A scary repetition of history

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A scary repetition of history

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In the essay collection “The Art of the Novel,” writer Milan Kundera discussed some events that actually took place in Czechoslovakia during the Communist rule. An engineer from Prague had attended a conference in London, and a few hours after returning home, he read an astonishing article in the Communist Party’s newspaper. The story said that a Czech engineer had issued a statement criticizing the Communist Party in Western newspapers and decided to stay in the West. He was sure that the “engineer” the article referred to was himself.

So he inquired at the editorial department, which claimed that the source came from the Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry said there must have been a mistake in the reports from agents in London, but a correction could not be published. Soon, his phone calls were tapped and he began to be followed. After suffering from nightmares, he sought asylum abroad.

In Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” protagonist Josef K. is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. He is interrogated and investigated, and eventually murdered. Kundera discovered something in common between the cases of the Czech engineer and Josef K. - each one was punished without knowing why. The punishment was for a crime that was never committed, but in each case the man tries to justify the suffering and pain in order to find some peace of mind. He looks at his faults and tries to admit to them. Punishments find crimes, not the other way around. Moreover, he begs other people to perceive him as a sinner.

Kafka (1883-1924) may have foreseen the totalitarian social structures of the early 20th century. Kundera also cites the case of a poet who was a powerful member of the Communist Party in the 1950s. He was targeted in a Stalin-style purge, but while in prison he wrote a set of poems confessing his loyalty to Communism. He was not guilty either. Kundera analyzed that the poet was not a coward but thought that loyalty to the punisher would reveal his virtue and honesty.

These patterns do not just happen in foreign countries. North Korea executed Lee Sung-yop and Park Hun-yong for “unspecified espionage charges” to make them accountable for the failed southward invasion of the 1950-53 Korean War. Trial records show that they admitted to espionage charges. They may have felt the same way the poet did. On top of severe torture and fabrication, they may have thought that they could become either loyalists or traitors, depending on where the power lies. The photo of Jang Song-thaek being dragged into the court with a bruised face and hands shocked us all. It also made us feel bitter. When Kim Jong-un was named the successor, Jang “half-heartedly clapped and acted arrogantly,” and Pyongyang claimed that Jang’s “crime” was 100 percent proven. Jang also admitted his faults. Even Kafka would not have predicted that history would repeat itself so many times.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By NOH JAE-HYUN

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