Unwelcome Guests in 1950s Korea

Cover art of The Guest.
Cover art of The Guest.

Hwang Sok-yong is a prolific South Korean author. He published The Guest in 2005, and I think it met with negative reviews amongst the Korean population. I guess they didn’t like the fact that this book portrays both North Koreans and South Koreans, both Christians and communists (which were the conflicting political forces during the Korean War), in a sympathetic light.

The book is about the Korean War. More specifically, it focuses on a guy named Ryu Yosop who lives in America in the present times. He gets a chance to go back and visit his hometown in North Korea through a special tourist program, and so travels back to his homeland, where he begins confronting the memories of the war during the mid-20th century and the ghosts of his past.

Literally. There are ghosts in this story. They pop out every once in a while to tell us their history and stuff.

As the book progresses, we get to hear all sides of the story. We hear why a Christian man thought he was doing the right thing in killing the communists, because the communists were devils trying to take away their land. We hear why a communist man thought he was justified in taking rich people’s lands, because those lands should rightly be distributed to the poor farmers who actually till it. We hear a guy in a neutral position who points out that everybody in the war was guilty, whether Christian or communist.

“Suddenly slamming his thick palm down on the table, Uncle Some shouted, ‘Show me one soul who wasn’t to blame!'”

I thought the book did a good job at presenting all sides of the stories with equal weight. Today’s society is pretty opposed to communism as a whole; the South Korean society still bears a lot of hate for communism because the bloody conflict happened within the last 50 years. The author tries reeeeeeaaaaaally hard to make sure the speaker representing the communist party doesn’t get “defeated” by the other voices in the story.

It’s a meaningful work. Not meant to offer a definitive solution, but working towards it, primarily by stimulating mutual communication between the parties. Where there is communication, there will be understanding, and when individuals begin to understand, there may be a potential for reconciliation. I think that’s the idea being conveyed.

As a literary work, the book doesn’t make it easy for you. The beginning is slow and a bit boring. The narrative perspective shifts back and forth between multiple people without any transition, warning, or identification. You have to struggle a bit to figure out which “I” is speaking now. Is it the Christian? The Communist? The protagonist? Maybe in a way, this is another one of Hwang’s strategies: make it hard to distinguish between each speaker, so that their identities begin to blend. Maybe they aren’t so different after all – just human beings, who all experienced hardship, misunderstanding, and ideological passion.

P.S. while the use of Biblical passages and Christian doctrines had a significant role in the book and the ideological war, I’d just like to point out that much of the Christian beliefs are misunderstood by the characters in this novel. Communists are not Satan’s minions; Christians are not meant to go out and kill political opponents in the name of God.

1 Corinthians 13 declares: “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” This is the real truth. There is no meaning outside love, no matter how many times people shout the name of Jesus. The fact that Christians were identified as one side of the Korean War is an unfortunate truth, but I hope this does not cause anyone to misunderstand the real truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which greatly differs from the beliefs of Hwang Sok-yong’s characters.

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