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Archive for the 'Korea' Category

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Conflict between North and South Korea, on an Intimate Scale

Meeting with My Brother
Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Ani Kodzhabasheva, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, reflects on Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother and current events.

Are you confused by the barrage of threats launched daily from North Korea towards the United States, and vice versa? Following the news on the issue has shown me that I’m not the only one. Even policy analysts and military strategists can seem at a loss.

One of this week’s attempts to explain the situation in Northeast Asia is a New York Times piece that takes us to Yanji and Dandong, two cities on North Korea’s border with China. The reporter, Chris Buckley, talks to locals and tourists in an attempt to gauge their mood. What do they think of North Korea? Of the United States? His brief conversations reveal some of the anxieties that those in the region deal with on a daily basis.

But, as is often the case, there is more to the story than one can glean from the news. In fact, the people of Yanji have been affected by North and South Korea’s political fluctuations for decades, and the precariousness of international relations in the region has more or less persisted since the onset of the Korean War. Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother, set in Yanji in the early 1990s, shows that the city has long been subject to secret police spying, as well as a base for legal or not-so-legal cross-border exchange. In Yi Mun-yol’s novella, the South Korean narrator encounters his half-brother from the North for the first time, and the traumas of Korea’s division play out on an intimate scale.

The plot of Meeting with My Brother unfolds over just a few days in Yanji—in a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and on the bank of the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China. Within this tightly delineated setting, Yi weaves together multiple narratives that create a microcosm of whole societies torn apart by military and ideological conflict. In addition to the two long-lost brothers, Yi populates his novella with a Chinese Korean woman from Yanji who is bitter about the prejudice she experienced in the South; the overly zealous “Mr. Reunification,” who often bores his companions with his utopian pronouncements; and a cynical businessman engaged in mysterious trade with the North.

Struggling to make the best of their predicaments, Yi’s flawed characters can sometimes make you laugh, although the overwhelming mood is one of reflection and mourning. Yi shows to what extent our lives are shaped by historical events much larger than us and how, at the same time, these events demand of us that we take a moral stand. During his stay in Yanji, the narrator, who first approaches his long-lost brother with a sense of pity, is forced to reckon with his own life choices.

The little book is written in a dispassionate, reportage-like tone (the narrator is a professor of history in Seoul), yet it carries a surprising emotional heft. Several characters who boast a certain ideology—be it capitalism or communism, nationalism or pro-American beliefs—are brought by the events in Yanji to a new sense of humility. Nobody leaves without any scars, or a bit of redemption. Fiery rhetoric gives way to self-doubt, as the encounters in Yanji make clear that the Korean War has left no absolute winners and losers. Hyeok, the North Korean brother, struggles with jealousy; the narrator, Professor Yi, begins to confront his suppressed guilt about the way he achieved his success. The struggle to communicate leads to many dramatic reversals, as certain words or memories elicit pain or misunderstanding.

The book provides no clear answers about politics, diplomacy, or the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is these very conflicts, which are once again crowding the news today, that are being dramatized in Meeting with My Brother. Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker that “There is no moral to Yi’s story.” That is essentially true. Yet, in the end, the moral is that political divisions have a human dimension and that, in order to understand history and how it shapes current events, we need to look beyond the political agendas of the day.

At this historical moment, Meeting with My Brother’s finely crafted story gives us an occasion to ask ourselves, What would it be like to empathize with people in North Korea? Yi Mun-yol’s narrator, through his self-exploration, serves as an example of how that radical question might be answered.

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Introducing Meeting with My Brother

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“In his literary work, and in his private life, Yi not only responds to themes directly relevant to himself; he is also profoundly aware of the contemporary predicament of Korea—currently ranked the sixth most “wired” nation on the planet according to Bloomberg—in the age of the Internet and media manipulation. It is not only the younger generation of Koreans that is ruled by consumerism, narcissism, and hunger for fame and fortune. Yi’s work seems to be designed precisely to be disillusioning, and perhaps even traumatic, to such a readership because it dares to go against the grain of both popular and normative thinking.” — Heinz Insu Fenkl

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. Today, we are happy to present Heinz Insu Fenkl’s introduction to Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

The Madame of Yanji

Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life

“She lowered her voice and sneaked a quick glance toward the kitchen. ‘You’re from Seoul, so I’m sure you’ve heard,’ she said quickly, ‘but do you know how I scrounged to make that money? I made it washing bloody underwear for prostitutes and getting groped by drunkards while I was bussing tables at a hostess club. What else but money would make a married woman put up with that sort of thing?’” — Yi Mun-yol

This week, we are pleased to feature two exciting new works of literature in translation: Meeting with My Brother, by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang, and Remains of Life, by by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Meeting with My Brother.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win both Meeting with My Brother and Remains of Life!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Sandra Fahy on North Korea and the Impact of Famine

Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering

“This fact, that they use humor and wordplay, directly challenges the notion that [North Koreans] are all brainwashed victims.”—Sandra Fahy

Earlier this Fall, North Korea News interviewed Sandra Fahy about her book Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, which we just published. It’s a fascinating interview in which Fahy describes some of the challenges of studying North Korea, particularly given her background in anthropology. Obviously not able to talk to people living in North Korea, Fahy spoke with recent defectors to learn about how North Koreans make sense of their world.

