Out of Korea: Writing off the 'Red Threat'

SEOUL - Asia, on the whole, values stability over change. In the last 50 years change has brought with it horrendous bloodshed and suffering, from Japan's invasion of the mainland and China's bloody revolution to the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Communist purges in Indonesia and the savage insurrections and counter- insurgencies in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Burma.

Most countries have got over their bloody pasts and established a degree of stability, although a few - Burma and Cambodia - are still a long way from this self- healing process. But nowhere has the recovery been more remarkable than in South Korea, which emerged from 35 years of Japanese colonialism only to be plunged into the Korean War, which left several million dead and a country so devastated that many ate grass and tree bark to fill their stomachs.

Today South Korea has Asia's most dynamic economy after Japan, and on first sight the scars of war and suffering are barely visible in its modern cities and industrialised landscape. In their determination to develop the economy and outperform Communist North Korea, South Korean governments have been keen to gloss over the legacy of individual suffering - both during the war and in the period of military dictatorship that followed.

But with the trend towards democracy - last week South Koreans elected their first civilian president in more than 30 years - and a growing confidence in its economic and military superiority over the north, the south is losing some of its paranoia. This has allowed some artists to take a more honest look at the past, and count the human costs of the tumultuous period of change.

Ahn Jung Hyo, one of the country's leading novelists with a growing international reputation, was born in 1941. He grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath, and as a budding writer fretted against the constraints of authoritarian military rule from the Sixties to the Eighties.

Publishers were wary of handling his novels, which dealt with the suffering of individuals in war, and the changes being inflicted on traditional Korean society by the influx of Western culture. 'My generation had the war and 40 years of dictatorship - it was hard, but very lucky for a writer,' Mr Ahn said.

Two of his novels have appeared in English, and while working on his third - about the period of military dictatorship - he used to communicate with his New York publisher by code. 'If I wrote to the publisher that 'it is smoking', that meant to immediately contact Amnesty International,' he said. Today all that is behind him. One of his novels has been made into a film, and he is constantly invited to appear on television talk shows.

He outlined the plot of his forthcoming novel, When the Tempest Speaks - a story that even five years ago no publisher would have touched. The title is from the Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran: 'When the tempest speaks, no one listens to the brooks,' and refers to the untold human suffering during the 'tempest' of the military dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chu Doo Hwan.

His other books have also caused controversy. White Badge, published in 1983, deals with the Korean soldiers who fought with the United States in Vietnam and the difficulties of two veterans in reintegrating into life in Seoul when they returned. Mr Ahn spent 13 months in Vietnam with the Korean forces. What upset the authorities were the descriptions of Korean soldiers dying, which ran against the military's propaganda of the Korean 'heroes' fighting Communism. 'According to them, our heroes weren't meant to die like ordinary men,' he said.

The Silver Stallion, by contrast, angered the US embassy when it was published. It is the story of a small village caught up in the Korean war, where one of the women is raped by the US soldiers supposedly liberating the country. It becomes a metaphor for the intrusion of Western culture into Korea. Although Mr Ahn said US influence on Korea overall has been positive, 'it is also a fact that these rapes happened - everyone knew about them'.

Like a psychoanalyst dragging up the traumas of a patient's past, Mr Ahn's novels keep meeting some resistance. But in the process Korea heals itself. 'My generation, people in their forties and fifties, were well conditioned by state indoctrination of the 'Red Threat'. But today younger people are starting to calculate things for themselves. This is better.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk