Where would you look if you were writing about a future unified Korea? A handful of preceding cases like Germany and Yemen? Or Vietnam?
The author Lee Eung-jun went no further than where he was: right here in South Korea. One of the most advanced economies and democratic societies in the world.
“Writing The Private Life a Nation often left me confused. While the book obviously depicts a post-unification future, it sometimes felt like I was writing about our own reality. That turned out to be the case,” Lee notes in his 2014 essay A Dark Forewritten Retrospect on a Unified Korea.
The Taedonggang is a fictional group of former Korea People’s Army servicemen turned thugs. Named after the river that runs across Pyongyang, the gang have a crematory oven in their hideout. So as to leave no trace, they burn the bodies of their murdered victims.
Lee modelled the Taedonggang after the heinous 1993 case of the South Korean Chijon Family. That group of twentysomethings cremated its victims’ bodies and one member allegedly even practiced cannibalism. Poor and full of hatred towards society, the gang set out to rob and murder the rich.
“The retired KPA soldiers of Taedonggang may be soaked in such hatred to their blood and their bones,” Lee says in his essay. This is not a commentary on his own novel but a warning for the future.
You don’t even need to go back to more than two decades ago. Just look at how our society treats minorities.
Some North Korean defectors are said to pretend to be Korean-Chinese as they experience more discrimination and contempt from their Southern brethren when they reveal their true identities.
An advocacy group for Nepalese immigrants in Cheongju had to cancel its crowd funding project concerning anti-racism this month, due to an avalanche of hate calls and messages after the project got media attention. God only knows what the children of the immigrants—who are already suffering from racism in schools—will grow up with in their hearts.
Now give Lee’s bleak vision on the unified Korea a read. Does his depiction of Northerners coping with the brave new world sound too gloomy to be real?
The Private Life of a Nation : Chapter 4
Two weeks before Ri Gang came back from Pyongyang.
With his hands deep in his pockets, Cho Myung-do plodded down the long and deep staircase. The Gwangbok Building had six floors aboveground and three below. The Silver Chair was located on the first through third floors, and Taedonggang’s phantom company occupied the top three. The heart of hell was the second and third floors below ground. These secret floors didn’t appear on tunnels, and the Taedonggang men referred to them as underground tunnels. The second basement floor was called Underground Tunnel No. 1 and the third, No. 2. Underneath the high-end room salon in this unified Korea, where upperclass southerners enjoyed northern hostesses, a notorious gang of former soldiers of the Korean People’s Army often put on private horror shows as gruesome as any snuff film. Screams echoed through the Tunnels, most of them failing to pierce the walls of reinforced concrete. The screams that did get through were drowned out by the blasting music and noises from the extravagant booze parties above. The Gwangbok Building was unified Korea in miniature.
Comrade Ri Gang. You think I don’t know you but I know you far better than you think. Why have you still not adapted to this “fantastic” society though. And why are you taking these nasty pills on the quiet, huh? Cho pitied Ri. Naïve were those who deluded themselves into thinking that others would act like them. Pure were those who were mad that others didn’t act like them. In Cho’s judgment, Ri was both. That was a critical weakness. A naïve fool was more dangerous than an unpinned grenade, and a pure devil couldn’t resist standing up to God.
In North Korea, caste had been the most important deciding factor in a man’s life. Ri, the grandson of a revolutionary elder, heroically walking the path of the military elite, had been like a star in the night sky—Cho hadn’t even contemplated competing with him. But the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had vanished from the earth, so things had to be way different in this unified Korea. Why? Because Cho believed that he was a South Korean capitalist by nature while Ri was suited to death in a shootout in some African jungle, with a Workers’ Party card in his combat uniform. The beauty of the unified Korea was driving Cho insane.
“Which one of you reactionary bastards put a talisman over here, huh?” Noticing a paper talisman at the entrance of Underground Tunnel No. 2, Cho yelled at Yang Pyong-gwan and Nam Ki-jong. While Nam hesitated, Yang answered,
“Sir Boy Shaman did yesterday. He said he felt disturbed.”
