Telling the Complex History of Korea’s Occupation

Posted November 21, 2023

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Featured, Korea

On the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the twisted wreckage of a train sits on a set of rails that end abruptly before they can proceed northward. The wreck, what remains of a train bombed during the Korean War, rests outside Woljeong-ri train station, the northernmost station on the Gyeongwon line before the border. When I visited the DMZ in 2018, I stood before this rusted remnant — a poignant reminder of the tragedies of war and the division of the peninsula — without knowing very much about the train or its history.

Only when I picked up the latest novel by the celebrated Korean writer Sok-yong Hwang did I get the rest of the story. The locomotive in question is a Mater 2-10 — the name comes from the Japanese abbreviation for mountain — and it was put into operation in the first part of the 20th century when Japan began its colonization of Korea.

Mater 2-10 is also the title of Hwang’s novel. The story dramatizes Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation, connecting it narratively to labor protests in contemporary South Korea. It is a dense and ultimately rewarding work that introduces readers to such unexpected details as the operation of steam trains, the production of pounded rice cake, and the ideological disputes among Communist cadres in the Korean underground.

Hwang has published an astonishing array of novels, using settings that range across the broad expanse of modern Korean history. Some of these books are long and dense, and more detailed than most non-Korean readers might be willing to absorb. But at their best, Hwang’s novels reveal the complicated histories behind their narratives. The Shadow of Arms covers Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War and the role of war profiteering; The Old Garden follows democracy activists during the 1970s and 1980s with a focus on the Gwangju Uprising of 1980.

Even his shorter novels contain surprises. The Guest introduced me to a hidden history that I thought I knew, in this case an atrocity that took place in Sinchon during the Korean War and that I learned about, inaccurately as it turned out, when I visited the North Korean site in 1999. Like Mater 2-10, The Guest pulled aside a curtain that I barely knew existed so that I could peek at what lay on the other side.

The period of Japanese colonialism is never far from Hwang’s writing, because for most Koreans that era is not ancient history. Although the Japanese withdrew from Korea at the end of World War II in 1945, nearly 80 years ago, the colonial legacy still complicates Korean-Japanese relations today, most prominently around the Korean demands for an apology and compensation for the women who were forcibly drafted into military sexual slavery by Japan during the long Pacific war. Less prominent, but equally consequential, is the debate in Korea over the contributions that Japan did or did not make to the modernization of the Korean peninsula.

Trains are a key component of the industrialization of a country. They not only convey passengers more quickly across territory, they open hitherto inaccessible industrial and agriculture regions to national and global markets. In a colonial system, trains also facilitate the exploitation of natural resources that enrich the colonizing power.  By 1945, the investments that the colonizer made into tracks and rolling stock had turned Korea, according to historian Bruce Cumings, into “the most developed rail system in Asia outside of Japan.”

The price tag on this economic development for Koreans was high, and Mater 2-10 explores these costs, including the Japanese expropriation of Korean land to build the lines and stations. One of the characters in the novel exclaims:

Japan is like a thief placing a ladder against the wall so they can climb over and rob our house. Do you really think they built the railroads for us? From the beginning, the tracks that lead from the peninsula up into the continent were called a military railway. That’s how they were able to grab all that land and labour to build it.

It wasn’t only land: Japan also expropriated Korean souls. It drafted Koreans to build the railroads and then, eventually, to staff them. Yet it was a rare privilege to become an engineer on one of the enormous locomotives that pulled passengers and freight from Busan in the south all the way up to the Japanese territory of Manchuria in northeastern China.

Mater 2-10 focuses on a pair of brothers, one of whom, Ilcheol Yi, becomes just such a train engineer. To rise to that position, however, Ilcheol must make a series of compromises with the colonial authorities, whether speaking Japanese with his Japanese colleagues or ultimately giving up his Korean name in favor of a Japanese one. His brother Icheol, meanwhile, takes the route of resistance, risking imprisonment, torture, and eventually death.

The tensions between the brothers — whose names mean “one steel” and “two steel” in Korean — form the backbone of the novel. They stand in for the two halves of the Korean population at the time, those who collaborated and those who resisted.

At one point, Icheol says to his brother, “I know being a slave to the Japanese is how you survive, but…”

“You can curse at me all you want, but this is how all people without a country live,” Ilcheol replies.

Since my own first novel was about trains, I enjoyed reading about the details of Ilcheol’s job as an engineer, from the spraying of sand on the rails to improve traction during inclement weather to the screech of the wheels as the train traversed tracks that widened by a mere 10 millimeters. Hwang is a master of such details.

