A Personal Tale of a Korea's Division, a Novel and a FilmPark Sang-yun, whose book "DMZ" was recently made into the box-office hit "JSA (Joint Security Area)," agrees that his art also acts as an expression of guilt in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.
He said he would not have written the book if not for the guilt he felt at actions he took as a child. As a 12 year old, he twice won anti-communist writing contests at school. When asked what his dream was, he replied proudly that it was "the country's unification."
Much later, in his college years, he found the old essays in a drawer and felt "horrified" at what he found. By then, he was part of the student labor movement of the 1980s. "I couldn't believe that it was done by a 12 year old," he says. "It was well written and the voice was utterly convincing. The funny thing is that I hadn't even experienced the war. My hostility was groundless."
Mr. Park wrote "DMZ" in his fourth year of university. The story is set in the demilitarized zone, an area two kilometers wide that straddles the demarcation line between North and South Korea, and begins with a mystery shooting on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area. It takes as its main characters four sentry guards, two from the South and two from the North, who get so close they cross the line to see each other.
Lieutenant Flovere, a Brazilian-born half-Korean, is commissioned as a Neutral Nations' supervisor to help solve the murder. While the investigation proceeds, Flovere finds that his experiences in Korea are triggering a personal crisis of identity. The story elaborately juxtaposes Flovere's family history － especially that of his father, who fled to Switzerland after the Korean War － with the dilemma posed by the unexpected friendship that flourishes between the guards.
The major difference between the book and the film is that Lieutenant Flovere is replaced by a woman in the film, played by Lee Young-ae.
"Everyone looked at me when the director, Park Chan-wook, announced at the second meeting that he wanted the main character to be a woman," Mr. Park says. "They were all waiting for me to yell and walk out. But as soon as I heard him, I said, 'Hey, I should've done that.' I thought if this so-called masculine culture caused the last 50 years of violence, a woman would be the one who could look at the situation more objectively, and embrace it."
Characters from far-off nations such as Switzerland and Brazil also function in the book to provide an extra dimension of objectivity. Mr. Park has tried to look at the issue of North-South relations from a neutral standpoint.
"Brazil, the main character's birthplace, is a country where ethnic identity is less of an issue, because more than half of its population is of mixed race," he said. He also wanted to confront the question of lineage and ethnic identity often brought up within the context of Korea's national unification. He added, "Sharing an ethnicity means sharing common memories, not being born within the same geographical boundaries."
Mr. Park says bluntly in the epilogue that he is not interested in unification as much as he is concerned about the country's division.
"You know, I bet if I randomly selected 100 Korean men off the street and asked what they thought of the idea of the two Koreas getting together and attacking Japan, a lot of them would agree," he says. "I wanted to stay away from those nationalists' vision of unification. What disturbs me is that we are still pointing guns at each other."
In the book, the guards volley paper-airplane letters to each other at night, exchange cigarettes and eventually meet and talk heart-to-heart. Mr. Park describes their interaction as the "beginning of a whole new romance." In writing the novel, Mr. Park has perhaps come to his own understanding of the complex North-South situation.
"It took me a lot of courage to write this book," he said. "You have to understand that when I wrote the book six years ago, the North-South atmosphere wasn't as friendly it is now. Korean laws can be easily used to entrap you if someone wishes to do so. I was scared. Besides I haven't been in the army. They could've identified my friends who worked in the demilitarized zone, because of the detailed descriptions of the area."
Mr. Park made up descriptions of the area to avoid any trouble. He says he resorted to a great amount of self-censorship.
Mr. Park now wants to move on. He plans to tackle a different subject, now that he has eased some of the guilt from his childhood. He has an enduring interest in memory, which he believes shapes human identity. At 30, he wants to embark on a new "romance" again.
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it