“Sir?” Cho kicked Yang hard in the shin. Yang fell down with a groan. “Is that brat your father? Why do you sir him?”
Nam stopped Cho. “Calm down, Mr. Cho. He only did what he was told to.”
“Calm down, Mr. Cho? This is insane. Prof Nam, let go of me!”
Several members of the Taedonggang gang used to be professional workers in former North Korea, but their careers were as worthless as trash in the unified fatherland. For example, most North Korean teachers were ousted from schools. After unification, the government tried to embrace them through reeducation, but the northern students, much more vehemently than the southern ones, refused the North Korean teachers. The country became so short of teachers that anyone who’d taken an education class in a Southern university was eligible for an informal recruitment test.
Nam Ki-jong had been a young professor at Kim Il Sung University. The Taedonggang men called him professor, but it was more of a nickname to make themselves feel better than an expression of respect. To be a member of the university faculty was to be a Prince Charmless among the Pyongyang bachelorettes. Politically dumb and with an income slightly more than a laborer, they had nothing but a box of chalks to sell on the black market. There were few, if any, faculty members who wanted their children to be researchers. Instead, professors were busy pulling strings to help their children become tailors, so they could get their hands on clothes, or cooks so they could eat as much as they wanted. Nam, however, didn’t care about his twisted nickname or its festering meaning. He was almost fifty, the age of understanding of one’s destiny according to Confucius. He was old enough now to understand that there was no insult that he couldn’t laugh off. He’d witnessed the collapse of a nation built on nothing but pride and a professor of its top university becoming a butler to a gang that thought nothing of murder. Some people were suffering much more than him.
An old janitor at Jamsil Baseball Stadium who used to be a North Korean TV anchor hanged herself in an empty locker room on a Monday afternoon last fall. She didn’t leave a will, as if sure everyone would know why she killed herself. Northerners were panic-stricken. Southerners couldn’t understand why northerners were so appalled since, to their understanding, there was no difference between a TV anchor of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and a South Korean one. But how would the southerners have felt if Seo Taiji, the legendary father of K-pop, hanged himself in a toilet stall of a night club in the middle of nowhere, out of despair over his wretched state?
North’s Korean Central TV anchors were often ridiculed in the South for their exaggerated oratory, but in North Korea they belonged in the very highest circles. They were called broadcasters. While the anchors in the South introduced the headlines and let the reporters take care of the rest, North Korean broadcasters led the news singlehandedly. Theirs was the most desired occupation, and becoming one was harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And once a broadcaster became an honorable People’s Broadcaster, he was given a house in downtown Pyongyang, amidst the politburo members’ apartments, as well as Italian furniture and a Toyota or Cadillac. Some of the famous broadcasters like Ri Sang-byeok or Jeon Keum-son started their careers in 1945. Ri was especially famous for not putting down his microphone even as shells rained down on September 28, 1950, during his retreat from Seoul in the Korean War.
In order to become a broadcaster, you had to receive full marks on background and ideology, not to mention pronunciation, refinement, appearance and speech. Even after satisfying these rigid standards, you needed the personal ratification of the supreme leader Kim Jong-il to become a main anchor. Broadcasters were given the privilege to have their hair done at Pyongyang’s top beauty shop and were free to visit the fanciest spa and restaurant in the capital. They were also the first to try on clothes produced by the Pyongyang Apparel Research Center, and everything they wore became a trend. The luxury, however, came with a price tag. A broadcaster who mistakenly said “President Kim Jong-il passed away” instead of “President Kim Il-sung passed away”, disappeared forever. Another was demoted for not shedding tears while delivering the news of Kim Il-sung’s death. TV anchors in North Korea were the face of the people and their fatherland, so they had to be cautious in speech and action. Even during the period of a severe famine in the 1990s, known as the Arduous March, Kim Jong-il gave a special order to guarantee comfort and convenience for broadcasters. And one of those veteran broadcasters of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took her own life in a dark corner in the quiet of Jamsil Baseball Stadium a few days before the Korean Series began.
