatory cards to US presidents (he sent off another one when Reagan became president) and tried his best to cope with the fate he’d been dealt.
Listen very closely.
On March 18, 1982, our dictator would face an ordeal. As a result, our other protagonist Na Bogmahn would begin his protracted life as a wanted man. This was none other than the burning of the US Cultural Center in Busan, which happens to be the second biggest city in the ROK. Moon Busik, Kim Eunsuk, Yu Seungryeol, among other college students from the region (six in all), used four plastic water bottles, thirty liters of gasoline, and a pair of chopsticks to reduce the two-story building (including a basement floor) to ashes. Our dictator went into a fit of rage, agitation, trembling of the hands, madness, heart palpitations, vertigo, the temptation to smoke and piss himself, all at once (a few strands of what remained of his hair fell out as well). Why? Well, that building belonged to none other than his American Big Brother to whom he’d personally written those cards. When it seemed barely enough to be constantly kissing up to Big Brother, he’d torched the guy’s house down. (What was worse, the arsonists had scattered flyers all over downtown Busan with messages such as “US, Stop Protecting a Dictatorial Regime!” and “Stop Turning South Korea into America’s Vassal State!” before vanishing without a trace.) Our dictator was back at it as a noir hero, investigating the incident. Off the bat, he mobilized around 70,000 personnel in pursuit of these six suspects, and this must not have satisfied him, since he followed up by mobilizing additional reserve troops and non-military personnel to chase down six (not sixty or sixteen, but six) young suspects. The reward went up in increments of 10 million won per day, while the newspapers were plastered with articles and columns of lamentation to the effect of, “How could they have done this to our dearest eternal ally?” It’s no wonder that South Korea became a nation of investigators, and the whole country began to look like the set of a noir film. It’s hard to keep your calm after a building that’s got your older brother’s name on it has been burned to the ground.
On March 30 of the same year, four of the arsonists were captured (based on a tip from an ordinary citizen), and the main culprits Moon Busik and Kim Eunsuk—upon the urging of Father Choi Kisik, who was overseeing the Wonju Catholic Cultural Center where the suspects were hiding out—decided to turn themselves in. Moon Busik was twenty-three years old at the time. Kim Eunsuk was twenty-four. Fourteen days had passed since the incident’s outbreak. It was a cloudy April Fool’s Day.
Now that the core members of the plot had been apprehended and the story behind their plot more or less revealed, people were thinking things were going to go back to normal. But these people had another thing coming. Are you kidding me? our noir hero bellowed. The investigation hasn’t even gotten started! Then he started sniffing around the life of Father Choi Kisik—the man who had urged the suspects to surrender. The gist of Chun’s curiosity was this: “When the culprits sought you out at the Catholic Cultural Center on March 29, why did you provide them with food and shelter, effectively hiding them from the law, rather than turning them in at once? Maybe you’re involved in this as well . . .?” Father Choi answered, “It wouldn’t have mattered what the position was. I could not have reported them. It was no different than a confession you see . . .” If you think the noir hero responded to this by saying something like, “Hm, confession you say . . . I guess I can see how you could come to that conclusion,” then you truly are living in an innocent world full of beautiful dandelions. Plus, you have totally underestimated the untiring tenacity of our dictator. The grandeur of our noir hero’s magnanimity and courage was such that he wouldn’t have stopped at putting the Almighty God Himself in handcuffs if it would mean there would be Peace and Prosperity in the mighty house of our Big Brother. On April 8, without batting an eye, President Chun locked up Father Choi for the harboring of criminals and violating the National Security Law. Our noir hero said: “How dare you put religious law above secular law?” (Our noir hero would’ve said the same if he’d been talking to Bishop Myriel from Les Misérables. Fuck off, basically.) And not stopping there, he kept on with his search like a trawling boat sweeping the seafloor clean, rounding up the manager of the Catholic Farmer’s Association who’d been helping with Father Choi’s work, a bookstore owner who frequented the Cultural Center, and even the building’s boiler guy for good measure.
Bring someone else with you and listen.
Since our noir hero seemed to consider himself in the same “weight class” as God Almighty Himself, his underlings couldn’t bring themselves to leave work at quitting time and sat around in front of the TV clipping their toenails. This was the situation for the detectives in the Intelligence Bureau of the Wonju Police Station. Because of all the reporters who’d camped out at the station for days on end, and the staff of the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP) and detectives affiliated with the Headquarters of National Police, they couldn’t even sit at their desks and had to resort to leaning on the window ledge or tending to their affairs while crouching on the long bench where the suspects would normally be waiting in handcuffs. The place was always noisy from the flicking of lighters, the ringing of the phone, the tapping of the typewriter, the chatter of conversations, the beating of boots on the floor, the smacking of gum from the ladies delivering coffee, and someone slamming the table for no apparent reason, and because over twenty people would exhale tobacco smoke and because the ANSP staff never took off their sunglasses (though they were inside), it always felt dark. This situation continued from April 1 until April 8, which was when Father Choi was officially brought into custody. Superintendent Kwag Yongpil, who was the Wonju Police’s Bureau of Public Information chief, gave briefings twice a day—10 a.m. and 3 p.m.—and met with reporters to let them know how the investigation was progressing. And he also held briefings—every 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.—where he held meetings with the detectives who were involved in the case. So it must have been on one of the days of this week that the other hero of our story, Na Bogmahn, who was a first-year driver for the Safe Taxi Service in Tangu-dong, briefly stopped by the Wonju Police Station (most probably April 5 or 6.) At the time, he was at the station for about 30 minutes, and as business was dealt with faster than anticipated, he was able to leave through the front door with a lightness in his steps. And it was because of these 30 minutes, he ended up having to live the life of a wanted man for the next thirty years. Jean Valjean stole a silver candlestick from Bishop Myriel, but it wasn’t as though our hero Na tried to steal a typewriter or something—in fact, he didn’t lay his finger on so much as a pen, a scrap of paper, eraser, or lighter. What was his crime then, that doomed him to a fate of becoming a wanted man for all those years?
This is my story’s main concern. Maybe the answer is already quite clear. Since it’s the convention of noir to embark on a journey to discover what is very obvious, I suppose we have no choice but to proceed anyway. After all, Victor Hugo wasn’t spared this task either.
Now listen with a slow, leisurely heart.
Na Bogmahn, contrary to what his name literally means in Korean (“Nothing but luck for me”), was truly a guy without a single iota of good fortune. The reason he paid a visit to the Wonju Police Station was because of a minor traffic accident he’d gotten involved in during the early morning hours the day before yesterday.
Around five o’clock that morning, Na Bogmahn’s light-green taxi (a Pony) got the signal to make a left at the Wonju Medical Center intersection and was involved in a minor collision with a bicyclist who had tried crossing the street in spite of the red light. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the streets were still dark and no other cars were on the road. Since it hadn’t been long since oil prices had spiked, the street lamps had all been shut off. It was the season for forsythias to bloom, but the early morning wind still had teeth, so that Na Bogmahn gripped the steering wheel in a thick navy jumper emblazoned with the taxi company logo. He had the zipper pulled all the way up to his chin. According to company policy, the heating had to be kept off so he was wearing two layers of cotton work gloves.
Na Bogmahn slammed on the brakes and for a good while did nothing but stare ahead through the windshield. Since he was rounding a corner, he hadn’t been moving fast, but a feeling of something squishy had shot through his ankle bone, the cartilage of his knee, the curve of his buttocks, his waist, shoulders and wrists. The taxi’s headlights shone against the spinning spokes of the bicycle, confusing his eyes. Ever since he’d started driving a taxi, he’d never violated a traffic signal, sped, or even committed a parking offense. The idea that a taxi driver would have such a spotless record might be doubtful to all of you, but this is Na Bogmahn we’re talking about (we might say this is Na in a nutshell). He sat there as still as a tree, gripping the steering wheel.
How long did he sit like this? (Actually, it wasn’t very long, but for Na it felt like an eternity.) A dark shape emerged in the headlights to pick up the fallen bicycle. Only then did Na cut the engine and hurry out of the car for a look.
He was just a boy, small in stature, with his hair cropped short. Maybe in middle school. He had on his school-uniform trousers with a black jumper. Before Na could get any closer, the boy crouched down by the taxi, trying to yank out a pile of newspapers that had gotten lodged under a wheel. All the while, he kept checking the time on his watch.
“Hey, kid. You alright?”
Na reached out to hold the bicycle with one hand and asked the boy whose face, lit by the headlights, showed blooming patches of psoriasis.
“Would you mind backing up a bit?” the boy said without even looking at Na. The boy was wearing the same kind of work gloves—made of cotton, the palms reinforced with a coat of red rubber.
As soon as Na started the engine and backed up, the boy loaded the back of the bicycle with the bundle of newspapers. He limped toward the other side of the street. Maybe there was something wrong with the handle, because instead of getting on the bike, he walked it forward as he hobbled along, making sure to keep an eye on the newspaper heap. Na Bogmahn remained sitting in the driver’s seat, watching the kid as he walked off. Still in the car, he lowered the window a little and called out a few more times, “Hey kid, you really okay?” (though his voice did seem to become smaller in deference to the boy’s shrinking size). After the boy had completely vanished into the dark, he got out of the taxi and for a long time ran his hand over the front bumper and the headlight to see if there were any scratches or dents. Except for a hairline crack on the headlight, there didn’t seem to be any damage. Na looked across the street again to where the boy had vanished. He then looked to his left and right as well. As before, there wasn’t a single person or a car in sight. He quickly hopped back in the driver’s seat and steered the taxi back to where he lived. Back home, he fell into a long, dreamless sleep. That was it. This is everything that happened on that early morning, without omission or embellishment.
(Excerpt from pp. 11–24.)
Translated by Jae Won Chung
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Lee Kiho (b. 1972) is the author of two novels, At Least We Can Apologize (2009) and A World History of Second Sons (2014), and six short story collections, including Choi Sun-duk: Filled with the Holy Spirit (2004) and Who’s Doctor Kim? (2013). At Least We Can Apologize was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013 and in Romanian by Editura Univers in 2017. Lee teaches creative writing at Gwangju University.