But even though I’m similarly fascinated by the politics of underground movements, I’m frankly mystified by Hwang’s inclusion of what seem to be historical materials from Icheol’s activities as a clandestine organizer. Readers are thus subjected to the full text of the Red Flag mission statement with all of its wooden agitprop content. Later, Hwang reprints a transcription of Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast of “surrender,” followed by an extended commentary. Then, as if that were not enough documentary material, the texts of Douglas MacArthur’s post-war proclamations take up a couple more pages of the novel.

I understand Hwang’s desire to detail the exceptionally brave work of the underground resistance during Japanese colonialism. But the splits among various Communist factions over strategy don’t have much bearing on the development of the novel’s plot. The documents covering the Japanese surrender and the new rules of the U.S. occupation authority certainly reinforce Hwang’s point that not much changed after 1945, aside from the replacement of one colonial authority by another. But surely he could have devised a more novelistic way of conveying that information. So, too, could he have avoided some rather wooden exposition that clumsily relates his points:

The Korean people had taken a huge leap toward building the independent nation and democratic society of their hopes and desires. Having those hopes crushed by the U.S. military occupation so immediately after Liberation gave the people a bitter education in history and the laws of social development.

Even if they happen to be true, slogans make for weak literature.

Although the bulk of the novel takes place during the colonial period and just after, Hwang connects this historical story to the modern day with a clever framing device. A descendent of the Yi family, Yi Jino, is described at the beginning of the novel as being 45 meters up in the sky, atop a chimney connected to a heat-and-power plant. A labor activist protesting the dismissal of his fellow workers, Jino is camping out on a narrow catwalk in a tent with a sleeping bag. His comrades send up his food and take down his excretions.

Hwang was himself a labor activist who was jailed for his efforts. With Mater 2-10, he brings to life working-class characters who are present in Korean novels only as fringe characters if at all. Jino is a familiar figure in Korean life — labor activists were integral in the fight for democracy in the 1970s and 1980s and they continue to push for better working conditions and pay in South Korea today. However, the modern industrial worker is a rare figure in Korean literature, as Hwang notes in the novel’s afterward. With compassion, Hwang captures the frustrations of these workers:

In the past, workers had doused themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire, one after the other, as if the idea were contagious. Now what shattered workers wasn’t rage but despair — a mighty, terrifying enemy that slowly gnawed away at them day after day. Another protest assembly would end, and the workers would be on their own. Even after returning home to their waiting families, they were alone. The world has always been as indifferent as the universe. It is lonely, still, and silent. Tedious, worthless everyday life crushed them all. Dismissal was murder.

Like the holy ascetics of old who sat on columns in the desert, Jino sits atop the chimney and waits for a sign from above, this time in the form of a capitulation from a corporate CEO. It eventually comes, and he can descend from his catwalk. But like so many stories that take place on the Korean peninsula, it’s ultimately not a happy ending.

As in many of his novels, Hwang injects a measure of magical realism into Mater 2-10 by introducing various ghosts, psychics, and soothsayers. Atop his tower, Jino not only meditates on how his struggle connects with those of his predecessors, he actively summons these long dead figures to tell their stories, like character witnesses testifying in his defense during his trial by ordeal. The dead, it seems, are not dead, and the past clings to the characters like a powerful odor.

Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae do a masterful job of translating the novel, retaining many of the specific Korean words describing food and personal relationships. The Korean custom of referring to parents as the father or mother of the child becomes especially poignant at one point when Ilcheol is referred to as Jangsan Abeoji — the father of Jangsan — when the child Jangsan has been dead already for some time. The dead indeed stay with us in many ways.

So, too, can the full flavor of Korean life be experienced in the novel when Icheol is initially released from prison and his parents buy dog meat for medicinal dishes to restore his health — the “royal soup” of boshintang, the slices of meat (suyuk) that are wrapped in leaves with condiments, the spicy stir-fried duruchigi.

Dog meat is, of course, not to everyone’s taste, especially outside of Korea. Mater 2-10 might also test the patience, and even offend the literary tastes, of non-Korean readers. However, readers should hold back on any judgment of this complex novel and appreciate the extraordinary privilege of being invited as an honorary guest on a tour of Korean history and culture. This trip across the landscape of history and up into the heights of activism — the crucial axis of experience for many Koreans — ultimately proves both exhilarating and unforgettable.

Korea Quarterly, November 20, 2023

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