Seoul, the Day After: Séoul zone interdite by Jung Myeong Seop

  • onJune 20, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byNils C. Ahl
Séoul zone interdite (Seoul off Limits)
Tr. Hwang Jihae & Julien Paolucci

In these uncertain geopolitical times and after several years of international tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the remarkable détente of spring 2018 is an invitation, by way of contrast, to discover this extraordinary work by Jung Myeong Seop. In the prelude to his novel, the author imagines a sudden escalation of violence in Pyongyang in late winter 2022, ending with a devastating exchange of nuclear missiles a few weeks later. The South Korean capital is laid to waste, the government and presidency are wiped out—and yet the tragedy is only just beginning. Amid the ruins of Seoul, the dead are returning to life. Tens, soon hundreds, of thousands of the living dead begin to pursue the survivors. The army has no choice but to surround the city and put it under lockdown. Seoul becomes a restricted area, visited only by gangs of heavily armed “treasure hunters.” It is only at this point that the main plot of the novel begins.

Jung’s novel joins the ranks of what we might call literature of “the day after”: a dystopian theme whose most famous precedent in terms of imagining a world overrun by the living dead might be Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend. But rather than focusing on the exciting events leading up to the catastrophe, Jung prefers to imagine the consequences. More than just political or social fiction, this is an adventure and action novel in which the characters have no choice but to suffer a nightmarish global situation without any clear prospect of changing it. Hyunjun, the story’s main character, a kind-hearted “treasure hunter,” finds himself caught up in a conspiracy much bigger than himself. His first priority is to survive, both physically and mentally. It is only as the plot develops that the reader begins to sense what is really happening, and the possible implications of the spiral of scheming, violence, and horror that soon fill the pages of the book.

The slow progress of the plot, before its acceleration in the final third of the novel, can be explained by the author’s desire to evoke an imaginary and tragic situation in as much detail as possible. To do so, he describes the various “missions” undertaken by Hyunjun on behalf of his “clients,” who ask him to recover precious items from the off-limits area—personal items, parts of themselves that the bombs have stripped away. At times, the reader may even wonder where the story is going or whether these sections are not more akin to short stories or episodes in a serial. But the novelist knows when to pick up the pace. In a skillful balancing act, he paints the background and secondary characters of his tableau before launching into the key scene. In doing so, what we earlier called the literature of the “day after” becomes the literature of “today,” speaking to our contemporary anxieties and our fear of catastrophe. This is particularly apt on the Korean Peninsula, where the terrible risk of mutual annihilation, a legacy of the Cold War, persists in an almost absurd (but clearly terrifying) manner. Absurd and terrifying—just like the idea of Seoul being overrun by zombies.

In art, the grotesque and the macabre have always gone hand in hand. In another era, and on the other side of the Eurasian continent, after the Black Death wiped out millions of people in the space of five years in the mid-fourteenth century, the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw the rise of a morbid and terrifying art that was both moral and ironic, populated by skeletons, ghosts, and other forms of the undead. It was the era of the danse macabre, of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Triumph of Death, and of the masterpieces of Dürer and Grien that depicted morbid images merging individual death and the apocalypse in a single terrifying vision. This is the shiver that runs through the reader of Séoul zone interdite. Its characters are not pleasant; they are not trying to be heroes. They are ordinary people who are hostages to an extraordinary situation, facing nothing but Death: thieves and assassins who are cynical, sexist, and desperate. They are a reflection of our future selves if such a catastrophe arises—or rather, when it arises. 


by Nils C. Ahl
Writer, Editor, Literary Critic