Left Behind by Korea’s Success

In South Korea these days, a popular dish at trendy restaurants is budae jjigae—an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stew full of noodles, red pepper paste, Spam, sausages, kimchi, American cheese, baked beans, tofu, and whatever else the chef might want to throw into the mix.

Budae means “battalion” in Korean, which points to the stew’s origins in the Korean War. The conflict took a heavy toll on agriculture and livestock—not to mention able-bodied farmers—and pushed many Koreans to the brink of starvation. Those living close enough to U.S. military outposts often scavenged from the nearby garbage dumps, secreting away items that U.S. soldiers prized least, such as Spam and baked beans. The addition of fermented cabbage and chili paste to these foreign tastes created something new and distinctly Korean.

South Korea has since become a wealthy country, but signs of past underdevelopment often still lurk just beneath the surface of everyday staples. Indeed, in novelist Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Thingsbudae jjigae features prominently, its inglorious origins a stand-in for all the other horrors that Koreans would prefer to forget. Familiar Things was initially published in South Korea in 2011; its English translation, which will finally be distributed in the United States starting this month, serves as a powerful and potentially contentious reminder of the difficult backstory to South Korean success.

As one of the country’s most prominent novelists, Hwang has never shied away from controversy. He has written about South Korean complicity in a Korean War massacre usually attributed to U.S. soldiers (The Guest, 2001), the abuses of the dictators that ruled South Korea during the Cold War (The Old Garden, 2000), and South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War (The Shadow of Arms, 1985).

With Familiar Things, Hwang turns his attention to the underside of South Korea’s remarkable economic development, namely, the vast underclass it has created. Hwang’s riveting tale of second-class citizenship, in which the main characters are forced to pick through garbage to survive, gestures not just at the country’s past and what was lost during rapid modernization. It also serves as an implicit warning about the future of the Korean peninsula.

As North and South Korea make tentative moves toward reconciliation, it is worth remembering that the economic gap between the two is staggering. Reunification remains a daunting challenge, not least because it is difficult to imagine a scenario that would not instantly turn North Koreans into second-class citizens and semi-permanent dependents.

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Familiar Things resonates with today’s political moment even though it is set in the early 1980s. At that time, South Korea was in a deep dictatorial funk and just beginning to enjoy some of the fruits of economic modernization. In the space of a single generation, the country rocketed from having one of the lowest per-capita GDPs to being one of the top industrialized nations in the world. But that economic miracle depended on the sacrifice of millions of farmers and industrial workers who tightened their belts—or had their belts tightened for them.

The protagonists of Familiar Things—a boy, nicknamed Bugeye, and his mother—are two members of this pivotal generation. Thirty years have passed since the Korean War, but they too must pick through trash to survive. The novel takes place almost entirely on “Flower Island,” a garbage dump on the outskirts of an unnamed South Korean city.

The dirty, dangerous, demeaning work at the dump is in fact a step up for Bugeye and his mother, who were on the verge of going hungry after the authorities marched off his father to one of the dictatorship’s “reeducation camps.” To celebrate their arrival, Bugeye and his mother’s new neighbors at the dump welcome them with “Flower Island stew,” which Bugeye’s mother immediately recognizes as budae jjigae. It is a signal that their survival will depend on cast-offs—this time not from U.S. soldiers but from their Korean brethren.

By the 1980s, South Koreans had become prosperous enough to throw out perfectly edible food as well as usable clothes, fixable appliances, and even the building materials that Flower Islanders use to create shacks for themselves. The garbage pickers extract everything that can be recycled—paper, metal, plastic, glass—in order to earn their modest wages. The smell of garbage on Flower Island is pervasive, and the odor marks the scavengers as an underclass. In order to venture into the city without attracting scorn, the Flower Islanders must keep a separate set of clothes at a nearby drycleaners.

Bugeye, who is thirteen but looks older, quickly acclimates to his new life. He befriends the younger boy next door, Baldspot, and joins a local gang of kids. But it is far from an idyllic life:

In the shantytown where they lived, children were useless, worth less than scrap metal. To make matters worse, no one wanted to deal with a kid like Baldspot, who was slow and stammered when he spoke. For the grown-ups, who had to work nonstop from dawn to dusk, children were nothing more than an obstacle that slowed them down.

Baldspot initiates Bugeye into the otherworldly realm of the dokkaebi, a variety of spirit that alternately plays tricks on humans or assists them, depending on the dokkaebi’s disposition. The dokkaebi of Flower Island are the area’s former inhabitants from before South Korea’s great economic leap forward and the subsequent arrival of the garbage. With this excursion into magical realism, Hwang strives to capture the often-surreal experience of South Korea’s mad dash to modernity.

Unlike the trash-pickers, the dokkaebi need the children. These hungry ghosts ask the two children to get them a prized food item: memilmuk. This traditional dish, a buckwheat jelly, is both a favorite of dokkaebi and also part of the ceremonial offerings made to ancestors. It is a taste of the past, of the countryside, and of a way of life that Korea’s modernization is gradually eroding.

