According to the official North Korean version, the Americans were the culprits. In October 1950, the first year of the Korean War, American soldiers massacred tens of thousands of innocent people in the North Korean city of Sinchon. In perhaps the most horrifying incident, US soldiers led 900 residents, including 300 women and children, into an air-raid shelter. After the victims passed three days in thirst and fear, the GIs poured gasoline into the dark, confined space and threw in a match. Today in Sinchon, the North Korean authorities have memorialized this slaughter with burial mounds for the victims. The nearby American Imperial Massacre Remembrance Museum holds tours for school groups and the occasional foreign visitor. In September 1998 I visited the Sinchon museum and listened to the guide itemize the many wartime cruelties committed by American troops. She took our delegation to the burned-out shell of the air-raid shelter and, on the basis of survivor accounts, reconstructed the atrocities. It would be another year before the Associated Press published the first revelations of the US killings of civilians in July 1950 under a railway bridge near the South Korean hamlet of Nogun-ri. But based on what historian Bruce Cumings and others had described of US conduct during the Korean War–the saturation bombings, the threatened use of nuclear weapons–the museum guide’s well-rehearsed stories seemed plausible, even accounting for the embellishments of North Korean propaganda.
In the 1980s South Korean novelist Hwang Sok-Yong visited the same museum. He subsequently interviewed several survivors of the Sinchon massacre who had immigrated to the United States. Their description of what transpired in the fall of 1950 diverged so radically from the North Korean account that Hwang was driven to write about the incident. His novel The Guest provoked fierce controversy among readers in South Korea, where it was published in 2001.
Finally available in English, in a translation by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West, The Guest joins the handful of Korean novels published in the United States. While Japanese and Chinese literatures have established footholds in intellectual circles here–from the classics of Sun Tzu and Junichiro Tanizaki to Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain and the postmodern fictions of Haruki Murakami–Korean literature remains terra incognita. Japan and China, of course, built empires. Korea suffered the indignities of colonialism at the hands of its neighbors and now endures the frustrations of relative cultural invisibility in the eyes of the West. American novelists such as Chang-Rae Lee and Nora Okja Keller have drawn inspiration from Korean material, but no Korean author has become a household name in the United States–despite the brilliance of Yi Munyol’s meditation on authoritarian psychology in Our Twisted Hero or Ahn Junghyo’s blistering portrait of South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War in White Badge.
But Korean literature is finally attracting more of its rightful share of the limelight. In October 2005 South Korea was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. As part of the festivities, sixty-two South Korean writers gave readings to enthralled German audiences. One of those present in Frankfurt, poet Ko Un, has appeared on the Nobel shortlist for several years. A clutch of Korean translations have recently appeared, from classics like Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations and Lee Mu-young’s Farmers to avant-garde short stories and the work of too-often-overlooked women writers. Even North Korean fiction, perhaps the least accessible of any Communist literature, is attracting renewed attention.
Korean culture has a certain pungency that complicates its entry into the global mainstream. Korean movies, traditional songs and fermented dishes are acquired tastes. This pungency has been sharpened by Korea’s recent historical experience. The twentieth century, after all, was not kind to the Korean peninsula. The first fifty years were marred by Japanese colonialism, the second fifty by division, fratricidal war and the dictatorial politics that dominated both North and South. Famine and its attendant diseases killed as much as 10 percent of the North Korean population in a few short years at the end of the 1990s. Added to these unspeakable horrors are the quotidian but no less heartbreaking tragedies that accompanied rapid industrialization, despoliation of the environment and the cold war separation of so many families.