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FICTION

Seoul, 2016, Five Years after Korean Unification: The Private Life of the Nation by Lee Eung Jun

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byLee Wangku
The Private LIfe of the Nation
2009
261pp.

Sixty-six years after division, North and South Korea are suddenly reunited. But how will the gulf be overcome between the ideologically overzealous North and the thoroughly materialist, capitalist South? This novel gives a vivid portrayal of the imaginary near future.

Talk of Korean reunification gives rise to ambiguous feelings among South Korean citizens. On the surface they might say that it is what they dream of and wish for, but inside lie the fears about what might happen if reunification actually took place. Lee Eung-joon’s novel, The Private Life of the Nation, is set in an imaginary unified Korea. What will it be like? How will the people think? Lee’s novel gratifies the curiosity of South Koreans living in today’s era of national division.

Reunification comes unexpectedly upon North and South Korea in May 2011, 66 years after national division. The scale of the chaos following this premature reunification is incomparably greater than that of Germany 20 years earlier. The 1.2 million former members of the disbanded North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) form a social underclass or gather into gangs of thugs. The huge number of North Koreanmade conventional weapons that disappeared, one way or another, in the clumsy process of disarmament has made Korea, which previously had no gun crime, into something like an LA slum. Wealthy South Koreans head for the North, each fighting to buy up as much of the neglected land there as possible, while a string of lawsuits is initiated by Southerners trying to get back the land they owned in the North before the Korean War. Women formerly of North Korea’s ruling class fall into jobs like bar work and cleaning; in the South, meanwhile, the population is so tightly gripped by panic that rumors circulate that a homicidal maniac is going around scooping out and eating the hearts of Southerners.

The novel is set in 2016, five years after reunification, and depicts the betrayal, conspiracy, and fierce power struggles that go on inside the Daedonggang (the river that runs through Pyeongyang, the former North Korean capital) society, made up of former members of the KPA. The society is led by three strong characters: The boss, O Namcheol, has shown the prowess of his business skills after unification by taking Kim Jong-il’s secret overseas stash of assets and using it as capital to start up his operations. He has now risen to become the godfather of the underworld in the South. A madman reminiscent of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, O harbors dark designs to incite an uprising by North Korean-born refugees in the South on the “Day of the Sun” (April 15; birthday of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung). Former army officer Ree Gang, the group’s second-in-command, is the grandson of one of the founding fathers of North Korea and used to head an ultraelite military unit there. Unable to cope with the disparity between the ideological fervour of his former homeland and the reality of out-and-out materialist capitalism in the South, Ree has turned to drugs. Cho Myeong-do, third-in-command, was of abysmally low social status under the North Korean system of grading its citizens, but has driven his way relentlessly to the top, thanks to his unswerving loyalty to the boss. A nasty, hard-hearted character that treats those close to him as slaves and those not close enough as enemies, Cho’s insecurities concerning his background lead him to clash with Ree Gang at every opportunity.

With its hyperrealist portrayal of a perfectly plausible near future, this novel is a warning that, without mutual understanding between North and South, reunification will not be a rosy dream but will come upon both sides as a disaster. The work also achieves universality, thanks to its in-depth depiction of the suffering faced by people thrown suddenly into the dehumanizing reality of capitalism.

Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the skill with which Lee, who is also a film director, depicts a cruel world of violence, where those showing disloyalty to the group are done away with on the quiet and their bodies incinerated, like a well-directed film noir. Lee’s capacity to sublimate the spectacle of a raw, flesh-on-flesh fistfight into poetic sentences, like, “His failed handiwork described a curve, disappearing into the darkness, and was soon replaced by a new one, flying back out of it. Ree’s rhythm collapsed; he was left floundering,” is enough to draw admiration. In an interview following the publication of this work, the author explained by saying “Reunification brings us misfortune. But I wanted the book to say ‘I (South/North) was happy to meet you (North/South)’.” 

Author's Profile

Lee Eung Jun (b.1970) is a poet and novelist. He first published a poem in the quarterly journal Literature & Criticism in 1990, and debuted as a novelist in 1994 when his short story appeared in the quarterly magazine Imagination. His published works include the poetry collection The Trees Rejected the Forest; a short story collection titled My Girlfriend’s Funeral; the novels Private Life of the Nation and All About My Romance; and the serialized novel Night CelloLemon Tree is a 40-minute long film written and directed by Lee that screened at the New York Asian American International Film Festival and at the Paris International Short Film Festival in 2008.