Imagining a Sino-US Conflict: Review of Kim Jin-myung’s Novel “US-China War”

By | March 05, 2018 | No Comments

President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House situation room during the Six-Day War of 1967. | Image: Wikicommons

A good many knowledgeable people in the United States and elsewhere have been on edge since early 2017 over the possibility that the Trump administration could decide to rain “fire and fury” upon the DPRK if it continues to test the delivery systems that Pyongyang hopes will propel its nuclear warheads all the way to the continental United States. Going a step further, with a practiced-if-conspiratorial eye for what troubles South Korean society, novelist Kim Jin-myung released the behemoth US-China War in December last year. Kim controversially alleges that Washington’s strategic goal may not “merely” be the demolition of the DPRK, but crossing the Yalu to destroy the rising China, too. Of course, identifying a contentious issue is only the first step. The next is to write about it convincingly. Here, Robert Lauler passes judgement. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor

Imagining a Sino-US Conflict: Kim Jin-myung’s Novel “US-China War”

by Robert Lauler

The first volume of Kim Jin-myung’s intriguing US-China War, which came out in December last year.

Kim, Jin-myung. US-China War 1: Pungye-ri H-Bomb. Seoul: Sam & Parkers Korea, 2017. 280 pp. ISBN 978-8-96570-545-1. US-China War 2: White House War Room. Seoul: Sam & Parkers, 2017. 288 pp. ISBN 978-8-96570-546-8.

It is difficult to think of a more aptly titled book coming out at the end of 2017 than Kim Jin-myung’s two-volume novel, US-China War [미중전쟁]. Coming off the rise in tensions between the US and North Korea in mid- to late 2017, Kim’s novel imagines the US using a “preemptive attack” on North Korea as a pretext for attacking China.

Kim Jin-myung: South Korea’s Oracle | Kim is perhaps most famous for his 1993 novel, The Rose of Sharon Has Blossomed, which imagined North and South Korean joining together to develop an atomic bomb to defeat a Japanese invasion. His numerous, popular novels have been reviewed by the CIA, which has undoubtedly raised his street cred as a commentator on political and foreign affairs. His 2014 book, THAAD was lionized as having “predicted” the troubles South Korea would have with China over that issue. His works can be credited with raising the profile of many critical issues to South Koreans and, indeed, to Koreans on both sides of the 38th Parallel (he is fabled to be very popular in North Korea; there is little cause to believe that at least some of his novels have not made it across the DMZ). However, while his novels both project and color the perceptions of South Koreans regarding major domestic, foreign policy, and even historical (his six-volume novel Koguryo [고구려] sheds light on that period of Korean history) issues, they undoubtedly fall into a tried and true formula of sinister plots by foreign nations colored by a nationalistic, cynical reading of current events.

Kim Jin-myung’s THAAD, lauded for successfully predicting the onrushing clash between China and South Korea/U.S. over deployment of the THAAD missile defense system.

Sacrificing Korea to get China | US-China War largely follows in these footsteps, not only from a popularity standpoint (the first volume of the book made it into the top 10 sellers in December 2017) but also from a cynical take on US, Chinese, and Russian foreign policy.1)Already his book’s narrative has been reviewed favorably for its basis on the author’s “journalistic insight” and prediction that the US is aiming to start a war. On the American side, Trump is the front man for a scheme — concocted and managed by a secret “order of knights” of the Jewish persuasion2)The author describes their noses as “giving away” their Jewish background, vol. 2, p. 123. — that aims to restore America’s rightful place in the world at a time when the country is being “gutted” economically by China.3)Through one of his characters, Kim describes America’s “sad fate” as the world’s only country that cannot abandon its military power even if the country were to go broke economically, vol. 2, p. 101. At one point, Kim’s Trump states that his only reason for becoming president was to “destroy” China to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s plan is simple: launch an attack against North Korea that will draw in the Chinese and then expand the war to destroy the PRC. Trump’s trusted advisor, Jared Kushner, looms large in this plot, playing up his role of “fixer” by variously flying to the Middle East, Russia, and other places to serve as Trump’s mouthpiece in something akin to the Nixon-era Henry Kissinger.4)Notably, Henry Kissinger himself makes a “cameo” in the novel where he advises that Trump has three stark options toward North Korea: 1) destroy it; 2) ignore it; or 3) allow China to do whatever it wants with the Korean peninsula, vol. 2, pp. 9 – 19.