“OK, I got it. Let go. I won’t hit him. Pyeong-gwan, the way you talk is not the only problem you got. Your mind is corrupt. Your mind. Renovate it.”
Cho pushed Nam away and gazed at the talisman above the entrance.
“Shit, Prof Nam, what did he say was so disturbing?”
“No idea. Even the ghosts won’t know what a silent shaman thinks.”
Nam was calm and seasoned. Even though he was pretty much the janitor of the Gwangbok Building, he was considered a beacon of virtue by the the gang. Perhaps out of respect for the former Kim Il Sung University professor, Oh Nam-chol made him an advisor, albeit just in name. Ri Gang always treated him with respect, calling him Advisor Nam. Even Cho Myung-do, who despised those who were lower in rank, was uncomfortable to go too far.
Cho pulled an absurdly big knife out of his jacket and said to Yang, “Maybe you’ll stop being a crybaby when I cut off your leg. What do you think?”
“No.” Yang, who didn’t want to part with his leg, sprang to his feet.
“If you’re gonna complain, do it in front of me. I’ll kill you if you keep fucking around. Understood?”
Yang had been a doctor in North Korea. When he came to the south after reunification, he was astonished to find a tremendous number of private clinics, especially plastic surgery and dental clinics. The North Korean medical system, a combination of Western and Korean medical practices, had fallen apart along with the nation. Due to the shortage of anesthetics, doctors had to perform surgical operations without anesthesia. They had to climb mountains to dig up herbs in the summer and they weren’t allowed to refuse patients. Being a doctor was definitely not a great profession.
Cho put the absurdly huge knife back into his jacket as if nothing had happened. “Professor Nam. When is the interview for new recruits?”
“It’s tomorrow. But Mr. Ri is yet to come back. Would it be okay for us to decide on the recruits without him?”
“Dear comrade philosopher, stop fussing over the smallest of phenomena.”
“Haha, understood. As you say.”
“Did someone butcher a cow here, huh? Go get a mop!” Cho pointed to a puddle of water mixed with blood on the floor.
“I’ll clean it up.” Yang walked into a room that looked like a bathroom with an iron door that was slightly ajar, trying hard not to walk with a limp in the leg Cho kicked.
“Ugh… Prof Nam, I gotta go. See you tomorrow.”
“What should I do with that, Mr. Cho?” Prof Nam asked.
“That.” Prof Nam pointed to the talisman that protected the entrance through which Cho was to head out. Spiritual symbols the Boy Shaman drew with red stone dust on yellow paper soaked in pepper oil to prevent a dismal future. Cho was displeased with the shaman but he didn’t dare confront him. Prof Nam had outmanoeuvred Cho. In a calm, seasoned, and virtuous way, like the comrade philosopher he was.
Cho walked beneath the talisman and vanished into the darkness welling up at the doorless entrance.
In the meantime, Yang was cleaning up the puddle of blood with a mop.
“It hurt a lot, didn’t it?” asked Prof Nam.
“No matter. Shouldn’t take him seriously.”
“You’re right. You are right.”
“I wonder what that wicked man is scheming.”
“He wouldn’t have laid into you if you’d just cleaned up earlier.”
“Looks like they left him there after waterboarding. I didn’t want to touch it seeing as I have nothing to do with it.”
“We have to ditch the socialist passivity now, I think. Merely doing what we’re told to is problematic.”
The room covered in yellow tiles next to the massive crematory oven was in fact a torture room, not the bathroom. Behind the iron door, slightly more ajar than before, a man sat bound to an iron chair. His head was thrown back, and the bloody puddle was from tap water sprayed on him.
“Well, I’ll clean this mess up when the others get back.”
“Yes, go ahead. That’s good.”
— Translated by Subin Kim
The Dissolve published Chapter 2 back in April. We’ll publish a further chapter and an interview with the author in the coming weeks. Your questions and comments are welcome on Facebook or at email@example.com.