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[Cover Feature] Humans, Born from the Face of the Persecuted

by Jeon Seung-min Translated by Amber Kim March 8, 2023

Remembering to Forget

Many things are forgotten over time. The act of forgetting can feel either blessed or cruel. For most of us, time seems to stand still, leaving us with no choice but to live in the moment with the past constantly giving way; therefore, we tend to consider the merciless power of time to forget everything in its wake as a blessing. And yet, there are certain things that must be remembered and protected against this uncontrollable material power of time, even if the period of time in question far exceeds one’s lifetime. I’m referring to remembering moments of violence that occurred in the past but have not been properly settled. Why do people insist that they will “never forget” the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster or the 2022 Itaewon disaster? They do so to demand reinforcements to existing sociocultural, structural weaknesses and to highlight the failures of the state so as to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. They do so to ensure that, through publicly mourning and by clearly demonstrating how the incidents were not “accidents” but rather “incidents” that occurred within a social context, the trauma suffered by the victims and their families can be rightfully restored. It’s ironic that such resistance must take on a verbal expression for closure to be had.  

    Since the late 2010s, Korean literature has seen a prevalence of highly autobiographical works of autofiction typically narrated in the first person. Recent works dive deep into the characters’ identities and densely recreate their surrounding contexts to construct the minority identities of women, LGBTQ, and persons with disabilities with a high degree of verisimilitude. Narrated in the first person, Kim Nam-sook’s “Paju” also manages to create an inverse vector that nihilates the strong emphasis on the first-person singular displayed by prior novels by placing the narrative’s centripetal force not on the narrator, but on another person. The narrator’s voice becomes shaped by the relational forces between the characters Jeong-ho and Hyeon-cheol, ultimately taking the place of the object instead of the subject. In interpreting Emmanuel Levinas, Judith Butler posited that responsibility to the Other is manifested not through the subjectivity of the subject “I” but through the object “me.”1 Levinas stated that “precisely the Other who persecutes me has a face.” As such, the narrator’s ethical responsibility essentially comes from the Other—“you”—who is speaking to “me.” 

    The problem occurs when the “you” who has come knocking on “my” door wants to do me harm. Levinas says that if “I” am not exposed to such violence, then we will be unable to receive any demands to take responsibility for the Other. In other words, “I” have a responsibility to “you” not because “I” have done something to “you,” but by virtue of the relationship that exists between “you” and “me”; that is, this responsibility is first felt from the perspective of the persecuted person. According to Levinas, if “you” were to stab me, I must inform you that “I will not engage in violence against you.” Is this acceptable? As categorical imperatives go, no, it is not. Victims are entitled to the perpetrator’s heartfelt apology, and the guilty must suffer just punishment. But what if no legitimate power exists to serve justice and to ease the woes of the victims? This is the very problem “Paju” zeroes in on.

Nonviolent Self-Mourning

In the story, the narrator “I” lives with her boyfriend Jeong-ho in a studio apartment in Paju. She is a writing instructor at a private academy; Jeong-ho inspects flaws in touchscreen panels at a semiconductor assembly plant. Despite bemoaning her fate about having to “live as a loser who has to edit shit essays filled with shit punctuation and shit spelling,” “I” appears uninterested in changing her career. One day, however, they meet a “lame” looking Hyeon-cheol. Formerly a member of Jeong-ho’s army unit, Hyeon-cheol announces that he’ll get his revenge for the terrible abuse he suffered at the hands of Jeong-ho when they served together. But this will not take the form of assault or other physical violence, as he had to endure. Instead, Hyeon-cheol insists that his former bully Jeong-ho wire him one million won a month for a year.

    Acts of revenge are carried out without any legitimate authority to adjudicate what actually transpired between the victim and the accused. Therefore, most forms of revenge are private, outside the sphere of the government. Revenge must resolve more than just the layers of personal feelings such as resentment and injustice. For the victim, revenge is a necessary ritual that allows him to leave the incident behind with a sense of closure. The monthly reparations are a practical means of self-mourning by isolating himself from his trauma. Jeong-ho’s apology is nothing more than a few words of self-defense, uttered in the hopes of easing his guilty conscience. It only serves to further reinforce his narcissistic subjectivity as the perpetrator. 

    Ethical responsibility for others does not arise from self-punishment or immersion in such narcissism. Responsibility is manifested through the “sensitivity” that lies outside causality or the facts of the incident at hand, and is made tragic by the fact that the object who suffers the violence, rather than the subject who committed the act in the first place, invariably comes to this realization sooner. Hyeon-cheol’s subjectivity is simply a materialized sensitivity that is subordinated to present-day Jeong-ho and the memories of his military service. Unfortunately, the only times we see “me” in the object position or “me” in a syntactic relationship related to the subject are in the sentences of the persecuted person (Hyeon-cheol). Persecution refers to acts committed upon a person against their will and outside their control, carried out without any legitimate grounds. Therefore, persecution serves as a way for another person to construct the identity of “me,” according to Levinas, to which Butler also agreed. While undergoing this persecution, the ego of “I” is replaced several times over. The identity of “I” becomes constructed not by any action that I have committed but by the actions of others committed against me. These relationships are most revealed in scenes involving persecution and violence.

    Hyeon-cheol’s time has become frozen due to the persecution he suffered at the hands of Jeong-ho. His memories are forever fossilized in his conscious and unconscious. Unlike Jeong-ho, who cannot even remember what occurred three years ago, Hyeon-cheol is tightly bound to his vivid memories. The trauma is triggered and re-experienced again and again. Even afterwards, a victim is still bound by the trauma, and the nonexistence of violence does not equate to safety. Hyeon-cheol is forced to seek damages because he is unable to live the present as the present. The “lameness” of his life, funded by part-time work at a convenience store and punctuated by moments of playing Pokémon GO (his biggest joy in life), also stems from the fact that his time is essentially frozen in the past. Hyeon-cheol’s libido, still transfixed in the trauma of the past, must seek a new object to invest itself in. Justice must be served. However, his trauma must be solved outside the realm of state authority because no material power can resolve the violence that permeates every facet of his everyday life.

    Readers might misread Hyeon-cheol’s subjectivity as being strong and steadfast, but what we’ve witnessed is nothing more than a reactive response of an “I” still shackled by the Other’s persecution. “I” is also affected by Hyeon-cheol, after he appears before the narrator. As she learns of Jeong-ho's past violence, she recalls the eyes of the students at the private academy who she believes are persecuting her. As Jeong-ho’s lover, the reader is inclined to expect that “I” would be supportive of her boyfriend, but as she becomes indirectly involved with the Other—Hyeon-cheol—“I” grows distant from Jeong-ho and closer to Hyeon-cheol. The adjective “lame,” which appears frequently throughout the story, is expressive of the emotional transference that takes place between “I” and Hyeon-cheol. Lameness is both the common existential descriptor they share in their lives as well as a metaphor for the nonviolent method of self-mourning that Hyeon-cheol has elected to take. The rather lame form of revenge he carries out stems from “a state of mind that is so natural and so chronic as to be lame”; yet Hyeon-cheol never harms either Jeong-ho or the narrator. Hyeon-cheol is simply attempting to rescue himself, employing a method of non-violence, in order to rid himself of his past trauma and take one step closer to true healing.

    He is, in effect, attempting to obliviate his past, al-beit belatedly. If he had chosen an alternate, more harmful attack, his story wouldn’t feel so piteous. Hyeon-cheol doesn’t display any joy or relief at the sight of the monthly cash transfers; instead, the money in his bank account remains a painful reminder of the fact that the violence truly occurred. Once a month, one million won at a time, Hyeon-cheol is slowly and painfully removing himself from his inner grief, trudging along the path of mourning.

    In the story, “I” experiences Hyeon-cheol’s spartan journey and the transference of his emotions. This transference takes the form of sound and is passed on to the ears of “I” so that each time “I” is reminded of Hyeon-cheol, she hears “a mysterious, sloshing sound near [her] ear” which she dubs “the sound of Paju.” Hyeon-cheol informs the narrator that her feelings toward the students at the academy are closer to fear than hate. In fact, victims of violence go through several stages of emotions over a considerable amount of time. Fear suppresses even the ability to recognize and identify one’s emotions; only after fear has been lifted can the emotion slowly dissolve to hate. That’s why Hyeon-cheol was able to visit Jeong-ho only after several years had passed. 

