On My Twentieth-Century Trilogy
- onMarch 10, 2016
- Vol.31 Spring 2016
- byHwang Sok-yong
I was born in 1943 in Changchun, Manchuria—an area that was occupied by imperial Japan at the time. Around the time of my birth, the fascist powers-that-be had been driven out by the strategic cooperation of the socialist and capitalist camps. Throughout the world, the nations that had favored direct rule and the tenets of imperialism gave every sign of backing off. In point of fact, however, these countries remained chained, militarily speaking, to the politics and economy of their former suzerain states.
In our country, America took the position that had formerly been held by Japan. As was already the case in many countries in Latin America and Asia, revolution, the Cold War, military dictatorship, poverty, civil war, and oppression came to represent life for much of the Second and Third Worlds during this time. Upon Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, my family was living in the North, in the city of Pyongyang. It was only when the political administration that favored the division of North and South came into power that my father was given a job and we all moved down south. As soon as I entered elementary school, the Korean War erupted around us and with it, the skeleton of the Cold War infrastructure that Europe imposed upon Asia finally reached completion.
The administration of the South, having set forth anti-communism and pro-Americanism as its most basic ideology, soon metamorphosed into a military dictatorship following the onset and resolution of several crises. The first show of resistance to this regime came in the form of the “Student Revolution”on April 19th, 1960. I, too, participated in this
demonstration. My generation became the first to grow up hidden behind the backs of adults, peeking out at the horror of a race of people bent on killing one another. We were the first to reach adolescence and find ourselves ready to take the establishment head-on. We were called the “April 19 Generation,” and, at times, the “Korean Generation,” a testament to our role as the first generation to be educated in our native tongue after liberation from the Japanese. Our generation was also the first of the modern age to have grown up with the goal of achieving a universal democratic state and overthrowing the Cold War-imposed division of North and South as an intrinsic facet of our very identity.
During my college years I fought against the military regime over issues such as the Korean-Japanese Summit of 1965, and when I was called upon to serve my term of mandatory military service, I found myself dragged off to fight in the Vietnam War. As to the real difference between the generation of our fathers—recruited and drafted into service by the Japanese to further their aspirations of Asian dominance—and our generation, packed off to Vietnam to help realize America’s Cold War dreams of instituting a Pax-Americana in Southeast Asia? We ourselves have no idea.
Upon my return from Vietnam and my discharge from military service, I reentered the Korean literary community and found myself face to face with the effects of the military regime. Working in factories and rural communities, I began to actively take part in the nation-wide popular movements, which led to my participation in the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. This incident was soon followed by similar popular movements for democratization in countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia: in essence, what the sixties were to the West, the eighties were for Asia.
In the aftermath of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, I left Korea to attend “The Third World Cultural Festival,” which was held in Berlin. I then began to work towards founding a cultural organization for Koreans living abroad, visiting countries like Germany, America, and Japan. During the course of these activities I met a number of Korean political figures in exile. As a part of this process, I had the occasion to visit North Korea. For this, I was to experience exile and imprisonment.
More than sixty years have now passed since the Korean War, and even after two meetings of the South-North Summit, we are still unable to identify the exact nature of this war. This is because we remain divided, maintaining what is not peace but a truce.
The Shadow of Arms
It was in the eighties, in the midst of this maelstrom of change, that I published the work that would mark the end of the first half of my literary career: The Shadow of Arms.
Unlike Hollywood films and novels that deal with the Vietnam War, The Shadow of Arms has nothing to offer to the genre of struggling with life and death on the battlefield; its pages contain no humanitarian conflict, no ideological protest against the war. Nor is it a mix of colonialism and Orientalism in the tradition of Apocalypse Now, presenting a detached but darkly emotional condemnation of war itself. The Shadow of Arms is a cold-hearted novel that deals instead with the business aspects of what was an intrinsically capitalistic war.
War is nothing more than a fiercely violent reaction to a conflict between different races, nations, and/or classes that is guaranteed to either solve or exponentially aggravate the issue at hand. Without question, war results in the appearance of a hell on earth, full of destruction and slaughter. On the other hand, this hell is accompanied by the emergence and activation of an extremely dispassionate, precise mechanism of political and economical logic. The Shadow of Arms is an attempt to reveal both the surface appearance and inner workings of this very phenomenon. America’s “intervention” in Vietnam, which came on the heels of their activities in the Philippines, was simply a move calculated to expand America’s imperialistic market control to include the rest of Southeast Asia, and war was considered to be the quickest, most efficient means of achieving this end: in essence, a business conducted on a rather grandiose scale.
As such, The Shadow of Arms uses the back-alley black markets of the Vietnam War as its stage, a market that turns into a setting more fitting than any jungle to discover and explore the core of the war. The more we learn about the system that was used to circulate US Army munitions, the closer we can come to understanding the true nature of the war. Because achieving this understanding became my overarching goal, it was necessary for the perspective of the story itself to be multilateral. In this novel, we see the perspective of the US government and soldiers, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the South Vietnamese under American rule, and the “psychological refugees” who refuse to intervene and become a part of the war, searching endlessly for an escape route instead. Lastly, we have the perspective that overlaps with that of the author: the dazed ROK soldier who has somehow become involved in this foul war.
In the preface to the first publication of The Shadow of Arms, I wrote that I would “never indulge in the depiction of an individual who was scarred”by the Vietnam experience. This was a manifestation of the obstinate self-consciousness that is controlled by the guilt we Koreans feel in our treatment of the Vietnamese, a substantial limitation that was difficult to overcome with only the perspective of an irresponsible outsider.