Fahy points out that the famine in North Korea has not produced the kind of social upheaval some policymakers thought might happen. She argues that famine rarely does cause these kinds of monumental change, however, she was surprised by the lack of anger on the part of North Koreans:

When I was conducting the research I was surprised by something: I had expected North Koreans would have been angry, annoyed, judging of the state for failing to provide food for them (as it promised to do).

They were angry after the fact, in South Korea and China, but when I asked them to recollect their lives in North Korea they did not have anger toward the state then. They did not see the triage of resources toward the military, toward the capital, as unfair. Rather “that’s just the way it was”—this kind of banal rationalization that was unusual to me.

I believe my most important findings are these: first of all, we should not presume that those who defect are always and necessarily the worst off. Many still hold the memory of Kim Il Sung highly, while demonizing Kim Jong Il.


Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: My Father, by Hwang Sunwon

Lost Souls

“What a fine son I had turned out to be, so enamored of Seoul that I had uprooted my parents from the ancestral home and dragged them here, and now look at me! For their part, Father and Mother made sure that this fine child of theirs understood that when times were difficult it was even more important to do the right thing.” — Hwang Sunwon

In addition to distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation, Columbia University Press also boasts a strong in-house list of Asian fiction in translation. In today’s Father’s Day-themed Thursday Fiction Corner, we are happy to present “My Father,” a short story from Korean author Hwang Sunwon’s collection, Lost Souls: Stories, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

National Poetry Month Selection: “Azaleas” by Kim Sowol


April is National Poetry Month and in honor of the occasion, we have been posting poems from our poetry collections and those of our distributed presses throughout April. Today, as April draws to a close, we are posting three poems from Korean poet Kim Sowol’s classic collection, Azaleas, translated by David R. McCann. Kim Sowol is one the most beloved Korean poets, despite the fact that he died when he was only 32. Azaleas, Kim Sowol’s only collection, was published when he was 23, and tells the story of a young man’s travels after leaving home. While the entire collection contains 127 poems, we’ve chosen (with great difficulty) three to post here today.

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

North Korea: Analysis from Columbia University Press Authors

A variety of Columbia University Press authors have been asked to comment on recent events in North Korea, including Victor Cha coauthor of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, who appeared on PBS Newshour to discuss the death of Kim Jong-il and its possible impact on North Korea and the United States.

Meanwhile, Cha’s coauthor David Kang spoke about the legacy of Kim Jong-il on NPR. In the interview, Kang addressed the possibility of a kind of “Arab Spring” happening in North Korea:

We tend to focus in America on the repressive side because there is certainly – it’s a police state. And there are 100, 200,000 people in prison camps. There’s a massive military and police presence. At the same time, as Sandra pointed out, this is the only game in town and so it’s very hard – if you imagine people who maybe unhappy down in a village somewhere, for them to organize and get together and actually engage in an Arab Spring is extremely difficult in North Korea.

So, in many ways I think the idea that there’ll be a popular uprising is really unlikely and what most of us think about is it would be some kind of palace coup or some top-down kind of problems that would eventually lead to an overthrow in North Korea. Not necessarily bottom-up with people taking to the streets.


Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Jennifer Crewe on Korean literature in translation

Jennifer CreweThe blog New Yorker in Seoul recently interviewed Jennifer Crewe about Columbia University Press’s list in Korean literature. Jennifer, who is the editorial director and associate director of the press, has acquired titles in Korean for the press, making Columbia one of the leading publisher in Korean literature.

In her discussion with Patricia Park, Jennifer discusses the criteria for what the Press decides to publish, the review process, as well as some of the challenges of publishing North Korean literature. Here is Jennifer on what she looks for in a manuscript:

I am looking for fiction whose author is highly respected both in Korea and by scholars who teach Korean literature in the United States, and for work that will appeal to college students and that could be assigned in Korean literature or history courses in the US. For example, work that depicts life during a particular time in Korean history–the colonial period for example (Yi T’aejun’s Eastern Sentiments is one example from our list), or whose characters are dealing with a traumatic event in Korean history (for example Park Wan-shu’s Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, or a novel by Sok-pom Kim, written in Japanese by an author of Korean descent, called The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost, about the Four-Three Incident of 1948). These books are often used to help teach history.

Here’s a sampling of some of titles translated from Korean: There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun, translated by Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton; Lost Souls: Stories, by Hwang Sunwon, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton; Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel, by Park Wan-suh; Translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein; Azaleas: A Book of Poems, Kim Sowol, translated by David R. McCann; Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, Edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Victor Cha on the crisis in the Korean peninsula

“It was a clearly premeditated act. And it is the most serious act of aggression by the North against the South, military-to-military, since the end of the Korean War. I mean they’ve done terrorist acts that have killed more people, such as the airliner, but this is a clear violation of the armistice.”—Victor Cha in an interview on Council of Foreign Relations Web site.

Victor ChaIn a frank interview with the Council of Foreign Relations, Victor Cha, co-author of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, assesses the motivations behind and repercussions of North Korea’s attack on and sinking of a corvette that killed forty-six Korean sailors.

Cha gives three possible reasons for North Korea’s attack: 1.) Retaliation for an altercation that took place in November 2009; 2.) Unhappiness with the conservative South Korean government; 3.) “an external manifestation of legitimization of the youngest son [of Kim Joing-il], Kim Jong-Un, as the next leader of North Korea.

He also argues that despite the harsh reactions of the United States and South Korea, North Korea will only feel the pressure to change their behavior if there is pressure from China. However, so far “the Chinese thus far have been weak, clumsy, totally anachronistic in terms of how they’ve dealt with this.”