Skip to content

Korea Blog: Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir The Prisoner

The reunification of Germany has long been a topic of interest among South Koreans invested in relations with the North. When the Berlin Wall fell, Hwang Sok-yong was one of the few such South Koreans actually there to witness it. Though known primarily as a novelist, Hwang split his energies between writing and political agitation in the early decades of his now more than half-century-long literary career. He often failed to strike an ideal balance between the two, as he admits in his memoir The Prisoner (수인), recently published by Verso in Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell’s English translation. This German sojourn comes early in the book, whose 624 pages (condensed from the two-volume original) ultimately constitute a full autobiography, albeit a chronologically shuffled one. Through these episodes of his life he interweaves the titular narrative, that of his half-decade’s political imprisonment by the South Korean government.

It bears repeating that this is a memoir not of captivity in North Korea, a genre in which the US publishing industry has shown an insatiable interest, but of captivity in the South. Nevertheless, it is also in part a travelogue of North Korea, Hwang’s trip to which brought down his prison sentence in the first place. He took it in 1989, the year international travel opened up to ordinary South Koreans, though by that time he already possessed the rare distinction of experience abroad. The then-West Germany had invited him in 1985, and his time there plunged him into uncertainty about his very identity. “Who was I? I was forty-two. I had written four novellas and a volume of plays and had just published the tenth volume of my popular novel Jang Gil-san, which I had serialized since 1974. My work, however, did not exist outside of Korea.”

“A country bumpkin on his first overseas trip,” Hwang decided that in Germany he “wouldn’t even bother mentioning literature: I would only talk to as many people as possible about the plight of the citizens of Gwangju and our democracy movement.” The nine-day long violent conflict between protestors and the military in that South Korean city — now called the Gwangju Uprising, or by some the Gwangju Massacre — had occurred just five years earlier. That Hwang had been living there at the time would align with his uncanny knack for finding himself in the way of historic events, but other organizing commitments called him up to Seoul before the fighting broke out. “It always weighed on me that I was not there to stand with the people of Gwangju in their hour of need,” he admits, a guilt he first sought to alleviate through writing.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.