    The narrator’s world is entirely reconstructed when she is visited by the stranger Hyeon-cheol. Hyeon-cheol becomes most intrusive into the narrator’s world when he asks, “By the way, are you going to marry him?” He is asking if she’ll stay with Jeong-ho even after learning what kind of person he is, and asking whether she is content with her current, lame life. Predictably, the characters do not fundamentally uproot their lame lives. “I” concludes the story while still cohabiting with Jeong-ho and muttering expletives under her breath. Even after the year’s worth of compensation has been paid, their lame lives go on.

    The reason Hyeon-cheol and the narrator’s lives remain fundamentally the same is that Jeong-ho, the Other, has not changed in the slightest. In insisting that he doesn’t remember what happened, he claims a sense of injustice for himself, though he was the aggressor. Even the standard of repentance he refers to is derived from himself; rather than truly repenting, he merely feels the hint of a guilty conscience. Jeong-ho is only able to sense those feelings that are confined within the boundaries of his narcissism, where he cares about nothing else but his own discomfort and inconveniences. (The Korean government, which has tried to cover up tragedies under the pretense of maintaining the national image, closely resembles Jeong-ho.) In a narcissist’s world, there is no place for altruistic relationships. In the end, Jeong-ho forgets about all the events that transpired, with only the narrator “I” remaining to tell us the story of Hyeon-cheol. To her, Hyeon-cheol is both a memory and an influential Other who has reconstructed her reality. However, “I” cannot (or does not) act independently with any sense of subjectivity, such as leaving Jeong-ho or quitting her job. This conclusion resonates with Levinas’s saying that the self “I” is no different from the object “I” (me) constructed by Others on a pre-ontological level, and further overlaps with Butler’s argument that becoming part of a relationship and thereby becoming subject to the influence of Others means that the self is also involved in the sense of responsibility. We are all like “I,” in that we are laid bare before the Other in a position of absolute passivity.

    How cruel to be stuck in such lame, mundane lives while all three individuals are clearly in pain. Paju is a frontline border region located close to North Korea and fortified with multiple military bases. In a place where the threat of war is very real, it’s dangerous to be living lame lives. Together, the characters demonstrate how frighteningly powerful and persistent violence can be in our lives, like the “sound of Paju” that the narrator hears.

    Through Hyeon-cheol, the story describes the process of self-mourning wherein the victim is forced to rescue himself through nonviolent means. He is attempting to regain the right to forget. Paradoxically, for him to properly forget, he must first remember what happened. The aggressor, on the other hand, will always find these situations unfair, as he has long ago forgotten what happened in the first place. This is why violence should always be remembered and kept alive in the public domain, why a grieving period is necessary for the victims not to remain trapped in a swamp of self-loathing and remorse, and why alternate mechanisms must exist for individuals to separate themselves for the sake of oblivion. 

    The reason we insist that we will “never forget” a tragedy is to prevent something similar from taking place again. When an act of violence leads to yet another act of retaliatory violence committed in the name of self-defense, is this justified? Ultimately, the human face that puts an end to the violence is born from the face of the persecuted. As “Paju” makes bitterly clear, the power of being human comes from the “emptiness in the clear eyes” of grieving victims frozen in their own self-mourning, no matter how much it “truly fucking sucks.”

Translated by Amber Kim

Jeon Seung-min is a literary critic. She began her career after receiving the Daesan Literary Award for College Students in 2020 and winning the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest in 2021, in the literary criticism category. Having majored in English literature at Sogang University, Jeon is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the graduate school of her alma mater. Her areas of interest are twentieth-century British modernist fiction and queer feminist discourse.

Korean Works Mentioned:

• “Paju” (Epiic Vol.10, 2023)

「파주」 (에픽 10호, 2023)

[1] Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press, 2005.

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