The ghosts of North and South Korea

Hwang Sok-yong
16 December 2005

In the 17th century, when smallpox was first identified as a western disease that needed to be warded off, the Korean people referred to it as mama or sonnim, the second of which translates to “guest.” With this in mind, I settled upon The Guest as a fitting title for a novel that explores the arrival and effects of Christianity and Marxism in a country where both were initially as foreign as smallpox.

As smallpox reached epidemic proportions and began sweeping across Korea, shamanic rituals called “guest exorcisms” were often performed to fight against the foreign intruder. The Guest is essentially a shamanistic exorcism designed to relieve the agony of those who survived and appease the spirits of those who were sacrificed on the altar of cultural imperialism more than 50 years ago.

This twelve-chapter novel is modelled after the “Chinogwi exorcism” of Hwanghae province. The ritual consists of twelve separate rounds. As is the case during an actual exorcism, the dead and the living simultaneously cross and re-cross the boundaries between past and present, appearing at what seem like random intervals to share each of their stories and memories. My intention was to create an oral discourse in which a type of time travel provides the latitudinal coordinates of the story, with the longitude provided by the individual character’s first-person narratives, revealing a wide range of experiences and perspectives. In a way, the novel itself is one complete shamanistic ritual.

If it is true that trying to rid yourself of residual memories inevitably results in a clearer and more solid memory, then the spirits of the past must be impossible to escape, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. At times, these apparitions can be more than mere phantoms: they are sent to us by the tragic wars of the past as a form of karma we must deal with – they are facets of the burden of history, a vivid reality.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reader is exposed to the ghost of a forefather who inexplicably returns to life. In that text also the ghost is more than a mere magical phantasm. A reality rife with exploitation and repression had weighed upon the people of Latin America for countless years. A product of the pressing actuality that freedom is an impossible dream, the phantom is one that history itself must face down, fight, drive out, use, and conquer. Countless souls have been lost to the blind inevitability of history itself; dismantling this structure to a state in which time belongs to the people is a foal of this novel.

The importance of exile

I have gone through four different phases as a writer. First, in the 1970s, after the Vietnam war, my world view and opinion of society changed, and this impacted a lot on my progression as a writer.

In the 1980s I was forced to leave Korea and went into exile. I was in Germany and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall – that is when I discovered histories and individual histories – not just one meta-narrative.

When I was in prison in the 1990s I discovered daily life and routine, and after that, the world. Nowadays I will say that I am a citizen of the world. What that means is, when it comes to the problem of the Korean peninsula, I will share that with the people of the world.

If I had not had the experience of exile I probably would not have gone through these different stages and reached this point. To be a writer is not to be confined to a particular nationality or culture. It is best to sit on the fence and observe – it gives a lot more creative energy. It is important to become detached from one’s national identity and to look at one’s self objectively.

I criticise any fundamentalist tendencies brought about by both religion and politics, but there is a risk of this (as we can still see in the world now) being too “black and white.” This for me, as a novelist, is a very important issue to deal with.

The ghosts of war

I began working on The Guest in 2000, the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean war. The September 11 attacks a year later came directly after The Guest was first published, and the onset of this new “age of terror,” along with the inclusion of North Korea in the “axis of evil,” and the beginning of a whole new war, made the fragility of our position clearer than ever. It was a chilling experience to be so reminded that despite the collapse of the Cold War infrastructure, our small peninsula is still bound by the delicate chains of war.

Because of Korea’s identity as both a colony and a divided nation, both Christianity and Marxism were unable to achieve natural, spontaneous modernisation; instead, they were forced to reach modernity in accordance with conscious human will. In North Korea, where the legacy of class structure during the traditional period was relatively diluted compared to the South, the tenets of Christianity and Marxism were zealously adopted as facets of “enlightenment.”

During the Korean war, the area of North Korea known as Hwanghae province was the setting of a fifty-day nightmare during which Christians and Communists – two groups of Korean people whose lives were shaped by two different “guests” – committed a series of unspeakable atrocities against each other.

Today, in a district known as Sinch’ŏn in Hwanghae province, there stands a museum that indicts the American military for the massacre of innocents. The literal translation of the museum’s name is “The American Imperialist Massacre Remembrance Museum.” Many years ago, when I visited the North, I was given a tour of this museum as a matter of course.

Later on, during my stay in New York, I met a Korean minister named Ryu and heard the eyewitness account of his childhood in Hwanghae province. Not too long afterwards, in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to meet another survivor who shared with me her detailed firsthand account of the actual wartime incident that led to the founding of the aforementioned museum.

As it turns out, the atrocities were committed by none other than ourselves, and the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident helped form the roots of frantic hatred that thrives to this day. Less than five years ago, when I completed The Guest, I received fierce attacks from both Southern and Northern nationalists. In the South I was targeted by conservative Christian groups particularly, and in the North people were against the book as it admits this massacre was an internal war.

