Out of Korea: Writing off the 'Red Threat'

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The Independent Online
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.'