Conflicted Souls within a Divided Korea: The Square by Choi In-hun

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.3 Spring 2009
  • byJung Yeo-ul
The Square
Tr. Kim Seong-Kon

After the first printing in 1961, this book has sold over ten-thousand copies each year, reaching up to sixty printings. When we talk about Korean history, one horrific event that can never be left out is the Korean War. And the first thing that comes to mind when we think about that terrible war is Choi In-hun’s work, The Square. The open square is not just a symbol of division but an ideological symbol that compresses the discussion of modern Korean history. The crux of The Square, which contrasts North and South Korea through the metaphor of open squares versus secret rooms, is that Korean history is not just a topic to be discussed but a compression of the universal conflicts of modern people.

“Back when individuals’ secret rooms and open squares were permeable,” thought the protagonist Lee Myong-jun, “people were at ease. When kings and commoners had only open spaces without secret rooms, the world was at peace. But trouble began when the division opened up between secret rooms and open squares. When people can no longer find open squares to inquire into life, what will they do?"

Lee is a university student studying philosophy when he becomes a victim of history without regard for his own will. His father appears in North Korean messages broadcast towards the South, and as a result, Myong-jun is arrested and beaten. Because of his father’s political choices, he is driven to the left-wing of Korean society, and in the end, he decides to cross over into North Korea. South Korea, which was rapidly transformed into a capitalist society, comes to feel like a “giant secret room” that pushes people to indulge in personal desires. Lee Myong-jun, who went off in search of a giant community symbolized by the “open square,” is confronted by a reality in North Korea that is completely different from his expectations. To his eyes, North Korea is not an “open square” filled with the energy of a free community, but an oppressive society maintained by orders and obedience. Though he falls in love with Un-hye, he is dismayed when she leaves for Moscow, following the Party’s orders. Lee Myong-jun dreams of finding the freedom that he couldn’t experience in the South, but he is unable to find fulfillment on the other side as well.

At length, he joins in the war and experiences the clash between the “giant secret room” (South Korea) and the “giant open square” (North Korea). But even in the war, he is unable to find his new life purpose. In the end, he is captured as a prisoner of war and must make one final choice. Ordered to choose between North and South Korea, he declares woodenly that he chooses a “neutral state.” But the state he refers to is not one that can be found on a map, but the neutral state of his dreams that he can never reach (one in which individuals’ lives are not determined by ideology).

It seems nowadays that the age of ideology so hated by Lee Myong-jun has come to an end in Korea. But because the “giant secret room” (hotbed of individualism) has gone unchecked, it is possible that it has nearly become a society that could be mistaken for a “giant open square.” In this light, Lee Myong-jun’s tragic criticism of Korean society in the 1960s continues without end. 

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.