Korean writers explore Vietnam

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Korean writers explore Vietnam

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As a literary critic who set up a collective of progressive Korean writers with a keen interest in Vietnamese literature, Ko Young-jik finds that there’s a natural bond between the people from the two nations: Both were torn apart through wars over ideology.
Just as the aftermath of war is the central subject of Vietnamese literature, the idea of national division dominates Korean literature. “Vietnam is a country made up of hope,” Mr. Ko said. “Some Koreans have described the country as being like a sister you lost track of during the war. There is an immense connection between the two.”
The Union of Young Korean Authors Who Try to Understand Vietnam is a collective of Korean writers who have met regularly with Vietnamese writers to discuss common issues since 1992. Over the weekend, the group held a cultural symposium at the University of Hanoi that included a photography exhibit “Vietnam Scene: Faces,” by the Korean artist Choi Gyeong-ja.
Despite the common bond, Korean writers underwent a “filtering process” upon their first meeting with the Vietnamese writers to overcome their differences in dealing with historical issues of the past, Mr. Ko says ― a process he dubbed a “struggle of concepts and sensibility.”
The differences arose when many Vietnamese writers treated issues of the past with “tolerance” while the Korean writers viewed history as a source of continuing political turmoil. A Vietnamese proverb summed up their feelings ― “One doesn’t take revenge on old enemies.”
“Now, we see internal exchanges through literature as the foremost concern in our friendship,” he said. “To do that, it’s important that we compare our differences through our writings. Hopefully, this will lead us to overcome problems within modern societies of non-Western states, such as our memories of colonialism and how it continues today in the ways we shape our values and educate our children.”
For years, Koreans viewed Vietnam as an exotic and tragic land. “Faraway River,” one of the most popular Korean novels on Vietnam, dealt with the tragic love story of an innocent Vietnamese college student and a Korean soldier in Vietnam at the height of the war, a literary version of “Miss Saigon.” The novel was made into a popular television series in Korea in the ’90s.
“Yellow People,” by Lee Sang-mun, told the story of a young Korean man who is awakened to the importance of nationalism through his participation in the Vietnam War. “White Badge” by Ahn Jeong-hyo, a story of a Korean soldier who sees the men in his platoon die on the battlefield, was criticized by some critics for depicting the war from an elitist point of view, detached from its participants.
Perceptions of Vietnam began to shift in Korea in the late ’80s, when the military regime’s control began to loosen and citizens began to demand democracy, particularly after the large student riots in June 1987.
A series of poems and novels on Vietnam poured onto the market, such as Kim Tae-su’s “Vietnam: The Country I Left Behind” and “Shadows of a Weapon,” by Hwak Seok-young; the books were some of the first to embrace Asian issues through prisms of war and colonialism.
A number of books were published during the process of exchange. From Korea, Lee Dae-hwan’s “Slow Bullet” and Bang Hyun-seok’s “Times of Eating Lobsters” are some of the better-known examples of books on Vietnam. Several books by Vietnamese authors, notably “Sadness of War” by Bao Nin and “Hoa Sung” by the national Vietnamese poet Ho Van Ba, were translated and published in Korean literary quarterlies.
But until Vietnam and Korea officially renewed ties in 1992, it was almost impossible for Korean and Vietnamese writers to interact, partly because many of the Vietnamese books on war that were translated into Korean were read by student activists as lessons from an occupation by the American military. “White Robe of Saigon,” a book by Nguyen Ban Bong, is considered a classic example of the books read by Korean democratic activists.
“In a way, literature is related to the issue of memory,” Mr. Ko says. “Ahn Duc (a Vietnamese writer who visited Korea three years ago) once said a bullet is very fast, whereas literature is slow and dormant. But looked at another way, this could also mean that ‘slow literature’ can control a ‘fast bullet.’”


by Park Soo-mee
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