When the children offer the dokkaebi their memilmuk, one of the spirits who steps forward to thank them is wearing a baseball cap that says “New Village Movement.” It is a telling detail that all Korean readers would instantly recognize. The New Village Movement was both an effort in the 1970s to modernize villages—replacing thatch roofs, for instance, with tile—and to eliminate any lingering forms of resistance in the countryside. The government program also sought to suppress older belief systems such as Confucian-style ancestor worship. Through the New Village Movement, the authorities would have displaced the original inhabitants of Flower Island to make room for the garbage dump. And so for the dokkaebi to wear such a hat is the equivalent of a recently laid-off coal miner continuing to sport his “Make America Great Again” cap.

In return for the memilmuk, the dokkaebi direct the children to a stash of money buried in the garbage. Bugeye and Baldspot use it to buy new clothes, go to a public bathhouse, and emerge as different children. As if seeing each other for the first time, they exchange their real names, transformed into more than their defects. Then they take a trip into the nearby city where they buy a Nintendo and search out food unavailable on Flower Island, including, of course, the ultimate sign of economic progress: hamburgers and French fries.

Modernization is a process of throwing out the old and welcoming the new, regardless of the relative merits of either. To accomplish this magic trick, modernization makes the radically new into the commonplace even as it transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar. As Hwang writes:

People threw away so many things that by the time the objects lost their shape and decomposed into smaller and smaller and more complex parts, they became strange and curious objects that bore no resemblance whatsoever to whatever the machines in the factories had originally spat out.

Through this transformation, Flower Island conceals in its scrap heap the violence of the past—the dislocation of both people and things—in the same way that budae jjigae hides the Korean War in its hybrid flavors. The new is built on the terrain of the discarded.

But the violence of Flower Island is also ongoing. Scavengers die when they slip beneath the dump trucks. They lose arms and legs. The garbage itself conceals pockets of highly flammable methane that send up occasional fireballs. One night, in fact, the entire shantytown goes up in flames, and more than a dozen trash-pickers perish. Baldspot, mid-evacuation, turns around to fetch his beloved Nintendo and disappears into the conflagration.

The cheap luxuries produced by modernization have an instant appeal but, Hwang reminds us, their allure is ultimately dangerous. Things are expendable in the wild whirligig of economic progress, and so are people, a conclusion that strikes Bugeye with considerable force: “People bought things with money, did whatever they wanted with those things, and threw them away when they were no longer of use. Maybe folks like him had also been thrown away when they were no longer of use.”

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North Korea makes no appearance in Familiar Things. But it lurks just beyond the pages: as the enemy that required the sacrifices of the Korean War, as the threat that the dictators of the Cold War frequently invoked to justify their clampdowns, and as the economic competitor that pushed South Korea to embark on its ambitious effort to integrate into the global economy. The North Koreans are the unfamiliar things that, even more so than the dokkaebi, lie beyond the ken of the denizens of the South.

Hwang has wrestled with the challenge of North Korea as both a novelist and a progressive activist. His first novel, Mr. Han’s Chronicle (1970), depicts the travails of a family divided by the Korean War, and subsequent books, such as The Guest, squarely address South Korea’s complex perceptions of the North.

As a labor activist, Hwang spent a couple of years in prison in the 1960s. He stepped up his opposition to successive dictatorial governments and even went into exile in the United States. He returned to Korea in 1993 only to be thrown in prison once again where he conducted numerous hunger strikes to protest conditions both inside and outside his cell. He was released in 1998 after a presidential pardon, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung subsequently sent him to visit North Korea as part of a new wave of cultural exchanges.

Hwang has long been concerned about the empty materialism of South Korean society, its flashy consumerism, and its growing indifference to traditional values. But with Familiar Things, he is also sending out a warning about possible Korean futures. Do not risk your lives for cheap video games, Hwang is telling his brethren to the north. Do not content yourself with living on what the rich throw your way.

Today, many of the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea self-report feeling as though they are “second-class citizens.” Like Bugeye and his mother, most of these exiles arrive in the promised land with virtually nothing only to discover that their new home is, if not atop a garbage dump, then a considerably less desirable location than they imagined. Marked not by a peculiar odor but by their accent and their lack of marketable skills, the North Korean defectors often end up with the same demeaning jobs forced upon Bugeye and his mother, such as cleaning the streets or workplaces of the South. They suffer from discrimination and homesickness in equal measure. Although the South Korean government lists only a dozen or so defectors who have returned to the North, as many as 25 percent want to go home, despite the obvious political and economic hardships back there.

These defectors amount to a mere 0.14 percent of the North Korean population and yet South Korea, despite its wealth, has had great difficulty accommodating them. Little wonder then that many South Koreans are skeptical of their country’s capacity to absorb North Korea in a German-style reunification.

For North Korea to have a chance of becoming an equal partner in any future reunification, it will have to undergo its own accelerated modernization. But in the end, Hwang seems doubtful of the capacity of economic development to provide an answer to economic inequality and political disenfranchisement. Familiar Things concludes with an image of sweet-smelling flowers pushing aside the charred earth and garbage. “They would come back,” he writes. “They always had.” During this current global environmental crisis when humanity has trashed so much of the planet, perhaps Hwang is suggesting that everyone pay more attention to enduring nature rather than transient commerce.

Boston Review, May 15, 2018


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