One Dystopian Korea: A Review of Our Aspiration is War by Jang Kang-myung

By | January 11, 2017 | No Comments

“We are one” is the sentiment on the fence at Imjingang, the final railroad station before trains from Seoul cross over into the DMZ and North Korea. One new Korean fiction work paints a much bleaker picture. | Image: Sino-NK

There has been an uptick in interest in translated Korean fiction over the last two years. Most prominently, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2016, generating significant curiosity about the author’s other works. A 2015 piece on Korean literature by Ed Park in The New Yorker also put a handful of novels on the team’s shelves. Korean fiction is by no means tumbling pell-mell out of the bookstores of the West, and it probably never will be. Production would be in trouble without support from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, too. But, for now at least, the future of Korean literature in translation is secure.

In the end, however; if you are eager for new literature that touches on Sino-NK‘s true specialties — Northeast Asian borderlands, Korean ethnic identity,  North Korean political economy, China-North Korea relations and the like — you have to dive into the Korean and Chinese markets directly. In this review, Robert Lauler does just that, taking his magnifying glass to the new novel by Jang Kang-myung, author of the cult hit Because I Hate Korea, in which Jang throws down a dystopian vision of the future unified Korea. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

One Dystopian Korea: A Review of Our Aspiration is War by Jang Kang-myung

by Robert Lauler

Our Aspiration is War, the new book by Jang Kang-myung, which paints a grim picture of post-unification Korea.

Imagine that the Kim regime has finally collapsed. A “Unification Provisional Government” has been setup in North Korea and order is maintained through a combination of UN peacekeeping forces and the old North Korean public security bureau. Korean unification, however, is far from complete. The North and South remain separated by the 38th Parallel and North Koreans are not allowed free movement into the South. North Korean drugs flowing across the border are a major issue between the two Koreas. Partly as a result, North Koreans find entering South Korea more difficult than ever.

This is the setting of South Korean author Jang Kang-myung’s new novel Uri sowon-eun jeonjaeng, or Our Aspiration is War.1)Our Aspiration is War is a play on “Our Aspiration is Unification,” the theme song for Korean unification. The song is also referred to as “Our Dream is Unification.” Jang is the author of several other well-known books, including Hanguk-i sireoseo [Because I hate Korea] and Daetgul Budae [Army of Commenters], the latter a novel loosely based around the Korean National Intelligence Service’s influencing of the 2012 election in favor of Park Geun-hye by getting operatives to post pro-Park comments on progressive-leaning websites. Needless to say, he is not a great supporter of the now thoroughly disgraced Park Geun-hye administration.

Jack Reacheresque Storyline | Our Aspiration is War centers around a plot by members of the Chosun Liberation Army (CLA), made up of former North Korean soldiers, to use one of North Korea’s old tunnels across the 38th parallel as a drug distribution route into South Korea. The CLA teams up with a local businessman/drug kingpin in Jangpung County, an area just outside Kaesong, to pave the way for the opening of the new route. Jang Ri-cheol, the main character, is a former member of North Korea’s elite special forces who becomes entangled in the plot, ultimately becoming the key figure in exposing (and laying waste to) the CLA’s plans.

The novel’s “action story,” briefly summarized above, may be the page-turner element of the book for some readers. From this reviewer’s perspective, however, it fell flat on both character development and authenticity, and was further marred by over-the-top fights to the death and torture scenes. In the Author Notes, Jang says that his protagonist was based on “Jack Reacher,” which perhaps explains the lack of character development and extended fight scenes. The book’s storyline, taken as a whole, reads more like a script ready to be made into a (bad) film.

Unification is a Bonanza by Sin Chang-min, who argues for a ten-year separation of the two Koreas post-unification.

Unification Blues | More interesting than the storyline, however, is the backdrop of what Jang calls the “ideal” Korean unification scenario. The South Korean version of ideal unification, in Jang’s telling, would have the 38th parallel maintained and North Koreans not allowed to enter the South. Indeed, there are academics and others in South Korea who do argue for the separation of the two Koreas, at least in the initial stages of the unification process. Shin Chang-min of Chungang University, author of the book Tongil-eun daebakida, or Unification is a Bonanza, argues that the two Koreas should be separated for a period of least ten years before they are ready for “total reunification.” Shin’s justification is that North Korea would not be ready for democracy, and major reconstruction of the economy of the northern region would be needed before it could be holistically integrated into the South.

Jang’s entire novel appears devoted to tearing that entire scenario apart to expose its flaws. He paints a picture of mass exploitation by South Korea. In his telling, South Korean corporations become free to use North Korean labour and the South Korean government builds all its “undesirable” facilities (waste treatment plants, prisons, etc.) in the North. To make matters worse, as maintaining stability is the overriding goal, the infamous Ministry of People’s Security is not dismantled but continues to keep order along with foreign UN troops (China and Japan are conveniently not part of this contingent). Jang also portrays the post-unification North Korea as swamped by drugs and drug abuse.

Sad Realities | Jang tries to paint a picture of how South Koreans and North Koreans would interact at the human level under such a scenario. The picture is not pretty, and for this he has plenty of ammunition. North Korean defectors — of which there are some 30,000 in South Korea today — are frequently considered second-class citizens and many have trouble adjusting to South Korean society. Jang takes this to (one) logical conclusion in his unification scenario, under which North Koreans are hired as “military support personnel” and end up doing menial jobs around military bases. Cultural differences abound, with South Korean characters in the novel variously describing their North Korean counterparts as “corrupt” and commenting on their “untrustworthy” nature. North Korean characters, understandably, see South Koreans as “uppity” and look to exploit them and their country as best they can.

But Jang paints this picture of inter-Korean disharmony in broad strokes, completely missing the opportunity to pair characters from each Korea together to develop a memorable North-South relationship or two for the reader. The main South Korean character in the book — a game developer-turned-soldier — is paired, oddly, throughout the book with a ‘super-hot’,” Malaysian-born overseas Korean who is part of the local UN peacekeeping contingent. There is no instance of sustained, worthy dialogue between a North Korean and South Korean in the entire book. Jang Ri-cheol is perhaps the only North Korean character we learn anything about. Yet he only interacts with other North Koreans and is mainly a blunt fighting instrument.

The Private Life of the Nation by Lee Eung-jun, which comes highly recommended.

Absent Authenticity | Jang is not the first well-known South Korean novelist to write a novel set in an imagined unification scenario. Lee Eung-jun’s Gukka-eui sasaenghwal, or The Private Life of the Nation describes the “worst scenario” for unification. In Lee’s telling, North Korean drugs, poverty and strange idiosyncrasies become part of a new, united Korea. In Jang’s scenario, the chaos of North Korea is contained only by the 38th parallel.

Jang’s book, and interviews he has given since it was published in November last year, all indicate that aside from writing a “thriller,” his main aim was to write critically about the “ideal unification scenario.” He has succeeded in drawing up a scenario whose individual parts may have credence.

From the perspective of authenticity, however, the book is lacking and this makes it hard to recommend. The lack of authenticity not only surfaces in the book’s characters, but also in the dialogue, which lacks any uniform use of any form of North Korean dialect. For readers looking to quench their thirst about North Korea, there are far better books written by North Korean defectors describing the country in their own words. Look to the works of Kim Yoo-kyung, such as Cheongchun yeonga [The Love Song of Youth] and Bandi’s Gobal [The Accusation], both of which also make statements — as Jang attempts to — on the difficulties the two Koreas will have in becoming unified once again.

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1. Our Aspiration is War is a play on “Our Aspiration is Unification,” the theme song for Korean unification. The song is also referred to as “Our Dream is Unification.”