The scars of our war and the ghosts of the Cold War still mar the Korean peninsula. I can only hope that this particular exorcism helps us move a little step closer to a true, lasting reconciliation as the new century unfolds.

* * *

The following is an extract from Hwang Sok-yong’s novel The Guest.

Chapter 9
The fork in the road

All right, all right. That’s enough. Time to go.

The phantom of Uncle Sunnam spoke, and Illang, standing at his side, agreed.

Right. Let’s go.

The other ghosts, both men and women, rose up quietly and began fading back into the darkness, disappearing like pieces of cloth quivering in the breeze. A voice, coming from someplace far, far away reached Yosŏp’s ears.

Those who killed and were killed are bound together in the next world.

It was Yohan.

Finally, I am home. Finally, I am relieved of the old hatred and resentment. Finally I see my friends, and finally, I can stop wondering through unknown darkness. I’m off. Be well, both of you.

They all disappeared. Silence descended. The darkness was gradually withdrawing; daybreak was on its way – outside the window, beyond the distinct shadows of the mountain ridge, the milky sky was growing clearer. Only Ryu Yosŏp and his uncle remained in the second-story room with the wooden floor. Yosŏp’s uncle broke the silence.

“Those who needed to leave have left, and now the ones who are still alive must start living anew. We must purge this land, cleanse it of all the old filth and grime, don’t you agree?”

Ryu Yosŏp clasped his hands together and began to recite a passage from the Bible he had memorised long ago.

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.

He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Chapter 10
Burning the clothes

Setting out from his uncle’s place in Some, Yosŏp and the guide climbed into the car and headed towards town. Cautiously, Yosŏp asked the guide in the front seat, “Would it be possible to drop by Ch’ansaemgol on the way?”

“There’s someplace else you want to go, too?”

The guide grimaced, glancing at his wristwatch.

“We’ve got to be at the hotel by lunchtime.”

“I was just wondering if we could have a quick look at the place as we pass through…”

“I say, Reverend, you sure do have a lot of requests.”

“I’m just curious to see if the place I used to call home is still the way it was back then.”

“It won’t be anything like the old days – everything’s been changed by the introduction of the cooperative system.”

“I’d be happy just to get a glimpse of the hill behind the village.”

The guide laughed.

“We have no way of even knowing where Ch’ansaem is.”

“It’s in the Onchŏn township, so it’ll be on the corner as we drive up.”

At that, the guide consented quite readily, saying, “Oh, well, if that’s the case, you can just tell us where to go.”

Just as they had a few days earlier, they drove along the town’s paved roads and empty streets. As they reached the outskirts of town and the rice paddies began to stretch out before them on either side, an open field ringed by the ridges of low mountains came into view in the distance. The orchard was exactly where it had been all those years ago. Standing along the ridges were the apple trees. Each fruit was ripening at its own pace, countless different shades of apples peeking through the green leaves.

“That’s it right over there. Just stop at the corner of that road for a minute, please.”

Stalks of corn lined the road, swaying back and forth in the autumn wind. Two-story duplexes made of grey brick stood at identical intervals along the hillside, surrounded by the orchard. Yosŏp was amazed to see that the village that had seemed so spacious to him as a child actually took up no more space than a small corner of the low hill. The levee where Yosŏp used to take the cow to graze had, at some point, been transformed into a cement embankment. Only the starwort blossoming by the cornfields was still the same. The tiny little flowers still seemed to be laughing out loud in the wind. Yosŏp stood there for a moment, looking up at the vast expanse of the sky, then took the clothes out of the bundle he’d brought out with him from the car. The guide, who’d been smoking a cigarette off to the side, came up to him.

“What have you got there?”

“It belonged to my brother,” Yosŏp replied, waving his brother’s old underwear at the guide. “I promised my sister-in-law that I would help put some of her demons to rest.”

“Ah, you brought them with you from Sariwŏn.”

Yosŏp started off along the old levee path, cutting through the cornfields up to the base of the hill. The guide, having no idea what was going on, followed close behind. Avoiding the areas that were choked with weeds, Yosŏp chose a sunny spot where the dirt was visibly dry and crouched down to the ground. He reached down and gathered a handful of dirt.

“What are you doing?”

The guide seemed confused as he followed Yosŏp’s gaze towards the patch of bare earth. Yosŏp answered him with a question of his own.

“You have a lighter don’t you?”

