On the Other Side of the Border: Shame by Chon Su-chan

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • bySeungmi
羞恥 (Shame)
Tr. Mariko Saito

The main characters in Shame by Chon Su-chan are North Korean refugees, and the ostensible subject is the Korean War and division, but this novel is truly about the problems of modern nihilism. How can people who know true shame go on living? This is what Won-gil wonders as he walks through a dark tunnel. “Where are you going?” He’s following his friend Young-nam, who has left on a train, and he’s already lost his other friend, Dong-baek. The three fled North Korea and lost their families in the process. The shame of their own lives being built upon that sacrifice eats away at their hearts.

Life and death. Inside and outside. Light and dark. The past and future. Reality and illusion. This text depicts a wealth of oppositions. There is a clear difference between how Young-nam and Won-gil see these oppositions. Young-nam tells Won-gil countless times that he should go on living. That’s why he moves to Gangwon Province and tries to start a new life. He has chosen life. And by choosing one half of a binary opposition, he tries to move beyond that binary. To Won-gil, on the other hand, to live is nothing more than a shadow play. Even the things close to him he cannot touch. He cannot submit to living in reality. On nights he can’t sleep, overcome by the emptiness of living, he imagines a “somewhere” that is not here. He does not choose life or death. He has no aim. He is lost in a spiral of nihilism.

The town Young-nam has relocated to is chosen as the site for the Winter Olympic Games. Amidst the town,s redevelopment, a vast number of human remains from the Korean War are unearthed in the suburbs. When the government announces that they were victims of a massacre by the North Korean military, the town whips itself into a fury. Conflict arises between the groups demanding that the government recognize the deaths as the fault of the American military, and those that prioritize the economy and further development over truth. While Won-gil looks on this conflict unmoved, Young-nam is furious that neither group recognizes the “real truth.” He claims that the “truth” is that “innocent people have died.” One may think that Young-nam has not chosen a side. However, by arguing that there is a “real truth,” he has committed the error of dividing reality into “true” and “false.” Young-nam cannot help but bifurcate the world and designate only part of it as true.

“Supposing that truth is a woman—what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women?” In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche mocks all the philosophers who assume truth exists and continue to seek it through its opposition to falsehood. Similarly, he goes on to point out that the values of good and evil are also defined through opposition. Young-nam, with his insistence on the “real truth,” is just such a dogmatist. This is precisely why the text takes a comic turn when he puts on a “confession play” to atone for his past and placate the spirits of the dead.

Of course the “confession play” will end in failure. Such a confession serves to make apparent Young-nam’s division of self and others. By creating within himself an “internal truth which must be confessed to an Other,” he produces another opposition. Young-nam continues to see the world through binaries and can’t stop himself from choosing one side over the other.

To do nothing: while that may seem to be a sort of powerlessness, can’t one also read it as the will to stand between the two terms of a binary and thus defuse that opposition? To choose one or the other like Young-nam is simply to be sucked back into that opposition. Young-nam’s attempt to connect to the other through confession ultimately leads to his death. This is the trap of the binary opposition. This is why Won-gil refuses to belong to either side of these oppositions, and thus renders them meaningless.

Won-gil lives on the plane of nihilism: a place where there is no truth or falsehood, no good or evil, no life or death, but only meaningless, valueless phenomena. Yet, it is only Won-gil—who dreams not of a new life or the old life, but of an “unknown” elsewhere—who accepts the sacrifice of his family, death, life, and the future. It is only Won-gil who manages to go on living. But this book is not just about him. It presents a fundamental question about how modern people live. And in the present moment, when North and South Korea are trying to open a new road to peace, powerful works like this one demand to be read.


by Seungmi
Translator, Book Reviewer