Divided Peninsula, Split Personalities: A Review of Hong Sang-hwa’s “The Intelligence Agent”

By | August 08, 2017 | No Comments

Stories of the division of the peninsula have inspired Korean authors for several generations. Their works illustrate the impact of national division much more effectively than non-fiction can.  | Image: Sino-NK/Destination Pyongyang

There has been an uptick in interest in translated Korean fiction in the last few years. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, generating significant curiosity about the author’s other works as well as a certain amount of controversy. A 2015 piece on Korean literature by Ed Park in The New Yorker also put a handful of novels on Sino-NK shelves. Korean fiction is by no means tumbling pell-mell out of the bookstores of the West, and it probably never will be; nevertheless, for now, the future of Korean literature in translation is secure.

However, if you are eager for new literature that touches on Sino-NK‘s genuine 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-language markets directly. In a new review for Sino-NK, Robert Lauler once again (his previous literature review is here) does exactly that, taking his magnifying glass to The Intelligence Agent, the latest novel by Hong Sang-hwa. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Divided Peninsula, Split Personalities: A Review of Hong Sang-hwa’s “The Intelligence Agent”

by Robert Lauler

One half of the two-volume novel The Intelligence Agent by Hong Sang-hwa, which adds to Korea’s rich vein of literature rooted in the tragedy of national division.

Novels about division are a defining feature of South Korean literary history. Writers such as Lee Ho-cheol, Pak Hwan-seo, and Hwang Seok-hyeon have all contributed to the category through stories featuring families torn apart, interactions between North and South Koreans, and the lives of North Korean defectors in South Korea. Recently, Hong Sang-hwa, known for The Flower Girl — a novel about a friendship between intelligence agents from both Koreas and their shared love of one North Korean actress — has delivered another book featuring characters that defy Korea’s borders. This novel is entitled The Intelligence Agent.1)Hong Sang-hwa, The Intelligence Agent [정보원] (Seoul: Hangungmunhaksa, 2016).

From South to North | Divided into two volumes, Hong’s first volume closely follows Jung Sa-young, who as a youthful communist from Daegu joins the North Korean war machine as the Korean War breaks out. Ordered to march toward the Busan Perimeter, his unit unexpectedly meets the 105th Tank Division led by Yoo Kyung-soo, which is on retreat following news of the Incheon landings. In real-life, Yoo is famed for having led the first tanks into Seoul as the North Korean army swept southwards in the initial days of the war, and is a propaganda hero in North Korea. Ultimately, Jung joins what is left of Yoo’s unit on their “long march” northwards to North Korean territory, harried by American bombs and fatigue. Jung is later wounded and hospitalized, effectively ending his part in the war.

Jung’s post-war life in North Korea defies the typical mold of a southerner living in the country. The North Korean regime was suspicious of southerners, no matter what their contribution to the war effort may have been, and many were sent to mines to “support” the economy. Jung avoids this fate. Using his quirky Daegu accent, he feigns being a country bumpkin and charms his way into a low-level job at a theatre company in Pyongyang. He finds the love of his life, an actress, and later has a daughter. The storyline is questionable: that Jung would live in Pyongyang — the country’s ideological capital — and marry a North Korean with much higher social status, or songbun, is a stretch. The book’s narrative portrays Jung as being sustained by his wife and daughter: years of endless criticism sessions and ideological education have sapped the ideological fervor of Jung’s youth — he has nothing else left to latch onto.

Years later, Jung is suddenly called upon to take up an important mission to South Korea. He learns that some of his relatives have become influential figures in the South’s political and commercial spheres. Jung is ordered by faceless high-level cadres to get his relatives to support North Korea. Left with little choice, Jung enters the South through inconspicuous means and turns up at the door of his older uncle. His uncle immediately senses Jung is an agent and persuades him to turn himself in. This he does, and under the tutelage and support of his family, Jung remarries and becomes a successful businessman. He becomes materially well-off in South Korea, but emotionally he is distraught: he misses his family in the North.

Defecting Northbound | As the second volume begins, we find that Jung has died under mysterious circumstances. Kim Kyeong-cheol, a South Korean intelligence agent, is tasked with finding out what happened to Jung and whether he was acting on the behalf of North Korea. Through Kim’s investigation, we learn that Jung never stopped wanting to reconnect with his family in the North and ultimately, through an intermediary and secret meetings in European capitals, was able to exchange messages with his wife and daughter.

Kim, who is in an unhappy marriage and totally burned out by his job, finds new life through the investigation. Through Kim, the author creates a parallel narrative structure: the details of Jung’s life up to the end of volume one are filled in as we learn about Kim and his job and personal issues. As volume two reaches its apex, Kim is more and more drawn to Jung and makes the decision to defect to North Korea. This decision — under much more literary complexity than anything in volume one — comes from Kim’s belief, according to one reviewer, that Kim enters a “quest” to find himself. However, disappointingly, Kim’s character is hardly developed (there is close to nothing on his family, his experience in the Korean War, or his views toward North Korea) and he ends up being little more than a “ghost character;” a simple literary vehicle for piecing together the run-up to Jung’s mysterious death.

Family Ties | Hong’s portrayal of someone who experiences life in both Koreas resonates strongly today. Jung can be compared, albeit with caveats, to North Korean defectors who find themselves split between the same two opposing systems. The novel comments particularly on the strength of family ties in the face of division. Despite finding North Korea’s ideology-centered life a bore, Jung is tethered to North Korea by his family. In South Korea, his family becomes an important force in his life that helps him to survive. Hong’s easy-to-read and lively prose gives voice to a man caught between two cold-hearted and unequivocal political systems.

Hong’s second volume and his portrayal of Kim Kyung-chol, unfortunately, feel like an unnecessary addition. The second book fails to pick up effectively from the first — the shift to a new, poorly developed character sets the stage for a speed bump in the narrative. Kim Kyung-chol’s motive for defection also fails to convince. Defections of South Koreans to North Korea are not unheard of — the founder of modern Taekwondo, Chae Hong-hee, for example, was a South Korean general who later defected to North Korea, some say because of personal issues with Park Chung-hee. An attempt to draw out Kim’s motivations for the decision would have made for a smoother, more interesting narrative. Ultimately, the novel would have been just as effective as a comment on the tragedy of division and the strength of family if carried by Jung’s character and story alone.

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1. Hong Sang-hwa, The Intelligence Agent [정보원] (Seoul: Hangungmunhaksa, 2016).