Apparently still unable to grasp what was going on, the baffled guide took out his lighter and handed it over to Yosŏp. Collecting a small pile of dry twigs from here and there, Yosŏp heaped them together and set the tiny pyre ablaze. The twigs flared up, crackling loudly. Above the flame, Yosŏp held the underwear that Big Brother Yohan had used to deliver his son Tanyŏl. The cloth fibres curled up, distorted, and the edges of the garment began to turn black, rapidly burning inwards. Holding it in his hand, Yosŏp turned the cloth over the flame, slowly, a bit at a time, so as to burn it all the way through. When all that remained was a square of cloth about the size of his palm, Yosŏp tossed the whole thing atop the miniature bonfire. It shrivelled up and disappeared instantly.

Moving over, Yosŏp began to dig a small hole in the ground. After he scooped out several handfuls of dirt, the consistency of the soil became damp and mixed with leaves. He continued digging, and about a handspan further down, the soil became soft, pink, and tender. After sorting out all the little pebbles and patting the bottom of the hole down to make it firm, Yosŏp took out the leather pouch he’d been keeping on him. Untying it, he took out the tojang-shaped sliver of bone that hand once belonged to his brother and placed it in the hole. He filled it back up with dirt. Just as one might do to put a baby to sleep, he kept patting the little mound of dirt that was left.

You’re home now, Big Brother, were the words Yosŏp wanted to say out loud.

Chapter 11
Matrix of spirits
What will become

The wind blows hard. All the grass on the hillside is flattened in one direction; the tips of the blades tremble violently, as if they are being washed away by a powerful ocean current. Particles of dirt smash themselves against his face and earlobes as the wind pushes against his chest and thighs. Even the crows can’t seem to fly properly. They flap their wings over and over but eventually, the moment they pause for even the briefest instant, they plummet towards the ground. The crows fall, but just as they are about to graze the earth they suddenly soar back up into the sky and disappear, flying swiftly in the opposite direction like a piece of paper blowing away in the wind. Their thin, naked branches shivering, the trees scream.

A long line of people, hunched over at the waist, all move in one direction. They look as if they are each dragging something extremely heavy behind them. The endless parade has no visible beginning or end. A winding path passes through the field, leading up into a faraway lavender mountain ridge. They do not speak. From here, only their backs are visible.

The sun is setting. Clouds soaked in twilight flow past. Just like the birds blown away by the wind, the clouds, too, stream backwards into oblivion. The reddish skies darken, and the moon rises like a piece of cloth in faded indigo. Under the moonlight, the parade of people moves on, making slow progress. The high, steep path up the mountain ends at the peak. He can see the stripe of river etched in white and the lights of the village far below.

Like a bird, he soars up over the scene. Below him a series of hills and a thin stream race by. He hears the cows moo in the distance and hears the hens cackle as they lay their eggs. He hears the people in the paddies, singing as they plant next year’s rice crop. The fast beating of drums is superimposed on the buoyant, metallic sound of cymbals. He hears the mother call to her children.

Kids, time to eat.

* * *

Once again, Reverend Ryu Yosŏp woke up from another early morning dream. It wasn’t time to go yet. He pulled the curtains open and looked out the window at the deserted streets the streetlamps remained unlit; Pyongyang was still covered in darkness. In the apartment complex across the road, though, several lights were on – around the middle and towards the top of the building. Has someone gotten up already to get ready for work? A car drove by, slowly, along the empty road. He gazed at himself as he was, reflected dimly on the windowpane. It was the face of the most familiar man in his whole world.

Chapter 12
Farewell guests
Eat your fill and begone!

Hamujagwi, the widower’s ghost, mongdalgwi, the

bachelor’s ghost,

gorge yourselves – begone!
Kŏllipkwi, the ghost of the shaman, sinsŏn’gwi, the ghost

of the blind

gorge yourselves – be on your way!
T’ansikkwi, the ghost of the widow, hoguwi, the ghost

of the maiden,

gorge yourselves – leave us!
Ghosts of the hanged, up in the mountain’s drooping

pine branches,

ghosts of the drowned, down in the bottomless waters,
hat’algwi, the ghosts of the women, shedding all those

endless tears –

some died giving birth, some while still pregnant,
all clutching their rice bowls and mats made of straw –
their skirts always tucked, their hair all dishevelled
with scissors and thread still attached to their belts,
gorge yourself – begone!
Ghosts of those shot, pierced, even battered,
ghosts of those bombed by planes overhead,
ghosts of those burnt to ashes by flames,
ghosts hit by wagons, tanks, trucks, or trains,
ghosts made by smallpox, ghosts made by plague,
those made by typhus, consumption or cholera,
ghosts still resentful, ghosts far from home,
all those who linger, each with its own tale,
today eat your fill, ’til your heart is content,
gorge yourselves – be on your way!
Behold today’s feast, see our devotion,
the ghost of this land, the ghost of this house,
eat your fill and know when to be silent.
Fill your bellies, quench your thirst,
eat your fill and pack up what’s left –
take it all with you, women on your heads,
take it all with you, servants in your aprons –
accept our goodwill, take some coin for the road
and be on your way, up into the heavens.
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