Xi Jinping, interestingly, makes only a brief appearance throughout the 600-odd pages. He engages in a 14-page monologue, churning over Trump’s threats to “punish” China if it fails to discontinue trade with North Korea, while expressing hope Trump will launch an attack North Korea “because the North Koreans would hate the US and South Korea, and provide an opportunity” for China to step in as saviors (pp. 250). Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the key in Trump’s plan to invade North Korea and squash the Chinese. Trump secures Putin’s agreement not to intervene in a US expansion of the war to China – a twist clearly attached to Trump’s alleged connections with the Russian state throughout the book.

East Asia’s Mediator State: South Korea | These non-Korean characters are juxtaposed by considerably more irreproachable South Korean characters. Kim In-cheol, a lawyer for the World Bank and his on-again off-again girlfriend Chae Hee-ji, who first works for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then — somewhat jarringly — as an economic consultant for the Blue House, join forces to uncover the plot. South Korean president Moon Jae-in is portrayed a bit country-bumpkin-like and as being surrounded by a bunch of advisors who are solely intent on harmony with North Korea. Kim Jong Un, for his part, makes some mention in the book as monitoring the development of the country’s nuclear program and unbelieving of an American attack against his country.

Within all this scheming and preparations for war, Kim clearly places South Korea in the role of a “mediator.” This seems to harken back to Roh Moo-hyun’s attempt to place the country in that role and has been the dream of many who see South Korea as being stuck between the competing interests of the US and China. Ultimately, the novel crescendos into one masterstroke when Moon is able to halt the attack on North Korea and undercut Trump through some quick backdoor diplomacy. He sends his best and brightest out to all the concerned countries and convinces them that war will benefit no one. Trump’s plans are shattered.

Acting Before It’s Too Late | To paraphrase French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s gripe about literature: truly accomplished works are read by a relative few, while those that are unreadable are read by many people. This book arguably falls into the latter. On top of Kim’s caricatures of major foreign policy makers, the novel is swimming in strangely crafted fluff. Whole tracts of the book are devoted to what can be assumed to be the author’s thoughts on private education in South Korea and a somewhat confusing and awkwardly manufactured love story between In-cheol and Hee-ji and In-cheol and an American FBI agent, Irene, who is also the sister of one of the book’s main American plotmeisters. Perhaps in some sort of cross-cultural commentary, In-cheol and Hee-ji’s love is portrayed as pure with love letters being written back and forth and Hee-ji “pulling back” from a kiss. In-cheol’s interactions with Irene are more “flirty” with them even kissing at one point in the book. That In-cheol appears to be “double-timing” is ignored completely.

As many popular novels go, the book is largely dialogue. Trump’s style of speaking (“really, really good guy” and “bigly”) fails, however, to really translate that well into Korean: Korean-speaking Trump feels and sounds wholly different than real one portrayed daily on TV and through the press. The book’s timeline is also unclear. The book’s cover states that “If we don’t kill China, we die. The lights in the White House War Room have been lit and the 48 hours that will decide the fate of the Korean Peninsula has begun! [“중국을 죽이지 않으면 우리가 죽는 거요, 백악관 워룸에 불이 켜지고 한반도의 운명을 가를 48시간이 시작되었다.”] But the novel focuses on a much larger time frame — stretching out over months not days — due to all the plot twists and subplots. The book is, at best, a broad comment on where many Koreans (in both Koreas) stand regarding their place in the world and how they should respond: the major powers, particularly the US, see the Korean Peninsula as expendable and Koreans must be vigilant to ensure they are not taken advantage of.

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1. Already his book’s narrative has been reviewed favorably for its basis on the author’s “journalistic insight” and prediction that the US is aiming to start a war.
2. The author describes their noses as “giving away” their Jewish background, vol. 2, p. 123.
3. Through one of his characters, Kim describes America’s “sad fate” as the world’s only country that cannot abandon its military power even if the country were to go broke economically, vol. 2, p. 101.
4. Notably, Henry Kissinger himself makes a “cameo” in the novel where he advises that Trump has three stark options toward North Korea: 1) destroy it; 2) ignore it; or 3) allow China to do whatever it wants with the Korean peninsula, vol. 2, pp. 9 – 19.